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Ripple Effects 4.6: A Free and Appropriate Education in Mongolia

Annie stands alongside some of her Mongolian colleagues while on summer vacation together
Annie stands alongside some of her Mongolian colleagues while on summer vacation together


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Justin Harford: Ripple effects comes to you from the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. 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

Annie Tulkin: So if you have a child who has  cerebral palsy in the countryside and is a part of that family unit who is assisting with the herding and with the work at home it becomes a question of what does it mean to be included in your community and if that child has a role in the family and is able to do some of the herding work, is that inclusion?

Justin: Our  guest today , Annie Tulkin, served in the Peace Corps in Mongolia from 2003 to 2005 as an English teacher in a community of 40,000 people. She was assigned to work in a mainstream school, and was surprised to find that many of her students had disabilities, and they were just included. They were not in separate schools, or sheltered at home. What’s more, the majority of their support came from their nondisabled peers. It was so compelling that she came back to Mongolia on a Fulbright to research inclusion and disability in rural Mongolia. As she explained in the interview, it gets you thinking about just what inclusion means, and what it should look like in a given context. It also goes to show that sometimes people’s view of disability can pleasantly surprise us.

Justin:  Annie, we are delighted that you have joined us.  I was originally going to do a couple of other podcast interviews looking at experiential exchanges and at the conceptions of disability abroad and  this interview with you serves both purposes. . So we are excited about that. I wanted to let you do an introduction of yourself. You’ve been in the world of disability for a long time, and started your career off in Peace Corps. If you could  share with us what you are doing now and how you got to  this point. Also, how you got to help encourage people with disabilities to go abroad.

Annie: Sure sure. So it was I guess a long path to get to starting up accessible college. When I finished my undergraduate degree I studied education at Depaul University and I went straight from Depaul into Peace Corps. So I was in Peace Corps Mongolia from 2003 to 2005, and there I was living in Choibalsan, which is a large city. It’s large for Mongolia. Not large by our standards but large for Mongolia. It is about 40,000 people in far Eastern Mongolia. There, I worked with Mongolian teachers who were teaching English. So I was a teacher trainer. I worked with them on their English teaching skills, pedagogy and speaking and fluency skills because most of them have been Russian teachers before or had just started to learn English and were assigned to be English teachers. They didn’t really have a grasp of the spoken language. They had really good grammar, because they had learned from books. Their grammar was probably better than mine. But they didn’t really know how to use English. We worked a lot on that, and using games in the classroom with students and things like that. They used more of a Russian system before, which was more like wrote memorization and things like that, so I was trying to figure out how to engage the students more so that it was more experiential for the students as well. So I spent two years there in Eastern Mongolia in Choibalsan working with those teachers and also working with NGOs and I started an English club and another activity that had a physical fitness class that helped to organize at the local hospital. So I really became engaged in the community there. I got to meet a lot of different people including people with disabilities.

Justin: Your assignment was originally mainstream right? But even though it was mainstream you stumbled upon people with disabilities

Annie: Yes in Mongolia they follow kind of a Russian model which is the Vygotsky Model of separate schools. So they are separate schools for people who are blind and visually impaired, separate schools for students who are deaf. Most of the schools are in the capital city. So outside of the capital most students are mainstreamed including students with cognitive disabilities, and physical disabilities. So you would see some of the students in the classrooms, and mind you these class sizes are fairly large by some of our standards. Depending on where you are in the US and what school you are talking about, but we were talking about like 40 students to a classroom. And so people are kind of packed in like sardines. But the students who may have had cognitive disabilities or other physical disabilities were often anchored by their peers. So their peers would make sure that they were getting into the classroom, make sure that they were keeping up with whatever the class work was. Part of this leftover communist model where you are assisting and supporting everybody else in the classroom too. I remember being kind of shocked about how when you take a test in Mongolia there is no sense of people keeping the test to themselves. They are all chatting and talking about the answers. So that is just a cultural nuance and you have to say no “we want to test your skills” and it was more of a community approach to testing. *Laughs*

Justin: Is that something that the other teachers had to explain to you ultimately?

