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Nothing About Us Without Us

Guida Leicester in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Guida Leicester in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

What can people with disabilities do to make sure they are included in the conversation?

When Guida Leicester arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for a six week program through a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Summer Fellowship, one thing quickly became apparent to her. “The staff and faculty had discussed what I could and could not do, but they had failed to include me in the conversation.”

Guida, a graduate student who went to Brazil to study Portuguese, learn about Brazilian culture, and explore accessibility for people with disabilities, has a mobility disability. In her blog, she writes about her successful experience in Rio and says that coordinators made sure her apartment was accessible, that she had a motorized wheelchair, and much more. However, lack of communication with coordinators sometimes led her to miss out on opportunities she might otherwise have had.

During her final week in Rio, she was told the day before a field trip that there were no accommodations available for that particular excursion and that she wouldn’t be able to join the group. “I was then told a faculty member ‘forgot’ to inform me when I first arrived in Brazil that this particular field trip did not have accessibility,” she says. “I was disappointed, but I did not push it since the trip was nearly finished, and I was exhausted.”

Later, she found out that the site had been accessible—much more so than other sites she visited where accessibility had been limited.

Guida’s experience illustrates a key rallying cry for people with disabilities, both in international exchange and in life: Nothing about us without us. Because Guida wasn’t always included in the conversation, program officials made assumptions about what she could and couldn’t do.

In hindsight, Guida wished she’d done a few things differently. “So what was the lesson?” she asks. “I encourage students with disabilities who plan to travel abroad to establish open lines of communication with planners early on.”

Here are a few of Guida’s suggestions

  • Let program coordinators get to know you before the program begins. This way, they are less likely to make assumptions.
  • If possible, meet with program officials in person. If you can’t meet, consider Skype or phone calls. Emails can be misinterpreted.
  • Be sure to find out what trips and excursions are planned so that you can inform coordinators of your disability-related needs. Encourage coordinators to plan for inclusive field trips.
  • Speak up when program coordinators make assumptions about your abilities!

When those of us with disabilities discuss the concept of “nothing about us without us,” it is important that we proactively include ourselves in the conversation. Only when we fully advocate for ourselves can we ensure that we are included.

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