The humidity in Mexico's night air wrapped itself around Robin Sutherby as she joined her teacher and classmates to stroll slowly down the road. In town, they headed into a piano club tucked away under the brewing clouds. Having visited the beaches of Acapulco and browsed the silver crafts in the city of Taxco by day, this break in their two week Spanish class tour abroad seemed just right.
“There was a musician playing a fast, hot sound. It started thundering and lightning outside, and rain poured down as we were sitting listening to this piano music playing.”
As they requested songs and the musician told stories about himself, Robin thought about how they had traveled from different places to meet. Robin was participating in a program to Mexico with the Cultural Heritage Alliance. There were six students from her high school and her instructor, and then another school in Georgia combined with them to go on a lot of tours to churches and different gardens in Mexico City, Taxco, and Acapulco.
“I thought before I went there that it would be very difficult to be immersed in a country of the language that you are learning -- I had taken one to two years of Spanish before going. We went to markets and walked around talking to people. The culture in Mexico is warm in general but people were amazed to see a young woman that’s tiny, blond hair, blue eyed, obviously white, that could speak Spanish; they would get all bright-eyed and just laugh. They were really surprised.”
Robin has cerebral palsy and walks unaided, though she sometimes uses assistive equipment. While she had a wheelchair or hired a taxi when access barriers came up on the program, Robin and her mother hadn’t talked indepth with the teacher about the specific field trips. As it turned out when the group went to visit the pyramids, they hadn't planned for a way to include her.
"They were afraid if I went up [the pyramids] I wouldn’t be able to come back down. I sat with our tour guide and basically got a suntan while everyone else walked up the pyramids, so that was upsetting.”
She feels that she missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “Looking back, I wish I would have been more forceful about it, but there really wasn’t anymore I could have done because their mind was made up already…It’s easier to be more prepared ahead of time than it is to speak up at the time and then not have the assistance there if you need it."
Experiences overseas – even the hard ones, far from home and what you are used to - will give you opportunities to develop independence and confidence to ask for what is needed next time around.
It’s important to give enough details in your discussion with the group leader or lead teacher about access needs. For this, you may want to include your parents, a disability advocate or teacher. It can be a balancing act, as Robin found out.
“I would just advise people to be very clear on what their limitations are. If you know that you can do something and you want to participate, make it very clear to people that you are able and capable. But also understand that when we go on a trip like that, it is the instructor’s responsibility to look out for all of us.”