Understanding and Supporting Self-Advocacy While Abroad

Raise your hand if you think that self-advocacy is a simple, one-dimensional thing. Raise your hand again if you think that self-advocacy is something that people with disabilities can do without support from those around them. Based on my own life experience with self-advocacy both at home and abroad I can emphatically report that self-advocacy is not a simple, one-dimensional thing. There are so many layers to it and directions you could go in unveiling and discussing those layers. I can also wholeheartedly report that self-advocacy impacts more than just me and therefore having a team of people around me who is a aware of the complexities of self-advocacy is important. So, let’s unpack the layers of self-advocacy specifically related to international travel.

Balancing Speaking Up and Respecting Cultural Differences

Balancing communicating when you are ok with being independent and when you need help is an everyday kind of skill for many people with disabilities. Navigating a new culture adds another layer to that balance.

Some situations call for going with the flow and accepting different cultural norms. Other times, you need to speak up and insist something is or isn’t done a certain way especially if it involves health and safety. Sometimes there is an opportunity to share your thoughts on the situation (ie. that you can do the activity independently or there’s a different way you’d like someone to help you) but sometimes advocacy doesn’t achieve the immediate results you were looking for.

The beauty of international travel is not only the traveler’s exposure to new cultures and ideas but the exposure people in the host culture get to the ideas that the traveler brings with them. Respectful exchange of ideas and experiences is paramount to advancing disability inclusion on a global level.

Accommodating Usual Needs

Accommodating your usual needs may or may not be met in the way they are at home. This might sound like a simple concept but it has potentially complex ramifications in terms of self-advocacy. Different situations call for different responses. That fact in and of itself is an important point to let sink in. There are no hard and fast rules about self-advocacy, but being aware of the complexities can help.

Researching a destination and specifically learning about how accessibility and accommodations work for people with your particular disability beforehand will make for a smoother transition. Working through the most high priority accommodations before arrival is important. Having a general idea of some of the unique challenges you may encounter in the new environment will allow time to prepare with new ideas and potentially new kinds of equipment.

Researching in advance can also give time to emotionally adjust to some of the realities that accommodation changes can potentially bring up. As worth it as it is to get out of your comfort zone, difficult emotions can and will come up in the process. This is normal but it sometimes hurts. Being honest about that and giving time and space to adjust to those realities and emotions helps.

Advocating for New Needs As They Arise

New needs may arise as a result of factors in the new environment and accommodating those new needs requires creativity and open-mindedness. Whenever possible, communication about how the new environment is set up or how an international program is organized can help potential participants anticipate some these new needs and plan ahead to some extent.

Factors in the new environment are going to dictate some of your needs. For example, at home I can get around my town because I have I can drive and I can use a public bus when needed because I know it will be wheelchair accessible. When I am going shopping or running any other errands I rely on curb cuts, ramps, and elevators. If those things aren’t there then my ability to access my world is limited and I need someone’s assistance. These are the things you may experience in a new country that may call for different accommodations than what you do or use at home.

Self-advocacy isn’t just about advocating for the accommodations you have at home. It’s also about advocating for the new/different accommodations you need based on factors in the new environment. The process of accepting those differences takes time and it’s good to talk about it. Nothing truly happens in isolation. Anytime a traveler is experiencing issues with cultural adjustment it isn’t going to potentially affect others around them. Cultural adjustment is a natural thing that everyone goes through in some way. Communicating about cultural adjustment can help whether it’s letting emotions out or asking for some sort of advice/assistance. Life often works better when we are working together and that happens through first communicating and then committing to doing what it takes to learn from and support one another.

Supporting Self-Advocacy

So how can others in the travel process support self-advocacy? Being aware of the complexities of self-advocacy is a huge first step. Once we are aware we can take action steps. Providing details about the location and program not only supports an inclusive marketing strategy but it also supports potential participants with disabilities to advocate for their needs. Building in solid communication opportunities to existing processes with travelers invites travelers with disabilities to share about their needs and experiences at various points of the experience. These conversations can lead to being able to work through issues that an individual experiences and learn and make improvements for the future.

Awareness is key to self-advocacy. Awareness means self-awareness, awareness of others, and cultural awareness. It’s complicated! Patience and communication are important parts of each layer of understanding, supporting, and working through self-advocacy.


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