Denise works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service. She has been blind from birth and has always loved languages. Her study of French and Spanish began in high school and continued through college, where she was a language major. As Denise enhanced her language skills, she sought out opportunities to get involved in international exchange, but encountered barriers related to her disability.
“In high school, I was rejected from a study abroad program with the American Field Service because of my blindness. Again, in college, the State University of New York at Cortland rejected me from their study abroad program for the same reason. My advice to people with disabilities is to never give up. Don’t let yourself get discouraged. Seek out the mentor or friend who will help you.”
Denise was applying for international exchange programs at a time when federal protections around disability were limited and the idea of people with disabilities participating in international exchange was virtually non-existent. Regardless, she knew international exchange should and would be possible. Denise continued to network with organizations, ultimately being selected as a Fulbright Scholar and an American Association of University Women (AAUW) fellow. Through these programs, she completed her Ph.D. in the late-1970s at the Sorbonne in Paris, France.
Throughout, Denise was accompanied by a Seeing Eye dog that assisted her in navigating many different environments in the U.S and abroad. Each of her Seeing Eye dogs received their own recognition for the important work they did.
“For example, in Brazil, I was interviewed regarding a project I was developing with Partners of the Americas (POA). The newspaper focused in large part on my guide dog. He was the first guide dog that we were aware of in Brasilia. When I went into a store to buy some copies of the newspaper, the woman who managed the store said, ‘You can’t bring that dog in here!’ I responded that my dog was featured in the newspaper I was buying and she went out into the street yelling, ‘Come in and buy my paper because the dog from the newspaper is in my store!’ And so we broke down another barrier.”
In Denise's POA project, she authored and implemented an independent living training program for people with disabilities in Brasilia, Brazil that was replicated in at least eight other Latin American countries. Denise's career has included positions with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), as a Disaster Relief Officer, and then several management positions at the USDA.
Now, with over 25 years of federal experience, Denise, a lifelong learner, believes that the rewards from international exchange cannot be underestimated. She credits her participation in international programs with having offered her career opportunities that would not otherwise have come her way.
Tips from Denise:
- Learn the language of the country you want to go to.
- Assemble everything you can to support your application for programs: letters of recommendation, information about your studies, any publications or speeches you’ve done, etc.
- Be flexible and ready to take on opportunities that may be a little different from what you expected.
- If traveling with a guide dog, connect with the U.S. embassy in the country you plan to travel to and make sure you get an international health certificate from a veterinarian.
Update: We mourn the loss of Denise Decker, who passed away in November 2020. Her presence will be missed by the global disability community, international exchange field, and countless others who were impacted by her commitment to service and citizen diplomacy. Learn more about Denise's legacy in her obituary published by the Washington Post.