Annie: I observed it and was thinking “what’s going on here.” Then I became accustomed to it. and I found some interesting ways to kind of navigate that. But in a lot of ways that is kind of a really interesting piece of that culture and that you are not really leaving other people out. You are supporting them and helping them along. So I became kind of interested in that when I observed that during my time in the as a Peace Corps volunteer. After Peace Corps, I went on to the University of Wisconsin Madison where I was studying special education with a focus on international special education and accessibility issues, because Mongolia really lit that fire for me. I started to think more about inclusion and disability in general and Western notions of disability and how they were traveling throughout the world. Specifically around the millennium development goals which had the goal of inclusive education for students. So I was starting to think more about what does it mean to be included, what does inclusion look like in a developing country setting. So I started playing with some of those ideas in learning more about that. And learning more about international education and disability in general. And I applied for a Fulbright, and I went back to Mongolia. I couldn’t get enough of Mongolia. And so I went back to Mongolia for a year, for my Fulbright and I did research on Mongolian teachers perceptions of disability in the classroom.

Justin: Oh wow was this when you are doing graduate work Annie: Yes so I did my Fulbright as a part of my graduate work, and that allowed me to do this research which then I used for my thesis. And for subsequent publications and conferences.

Justin: Wow. I think it’s really an interesting thing that you found when you were in Peace Corps. You started off in this mainstream school and then you found that there were people with disabilities involved in the classes and it’s kind of counterintuitive because you would think that you would see that in the city maybe, but in the country you wouldn’t. It’s a fascinating story that flies in the face of what somebody might think that they will encounter when they go overseas. If you tell a disabled person that they are going to volunteer in a rural community for example.

Annie: Yes and the other really interesting piece about it is that in the city, it kind of depends on your standing in life in the disabilities that you have. There’s a lot more stigma attached to intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome and even cerebral palsy, because there just really isn’t a lot of education around disabilities. So people don’t really understand and there is a lot of cultural stuff that comes along with that as well because Mongolians are typically traditionally Tibetan Buddhists and so there are some people who believe that they must have done something wrong in their past life to have a child who has a disability. I am not saying that all people believe that, but that is something that isā€¦

Justin: Definitely a cultural subtext 8:Annie: Yyes and part of that came out of my research too. 

When I was doing my Fulbright research, I did research in the city of Ulaanbaatar, with stakeholders and the teachers. But I also worked to do research in two provinces in the far eastern province in Choibalsan where I was in Peace Corps and then in the far western province called Uvs and those were also regional medical centers. So I thought those would be good places to get both a medical understanding of the landscape talking to doctors and stakeholders about types of disabilities, and also to hear from teachers who worked in those provinces as well. What would constantly come up is that teachers or people would always tell me “we don’t believe that here in that Buddhist issue of having stigma about people with intellectual disabilities and turning that over from a past life and you must’ve done something wrong,” we don’t believe that here but other people believe that. So it was this really interesting othering that was going on

Justin: We are not like those people

Annie: Yes so that I found to be a really interesting outcome of the research and I wish somebody would pick up that research that I did and take that even further and get a better understanding of othering in Mongolian society.

Justin: I guess that stems from the fact that all of us want to be on the right side of history if you will. Nobody wants to be associated with an anti-inclusion approach.

Annie: Yes and what becomes really interesting in this context too is that whole idea of inclusionā€¦ What it means to be included. So I think one of the examples that I talk about a lot is if you have a child with cerebral palsy who is a herder in the countryside of Mongolia. Mongolia is a country of about 3 million people. Half of those people live in the capital and  half  live across the rest of the country which is about the size of Texas, so it is a huge landmass. Not a lot of people. Lots of sheep. And goats and yaks and camels. So if you have a child who has CP in the countryside and is a part of that family unit who is assisting with the herding and with the work at home it becomes a question of what does it mean to be included in your community and if that child has a role in the family and is able to do some of the herding work, is that inclusion? Should the child also be going to school with their peers in the countryside, and I think it becomes a little bitā€¦ I believe they should be going to school as well if they have an opportunity but it becomes a little bit tricky within the Mongolian context where a lot of herders are only getting an eighth grade education… if that… and aren’t working outside of herding, so if that’s the best that your family is striving for is that good enough for that child. So it is just an interesting kind of food for thought I guess.

