Living a year abroad can change you forever.
That’s what happened to Susan Sygall when she went to Australia way back in 1975. While earning credits toward her master’s degree at the University of Queensland, she also took time for adventures.
“My studying in Australia can only be described as a magical time,” says Sygall, a paraplegic since 1971. She heads up Mobility International USA, which, among other things, facilitates cultural exchange programs for people with disabilities from around the world. “Suddenly every single day was absolutely a new experience … food, culture, smells, friends, romances, and perspectives on myself and the world.”
Her adventures included joining a previously all-male wheelchair basketball team, camping for 30 days in the outback — “being the only disabled person and attempting to climb Uluru rock,” she adds — and getting her boyfriend from Berkeley, California, who was also a para, to join her in hitchhiking throughout New Zealand for six weeks.
Once her year abroad came to an end, she wasn’t ready to come home. “I traveled with a new friend who was also studying abroad from Canada, and we took local buses through Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand on our long journey back home to North America,” she says.
As she traveled, she realized that there were two things from her experience that would affect her next career goal. First, she wanted every person with a disability to have the same opportunity to study abroad. “My other goal was to ensure that people with all types of disabilities realize that we are all part of the same global family,” she says. “We all face discrimination and we all share common history, experiences, joy, fun and camaraderie that you just can’t get from nondisabled people.”
Toward these goals, Sygall cofounded Mobility International USA in 1981 along with her friend, Barbara Williams-Sheng. The organization develops and implements exchanges that focus on disability rights and leadership training. In 1995, MIUSA began administering the U.S. Department of State-sponsored National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange to increase the participation of disabled people in the broad range of international exchange programs.
Today, there are more international exchange opportunities than ever before. Every year, people with disabilities experience cultures in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, bringing their canes, wheelchairs, scooters and personal attendants along for the ride. They take crash courses in local languages. They raise money using scholarships, grants and crowdfunding campaigns. They pack efficiently, understanding that whatever they bring they must carry, including any medical supplies. And then they go.
Traveling with a Purpose
The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange says international exchange is traveling with a purpose that goes beyond visiting a country, wandering through museums and enjoying local cuisine. It can involve taking a class, volunteering with a community development project, conducting research or teaching.
There are many opportunities to spend a semester or a year studying abroad. You can earn your master’s degree over two years on the Fulbright Student Program, or volunteer with the Peace Corps. Those with limited time or who simply want to get their feet wet before deciding to commit to something longer might spend a few weeks abroad learning about sustainable business, helping to build a school or immersing themselves in a local language.
Some parts of the world offer a similar level of accessibility to what you find in Washington, D.C., or Berkeley, California, such as curb cuts, pedestrian signals, elevators and all of the comforts that those in wealthier countries know and take for granted. Other places may lack any such amenities and require a totally different approach.
Attitudes can also vary. Some places might still have cultural folklore depicting disability as a sort of spiritual retribution. In some areas you’ll find citizens raised with a sense of solidarity and collectivism, who will happily lift you up a set of stairs to enjoy tea with your friends, or spend 30 minutes of their day showing you where to find something. In other regions, people may not volunteer to help unless you ask them, or they might even try to block you from going forward if they feel that you shouldn’t be traveling unattended.
International exchange also involves a lot of unpredictability. Even the best-planned program may include unexpected inconveniences such as being separated from the group in a housing situation, or not being able to participate in an outing.
The challenge is worth it.
Traveling with a purpose can result in massive gains in confidence, language proficiency and cultural competence, among other personal and professional benefits. Research shows a positive correlation between international exchange and superior employment outcomes. In a study by the Institute of International Education, 68% of exchange alumni report that studying abroad contributed to landing a job or promotion. According to Universities UK International, students who study abroad are 24% less likely to be unemployed six months after graduation, and their wages are 5% higher.
Salesforce sales executive Jake Robinson and Ability360 program specialist Christina Chambers are two wheelchair users with SCI/D who studied abroad as part of their college education. Chambers wanted to improve her Spanish to feel closer to her Mexican roots, while Robinson wanted to push beyond the minimum expectations to graduate college.
Jake Robinson: Around the World in 107 Days
As an undergrad with quadriplegia, the message that Robinson got was “pass your classes, earn your degree and move on.” This wasn’t enough for him, so when a friend suggested he think about Semester at Sea, he looked into it. What he found was a unique study abroad program in which students travel around the world on a ship, visiting and learning about a variety of countries along the way. It didn’t hurt that its website encouraged students with disabilities to apply. Soon, Robinson submitted his application.
“It sounded like a great way to see a lot of different places — four continents! — and at the same time know I would have a home base that was accessible,” says Robinson. “It was just an incredible sounding experience, and I am so glad I did it.”
