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Disability Travel

Simon Says Teach Abroad

For Those with Disabilities It's Especially Rewarding

I never stopped to think about the possibility of not being accepted to teach English in France because of my disability. I knew I had the skills to do the job and I desperately wanted to go to France for an extended period.

I found my position as a Foreign Language Assistant through the Foreign Language Assistant program (sponsored by the French Ministry of Education and the Cultural Services at the French Embassy). Because of cerebral palsy, I can't walk without assistance and I am unable to stand on my own. I knew I could handle living in France as I had visited once before on a short immersion program through my university. However, I did wonder about accessibility and whether I would be able to accomplish necessary tasks like grocery shopping.

As an assistant I was expected to work 12 hours each week helping with language classes, leading sessions in the language lab, and facilitating conversation groups. My students ranged from very experienced teachers returning for refresher courses to young people earning their credentials. Some of my most memorable experiences as a teacher were not about teaching English but about introducing my students to American culture.

Because I represented a person with a disability from the U.S., I was asked by a nearby elementary school to assist with classes that included students who used wheelchairs. I was honored to introduce children with and without disabilities to someone from another part of the world who was living independently. The students were much more willing than a lot of my university students to use their English skills and were bolstered by youthful confidence when it came time to practice. I played games like Simon Says with the children and shared my culture with activities like music, stories, and American holiday traditions. Helping so many kids to see that people with disabilities were just like anyone else was one of the most important contributions I made while teaching abroad.

As a foreign language assistant I participated in the university choir; I lived with students from around the world in the dormitory (they became like family); I went to foreign student nights at one of the local pubs and met French and other international travelers; I took a ski vacation with my French friend; I visited the beach for a weekend. Teaching abroad introduced me to French culture, people, and disability perspectives in another country.

The experience changed the entire course of my life. Through it I discovered my love of helping others to learn and explore, and I also saw my own home and culture in ways I never would have otherwise.

My renewed sense of civic pride and responsibility led me to AmeriCorps service and finally to a position with the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, working to assist exchange organizations to include people with disabilities and encouraging others with disabilities to participate in international experiences.

Preparation for an International Experience

1. It never hurts to have a good travel agent familiar with your needs.

2. Bring tools to repair any equipment and spares for anything damaged easily such as crutch tips, spare tires, and tubes.

3. If your equipment can be taken apart, tag all the parts and pieces with your name and a destination address and phone number.

4. Make sure you have all of your documents in order and translated for any paperwork or work permits. Bring copies!

5. Be up front with any accommodations needs, but be flexible.

6. Learn to ask for (and refuse) help politely in the host language.

7. Practice a simple explanation of disability in the host language.

8. Check out alternative transportation systems such as a door-to-door service or special taxi service before you go.

9. Keep your luggage minimal, especially if you need help with it.

10. Take pictures and document your experience. You never know if one of the skills you learn will be useful later for a resume or interview.

11. Don't be afraid to try new things and step outside your comfort zone. You may find your passion in life.

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