Justin: That just reminded me of a former Mobility International USA staff member. Megan Smith who used to work for us and she has gone on to do a lot of amazing things and we actually link to a blog post that she wrote about volunteering in an orphanage in Nepal, and I believe the title is something like equal right to be discriminated against or equal right to discrimination and she talks about how her experience as a woman in  Nepal was kind of subservient. She would work for this one  man and helped him with a lot of female type tasks cleaning and things like that but then it was also that as a disabled person she was pretty much treated the same way as any other woman would be treated within that cultural backdrop so you could say is it really appropriate for a disabled person to be doing certain kinds of what we considered basic tasks? But essentially her experience was that it was in the context of what she as a woman would be expected to do.

Annie: And I think we all have to really take a look at the context in which we are operating. We are all carrying our background and ideas that we have and we are bringing into a different context. That is applicable right here in the United Justin: With international development work  too. I think you mentioned to me some projects in Mongolia right with international development bringing employment to the disabled people in Mongolia projects.

Annie: Yes and bring inclusive education. There is a lot of funding that was thrown at integrated kindergartens and inclusive kindergartens and preschools. They were starting out at that level. And then hoping to move forward and so much money just went. Just came and went and a lot of change happened. So part of what I was explained  in my thesis was are we really listening to the Mongolian stakeholders about where they are at, and what changes they would like to make, or are we imposing a Western model on another country and saying this is what you need to do this is what works best. Because we are talking about a modeling Mongolia that is totally segregatedā€¦ Separate schools, separate everything and then here folks are coming in and saying “no just put everybody together and we will provide some training and see how it goes,” take it from 0 to 60, where it is still happening here in America. We are not perfect by any means. It took a long time to get inclusion in schools. So it is something we still fight for today. So I think it’s kind of nice to say that we can go somewhere else until someone else that they should just implement these things and it will all work out.

Justin: Yes. Yes I think this is really such a great part of how international exchange helps give you insight. All the stuff resonate so much as I am listening and it would not have if I hadn’t had international experience. I think you mentioned you have a disability right. Tell us about that.

Annie: Yes so I have two wonderful parents who are guidance counselors. I was very lucky to have them in my life. So when I was in the fourth or fifth grade they realized that I was really struggling with math and science, so they had me tested for a learning disability and sure enough I hadā€¦ I have still to this day a math processing disorder. So what that did to me at that point my life at the middle school, I immediately shut down and was like “I can’t do math, can’t do science, never going to get it” that kind of thing. So I think that I kind of imposed a really negative sense about math upon myself. Which I had to work through because sure enough you still have to go to math class, and you still have to pass algebra, and you still have to take the ACT’s or SATs, and I really struggled with those things, and I was not and I am to this day not very good at math, and not very good at science stuff, but I am very good at verbal expression. So I can explain lots of things. But the thing that it made me do is is really think about what does it mean to be disabled, and looking at that context piece again, and also thinking about how having that label really impacted me and the way that I thought about myself and how I navigated the world. Clearly I had enough support and had enough personal ability to power through that. I have had a lot of opportunities in my life and a lot of privilege. I was able to go on to college and get a Masters degree and to peacecorps and get a Fulbright, so the math things didn’t really hold me back. But if I had to take a statistics course now I might need some extra tutoring I’m sure.

