Disability, Study Abroad and Universal Design

For many students, study abroad is a dream that is hard to realize. While only ten percent of students study abroad in the United States, this number is likely even smaller for people who live with disabilities. Studying abroad is one of those things that society as a whole just assumes is going to possible for all people, when in reality, it is a hard feat for even people like me who don’t have a disability. When I studied abroad this summer, the whole process was just mentally taxing between switching terminals at JFK, finding the right terminals, flights delays (especially when you have two back to back that leaves you stuck in a foreign airport for extended periods of time), and then living and navigating in a foreign city. As someone who doesn’t live with disabilities, my experience with study abroad was, in the beginning, a lot like Christopher’s experience with new places in The Curious Incident.
However, groups like USAC (who I studied with), tries to make the process and experience as painless and easy for everyone. They recently released an article titled “5 Tips for Studying Abroad with a Mental Illness”, tying in both with the concept of Universal Design and with cognitive disabilities. While the author does not have a disability like autism, she does have depression (something we often forget in terms of cognitive disabilities). In the article, she talks about her experience with study abroad and five pieces of advice she has for students studying abroad with a mental illness and how things that I personally wouldn’t normally assume they do; this is an ableist view on my part I wasn’t even aware that I had until I read the article. For me, this article was really eye opening for several reasons, mainly because it calls into question many of my opinions on things like study abroad and universal design and almost requires I relook at how I view things, and secondly because it is possible to make things like study abroad a more universal thing for all people and not just some intangible wish.


Disability in French Cinema

Over the summer, I took a French Cinema class, and one of the films we watched in the class was called La famille Bélier, centering on family living in rural France. In the film the mother, father, and son are all deaf and the daughter, who is not, is a singer. The film portrays people with disability in a manner reflective of the social model of disability because there are few hinderances in how they live their life. The family are successful farmers who run a stall at the farmers market, and the father even is elected Mayor during the film, fighting for the common people in a town overrun by bureaucracy.
One of the most poignant moments in the movie comes near the end. The film is told from the perspective of the daughter, so we are on the outside looking in at the characters with disabilities. However, at the daughter’s major concert, there is a switch in perspective and the viewer goes from full sound looking out at the audience as the daughter, to total silence. The film in this moment shifts perspective the daughter’s family and puts the viewer in the perspective of her family for those five minutes. Much like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, at least for me, there is a sort of defamiliarization because while there is no odd description, it was such a foreign, intangible sort of experience for me before the film, and to suddenly find myself in the situation was indescribable.

The Americanization of Mental Illness

While viewing the readings for my foundations of Anthropology class, I came across one that talked about the Americanization of mental illness. This sparked my interest and I knew I had to talk about it! The excerpt talked about the history of how different cultures around the world viewed mental illness and how America later influenced that thought surrounding it. In class we always consider the language used when talking about disabilities and how that can further influence how others think about disability, this paper, in a way, gave insight into just that. Adding to this, it was also a huge example of our diagnosis seeking culture and how we push that diagnosis onto other cultures or persons.

In the paper it explains that mental illness has always been viewed differently by cultures according to time and place. It says that depending on the culture and the era, mental illnesses would be viewed, diagnosed, and “cured” by a priest, shaman, or some sort of doctor (witch doctor included). In the paper they called these mental illnesses “madnesses”, a word that not only groups all mental illnesses together as if they are all the same but also makes them seem as though they drive you crazy or angry. The paper then goes on to describe that through medical journals and travel, America took their ideas about mental illnesses and how to handle them with doctors and treatment to other cultures, as America so commonly does because Americans usually believe their way is the correct way to view issues.



Disabilities within Families

My brother has something called stargardt disease. This disease basically makes him legally blind. We found out about his disability when he was 16 or 17. It has probably been one of the hardest things to go through for him. He’s 21 now not getting to do all the fun activities you get to do his age. He cant drive a car, which has been the hardest part for him. He has to depend on me, my mom, or his friends to get him to and from places. As time has gone along he’s grown a bit more used to not being able to see as well as we can. He isn’t blind, but while reading the font has to be huge. We started noticing even though he has a seeing disability, it hasn’t stopped him from making the most of his life.

Is it the People or the World that Makes Someone Disabled?

Ever since I was born I have grown up with my mother in a wheelchair, never have I ever seen my mothers disability as an issue or even a setback for her everyday life. It has made me realize the ways people get around and all that need improvement in every aspect of handicap accessibility.

Disability is defined as a limitation on movement, senses or actions; this is ture in the sense that someone is blind and can not see or like my mother, unable to walk up the stairs. In our society today there are many aspects in which a disabled person is not able to get around like everyone else. For example, universal design has made it so the metro station is handicap accessible, but is it? The station might say the only way to get to ground level is to take the elevator but more often than not the elevator is broken making it impossible for someone in a wheelchair to get the the metro itself. The designers should have made a second approach to getting someone down to the metro level, or making sure the elevators are always working appropriately. Barriers are not physical, they are mental; meaning that there’s many different approaches that could be done while designing the station. They should have thought about an alternative route to the ground level, maybe a long ramp. It is not just an issue for the disabled, accessibility is for everyone, having a working elevator 24/7 will accommodate for someone with a bicycle or even a baby in a stroller to be able to get to the ground metro level without the stress of walking down the stairs.  


Todays Legislation should be Parked in the Past

At large festivals handicap parking has always been limited. Two weeks ago I worked at Field Day of the Past, an event in Rockville, Virginia, for the Richmond community to gather and participate in fair events and watch tractor pulls. My job was to maneuver traffic and help people park their cars, which brought up the problem on handicap parking.  

It was midway through my day of assisting cars, when a handicapped van pulled up and a middle aged man rolled down the window and said he had a young son in a wheelchair and he would like to know where the handicap parking spaces were. I asked the head lady of my section, and she said ALL the spots were taken and there could not be anymore. The father in the car was very concerned as to where to park since the whole field of parking was on grass. I briefly talked to the man and tried to accommodate a place for him to park. I asked the man if it would be helpful to have someone stand with his son at the entrance of the park, but the man said his son was to young to be left alone. The father finally found a spot far down the hill of grass wide enough to get his young son out of the car.

According to the The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if there is a parking lot with over 1,000 parking spots, there must be minimum 30 handicap accessible spots. Looking at these numbers 30 out of 1,000 spots seem to be a lot of handicapped people, this is because many people have hidden disabilities that is not physically seen right away. There might be a person with a heart condition who cannot walk uphill very far, or there may be a family like the one I met where the father had to push his handicapped son across a grass field just to get him to the park. I feel as if the Field Day of the Past should have made better accommodations to handicap accessibility, or if there was not a way, there should have been a solid path the father could push his son on rather then on the grass.




The essay on dependence highlights the idea of universal design in public situations for people with disabilities. It discusses dependency in the eyes of a writer named Michael Oliver who sees disability through dependency as a “kind of social problem”. Opposing views state that, for people with disabilities, the ability to flourish and to be seen as successful is to be self-sufficient, and that is the normal mindset for most of the population. It argues that we as society view dependence as weakness, even though dependence exists in all types of people. All people depend on food to survive, that is inevitable but we don’t see this as dependence. As a decent society, we never fail to take at least some responsibility to meet needs of those who do need assistance in everyday life.

I recently saw an article where a young boy created his own app for people who are in wheelchairs to help them more easily access buildings. It shows maps and areas that are wheelchair accessible to make people in wheelchairs less dependent on others for assistance. This small application greatly changes the need for dependency for people in wheelchairs and is a small easy first step to take to make our environment more universally accessible for all.