Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Ripple Effects 3.2: Exchanging Ideas for Disability Rights

Jacob speaking behind podium with one arm in the air and others on stage smiling , looking on.
Jacob speaking behind podium with one arm in the air and others on stage smiling , looking on.

Jacob learned about disability rights abroad in one exchange with MIUSA and in another with CIL Berkeley. He told us how those experiences resonate in his work as a community organizer.

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Justin Harford (JH): Welcome to Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities abroad, brought to you by the National Clearinghouse On Disability And Exchange,, a project sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational And Cultural Affairs and administered by Mobility International USA.

We know that international exchange  contributes to personal  and professional development. It can enhance one’s confidence and skill sets, broaden one’s perspective and shape one’s  educational path. It can also influence job choices and employment opportunities. Let’s find out how. For this season of Ripple Effects, we will hear stories from international exchange alumni with disabilities and how their programs relate to their careers. This is part of a new initiative from the clearinghouse called, #LifeAfterExchange.

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

Confronting challenges of communication while learning about disability rights abroad has taught Jacob Lesner –Buxton, a person with cerebral palsy and low vision, to just go with the flow. Now he fights for disability rights in Santa Barbara California, and when the going gets rough Jake remembers his times abroad.
A note regarding this episode: we have provided a voiceover of Jacob’s part for maximum accessibility.

So how are you doing Jake?

Jacob Lesner (JL): I am doing well. How are you?

JH: I’m doing pretty good too… I just wanted to say thanks for joining us today. So what is your career that you’re on right now Jake… What are you doing nowadays?

JL: I’m a Community Organizer with people with disabilities. I’m based out of Santa Barbara California, but I work anywhere along the central coast of California.

JH: So you work at an independent living center is that right?

JL: Yes I am.

JH: Disability Resource Center is that right?

JL: Independent Living Resource Center is the name of my organization.

JH: Oh okay, you are in the Independent Living Movement. That’s the place where I got my start actually. I was working at a center in Grass Valley. So you are saying that you are based in Santa Barbara but it sounds like you are a Community Organizer and you do work in a number of different areas.

JL: I work in three counties All along the California central coast. I coordinat about a 315 mile area.

JH: You said a 300 mile stretch?

JL: I cover around 300 miles.

JH: Oh okay yes that’s quite a stretch 300 miles of territory that you’re working with. So Jake and your history with Independent Living goes back quite a time. It must’ve started almost with your international exchange. Why don’t you tell us about those experiences. I think you said you went on two of them.

JL: Yes. I have actually been on four international exchanges but two were disability related. In 2003 I went to Siberia with the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley and in 2004 I went to Japan with Mobility International.

JH: Right! So why don’t you tell us about those experiences. The 2004 in Japan that you did with us and the 2003 trip that you did to Siberia with the CIL.

JL: Sure. Basically we explored how people with disabilities lived in other countries, and we hung out and took a look at their resources that they used including their versions of independent living centers.

JH: So you got to take a look at what it was like for people with disabilities in other countries and especially in the independent living movement? Is that right?

JL: Yes.

JH: So what were your takeaways about the situation of people with disabilities in Russia and Japan?

JL: It was very different in Russia. Access is only beginning to come in. There were a lot of stairs, and one of the people I went with was in a wheelchair and she would be flying from Moscow to Siberia. They had to examine her before she was able to get on the plane to make sure she was okay to fly. And they did this with every person in a wheelchair.

JH: So This person in your group who used a wheelchair had to get… like you’re saying she had to get a permission to fly from Moscow to Siberia?

JL: She had to get examined at the airport.

JH: She got examined at the airport?

JL: Yes and they did this at the airport whenever you flew in Russia on a flight in a wheelchair… They would examine you before you would be allowed on the plane.

JH: Oh! So it was like there was a fear that if you came to an airport using a wheelchair they thought you might be medically unfit to get on the plane.

JL: Yes.

JH: So she had to get examined before they would let her on the flight.

JL: Yes.

JH: How interesting… interesting customs that they have. What about Japan? I remember… Was it any different in Japan?

JL: Japan was much more conscious of people in wheelchairs. I remember they had portable ramps everywhere in every business with a step and a portable ramp so people could get in to businesses, but in Japan they were not as informed about hidden disabilities that the US is informed about.

JH: So it sounds like at least back in 2004 Japan had a ways to go on non-apparent disabilities.

JL: Yes I was in my hotel in Japan and you would go to a group steam room, and one of the people in the steam room thought I was in trouble and he was going to call the cops on me, but luckily my friend was able in broken Japanese to explain my disability and to reassure him that I was okay.