Justin Yes for sure. Who knows some of the students of your teachers that you were working with in Mongolia might have even had disabilities that you didn’t know Annie: Yes you know that was a really interesting piece of the Fulbright research. One of the questions that I would ask focus groups of teachers is what is disability, and so it’s a very open-ended questions because there are also language pieces that work well in English that don’t work as well in Mongolian, and so I had to work through a lot of that. My Mongolian is pretty good. It’s not perfect. And I worked a lot with native Mongolian speakers who also spoke English so that I would phrase things properly when I was doing my focus groups. Their answers were really interesting. They would go for obvious things like students with a physical disability or something that you can see, but they didn’t have the specific language for students with cognitive or intellectual disabilities, so usually that came out as someone saying a slow student or a stupid student. The direct translation would be “stupid”. So kind of parsing that out of what is that. The other pieces about how is disability acquired, that was a really fascinating conversation. So I think to go back to your question having those conversations with people in the country just very open conversations about what is a disability and what does that mean to you and what does that look like in your classroom was really really interesting, and I was so appreciative to have those open conversations, because the teachers also knew that I had been a teacher, and this is kind of a funny aside during my time as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in a Mongolian school I got a teacher pin, which they give to teachers who taught for a certain amount of time and my school director gave me one so I would wear that during my interviews with people so they can see that this person was a teacher, and they would ask me about where I taught if they didn’t know me, and that gave me a little bit of an entry point. So that was helpful.

Justin: Was that the idea of the pin to help credential you little bit Annie: Yes to grease the wheels a little bit.

Justin: Grease the wheels a little bit that make sense. Going back to that you made an interesting comment that I think is something that I have heard people ask about going abroad. They say “I am going to this country where they think that disabled people are cursed or they think disabled people are reincarnated sinners or any variety of things” and it makes me think of certain strands of Protestantism where they think people with disabilities are being punished by God or under certain strands of Judaism as well. I remember there was this girl on another side note who told meā€¦ I was giving a talk about international exchange to the group and this girl who was originally from India said “in my country they think I’m possessed, so I don’t know if I could study in India anytime,” and it sounds like every culture has the subtext but then it is sort of something that may impact the way people interact with you but that is not something that you can always assume that everybody across the board believes either.

Annie: Yes

Justin: Kind of like they say Latin America is 90% are Catholics but that hardly anybody practices.

Annie: It’s a thing for a researcher that gives a really interesting topic. Why do we believe those things that we believe and just exploring that. I think if we could kind of uproot why we believe something. Not just that we believe it, it makes it more challenging for people to think through why they believe what they believe.

Justin: Was there anything about the way that you thought about things as an American that you started to at least take a second look at when you had your experiences in Mongolia?

Annie: Every day.

Justin: Every day?

Annie: Every day. Yes and I find this in my current life to. I think it started for me

Justin: You advise parents of students with physical disabilities on going to college?

Annie: So yes with my work with Accessible College in which I work with students and familiesā€¦ Students with physical disabilities and health conditions as they transition to college. So I have a lot of opportunities to help people think about how they are thinking about things. So I think that’s the best way to put it. Think about things they hadn’t thought of. So I think a lot of that for me started you know in my time in Mongolia. I have a lot of time by myself and peacecorps as well. For better or for worse. But you have a lot of time to think and reflect “I feel this way why do I feel this way,” “I saw this today how does that impact me.” And I think that was a really valuable time for me personally. Part of my work journey too was I worked at the Association of University centers on disabilities which is a university center in every state and territory that works on disability issues and after that I was working at Georgetown University as the associate director of the academic resource Center where I worked with students with physical disabilities and health conditions as well, and that’s where I advised a lot of students Georgetown students who were considering study abroad or considering taking even service trips abroad and helps them and the counterparts on the other side of the world think about what it would mean for student with a physical disability or a health condition to go to that country, and my Peace Corps experience, my Fulbright experience really helped me with that, because I was able to better understand what it meant to live or to be in a context outside of the United States, and I was able to think through some things that I think people who haven’t really been abroad would not have been able to think about. Or would not have known to think about, so these international experiences have really opened my eyes not just about international staff also about life in the US.

