At age ten, I watched as my older brother went on his first exchange venture to Europe. From that moment, I decided I would also go abroad. But even then, upon mentioning my dream, I encountered obstacles. The adults around me focused on the difficulties that a girl with low vision would have on her own in a foreign land, and they could not conceive of a plan to prepare for the perceived problems. But, I continued to learn the German language and study the culture. After my freshmen year of college, I just went for it.
Face to face with this man, I still feel as weak as a child before an adult. Each time I manage to plant my feet, he twists or jerks me off-balance again; his movements fluid and relaxed like those of a dancer. The men gathered around the circle shout, “Niko! Niko! Haraigoshi! Gambate Gambateee!” and I plant my right foot, turning and lifting this short, powerful man. My left foot slides up to meet the right and I sweep my opponent’s legs, throwing him over my hip and onto the mat.
When I arrived at Dubai International Airport, I was struck by how cosmopolitan and busy it was, despite the very early morning hour. The women in the airport were covered from head to toe in flowing black robes, and I could see the dark eyes of only a few. Among some of the younger women I encountered, however, I noticed hints of “Western wear” under their traditional dress, including jeans and designer handbags.
After earning a college degree in Japanese and Chinese, taking seven trips to China to work and study, and twelve trips to Japan and Korea to teach English, one might consider me an expert, but I don’t feel like one.
When David Berube stood in front of a classroom of twenty Thai students and asked if they knew anyone who had HIV or AIDS, not a single hand went up. He felt a rush of fear when Cee, his Thai translator, told the children that Berube had been HIV+ for ten years. “What was going to happen?” Berube wondered. “Were they going to be afraid of getting close to me now that they knew?” All eyes were on him, and for a moment, the room was silent.
Remember that you are your own expert on your disability and how it might impact your participation in international exchange! Recognize that the exchange professionals you are working with may not already be familiar with certain types of accommodations, disability resources, or a country’s level of accessibility. Help in doing thorough research and build effective communication on what access you need.
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.
From country to country, you will find there are vastly different views on disability that are based on your ethnicity, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, and disability type. Local politics, laws, geographic setting (rural versus urban), existing services for people with disabilities, and more add another layer of complexity to disability culture and identity.
Whether you apply to participate in a volunteer abroad program like the Peace Corps or join a volunteer project abroad, volunteering can dramatically change your life and the lives of those around you. Since many volunteer organizations offer opportunities to work with disability communities overseas, people with disabilities can be valuable role models at these placement sites. As you consider your disability-related needs for a potential volunteer abroad experience, remember that many people with disabilities have successfully coordinated a variety of supports in order thrive in international volunteer settings.
For Alison, Italy was all about taking the time to savor simple experiences, whether people-watching on a leisurely evening in the piazza to lingering in Italian conversation with friends over a glass of wine. As a person who is hard of hearing, Alison worked with the coordinators of her program to arrange for accommodations that would help ensure that she had the same opportunity to engage in the classroom lessons and discussions, furthering her skills and confidence in the Italian language.
You can use your Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) funds towards international academic exchange expenses. Learn how to include study abroad in your VR Plan.
Each year, thousands of American undergraduate and graduate students with and without disabilities travel abroad on international academic exchange programs. These students are brushing up on new languages, advancing their cross-cultural awareness, and building valuable independence - all skills that make a hearty resume for future employment opportunities. You can, too!
Perseus McDaniel, who is Deaf, was accepted into a study abroad program in Florence, Italy to study literature and creative writing. He planned and organized his trip, which included funding from the state of Washington for two American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters to join him.
Funding can make or break a dream to explore the world. Almost everyone worries about how they will be able to afford the costs associated with international travel. Get ready to learn about many ideas that people just like you have used to make their dream a reality.
As you investigate all funding possibilities, be sure to keep in mind any income or benefits that you are currently receiving in the U.S. There’s a possibility you may be able to use these towards your international exchange opportunity.
"While preparing to study abroad in England, I was concerned about how much it was going to cost. I was receiving SSI benefits and involved with the Department of Rehabilitation Services (DORS), and remained eligible for the year I was in England." - Beth Ocrant, who has a vision disability