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Strategies for Addressing Cultural Disability Differences

Bahraini and American young men wearing traditional head scarves
Bahraini and American young men wearing traditional head scarves

Cultures change through contact with new ideas.

By your very presence, and by your active participation in an international exchange experience, you can help challenge negative perceptions. People with disabilities who have traveled abroad have tried a variety of strategies.

  • When people stare at you – smile and wink back at them; take it as a way they want to learn about you and start a conversation, or see it as part of their culture.
  • When people try to give you unwanted assistance, ask yourself if accepting this assistance would put you in an unsafe or uncomfortable situation. If so, be assertive in refusing help. If the situation is not dangerous, consider just going with the flow.
  • If people make prejudiced comments, stay calm. One blind traveler rates their ‘level of offense’ in her mind, which helps to keep her cool. A volunteer with cerebral palsy, tried to see how treatment she saw as demeaning had a different purpose in the collective, rural community she was in.
  • If you are not getting what you need related to your disability, connect with the local disability community to learn about culturally relevant strategies for addressing disability issues, acquire leadership and/or technology training, and develop your diplomacy and independent living skills.
  • If people question your capabilities, find ways to show your independent skills, and identify allies who respect your abilities. With time, people often come around to think differently about you.
  • If you feel frustrated or like no one understands, connect with other foreigners with disabilities who might know what you’re going through and can share positive coping skills. Connect with local people with disabilities, too, to gain new understanding of the other point of view.

If you push yourself outside your cultural comfort zone, and open yourself to learning more about the world and about yourself, you will be well-equipped to be a cross-cultural traveler. 

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