By Juanita Lillie, ISA Intern
In 2013, I participated in a semester-long ISA program in San Pedro San Jose, Costa Rica. That study abroad experience has without a doubt changed my life. Admittedly, I did not know if it would be possible to go abroad as someone with a disability at first, but I advocated for myself and asked questions despite the beliefs of others thinking that I could not go abroad. I participated in excursions that I never thought of doing before and saw the power of language and culture. I resided with an incredible host family, and we continue to stay in touch even to this day.
As many students know, there are a large number of providers from which to choose. I chose ISA after hearing from many providers that it would be very difficult if not impossible for me to study abroad because I have a disability. ISA’s can-do attitude pushed me toward choosing them as the best organization to assist in this process. I want to underline the word “attitude” here; as a person who is blind and has other diverse identities, attitude is one of my most challenging barriers. ISA was willing to work with me and were honest from the start. They listened to my needs and provided strong communication. My program advisor made sure that he was in communication with me about my needs. He would clarify what I meant about some accommodations and acknowledged that visual disabilities have multiple degrees.
I remember some people saying that access was going to be extremely challenging (if not impossible) after my acceptance. This proved to be quite the contrary with ISA, in my experience, since I had instructors who were open to supporting me and making materials accessible. In fact, I had a phonetics professor who took the initiative to create a model of the mouth. I was afraid to take the course as it was indeed more of a visual course, but when working with the instructor, I found greater interest in the topic and was fortunate to have an accessible experience. I did not have to inform the instructor on how to teach me, instead she connected with fellow colleagues, internal resources, and organizations locally to increase access for me. Of course she asked me if it was okay for her to connect and ask questions.
I remember the excitement when I finally understood the parts of the tongue and mouth when my instructor said “I have something for you”. I put my hands out and there were the parts of the mouth in model form. It proves that blind individuals can have a visual/tactile experience to support their learning.
Surprisingly, another situation when access was not an issue whatsoever pertained to the manner in which locals gave directions. They understood distance and they were descriptive: “You will want to take a half meter step;” “There is a meter-wide ramp;” “You are going to walk 25 meters towards the cafe, and then turn right, where you will pass three driveways.” The money was incredibly accessible for me as well: I could identify the colones based on size and texture. If I could identify colors, I could have easily looked at the vibrant colors. It was interesting when I returned to the United States, given that I had some culture shock in regard to access. “Some” is the operative word, though, because I understood that there can be amazing opportunities for access in other countries.
I am extremely happy that I jumped out of my comfort zone and explored. My host family was a highlight of my program abroad. We taught one another about disability culture, I advanced my Spanish skills (which has proven helpful in my educational and career paths), and I had several adventures—adventures that many were surprised about, including myself. Some adventures include, zip-lining, surfing, horseback riding, and more, with a hardy crowd of students and staff standing nearby.
Because of my abroad experience with ISA, the connection with Professor Natalia Gómez at Grand Valley State University (my Alma mater), and the people who supported my decision of going abroad, such as my parents, I was able to found “Abroad With Disabilities (AWD)”— an organization that empowers persons with disabilities to go abroad. As its president and founder, my work with AWD has motivated and encouraged me to pursue a Master’s degree in International Education at SIT Graduate Institute. It is through my degree program that I have come full circle and am working as the Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator today with International Studies Abroad (ISA).
I encourage all students to learn about programs abroad, as my personal experience has allowed me to take adventures that I never imagined before going abroad. For instance, I never thought I would have to purchase another white cane in Costa Rica, because I lost it in the ocean. Most of the program participants were super supportive and so were the staff. I eventually was able to get another cane, but what was unique was that the style was different compared to the one I was using from the United States.
In the end, the new cane was much better, as I was able to identify obstacles and navigate throughout the country with more ease. You can prepare and prepare, but it is important to know that unexpected things may arise just like anything unexpectedly can arise in your life in your own country. My experiences allowed me to look at situations from multiple lenses and support others in the pre-during-post phases of education abroad. Do not be afraid to email, call, or ask questions in any format that you wish. Everyone is learning each day and you are in charge of your study abroad experience.
About the author:
Juanita Lillie is currently completing an internship with ISA – circling all the way back to support future ISA students going abroad and building from her own preparation to study in Costa Rica back in 2013. Juanita received a Bachelor’s degree from Grand Valley State University and is currently working on her Master’s in International Education at SIT Graduate Institute. Because of Juanita’s education abroad experience, she founded Abroad with Disabilities (AWD) to empower persons with disabilities to go abroad.