Ripple Effects 2.2: West Bank to Michigan: Creating Access to English for Blind Students

Sameh stands on the beach with the ocean in the background.
After struggling to learn English in Palestine, Sameh decided that he wanted to smooth out the path for other blind students. Thanks to a scholarship from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), he is closer than ever to achieving his goal.

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Episode Transcript:

Justin: Support for Ripple Effects comes from the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, sponsor of the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, administered by Mobility International USA. To learn more go to

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I'm Justin Harford, Project Coordinator with Mobility International USA, bringing you a second season of Ripple Effects, travelers with disabilities abroad. This time, as part of our #Access2USA campaign, we bring you the stories of international students with disabilities studying in the United States. The goal is that more people will hear the stories and start to think about what is possible.

Sameh Sawalha, a blind man from Palestine, has just finished his Master’s Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language with the financial support of the US Agency for International Development Master Scholarship Program for students from the West Bank, which has covered most of his costs. He wants to take his education back to the West Bank to create better access to English as a second language for other blind people, and with his experience making English textbooks more accessible he is the perfect person to take on this project.

Justin: Well Sameh, you know we've talked a little bit, but I wonder if you could just briefly talk about yourself, your name, country and the program that you are studying in.

Sameh: Okay, so my name is Sameh Sawalha. I'm from Palestine. I'm doing a Master’s in Education, teaching English as a second language, education of another language, at Nazareth College of Rochester. I studied in a special school for blind students for seven years, and then I completed my education in my town in public schools in Palestine. Then I completed my education,… I did my Bachelor’s Degree in English Language at the university called An-Najah National University in Palestine.

Justin: And what was it like doing all that as a blind person?

Sameh: It's really challenging and there were lots of obstacles. Since we don't have laws, we don't have criteria, for too much, educate too much the techniques for blind students in education, umm you have to do all these things by yourself. You have to adjust your materials, your books, your needs. So it needs lots of personal effort to do that all over the educational years.

Justin: Did that change at all when you got to the United States… or was it different…?

Sameh: Of course it's a really different thing since I… the first thing, the most important thing is that I just have to worry about my studying. I don't have to worry about the adjusting materials, doing all these things. It's really had a great impact I should say. I'm getting A's in my courses, since I'm just studying and doing my research papers, and not doing anything else, preparing materials. Yes it's less stress, because you don't have to worry about lots of things. You are just worrying about your materials and assignments.

Justin: How did your community react when you told them that you wanted to study in the United States, parent’s friends?

Sameh: um, honestly speaking, at the beginning there were some refuses. My parents refused, since I would be alone and would not be able to do lots of independent stuff in my life.

Justin: They didn't want you to study in the United States?

Sameh: No they didn't because they said that I would be alone, and that I would be… that there is nobody care about me or something like that. But then I said you know I'm just applying for a grad scholarship, and I will be going there if if I meet their criteria-if I meet the criteria choices.

Justin: So what exactly were the steps that you had to prepare to study in the United States, including applying for that scholarship and all the other things you had to go through?

Sameh: The first step was applying for the scholarship. Then the scholarship asked us, asked me to do two proficiency tests. One of them was the TOEFL, and the other one was the British IELTS. And then after they confirmed that we, that they really needed to provide us this opportunity, they started asking us to apply for the visa, and then we did the visa interview. They also provided us with trainings. Academic training, and public speech training. They also provided us, and two days before we leave, before we left the country, they provided us a pre-departure orientation as they call it, in which they talked about the different cultures, the steps that we have to do in the airports. We have to check into that place, and we have to go to this place, so they provided us with all of these things.

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Justin: Are you an international student with a disability who has studied or who is studying in the United States? #Access2USA needs you. Learn more about how you can join the #Access2USA campaign, tell us your story and share your insights. @MobilityINTL on Twitter, Mobility International USA on Facebook and for our website.

Justin: if somebody were to ask you… why should other international students with disabilities study in the United States? What would you tell them?

Sameh: Depending on their countries, for example if I am talking about international students who are coming from Palestine, I should say they have to go ahead, they don't have to carry lots of worries and stress for how can I do, how can I manage my life how can I do lots of things. They should take this away, because you know this worry to be honest prevented blind students from doing lots of stuff, so we should not worry about these things. We should be able to ask and express ourselves clearly otherwise we will really be in a problem.

Sameh: If you don't ask about something you will not get it. I know there are some cultures like mine. Maybe you don't need to ask about something. People could notice that and people could ask you if you need some help… if you want to go somewhere, but in the US no. If you don't ask somebody to guide you this way… If you don't ask somebody to help you in what you want to do, you will be lost if you don't know how to do it by yourself. You have to ask and people are really kind and they want to help, but they don't know that you need help, so you have to express yourself clearly and you have to be social.

Justin: That was a good last point I mean we talked to a lot of folks who worry, a lot of people worry about who's going to help me in the United States adapt with technology, with braille, with cooking with taking care of myself and in a way people in the United States will provide help but you have to ask.

Sameh: Yes and you have to be familiar with some laws. You know we have this thing in my culture where sometimes you think that this person is doing that because he's nice, and he just wants to do that. In the US you shouldn't think about that, because there are some laws which protect you as a person with disability, so if you find somebody who don't want to help you or if you find some don’t talk about complain about that since there is a law that you will be protected by.

Justin: We are getting to the end of your interview now but we like to ask everybody, to share with us your Ripple Effect message, and it could just be a really quick advice, encouragement or insight directed to people with disabilities from abroad who are thinking about studying in the United States.

Sameh: The most important issue that you have to keep trying. Do whatever you need to do. Especially if you're applying for scholarships and all these opportunities since they are very competitive. You have to be, you have to keep trying. You have to avoid stereotypes about the United States and about any country. United States is really different country. You have to… you will be… you’ll find lots of things… you will feel different things that you didn’t… You’ll feel it for the first time.

Justin: Thanks. Thank you so much Sameh. That last part really resonated with me… during my times in Latin America, and you know you really have to avoid the stereotypes, and come in with an open mind. I think people will surprise you quite often.

Sameh: Yes exactly.

Justin: Well alright Sameh. Well thank you so much for your time and we will keep in touch.

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Justin: I'm Justin Harford and thank you for listening to Ripple Effects. Visit to learn more about Mobility International USA and our mission to advance disability rights and leadership globally, and to share us your Ripple Effect.

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.