Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Watching History Unfold: My Fulbright Experience in Washington, DC

People pose for a group photo outside the White House during their tour of the East Wing
People pose for a group photo outside the White House during their tour of the East Wing

Audrey Kobayashi, a geography professor from Canada and a wheelchair user, conducted research in Washington, DC, USA, as a Fulbright Visiting Scholar.

The most fascinating, and therefore rewarding, part of my U.S. experience was being in Washington, DC during a U.S. presidential election (2004). Through the U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program, I had an opportunity to conduct research at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) during a sabbatical leave from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

MPI is located in the heart of the Washington, DC Dupont Circle neighborhood, close to universities, think tanks, libraries and other research institutes. There, a colleague from Canada’s University of Ottawa and I traced the discourse over migration, as well as the actual numbers of people who chose to emigrate in response to the election results, and particularly in response to the referenda on same-sex marriage on the ballot in a number of states during the election. Canada, in contrast, had recently adopted a law allowing same-sex marriages. Following the election, we saw a doubling of emigration from the United States to Canada, as well as increased lobbying and human rights activities across the border.

As a person with a disability (I use a wheelchair), I have traveled to most major U.S. cities and many smaller ones and find that accessibility in the United States varies greatly by city and even by neighborhood. Accessibility in Washington, DC is very good.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that all public venues be accessible, and I was able to enjoy the rich cultural life of museums, galleries, and concert halls with no impediments.

I chose to live in a rented condominium across the street from MPI and, although it was more expensive than my Fulbright income could support, the convenience was worth it. The streets in the Dupont Circle area are also very accessible, and I could easily make my regular stops for groceries, banking, and dry cleaning using my manual wheelchair. In my experience, the taxi cabs in Washington, DC are not very accessible, however, which made traveling greater distances a little harder. All in all, however, Washington, DC is one of the most open and accessible cities anywhere.

Prior to my arrival, I knew quite a lot about accessibility and disability culture in the United States as disability rights represents one of my areas of research.

The laws in Canada and the United States are quite different. Whereas the United States has separate laws for each area of human rights, the Canadian charter covers all forms of discrimination, regardless of the cause. So, in Canada, we have no specific federal legislation for accessibility, even though we have legal requirements. But the existence of the ADA in the United States, and the publicity surrounding it, has created greater public awareness, especially in the workplace and business community. Interestingly, in the province of Ontario, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) is especially strong legislation that, eventually as more clauses are phased-in, will be much stronger than our constitutional guarantees.

In addition to the unique benefits of my Fulbright experience abroad, I think it is always a good experience to travel and get to know new people. While at MPI, I became very good friends with another Fulbright scholar from Finland, who spent a full year in the United States with his family. We have been collaborating on a research project. My Fulbright experience has been most enriching and clearly has added to by my cumulative international experiences.

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