Justin: Yes yes. I know for me I definitely had experiences like that too. When I was in Mexico with my blind friend who lives in MichoacĆ”n. I had to reevaluate my idea of what it was to be a successful blind person. It’s definitely a life-changing opportunity or experience.

Annie: I think I shared and this goes off what your story was but one of my best Mongolian friendsā€¦ Oidov is his name… He has a physical disability. He was able to meet up with some doctors when he was a young kid, so he ended up coming to the states for a number of surgeries. Something like over 15 surgeries. So he ended up learning English here in the states and then he lives in Mongolia and has had a really successful career. Now he runs a business where he imports daily living disability support equipment to Mongolia. In my time being with him he would always say “yes I could go live in the US but I wouldn’t have the community that I have here in Mongolia and the support that I have.” You know for example we would take a taxi together. We would have the taxi driver who he didn’t even know just come out and literally pick him up and put him in the taxicab and that was totally acceptable. He was fine with that as well, because he needed that support getting into the vehicle. He didn’t want me to have to do it because he thought that would be kind of weird for a woman to be doing that. But it was totally fine. He said in the states “I can’t really say to somebody can you pick me up or hey can you do this for me,” you are expected to live more independently.

Justin: Or have an attendant or one of the other

Annie: Yes or have an attendant as a person with a disability.

Justin: That can be a barrier on its own for people trying to keep Annie: Quite frankly the perception of your body is very different in Mongolia people touch each other more often. It is not weird to come into close proximity with someone. And so I think  if I was a person with a physical disability and I was traveling there, that would be something that I would have to probably prepare myself for. Even as a person without a physical disability I have to prepare myself for that, because people will literally sit on your lap, or sit very very close to you. There is no bubble space. People often want to help out, so they will grab somebody by the arm, or offer to pick them up, or whatever that is. But having my friend Oidov talk to me about these things, and show me a lot of stuff in Mongolia was really eye-opening to get his perceptions and his perspective about life as a person with a physical disability in Mongolia. That friendship actually opened a lot of doors for me into the disability community in Mongolia, so making that connection was something that I was really really happy about and am very thankful for it even today.

Justin: Well. Yes yes. It reminds me of my friendship with my friend Omar. It has really opened up a lot of doors. Yes well thank you this is been such a great interview. It’s fun to say thanks. Is there any last thing that you want to share, that you think we should touch on?

Annie: Well I have to give a shameless plug for myself and say that if folks are interested in what Accessible College does, you can always check out 

Annie:  I also have blogs and so I work with a number of the Georgetown students that I worked with previously. I actually have a monthly blog feature where I have students with physical disabilities and health conditions talk about their experience transitioning to college and kind of things they wish they had known, so if you go to the accessible college website you can check out those blog posts there as well.

Justin Thank you. Actually that is great to know. Also I will make a shameless plug It sounds like you also have great insights about if I am a person with a physical disability looking to go overseas and it sounds like  there are great opportunities there also. Are you looking for any blog posts from alumni with physical disabilities?

Annie: Yes I would love the opportunity.

Justin: Yes so if you’re getting self published 

Annie: I have twitter followers on my Facebook page and know how to push these things out.

Justin: Nice that’s important. Awesome will thank you so much Annie it’s been really great talking  with you and we will be looking forward to putting this out and sharing it with the world so have a great weekend.

Annie: Thank you Justin have a great weekend.

Justin Thanks:

Annie: By

Justin: And that concludes today’s episode of Ripple Effects: travelers with disabilities abroad. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing and letting your friends know you’ve done so by sharing. If you feel really positively about us, you might also consider leaving us a review on iTunes. All of those things will help us get the word out to more people.

Ripple Effects: Travelers With Disabilities Abroad as brought to you by the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange is a project of the US Department Of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, designed to increase the participation of people with disabilities in all kinds of international exchange between the United States and other countries, and is supported in its implementation by Mobility International USA.

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