Volunteering abroad–particularly in a developing–country is a monumental challenge that requires grit and ability to adapt to strange places. Contrary to what you might assume immediately, students with disabilities offer unique strengths that can make them phenomenal volunteers.
We have a lifetime experience of facing obstacles and being flexible. We often have to think creatively about how complete certain tasks because we may not be able to do them in the same way as persons without disabilities. Because we want to show the world that we are human beings who can contribute to society, we often go any extra mile to reach any and all goals.
I’m a living testament - Volunteering abroad IS possible for students with disabilities.
I have Usher Syndrome, a condition whereby individuals are born deaf and gradually lose vision. I have cochlear implants, which are technologies that allow people who are deaf to hear.
I received a bachelor’s degree in visual communication with a concentration in photography from Savannah College of Art and Design and an master’s in material and visual culture from University College London.
I have travelled to more than 20 different countries. While traveling, I often lived with host families and used my camera as a tool to study cultural differences. I felt that joining the Peace Corps would provide me an opportunity to live in a different environment and learn about a different culture. More importantly, Peace Corps also allowed me to “pay it forward,” as so many people positively helped me become a successful person when growing with disability.
Tips for Volunteering Abroad for Students with Disabilities!
For all of you fellow students with disabilities out there that have aspirations of becoming a volunteer abroad, here are a few tips for volunteering abroad with a disability:
Applying for Volunteer Programs
Applying to join the Peace Corps – or any long-term volunteer program – can be a complex and lengthy process. Sometimes it can be a good test to see if applicants can make through the entire two years service. The application process often includes:
- Short answer questions
- Personal essays
- Medical screenings
For students with disabilities, the application process can sometimes be more challenging. You may need to fill out extra paperwork for medical screening, since some aspects of disabilities can be considered a medical issue. You might have to answer additional questions about how you’ll be able to perform certain activities as a person with a disability.
Therefore, when applying you’re planning to volunteer abroad as a person with disability, it is important that you be clear about your strengths and capabilities. When volunteer organizations, like the Peace Corps, review volunteer applications, they are most concerned about whether or not you can live in a challenging environment with hardships.
For example, I have advanced French skills and so, in my application, I emphasized that I learned to speak French and have experiences in living with host families in France. It was very important that they knew this information because people with hearing loss are often perceived as individuals who cannot communicate. They needed to understand and know that I am fully capable of communicating and learning new languages.
Preparing for Volunteering Abroad as a Student with Disabilities
If you are accepted to a volunteer program or receive an invitation, and secure a medical clearance, congratulations! Now you need to get ready to depart for your country of service. The best way to prepare for the departure is to spend time reading blogs and articles written by volunteers serving in your host country. Get your research started on GoAbroad’s Volunteer Abroad article directory. Many past volunteers will be willing to share their highest of the highs and lowest of the lows; they’ll share their raw experiences, including all the positives and negatives.
I spent many hours reading blogs by volunteers who were serving at the time in Cameroon or had recently finished serving. Reading about their experiences prepared me well for my service. For example, I read posts about female volunteers experiencing harassment, including receiving proposals from complete strangers, so when I was in Cameroon and first receiving proposals, I was neither scared nor surprised.
It is important to note that while one could spend many hours trying to digest information and become as well prepared as possible to integrate into a new culture and environment, the experience will be different from what you may imagine, no matter how much research you do. There will still be many moments that shock you when you arrive, even if you’ve spent countless hours reading articles. Therefore, it is best to arrive in your host country expecting the unexpected.
Securing the Accommodations You Need
Accommodation requirements will vary from person to person, depending on your individual needs. For example, one deaf person may request sign language interpreter while another deaf person may ask for preferential seating. One visually impaired person may request documents in braille, while another visually impaired person may request text to be in large print.
These accommodations may all be requested, as long as they are reasonable and can be managed in your host country and by your host organization. However, I do advise that if you can provide any of the resources yourself, I would bring them with you when volunteering abroad.
For example, when sleeping at night, I do not wear my hearing devices and so, I need a smoke detector that wakes me up by shaking the bed. I bought my own smoke detector system and brought it with me to Cameroon.
Communicating with Locals Abroad About Your Disability
While disability can often been seen as a stigma in many developing countries, locals may not be concerned about your disability at all. Instead, they may be more interested in your nationality. If your skin color and/or accent is different from the locals, they will often see you as a foreigner first, not your disability.
You may also have technologies or devices that you use for your disability that do not exist in your host country, so locals may see you as superior to local people with similar disabilities, because you have access to valuable resources or expensive technologies. When I shared with other locals about my disability, for example, they were often rather amazed that there is a technology that allows people who are deaf to hear. When I gave a seminar to a large group of healthcare workers at a hospital and one of my work partners shared that I am deaf but hear with cochlear implants, they gasped and asked questions about the technology.
If you do face stigma, it is important that you explain politely that persons with disabilities are human beings who function differently. Explain to the locals that every person has strengths and weaknesses. Persons without disabilities have flaws, such as inability to carry a tune when singing, inability to run fast, or inability to paint a pretty picture, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still capable people.
Volunteer Opportunities for Students with Disabilities
Remember to reach out and discuss any questions or concerns you may have with representatives at the organization to ensure you thrive as an international volunteer!
Check out these great volunteer organizations to start your search:
No matter how complex your disability may appear on paper, persons with disabilities are far more capable than everyone may realize. Disability does not define a person’s life and does not equate to obstacles and prevention from doing good work. Persons with disabilities can find ways to tear down the walls by finding alternative ways to function in their own bodies. You, as a person with a disability, have unique skills, and both volunteers and locals can learn so much from you. Do not allow your disability stop you from volunteering abroad!
Read this full article and other tales from travelers and students with disabilities in our free downloadable eBook, Meaningful Travel Tips and Tales: Traveling with a Disability.