In the summer of 2015 I left the creature comforts of Ohio behind for a study-abroad/volunteer program in one of the developing nations in the Caribbean. Having never traveled outside the United States before, I had only a vague idea what to expect. A few things weighed heavily on my mind as I took off from the airport in Cincinnati. I knew I was the first blind student to gain acceptance into my program. Before I applied, another had been denied entry because the administrators didn't believe her orientation and mobility skills were strong enough for her to handle the trip. I had been accepted, breaking through the first barrier to studying abroad with sighted peers, but I felt I had a point to prove.
I also wondered how I would be regarded by the local people. The country I was visiting does not have resources to provide proper education and training for its disabled population, including its blind people. Through my research I found that disabled people in the country I would be visiting are either cared for by their family members or sent to one of the government-operated care centers. I had spent the past three years of my college career as a member of the NFB, and I completely believed that, as a blind student, I was equal to my sighted peers.
As it turned out, my experience abroad was phenomenal. I was with a cohort of students from across the United States who couldn't have been more accepting toward me. We were required to stay in groups, so I was never entirely alone. However, when local people advised my classmates to look out for me or to wait for me to catch up, my new friends would say, "She's okay," or "She's got it," or "She'll let us know if she needs help." It warmed my heart to hear these words from people I had met so recently.
I felt the other students recognized that I contributed to our volunteer work in meaningful ways.
On the first full day of the program, as we were being oriented to the area, I missed a rock with my cane, tripped, and skinned my knee. I wasn't hurt badly, and the injury looked a lot worse than it felt. However, I worried that by falling I had failed to prove myself capable of being in the program. I felt dejected for the rest of the day, and I was on high alert for what the staff might say or do. I didn't want them to think I had been dishonest when I told them I had good travel skills.
Sure enough, the dreaded conversation was not long in coming. One of the staff members pulled me aside and asked me not to go on the hike that was planned for the coming weekend. She assured me that she wasn't afraid I couldn't complete the hike--it was just that the program was under time restrictions.
I thought about my options. I could demand to go on the hike like everyone else, making the staff see me as a difficult student; or I could agree not to go on the hike and go to the beach instead. The beach option seemed the most appealing for several reasons. In addition to giving me more time at the beach and an opportunity to meet some of the students outside of my regular group, I would be in a better position to work with the staff as the program went on. The purpose of my trip was to volunteer, not to hike. The staff's alternative seemed like a reasonable solution, so I agreed to accept it.
As the time passed, my familiarity with the area and my relationships with my classmates deepened. By the end of the trip I could travel the area independently with ease. I was not reliant upon other students, and I worked with them as an equal. I got to know local people on my own, and I enjoyed talking with them. I learned a lot about the culture and climate of the beautiful country I was visiting.
Nevertheless, I was always conscious of the perceptions of others around me. I had had that fall on my first day, and sometimes I felt that I was still being judged for it. I wore long pants to cover up the scratches, but that didn't erase people's memories of what had happened.
Then I started to hear other students talking about their injuries. Some got hurt on the hike I did not participate in. Others were injured in the area where we were staying. Some got sea urchin spines in their feet from not wearing shoes in the water; they dealt with the painful remnants for weeks.
I was the only blind student, but I wasn't the only student who got injured. Perhaps I was distracted and talking to others when I fell, but distraction and blindness are not connected.
In some ways I was probably more careful than most of my sighted colleagues. I never went into the water without shoes. I received a minor sunburn early on, but I never burned again once I learned how much sunscreen I needed to use. I even used the plants the local people gave me to stop my mosquito bites from itching; they worked better than After Bite or anything else I brought from home.
It is my hope that the program will not turn away other students with disabilities in the future. Like everyone else, we have a lot to contribute. We can approach challenging new situations with as much passion, zeal, and determination as others, and we bring plenty of life experience in creative problem solving. I hope that my fall at the beginning of the trip will not deter the staff from accepting blind students in the future. Other students also sustained injuries, and I have as much of a right to fall as they do. The important thing was that I got up and carried on, as I always do when something goes amiss. I can understand the staff's fear that a blind student in an unfamiliar area is an additional liability, especially if the staff has not worked with a blind student before. Yet I was in no more danger than anyone else, and the scrapes and sea urchin stings on my classmates prove it. I wish I had not had to fight to gain acceptance into the program in the first place. Legally I should not have had to go through that ordeal. I hope that my activity on the trip will not be seen through caution-tinted lenses. I hope that the option I was given will be offered to future students who might not be able to complete the hike in the allotted time, and that disability will no longer be used as a reason to exclude students who otherwise meet all the application requirements.
Travel abroad is a great opportunity for students and a wonderful way to learn. I hope that everyone--regardless of disability--gains the right to fall and get back up again while taking in an amazing country.
When I thought about writing this article, I originally planned to discuss my adventures abroad. I wanted to show how they contributed to my education and expanded my view of the world. While the trip changed life for me in those areas, this experience helped me grow as a human being as well. I needed to confront my own doubts and become more adept at handling the unspoken fears of others.
Today I am working with organizations including Mobility International USA and Abroad with Disabilities to empower other blind students to go overseas. I hope to advise others who are the first blind student in their study abroad program so they can cope with the unexpected pitfalls I faced. I certainly don't wish bumps and bruises on anyone, but these things are part of life. Metaphorically speaking, I've taken my fall in stride and brushed off the dirt to continue onward.
Kaiti Shelton is studying music therapy at the University of Dayton and serves as president of the Ohio Association of Blind Students. As the winner of two NFB national scholarships (2013 and 2015), she is a tenBroek Fellow.
For more information about study abroad opportunities, visit Mobility International USA or Abroad with Disabilities, which has an active Facebook page where students can post questions, and it also hosts live chat sessions.
Reprinted with permission from Future Reflections, Volume 34 Number 3 (Fall 2015).