Ripple Effects 1.3: "Blind People Can Do That?"

Juanita standing under waterfall with friends.
Juanita smiling with friends in front of waterfall after canyoning.
Surfing, zip-lining, canyoning, volcano-boarding...there are no limits!

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Welcome to Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad, a podcast brought to you by Mobility International USA, where we hear the powerful and vivid stories from people with disabilities going abroad and the positive impact these experiences have on shifting ideas, for everyone, of what is possible.

For our first podcast series we will hear from people who are blind or low vision as part of our #BlindAbroad campaign from our National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange project. We hope the heart of their stories resonates with you the listeners to empower more people with disabilities to go abroad.

I’m Monica Malhotra, a Project Coordinator with Mobility International USA and your host for Ripple Effects.

Epsiode Transcript:

Monica: Surfing, zip-lining, canyoning, and volcano boarding are just a few adventure sports that people who are blind participate in that others might find surprising. Juanita Lillie, a blind woman from the US, studied abroad in Costa Rica and participated in a number of adventure sport excursions. So let’s get ready to hear from Juanita in our episode, “Blind People Can Do That?” as she speaks about the adventure sports she enjoyed, and goes over tips to successfully make it happen.

Monica: Hi Juanita! Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. 

Juanita: It is my honor to be here today and thank you for inviting me.

Monica: When we first connected about the #BlindAbroad campaign, I remember how excited you were to tell me about all of your adventures abroad, specifically I remember you talking about surfing, zip-lining, and canyoning, and I think that’s when you got most excited.

Juanita: Exactly. I really did enjoy that part of the study abroad experience. Of course the education and living with the family, but that adventure sports was very enjoyable.

Monica: As I started talking to more people with the campaign and talking to professionals, study abroad programs, and telling them about experiences people had, surfing, swimming, volcano boarding, I started to hear the kind of assumption of “blind people can’t swim, blind people can’t volcano board, blind people can’t surf,” so I thought this would be a really good episode for us so we can kind of break those assumptions and you know, hear more about what people can do rather than always focusing on what blind people can’t do. So first I’d love for you to talk to us about those specific events that you did, those excursions.

Juanita: Well, I had the opportunity to do quite a bit. I was able to go zip-lining, canyoning, swimming. We did one on a catamaran, and surfing, horseback riding, and we took a lot of adventures to several different beaches.

Monica: So, many professionals working with study abroad programs and third-party provider programs, also known as providers, come from a place of safety, concern and protection when a student with a disability wants to participate in a study abroad program. They want to make sure all students can fully participate in a study abroad program. They want to make sure all students can fully participate in the program but sometimes they may worry about the best way to fully support the student. Juanita, do you have any tips on how to reduce their worries for study abroad professionals when working with students with disabilities and students that are visually impaired.

Juanita: Most definitely. Yes, I mean, when travelling with a visible disability, a disability that one can see, there are going to be some what I call “doubters.” There will be some people who worry and are afraid about what you are able to do. So, for example, vivid memory comes to mind is when I was going surfing. I talked to the provider. It is not the fact that they weren’t accommodating, it wasn’t the fact that they didn’t want me to do it. It was more so they wanted to know is this something that you should be doing. Are you going to be ok to be able to do it. Are you going to be able to be accommodated, or how can we help you. We don’t want you doing something. It is more so probably because of the liability. But, so they were talking to me and “are you sure you want to go swimming?” Yes, of course I do. Swimming is part of my life. I mean I worked at a pool, I grew up on a lake, and swimming has been my ultimate favorite thing.

Monica: Do you have any other tips that maybe students that are speaking with their advisors how they can kind of direct that conversation if they really want to be included and don’t want to kind of be excluded from those activities or excursion.

Juanita: The biggest thing is communication, collaboration. You want to be able to talk with your advisors, you want to talk with the on-site coordinators, your program managers, whoever is in your international education experience. And you want to be able to le them know what you are interested in. And it is very important to recognize that it is more than likely that the advisor program manager has not encounter a person with a visual impairment to participate in an activity such as surfing, or whatever it may be. So the biggest thing is being able to explain to them how they can assist you and how you can work with the organization that you are going to. So, for example, for canyoning, I contacted my provider’s on-site coordinator. And they were like, “Oh, how can we best assist you?” Maybe we can call ahead and connect with the organization and see if there is someone who can assist me. Because for the canyoning there are in the jungle and you are seeing beautiful trees and going through the waterfalls and you’re having to go up and down steps. Of course, this being nature, you’re not going to have a step that is exactly 2 feet or exactly 1 foot; it’s going to vary. So, what we did was basically just said, this is the accommodations that I would request, and the sighted guide where I or the person who is visually impaired takes him by the elbow. But it is very important to recognize that cultures are different, so I took them by the shoulder. And I’m like, “Oh, this is different.” But, again, you’re in a different culture, you’re in a different country. You’re doing a unique activity so you have to be open minded about it. So, when we contacted the organization Pure Track, they said, “oh, yeah, we can have someone assist Juanita, or hey, what is the best way, is it English or Spanish?” I was there because of Spanish and I wanted to continue with the language. So what are some vocabulary words I should know? OK, steps, or branch, or root, or . . . and another thing that you really want to pay attention to is what metric system are they using. For example, here in the states, someone will say “it’s about 2 or 3 feet in front of you,” and they’re going to say “it’s about a meter.” Oh. There’s a difference between un metro and trés pies because when I was thinking of 1, I was thinking 1 foot and wasn’t paying attention to the second word. You have to really know about the metric system, vocabulary. Show them what is the best way to assist you. Just because they may have had another student with a visual impairment or a person who is blind that does not mean your accommodations, or your abilities are going to be the same because your experience for canyoning is going to be different from the other person or your sight might be different from the other person.

