Reflections on Disabilities Abroad
By Mike Hoenig, University of Iowa Health Care Center for Disabilities and Development
"What am I doing here?"
That question plagued me on that hot September day in 1982 when I first set foot in the house where I would be living with other participants on a Central College study abroad program in Mérida, Mexico. Blind from birth, I was accustomed to quickly taking in and adapting to new environments. But the open spaces, high ceilings, and large rooms so typical of Mérida's colonial architecture made this place feel like anything BUT home.
Sitting on the porch that first evening, I felt very much the outsider. Though my command of the Spanish language was better than that of most of my housemates, my ability to make eye contact was not. Young people from the neighborhood dropping by to check out the new crop of Norteamericanos fell into animated conversations with my housemates, leaving me to bond with Molly, our house dog.
The feeling of isolation which I experienced on that first day in Mérida was gradually replaced by a sense of acceptance and belonging. Fellow students viewed my Spanish-speaking ability as an asset, asking me to accompany them on dates to serve as their interpreter. Though I eventually tired of providing this free service, it was a great way to practice my Spanish and, as it turned out, to make new friends. Jorge, a Mérida native who had spent spring term of the previous year at Central, introduced me to his friends and to Mexico's finest beers. Two weeks into the experience, as I enjoyed the quince de septiembre festivities with housemates and new Yucatecan friends, I realized that it was time to stop worrying about fitting in and start enjoying my time in Mérida.
With the many planned activities and diversions we cooked up on our own, enjoying oneself was easy. Spanish and psychology classes, field trips to ruins and pyramids, daily trips to the Mercado, and exchanges with the Benjamin Franklin Institute fueled the development of a Yucatecan cultural identity. Contact with students from "The Franklin," an English-language training school for Mérida youth, led to many dinner invitations and lasting friendships.
As fall trimester and my time in Mérida came to a close, I found myself feeling sad and empty. I did not want to leave. The difficult adjustment to life back home was made easier by weekly correspondence with my new Yucatecan friends and by daily contact with fellow program participants. Though correspondence eventually slowed with many friends, it increased with Dinorah, a young lady who captured my heart and prompted visits to Mérida in 1983 and 1984.
Yucatán remains an important part of my life. After a 15-year hiatus, I renewed my Mérida connection thanks to Barb Smith, then a colleague at the University of Iowa. Barb encouraged me to join Iowa/Yucatán Partners, a state-to-state cultural exchange program. This led to a return visit to Mérida in 2003, where I learned about conditions for citizens with disabilities. During this visit, I met Amilcar Sosa, a young deaf educator interested in observing best practices for teaching deaf-blind children. In April, I will host Amilcar and Yucatán Partners President Emilio Gutierrez. Amilcar looks forward to visiting several programs which serve deaf-blind students and to meeting Iowa Partners.
To consider the impact of blindness on my Study Abroad experience, let's return to 1982 for a brief discussion of public perceptions. I experienced the full gambit from complete acceptance to pity. Many Yucatecan families welcomed me into their homes, treating me as just another new friend. In the Mercado, women stopped to bless me. One went so far as to invite me to her church where the minister breathed into my eyes and prayed fervently for healing. Bus drivers often refused to collect my bus fare. Jorge, a blind teacher and all-around good friend, led Bible studies for his sighted friends and was revered as a man of great wisdom. One day, he and his uncle took me to a village where they introduced me to a young blind man whose family cared for his every need, not even allowing him to comb his hair. What a sad and shocking visit that was!
My Study Abroad experience was greatly enriched by "people accommodations." No one was a bigger champion than program director George Ann Huck. Whether it was asking a fellow student to read the baseball scores to this homesick Cardinal fan or asking someone to accompany me downtown, she anticipated my needs and quietly assisted me in meeting them. Doña Beatríz, the house manager, offered many hours of counsel and drove me twice a week to my practicum site. The always-flexible Professor Schulze allowed me to type my exams in a separate room so as not to disturb other students. Though he sometimes asked a student to tape record the questions, he more frequently performed the task himself. Though I could single out each fellow student for a contribution which he or she made to my experience, I'll just take a moment to acknowledge Jim. He served as friend, confidant and sighted guide, making it possible for me to be extremely mobile in a very challenging environment.
The Yucatán Program experience played a significant role in my coming of age as a young adult. The self-assurance derived from my time in Mérida has served me well over the years in developing friendships, using my Spanish to assist others, and traveling independently. I applaud you for your interest in pursuing study abroad opportunities, and will be happy to respond if you have questions about my experience or concerns about your own participation on a program.