In 2013 I left Grand Valley State University to study abroad in Costa Rica as a person who is blind.
There, I surfed, went horseback riding in Monteverde, zip-lined on the longest lines in Latin America, visited many beaches and traveled to many more beautiful places with my supportive friends and wonderful host family. My trip abroad taught me many lessons. I am more empathetic and accepting towards ideas that are different from my own. Additionally, I believe it has made me a stronger advocate for myself and others. Although I was confronted with some challenges, I had an unforgettable experience!
During the pre-departure process I knew there were going to be challenges in regards to accessibility. I also did not have a clue on how my host family, other students, and locals in San Pedro were going to view my disability. I honestly did not investigate the perception of “disability” in Costa Rica because I knew that each person has their own view and treats the idea of disability differently.
I arrived to Costa Rica one day early, therefore, I stayed in a hotel by myself. The airport and hotel care in Costa Rica was fantastic. They offered a helping hand, but in a different way than people do in the United States. Individuals in the U.S. will try to grab my arm or take items out of my hands while they are assisting me. However, many individuals that helped me there were very descriptive when I would walk with them and allowed me to carry my own items.
Once I met my amazing, caring and extremely open-minded family, I learned that they wanted me to be just as independent as my family in the United States. Again, whenever I would travel with my host family and other locals they would be extremely verbal with the geographic description. This was very helpful, because there were many uneven sidewalks and paths that had many holes, dips, cracks and barriers which made it difficult to travel with my cane. Fortunately, I had helpful friends to assist me when we would tour the city and walk to class. There were times when I did need assistance but in Costa Rica you would see all individuals lending each other a helping hand.
Whenever I would need to take the bus to go to other cities I would automatically receive the first accessible seating. I did not have to ask for them whereas in the United States one needs to request. Also when we would go to parks, beaches and other areas where you would have to pay with the accessible money, the bills were colorful and sized differently, while the coins were all different sizes with different edges. I was not required to pay because of my disability. This was new to me but they would have another staff member assist me personally such as my surfing and zip-lining experience. It was as if I had a personal trainer.
Once I arrived back from my semester long trip I did experience some culture shock in regards to having a disability. Often times when I am in groups, people in the United States would ask them “What is her name” “what does she want”. In Costa Rica they spoke to me and never pointed out my disability immediately. We would have casual conversations. Also, it was strange to come back to spotless sidewalks. I remember before saying “wow, this corner is terrible with all the cracks,” but my experience abroad taught me that the accessibility in the U.S. is, in fact, more developed.
After researching laws and cultures of different countries, I quickly learned that you need to think as if you are a resident of that country. This is because the laws and perspectives on disabilities vary from place to place. For example, students in the U.S are able to receive reasonable accommodations; in Costa Rica, however, it was not mandatory for me to receive reasonable accommodations during my study abroad experience.
Since January 2014, I have been working on a project with Doctor Natalia Gómez where I have been researching and developing ideas on how to promote inclusion within study abroad offices and study abroad programs across the United States. I also created a Facebook page called “Abroad With Disabilities”. This gives the public a platform to discuss topics related to going abroad with any disability. I want to see more students with disabilities go abroad by promoting inclusion across the nation.
From January to May 2013, I studied abroad in Costa Rica. During my time abroad, I earned credits toward my Spanish Language and Literature degree at Grand Valley State University. This experience, along with the motivation and support from Doctor Natalia Gómez, inspired me to research and create the Facebook page “Abroad With Disabilities.” This platform gives the public an opportunity to discuss topics pertaining to students with disabilities who want to study, complete an internship or take advantage of volunteer opportunities abroad. As an alumni of a study abroad program who is blind, this resource was very important for me to create. When I was organizing my own trip, I was not able to find a similar resource where students with disabilities could openly share their experiences abroad and make suggestions for future students. Therefore, my Facebook page shares resources, recommendations, post questions and invites responses related to studying abroad with disabilities. One of the major objectives of “Abroad With Disabilities” is to empower individuals to recognize that students with disabilities can and should study abroad, just like their fellow peers.