Disability Studies Study Abroad
Disabilities are universal, meaning you see them everywhere you go, however, how they are dealt with is different in every place. Students at Fitchburg State College in 1999 got to experience this when they did an exchange program with students in England. All the students that participated in the exchange were disabled, putting a focus on disability awareness. The English students that came to Fitchburg were able to participate in many activities that the school had set up for them as well as experience what life is like as a student with disabilities.
Study abroad can be beneficial to anyone’s education. It helps broaden your learning by gaining knowledge through experience. You get to see education through a different perspective and experience what learning is like in a place far different than your own. These types of opportunities are very special and can open anyone’s eyes to a whole new way of life. Fitchburg State being able to provide students with disabilities this same opportunity allows them to get the same experience that other study abroad students get while also showing them a world similar to their own.
The students that went on this trip, in particular, were excited to see the way disabilities were handled in a school similar to Fitchburg State but in a different country. At this time, there were schools specifically where blind people would attend rather than trying to integrate them into the “normal” school systems. One visually impaired student, Larry Haile, said this is odd and believes it happens because not everyone knows how to deal with disabilities. Something he tries to emphasize is that people with disabilities can function just as well in society as people without disabilities: they just have to do it a little differently. This is something that even in today's society, over twenty years later, we are still learning.
Another exchange program is through PAICE, Partnership for Access to International Cultural Exchange. This program especially focuses on educating people about disabilities. Whether they are hidden or visible, these students have disabilities and would like to educate and show people that they can do all the “normal'' things people without disabilities can do. Megan Mathieu is a great example of this. She was a high school senior when her life was changed forever. A dump truck on the road hit her, leaving her in a coma for over two weeks. This accident left Megan with an invisible disability, where she struggled with speaking and learning. Going from a straight-A student to her new reality was a challenge for Megan. Something she learned was that people like her with invisible disabilities are often looked over, and people tend to be unsympathetic towards it. Megan was able to go on a study abroad trip through PAICE to Austria. Throughout her journey, she was able to see how people with especially physical disabilities were treated whether it was in school or even in everyday places such as airports. This experience was eye-opening for Megan, especially since before the accident she hadn’t experienced what it was like to have a disability.
PAICE is a program that gives students a once in a lifetime opportunity. Tracy Alario was a student at Fitchburg State who was fortunate to have this experience. She tagged along with students from other Massachusetts state colleges and the University of New Orleans to embark on her journey in Austria. The main goal is to provide education on “disability laws, leadership and self-advocacy skills, as well as cultural and recreational opportunities.” Tracy, although not having disabilities of her own, was able to be part of a community that allowed her to do something great in the world and make positive changes. Through the program she was able to see first-hand some changes that could be made to make the world more accessible as well as being able to volunteer and meet some of the disabled students at the University of Innsbruck in Austria as well as connect with other disabled students from Massachusetts.
Another student from Fitchburg that benefited from this program is Larry Haile, who at the time was very well-liked at the Center for Leadership and Career Education at Fitchburg State. He was a blind student who brought light to everyone’s life through his very likable personality. Something that Larry focused on a lot was the accessibility for college students with disabilities. He had many adaptations and ways that made learning easier for him so that his disability wouldn’t impede on his education. Larry was able to travel to England to see how students with disabilities were accommodated in the classroom. One thing that Larry noticed was that some parts of England did not have as many disability laws as the United States, making it more difficult for these students to succeed. It also sets an environment where people with disabilities are treated much differently and aren’t able to get the help they need in day to day life. People would often disregard Larry and others with him and would treat disabilities with far less respect than we do in America.
One big takeaway from studying abroad is the ability to experience other cultures. When most students study abroad, something such as people with disabilities in society is often an overlooked part of the culture. With organizations such as PAICE, these parts of society are examined more thoroughly. It is important that these programs exist because it allows people with disabilities such as the ones at Fitchburg to get the same opportunities as the other students to study abroad, but also look deeply into what life would be like for them if they were to live in these countries. Here in the United States, we are fortunate to have such laws put forth for people with disabilities that create cultural standards and respect. By studying abroad, one can see how these can sometimes be taken for granted, and with the students who come to America, they can see their disability in a new light and take what they’ve learned back to their home country.