Disability Research in Hong Kong

Christie with class in China
Christie Gilson, who is blind, spent eleven months in Hong Kong on a Fulbright grant. She later became a professor and part of the Fulbright Board.

When Christie Gilson received an offer to teach at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, she was ready to make the move. “I was not at all intimidated by the thought of pulling up roots and moving far away from home by myself. After all, I had successfully done so in Hong Kong beforehand.”

Christie, who is blind, spent eleven months in Hong Kong as a Fulbright Student. In addition to being an assistant professor at Moravian College, she also became a member of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, whose members are appointed by the President of the United States. Her time in Hong Kong provided her with an invaluable opportunity to conduct research, a requirement in the scholarly community, and to develop her career.

"The depth of the cultural and disability-related information I learned while living abroad was staggering."

She found the assistive technology she used abroad to be helpful: a screen reader, two Braille displays, an MP3 recorder, many canes, a Chinese-speaking talking watch, and a Nokia cell phone with a screen reader. Christie decided to leave her service dog, Jill, in the United States with her family.

"I was concerned about getting around safely in my community as a blind person. I used consulate staff's assistance in locating a mobility instructor who helped me on my first full day in country. That way, I was never isolated or stuck."

Since Christie was a young child, she has been fascinated by foreign languages and cultures, befriending international students in high school and studying varying levels of Japanese, Chinese, French, German, and Spanish.

She initially decided to apply for a Fulbright grant in large part because of the prestige factor—a grant is a strong addition to resumes and C.V.’s—but there were other important reasons, too. “I knew that grantees received critical logistical and emotional support from the program managers."

In other words, the Institute of International Education, which administers Fulbright grants on behalf of the U.S. Department of State, works to ensure that grantees are successful in their area of study. This includes working with applicants who have disabilities on accessibility and other logistical issues. Though the application process was at times stressful, Christie says she was very eager to go through with it. "Many people along the way, including MIUSA staff, were extremely helpful."

Ultimately, Christie’s research was successful, and her time in Hong Kong gave her the freedom to conduct research and develop her career.

“The experience and confidence I gained during my Fulbright to Hong Kong has helped my career in numerous ways. [The grant] allowed me to conduct qualitative research with a high degree of trustworthiness and credibility.”

As a result, she was able to conduct numerous interviews and observe students in the classroom. She also gained a better understanding of Hong Kong’s culture during her time there, which was equally important to her research, and she developed connections that led to her research being published in The Hong Kong Special Education Forum journal.

Because of her experience as a Fulbrighter and as a person with a disability, the White House's Office of Personnel Management contacted her about serving on the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board when she returned to the United States. Gilson agreed to participate.

“My perspective as a person with a disability has been welcomed with open arms from all members of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board and from the individuals with whom I have worked from the Department of State."

Fulbright grants are invaluable opportunities for personal, professional and academic development, and Christie strongly encourages people with disabilities to apply.

“Having intercultural competence is a real draw for many potential employers these days. I would encourage all students to study a foreign language or two. It is especially important to do so when you are young.”

The Fulbright Program is committed to having a diverse range of grantees, including people with disabilities. The Fulbright Program provides various opportunities abroad, including studying, conducting research and teaching for post-graduates and graduate students, lecturing and/or research opportunities for college and university faculty and professionals, and teaching opportunities for K-12 teachers. The prestigious grants typically pay for round-trip airfare and living expenses in the country where the grantee goes.