Following his acceptance to the program, Robinson found SAS staff to be extremely proactive. While he never requested a specific reasonable accommodation, staff periodically checked in with him to make sure that all of his preparations were on track and that he did not have any disability-related concerns. They also offered to connect him with other students with disabilities who had studied abroad.
“As that trip approaches, you start to think about details you might not have thought of before,” he says. “They were just checking in to ensure I felt comfortable and didn’t have growing concerns.”
The ship was almost completely accessible. While most ports allowed an accessible gangway, crew members carried him down without a second thought when the stairs were the only option to disembark. Wherever Robinson wanted to go, he had no trouble getting there, and SAS made sure that he stayed in an accessible room at no extra cost.
Over 107 days, the ship took Robinson and his fellow students to various ports around the world. One of those stops included Accra, Ghana, where Robinson joined a tour to a medical clinic in the jungle.
They took a clunky van over a dirt road into the interior before beginning their trek. As they walked along, they passed various settlements, including a house with a goat in the living room and a small village whose local children admired Robinson’s red wheelchair. Then they got to a point where the trail started to look more complicated.
The tour guide turned to Robinson and, signaling his chair, said “I don’t think you are going to be able to take that the rest of the way.” Instead, a few people carried Robinson plank-style while one person carried his wheelchair, and they made their way along a wet, rocky path down into a canyon.
After an hour of hiking, Robinson began to feel some trepidation. How were they going to hike their way out? But the guide urged him on, saying, “This is worth it. Trust me.” The astonishing sight of a remote, gorgeous waterfall showed Robinson that, indeed, it was worth it.
Robinson says although it’s hard to describe a particular skill or ability gained from the program that helps him in his professional life, he knows it’s made a difference. For one thing, he is now more curious about the world around him.
“I’m more willing to say ‘yes’ to any challenge and to be a little extra risky in order to seek adventure,” he says, “whether that’s been additional trips I’ve taken around the world or moving to San Francisco.”
Bonding Over Basketball in Bali
Christina Chambers, 23, discovered her love for travel in 2016 when she decided to study abroad during her time at Arizona State University. That first international experience was a four-week, faculty-led Spanish-language program in Seville, Spain, organized by the Council on International Educational Exchange, a nonprofit that provides international exchange programs in more than 40 countries.
Chambers started using a manual wheelchair after getting transverse myelitis at the age of 12 and discovered wheelchair basketball a year later. She enjoyed playing with people who shared a common experience of disability, and approached her time in Spain with the same sense of adventure and personal initiative that she took with sports.
CIEE on-site program staff provided regular support leading up to and during her experience. CIEE Seville offered a variety of housing situations that included more modern accessible options. The ramp into its center, which worked for power chair users who had participated with CIEE before, was a bit steep for Chambers to push her chair up, so CIEE installed another ramp with a gentler incline.
She found a surprising number of places to be reasonably accessible. Thanks to her Voc Rehab counselor, she had a FreeWheel that made it easier to get over cobblestones, and locals or fellow ASU students helped her with any steps that she encountered.
“My study abroad trip with CIEE to Spain was empowering,” says Chambers. “I was forced to push — literally — out of my comfort zone and realized how capable I really am of being independent and traveling the world.”
Since then, she has traveled extensively. By the age of 21, she had visited Spain, Bali, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.
Her favorite destination was Bali, Indonesia, where she coached a wheelchair basketball clinic for youth. “It may be a cliché, but my life was changed in Bali as I met others with disabilities from a different country and culture than mine,” she says. “I was there to coach and teach them the sport of wheelchair basketball, but they taught me about true resilience, humility and happiness no matter what life throws at you.”
Given that Indonesia was far from the most accessible place she visited, her praise for the local disabled people’s resilience makes sense. She muddled through cobblestone streets, problem-solved when she didn’t have access to the right equipment and allowed others to carry her when necessary.
Despite the accessibility and language barriers, a common experience made it easy for her to come together with this group of locals from Bali: wheelchair basketball, a sport that they all enjoyed. “Our disabilities are the language we truly use to communicate with each other,” she says.
Visit miusa.org to access its expansive resources that include links to locating and applying for grants and scholarships.
The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange
The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange is a project of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It is designed to increase the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange between the United States and other countries, and is supported in its implementation by Mobility International USA.
The NCDE educates international exchange professionals on best practices for supporting participants with disabilities and spreads knowledge of international exchange opportunities in the disability community. NCDE offers a rich collection of online resources including articles, podcasts, webinars and the A World Awaits You journal publication.
A common misconception is that NCDE advances the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange by directly providing special programs or scholarships. In fact, the goal of the project is to see more people with disabilities accessing the same programs and scholarships available to everyone else. NCDE encourages individuals with spinal cord injuries to contact them about questions related to studying, volunteering or interning abroad.