At a recent event I attended, talk turned to how many young people with disabilities there are in the world and why aren’t more going abroad? And there are a lot of them, between 180 to 220 million by some estimates – enough to fill the entire country of Brazil, the world’s 5th most populous country. I polled my colleagues to ask how many of them had recruited a young person with a disability to study abroad. About 25 people raised their hands – almost half -- and they applauded each other’s efforts. But I wasn’t cheering.
As a leader responsible for coordinating many MIUSA exchange programs, I often reflect on what makes MIUSA exchanges unique. I have discovered that the power of MIUSA programs lies within the richly diverse composition of our exchange delegations. Whether walking or rolling down a street in Amman, or facilitating a discussion on empowerment with women from diverse cultures in Latin America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia – over the years I have learned to notice the nuances within a group.
On a recent trip to Tbilisi, Georgia, I spent a morning at public school #202, a small school for the blind tucked into a residential neighborhood. My visit coincided with outreach for the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program, a high school exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
As I climbed the stairs to an auditorium on the second floor, I caught a glimpse of several clean but sparsely furnished classrooms. Although there may be computers and other technology available for the students’ use, I didn’t see any.
When international educators discuss increasing the numbers of people participating globally, the focus is on “What will convince them to travel abroad?” or “What barriers can we remove that are in the way?”
Maybe the international field would reach new people by understanding “What pushes the growing numbers to choose to study abroad?”
Along a bumpy dirt trail in intense summer heat, our group trekked through a lush Oregon forest. By this point, weeks after their arrival to the U.S. from the United Kingdom, the delegates of the UK exchange program had formed a strong working relationship allowing them to function like a well-oiled machine. If some lagged, others quickly adjusted. If one struggled, another lent a hand or a word of encouragement as they made their way down the trail.
Each June, MIUSA says good-bye to the international high school exchange students with disabilities who have lived, studied, and volunteered in U.S. host communities for an academic year or semester.
In 2014, it was good-bye to Hoshi, a Deaf student from Malaysia, whose Youth Exchange and Study experience took him to Idaho, and Qurrata, a wheelchair user from Indonesia, who returns home a wheelchair basketball and handcycling enthusiast after her year-long involvement with Oregon Disability Sports.
When I asked a group of Tanzanian disability rights activists if they thought gender roles were changing in their country, Hellen Machibya, a council woman with albinism, rose to respond.
Have you noticed how disability organizations have changed in the past decades?
In the past, if someone with a disability wanted an opportunity to do sports, art, education, or travel, then they found a disability organization that offered such a program. The programs that their non-disabled peers were participating in offered more options, but they didn’t accommodate people with disabilities, nor did they have much experience doing so.
At a conference for international educators I presented with two engaging college students who use wheelchairs. One studied in China and the other went to Spain, with the same very reputable study abroad provider.
Each student had a great experience, but both had also been discouraged in their original attempts to study abroad through other program providers. Too often, the initial desire to go abroad ends prematurely for students with disabilities because of discouraging experiences that result in them giving up the search.
Look at your mission statements, non-discrimination policy, or other institutional guidelines, and you are likely to see disability mentioned alongside other aspects of diversity such as racial, gender, or religious equity, and for good reason. Having a diverse community benefits everyone by introducing a wide variety of viewpoints, encouraging open-mindedness, and creating dynamic environments.