JH: Interesting… Somebody almost called the police because they thought that you were not okay or something…

JL: Yes and he was a special Ed teacher.

JH: Oh wow. A Special Ed teacher you would think he would know better right?

JL: Yes.

JH: So Before you went on any of these trips did you have any concerns like how would you communicate with people or how would you get around or anything like that?

JL: It quite honestly hit me more when I was there. I remember going through my hotel lobby when I was in Siberia and realizing that I was the only person who spoke English in the lobby and at the time that kind of freaked me out.

JH: So you are saying that you had some experiences in Siberia where you were traveling by yourself…?

JL: No I was in my hotel lobby and my group was away and I was the only person in the lobby who spoke English and that kind of made me frustrated, but interested in at the same time knowing that other people couldn’t communicate with me and I had never had that in my life before.

JH: You never had that experience of being around people who couldn’t speak English before? How did you deal with it? How did it turn out for you?

JL: I was frustrated in the beginning but after a couple days I just decided to go with the flow and be happy because I couldn’t control anything.

JH: Yes. Yes not being able to control anything you kinda learn how to go with the flow.

JL: And just be happy.

JH: Have you ever found that you had to do that in your job? It seems like being a Community Organizer according to my experience about the things that go wrong you just kind of have to go with the flow.

JL: Yes one night my boss and I were taking a group of people up to Sacramento which is our state capital to advocate for disability rights, and the wheelchair accessible taxi that I thought I booked to take us to the hotel… They just decided two hours before we arrived to close their shop for the night and cancel our reservation. So our group was having to navigate with seven people through the dark streets of Sacramento which is kind of scary.

JH: But you guys got through it. You guys got with your group off your flight in Sacramento where you were going and they didn’t get your wheelchair accessible vehicle.

JL: Yes

JH: You guys had to make your way through Sacramento in the dark wow. That’s exactly it. It sounds like your exchange… That you got to develop that ability to go with the flow.

JL: I wish I could say that I was okay with (inaudible) I kind of lost my temper with the cab Company and called them every name in the book.

JH: Haha

JL: Which wasn’t a good idea doing it right in front of your boss! She kind of wanted me to be a bit more professional.

JH: Well I guess it’s an ongoing experience everything is kind of a process of learning. I know you also mentioned to me too about how You’ve been to a number of other countries I know you have mentioned to me before and this experience of being a world traveler kind of has helped in getting more people to take you more seriously. Why don’t you share us about that.

JL: Yes I had cancer about four and a half years ago and as a person with a visible disability I hate going to doctors with my parents because they speak to my parent and not me, so I was getting ready for surgery and this nurse was kind of talking to me in baby talk, and my mom just said he’s been to Siberia and he has his master’s degree, and that was when the medical staff started talking to me like I understood stuff and changed their whole attitude.

JH: Sometimes you have to be able to do that. For me for sure I think after I finished college being able to share with people that I had gone to Mexico and Chile that really helped a lot to get credentialed and get opportunities that I wouldn’t have before.

JL: Yes.

JH: So how long have you been working as a Community Organizer for?

JL: I’ve been working as a paid one for three and a half years. But I’ve been doing off and on stuff around this job for about 19 to 20 years. I started with the independent living centers in the Bay Area and then was fortunate enough to get hired doing what I love in Santa Barbara.

JH: Almost 17 years of just volunteering and just kinda learning as you went and now you’ve been in for three and a half years.

JL: Yes.

JH: Pretty amazing… Where do you see yourself going in the future?

JL: I see myself staying put. I’m pretty comfortable, and I’m pretty fond of my job and I think as someone who’s disabled (inaudible) you’re supposed to have ambition for bigger and brighter things, but I just have ambition to do what I love and to be happy, and if I can get paid more money then fantastic, but if not that is fine too.

JH: So you are just really passionate about becoming really good at the work that you do.

JL: Yes. I’m really involved in the Santa Barbara community. It’s such an interesting city Santa Barbara.

JH: Nice. Wow well thank you so much for sharing about your experiences with us Jake. We really appreciate it, and we wish you luck on all your future endeavors.

JL: Thank you. I enjoyed talking to you today.

JH: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this podcast please leave us a review on iTunes and consider sharing us with your networks. Also, let us know what you think on Twitter @MobilityINtL or Facebook mobility international USA using the hashtag #LifeAfterExchange.

And to learn more about #LifeAfterExchange go to

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

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