Laura didn’t speak the local languages, but she took some Spanish courses and found local volunteers who translated into English. Those she met who spoke with heavy English accents took repetition to understand. Laura, who describes herself as having a mild hearing impairment, uses hearing aids and lip-reading well enough that most people do not immediately know that she has a disability unless she tells them.
She went abroad to look at how charities in developing nations work to improve the lives of people with disabilities. For example, in Ukraine, Laura was working with missionaries since disability services often comes from religious sources rather than funds through the government. Now that she’s back in the United States she is getting her master’s degree in Special Education.
“I'd done a little bit of work with people with disabilities before that, mostly tutoring kids with dyslexia, but the Watson Fellowship helped me decide that I enjoyed working with people with disabilities enough to turn it into a career.”
Some of the Guatemalan kids were very impressed at seeing someone with a disability with a college degree traveling.
In Thailand, she met very few children who were hard of hearing or deaf. A majority of the country is Theravada Buddhist, which believes in reincarnation and karma and culturally defines disability as punishment for bad deeds in a past life. Child abandonment based on disability is a large problem, she says.
On the flip side she was impressed by Ireland’s significant amount of funding for government-sponsored services, which provides enough coverage so an individual’s or family’s finances are not depleted. Of course, taxes are higher, but Laura thinks the high standard of services for people with disabilities seems worth it.
As for Laura’s own self-care when traveling abroad, her parents wanted her to stay in touch every weekend via Skype though in retrospect she thinks that could have been less frequent. She also sent her hearing aids into the factory to be refurbished and cleaned and bought a bag worth of batteries, cerumen filters, and cleaning supplies. She packed her old pair of hearing aids just in case her current ones broke – and luckily she never needed them.
Laura’s experiences confirmed what she knew of her capabilities, and her parents noted that she returned with more sense of independence and laid-back attitude.
“I think I became more comfortable with myself. You have to, when you're on your own for a year. The most rewarding aspect was getting outside of my own preconceptions about how culture should work. I found things to love in each place I went.”
Laura now is a special education and English teacher in Texas.