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.
Two years ago, Ahmed Alqahtani, a legally blind student from Saudi Arabia, did just that. He wanted to become proficient in English as a Second Language (ESL), meet new people, and complete academic graduate studies in the United States. At the time, those goals might have seemed quite ambitious.
“To be honest with you I didn't imagine that I could speak English like this. Because it's not my native language and I would hear the radio two years ago and I couldn't understand anything.”
Later, the two ran into one of her partner’s friends. Stephanie was walking with her cane, and her partner explained to the friend how and why Stephanie used it. Stephanie was delighted to let her partner do the talking.
“She repeated everything I had just told her. I was so excited—the ripple had started.”
“There’s an undeniable vibe that moves through the air” Justice Shorter ascribes to her temporary home in northern Uganda and Rwanda. “My study abroad experience gave me the chance to encounter that time and time again.”
As a graduate student at SIT Graduate Institute, Justice chose to study on SIT’s Peace & Post Conflict Reconciliation summer program in Uganda and Rwanda to observe how inclusive development can be used to alleviate the effects of poverty while working towards her Master’s in Sustainable Development.
No one knows this better than Christopher Ortega, who, despite growing up speaking the language with his family of Mexican immigrants, benefited from participating in a Spanish immersion and traveling with new-made friends in Cuba.
Christopher, who is blind, originally found the Cuban program through the University at Albany where he was completing his undergraduate work. Looking through the program offerings, Cuba seemed like the most interesting option, given his fascination with recent political history between the Castro government and the United States.
Chart traveled to the United States from Thailand to get a Master's Degree in International Public Policy and Management from the University of Southern California (USC) with the support of the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowships Program (IFP). At the time, he just wanted to get the top-notch education that the American system would open up for him. Just what he would do with that master’s degree would come later.
Having grown up as a blind man in a small town about three hours from Bangkok, Chart knew what it was like to live in a place with limited resources.
Pinar, a Turkish high school student who is blind, received a full scholarship to study abroad on the U.S. Department of State’s Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. “Of course, my parents were really worried because my safety is important to them. Probably the most important thing!” says Pinar, reflecting on her experience. She lived with an American host family on weekends and stayed on campus at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind during the week.
Melissa Gulledge, CIEE Regional Director from South Carolina, has years of experience placing international exchange students from all over the world with American families, but a last minute decision to host a teenager with a disability led to one of her own family’s most meaningful hosting experiences.
The clock was ticking to match Pinar, a young woman from Turkey who is blind, with a host family and school.
People who are blind often are funneled to certain fields of study, such as the arts, while the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are frequently seen as not viable options. This was the reality that Noah Al Hadidi was not going to accept.
“When I was a little kid, I used to play with electronic devices and I loved how they helped people. Later I moved to computers, and that’s how it all started.”
The World Bank, Fulbright Program, and the World Blind Union are a few opportunities that has Mohammed Ali Loutfy moving across the world map. There could be no better fit for someone fascinated about international studies, different cultures, and learning about disability inclusion across the world.
How can you translate your campus' idealistic principles of inclusion to the global campus that is study abroad? In this best practice, adapted from her post to the UC Davis Study Abroad blog, Program Coordinator & Advisor Dana Armstrong ponders this challenge while reflecting on her experience advising a student who is blind traveling to China. Follow-up conversations with study abroad alumni with disabilities can put the realities more into perspective.
I will never forget the day I met my host father, Mark, in the arrivals terminal at Bishop International airport. Mark offered his hand and greeted me by saying, “Merhaba,” which means hello in Turkish. I was both surprised and happy at the sincerity of his greeting and instantly felt very close to Mark. My first impression proved true, and throughout the year I had a very strong relationship with my host family.
My role as a CIEE cluster leader is to organize enhancement activities that build the leadership and teamwork skills of my students. Last year I had sixteen students in my cluster, two of whom were students with disabilities. Both were studying in the United States on programs sponsored by the U.S Department of State.
There are certain activities that we do every year as a cluster. One of the most memorable of those activities took place in the winter. All sixteen of my students went up to our little cabin, which is what we do every year, to go cross-country skiing.
The main reason I applied to the YES program to the United States was because I wanted to experience a place where people are different, yet not judged by their differences; a place where my abilities would be seen objectively. My parents were really encouraging because they knew my determination and capacity for overcoming difficulties.
Masume Assaf, Director of Global Programs at Pennsylvania State University, recalls what support for international students used to look like in earlier times. In one instance, the disability services office had created a tactile map of the campus on a 6x6 board so that a Japanese blind student could use it to navigate around campus. The former Global Programs Assistant Director at the time also took this student under her wing to support her through the transition of arriving to a new disability culture with new opportunities to be independent.