Monica: We want to take this time to promote our #BlindAbroad campaign, where our aim is to increase awareness to people who are blind or low vision on the benefits of going abroad. With a big thanks to our sponsors at the U.S. Department of State. You can learn more about the #BlindAbroad campaign by going to our website: And also make sure to follow us on twitter @MobilityINTL and #BlindAbroad. We’d love to see your comments and let others read your messages too.

Monica: It’s true that an individual’s needs, fears, and comforts will be different, especially when participating in adventure sports in another country. What were some of your specific accommodations that you needed to fully participate in the activities you mentioned, in order to still experience the adventure and adrenaline rush.

Juanita: The biggest thing is that I had one of the guides describe through the nature, through the woods and stuff. OK, you have this step, there’s a root, there’s a branch, watch out there is a drop off to the left. The thing that I loved about Pure Track is that the guides/guys were very open minded. For me I believe this is the kind of the culture in Costa Rica. The disability never really came first. With all of the organizations that I went through, they were more so, “how can we do this?” That’s what I really loved about Pure Track and all the other organizations. With canyoning I did have that guide and they adapted the instruction for me. So, at the beginning they go through this instruction on how to use your belt, and how to use your, I don’t know the exact terminology, but it is basically to connect to their rope. They go through that visually but what one of the guides did is we went to the first drop off, that’s about 165 feet I believe it was, and you . . . there was a practice wall and it was . . . they showed me exactly what I needed to do and therefore I was able to do it independently and was able to control the speed of going down waterfalls that I wanted to. It was just very, very inclusive, I thought. And again it is because of the communication that we had before. And then for surfing, when I got past the fact that my organizer, the provider that I went to was through ISA. ISA was phenomenal with almost every single thing. But again, it is because they were just worried. They didn’t know what I could do, they didn’t want me to get injured or whatever it may be. But when I got to the Tamarindo, I was able to have again another one-on-one instruction. And he was very descriptive and kind of funny in how he was talking about the different geese, and the different birds, and how all these people on the beaches just looked different without their bathing suits. I’m like, OK, there are some descriptions that I do not necessarily need to know about. But again, very, very descriptive and very accommodating. For horseback riding . . . I’ve gone horseback riding maybe . . . I don’t if you’d consider it horseback riding but, I’ve been on a horse before at my uncle’s farm, but that was years ago when I was very young. And I’m not much of a heights person. So, wer’e going through the mountains, were going through shallow water, jumping up over things and I’m like, “Oh, my word!” But, again, they were very accommodating. In fact, of course all of the horses are trained, they know the route and everything else. But he said, “Oh, what accommodations do you need?” I’m like “if I could just be next to you and maybe have it where both horses are together.” He’d say “Oh, you’re doing great, let’s just have you go independently.” I’m like, OK. And the next minute I see is him going off in the front and I’m with my peers just having a great time. I’m like, Oh my word! With the monovision like I do have, I see this ginormous hill and I’m going up and I’m like it’s not the fact that I’m having a difficult time because of my vision it is more so with the heights and the movements, and the horse is galloping and going through water and jumping over things, and I’m like, Oh my word! And this is not a beginner’s course. But it was a great time. And then we went on a catamaran and we were able to go snorkeling, and just swim around in the open sea and that was a phenomenal experience. I mean, like a said, swimming and water is my life. I absolutely love it. And we were able to go up on the bow, and I mean, they just had to be more descriptive. We have this step in front of you, there are four steps in front of you. But the biggest thing is to recognize that just because a person, and this kind of really goes towards providers and onsite coordinators and organization personnel, is that just because you have one person who is blind or visually impaired participates in an activity, it does not mean that every single other person who is blind or visually impaired cannot participate. Because as you just heard, there are times when you’re just fearful in general. I mean with me it was more so heights doing that fast paced moving and everything else. But, that’s the biggest thing. But as far as for students and for persons who are blind or visually impaired, the biggest thing is if you know you want to do it and you know have done it before, show them respectfully how you can do it. Talk with them and sharing what are some of the possible accommodations that you could do together. Maybe contact the organization and say, “Hey, I’m a person who is blind or visually impaired. I wonder if you had somebody else who is blind or visually impaired participate in this program or in this specific activity. What have you done in terms of accommodations?” And again, just because one accommodation works with another person it may not work with you. So, being open minded and being able to bounce off those ideas are going to be very powerful. And again, it’s that communication/collaboration. How can we do it? How can we make an ultimate way or make an accommodation so that you can have the time of your life.

