Two years ago, I was one of 13 students accepted into an overseas summer internship program through the University of Oregon’s school of journalism. During my six weeks in Ghana, I dealt with the usual challenges of interning abroad, such as figuring out where to buy food and how to use public transport, but with one key difference from the other students: I am deaf.
For students with disabilities, there are often additional factors when considering a study abroad experience, such as barriers that might prevent physical access or full communication. Concerns about these barriers can discourage students with disabilities from going abroad; consequently, it is estimated that students with disabilities participate in study abroad programs less than half as often as those without disabilities. So it’s not surprising that although the journalism program had been operating for several years, I was the very first deaf student to participate.
There were many barriers I hadn’t anticipated. The first week was spent taking classes at the University of Ghana, where no interpreters or note takers were available, and videos were shown without captions. My normal methods for understanding speech -- watching mouth movements and facial expressions -- weren’t effective at first because I was not yet used to Ghanaian accents, though I was beginning to improve a little bit toward the end of my internship. I have difficulty hearing vehicles and some alarms, especially if they are behind me, and in Ghana I didn’t have many traffic lights to warn me when cars were moving, or flashing lights to tell me when alarms were sounding.
In the end, however, my experience in Ghana was empowering. Because of my challenges with communication at work and at home, I became more creative and flexible in how I shared ideas and had conversations. Interviewing Ghanaians with disabilities from all backgrounds helped me to build new business contacts and new friendships. Being immersed in a different culture meant that when I returned to the United States, I was much more keenly aware of different global perspectives on events and politics. All of these skills became crucial for my graduate work and in my current internship in Washington, D.C. My time in Ghana became a pivotal point in my education and in shaping my career aspirations.
International education is for everyone! I can say from my experience that regardless of the background students may have -- culture, disability, religion, gender, ethnicity -- their worldviews, perspectives, and working capabilities will be significantly enhanced by living and studying abroad, even for a short time. I recognize the challenges for many of my peers with disabilities -- I have experienced some of these challenges firsthand. As long as societal barriers around the world exist, the ability of students with disabilities to participate in international education on an equal basis with others will be limited. It is my sincere hope, however, that over time this will change, so that others can reap the benefits of international education -- it’s an opportunity not to be missed!
About the Author: Anais Keenon serves as an intern in the Office of the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.