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Adventures in Teaching

A Wheelchair User Overcomes the Barriers

After I got my bachelor's degree, I wanted to take some time off before going back to school again. My Spanish major and extensive volunteer work in the Latino community drew me toward a Spanish-speaking country. But where would I go?

After an extensive search, I took a job with VENUSA, an American-based exchange program for students in Venezuela that also provides English classes to Venezuelans. I worked as an English teacher at the Universidad del Momboy in Valera. The same program hired my friend James.

I felt fortunate to have James with me in the beginning because it was extremely difficult for me to get around in my wheelchair by myself. I already knew about some of the transportation barriers I would encounter in Valera, but even so I still felt frustrated that I wasn't able to be as independent as I was in the U.S. However, after about a month I became more familiar with my step-filled and rampless environment and started going to more places by myself.

I still receive the occasional culture shock from differences that my students spring upon me (for example, the concept of time here is more relaxed: people come late to class as a normal routine). Challenges aside, I enjoy making jokes with my students, having them sing nursery rhymes, telling them about American culture, and seeing their English improve as the semester goes on.

During term breaks I have traveled around Venezuela. In October, I went to Bonaire Island, a tiny country off the coast of Venezuela, to meet up with my scuba-diving group from Philadelphia. I was certified in August before I came to Venezuela and took my advanced diver test in Bonaire. My new Venezuelan friends are surprised that as a wheelchair user I can do all of these things just like anyone else. They are interested in adapting activities, structures, and programs so that all can participate. The information I am gaining here will help me work more effectively within our own expanding Latino community in the U.S. when I become a doctor.

I have not only become a much stronger person from this experience, but I have also been able to show others that people with disabilities are just people. I think maybe the Venezuelans I have met have begun to look at their own lives differently because of me-at the end of each day that is a good feeling!

For More Info

The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) strives to increase the participation of people with disabilities in the full range of international exchange opportunities by providing free resources, referrals, and field-tested tips to disabled individuals, disability-related organizations, and exchange organizations. NCDE is managed by Mobility International USA and sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.

NCDE's extensive web site features a searchable database-an excellent place to begin one's search for short-term international work, internships, study abroad, or overseas research opportunities. With 100 exchange organizations in over 70 countries listed, visitors to the web site are bound to find overseas programs that fit their interests. Each entry includes the program information, including its commitment to including participants with disabilities, and a link to the program's web site. Additionally, over 250 disability organizations worldwide are listed on its continually expanding online database, which can be searched by region, country, and disability type. These could be useful for learning about local accessible transportation, sign language interpreters, and other disability-related resources as well as finding volunteer or networking opportunities or creating an exchange program with a disability organization abroad.

Log onto MIUSA's home page, click on "Students, Volunteers & Individuals," scroll down to "International Exchange Programs Database" or "Disability Organizations Worldwide Database," and see what new worlds will open to you at www.miusa.org. Contact NCDE at P.O. Box 10767, Eugene, OR 97440; 541-343-1284 (v/tty), fax 541-343-6812; clearinghouse@miusa.org.

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