Erinn Snoeyink, who is blind, majored in Spanish at Hope College and was anxious to find opportunities to immerse herself in the language and become more proficient. She quickly found the first opportunity by studying abroad in Seville, Spain, but this was definitely not her last. The food, culture, language, and overall experience kept her wanting to return for more.
If you travel more than once, this will help you be more independent the second time.
The First Time Around
The first time Erinn went to Spain, it was for a short-term study abroad program through the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). CIEE worked with Erinn and tried to connect with the local Spanish blind organization, Organizacion Nacional de Ciegos Espanoles (ONCE), to prepare for her arrival.
Since ONCE only assisted Spanish nationals, Erinn did not have access to a structured orientation and mobility (O&M) training to learn to navigate the busy, mixed use traffic zones of Seville. Instead, she decided to have full-time personal assistants, in order to engage fully in her exchange, excursions, and the experience.
With funding through CIEE, she had assistance for almost everything; going to class, returning home, shopping, and any other place that Erinn chose to go. This had its advantages and disadvantages, Erinn recalls. She did not have to worry about getting from point A to point B, and she enjoyed getting to know her local assistants personally, which was great for the language and cultural exchange.
The disadvantages Erinn experienced was the feeling of having no privacy and losing her independence. She missed not being able to “do things on the fly”, especially in a new country, since she was used to getting places on her own. Erinn’s host family, who was older and stayed at home often, also impacted her reliance on her assistants if she wanted to explore.
More Independence the Second Time Around
Erinn’s second exchange experience, teaching English in Toledo, Spain, gave her the flexibility to not fully rely on a personal assistant. Key factors included: the program duration, her host family relationship, and integrating in the community.
This program was for six months, rather than three months, and Erinn felt this would provide her ample time to navigate more on her own. The duration of the program still didn't remove the obstacles of navigating through a town with few landmarks and busy streets, so she had assistance for going and coming home from school, but this was it.
Erinn stayed with a younger host family, which she grew to have a strong relationship with. They spent a lot of time together outside the house, and the family was happy to offer any assistance when needed.
She was also very involved in her community, including a neighborhood church and choir group. She got around more easily as people from her church, school, and choir were happy to assist.
For Erinn, the question was never about getting an assistant or not, but more of what she needed and wanted during the experience.
If you’ve had an assistant before, always think of how you want things to be different for the next time.
Erinn realized her independence was crucial for her to fully engage in her experience abroad, and she is keeping this in mind as she plans for her next program teaching English in Spain.