Monica: And do you have any other tips about this subject, with adventure sports for students or professionals, organizations that organize or create these adventure sports?

Juanita: The biggest thing is really listen to the person who has the disability and really wants to do the adventure. Because they are going to know what works for them and what does not work for them. But you also as a student or the person with the disability want to work with the organization because they are going to be able to say, for example, when I did the canyoning with Pure Track, “Oh, from this waterfall to the next waterfall was maybe a 100 meter walk,” or “from this waterfall back up to the top was maybe a 200, 250 meter walk.” Because the more descriptive an organization is, you’re going to be able to see what the student or the  person is able to do. Because you don’t want to necessarily focus on what you assume a person who is blind cannot do. Because it is very important to recognize that just because, for example, I’m a person who is blind, I could have maybe asthma, I could have maybe diabetes, I could have maybe where I can’t extend my leg . . . fully straight, or maybe I can’t bend it a full 90%, and maybe that’s what I need to participate in this program or activity. The biggest thing is not focus on the person’s disability. Maybe be more descriptive of the activity of the excursion so that the student or the person with the disability can recognize, “oh, you’re right; I need to be able to walk like 300 meters. Maybe I can’t do that, or maybe I need to bring my inhaler, whatever it might be.”

Monica: I would love now to talk about Abroad With Disabilities, or just if you can briefly let us know the organization that you created and the resources that students and professionals can access through your website and Facebook page.

Juanita: Abroad with Disabilites, AWD, was indeed created by me. But I would never have done it without the motivation and encouragement from a professor that I had at Grand Valley State University. Dr. Natalia Gomez. I had her for an instructor for a Spanish course. Her and I just got chatting one day in her office, and I was talking to her and sharing with her . . . how can I really explain to the audience, how can I share with international educators that people with disabilities do indeed go abroad. And they do indeed have questions. They want to talk with others, they want to be able to ask questions. So that is what really inspired to create Abroad With Disabilities (AWD). We do have Facebook and that had been our principal platform but we have move to a website, Twitter, Skype, and other social media. But on Facebook what we do is share tips on how to empower persons with disabilities on how to participate in international exchange. Whether it is to study, intern, volunteer, or work. And then we have individuals that contact us and say, “Hey, can you post this question?” And we do it without mentioning the student’s or the person’s name. And we’ll post a question and there are so many people that respond, including, which is very important because in order to empower more persons with disabilities I believe we need to work together to do that. So being able to use’s expertise, to be able to have the open discussion platform, to be able to go on our website and find grants and scholarships, find resources such as, Transitions Abroad, and much more, is going to be very helpful for students and professionals who are working with students with disabilities. So you can most definitely learn more at our website, And what we really do is we promote discussion. We want you to ask questions. We want you to come to us. Twice a month we have what we call AWD Live. It’s an open Skype session that is free for anyone to ask questions, share resources, and tell their stories.

Monica: Perfect. And we’ve always enjoyed working with you. And we all have the same mission, so you’re correct in that we have to work together to make sure that people with disabilities are included in international exchange, if it’s studying abroad, volunteering, teaching abroad, anything like that. And also within those then they all are still included the excursions and extreme and adventure sports like you did.

Juanita: It was blast. And I encourage anyone listening to participate and go out and enjoy yourself when you’re abroad. I mean you’re going to learn a lot in the classroom, but I personally, yes, my classes were very beneficial but I’m not going to lie, my host family and the ability to go out and around in the country is where I learned a lot. But that could be because I’m more of an experiential learner, I’m more hands on. And when I was able to talk to my host mother, my host grandmother, and so many people around Costa Rica I learned a lot. And I still connect with them.

Monica: Now I’d love for you to, for us to end with your Ripple Effect Message.

Juanita: My message would be to never let anyone stop you from going abroad. You are going to have doubters, you are going to have people question whether or not you should be doing this, but because you are thinking about this and because you know you want to participate in a Study Abroad, internship, teach abroad, work abroad program, you should do it. I believe you can do it, and you believe you can do if you are looking into the information to participate in a program abroad.

Monica: Thank you so much, Juanita.

Juanita: No, thank you very much for everything. I appreciate everything that you have done for empowering more persons who are blind or visually impaired to go abroad.

Monica: Thank you. And I encourage our listeners to connect with you on Facebook at Abroad With Disabilities (AWD), and also on Twitter @AbroadWithDisa_.

Monica: I’m Monica Malhotra, your host for Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad. Thank you for listening and make sure to visit us at to learn more about Mobility International USA and our mission to advance disability rights and leadership globally.

The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange is a project of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, designed to increase the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange between the United States and other countries, and is supported in its implementation by Mobility International USA