As a young teen, I dreamed of going away from home, far from home. It wasn’t so much that my parents were clueless and embarrassing, though that was true from a teenage perspective; but my mother and uncle, both army brats, regaled me for years with tantalizing stories about their youthful adventures in Japan, Germany, and Turkey. Our home often rang with the rolling –R‘s and lilting –L‘s of their old friends from abroad who were all too happy to have a free place to stay in the USA… even if it was just in rural Ohio.
Becoming an Exchange Student as a Blind Teen
With this background, it wasn’t surprising I jumped at the option of a gap year as an exchange student. Nor was it shocking that my parents said “ok.” That teen year in Switzerland paved the way for more than 30 years of international experiences in 30 countries. My adventures have included basking on a cruise, volunteering with a purpose, working for an international project, and simply taking in the atmosphere with friends. Being blind was only one aspect of my life abroad, but it’s an aspect I want to discuss as I encourage you to consider some options and sprinkle in a few helpful hints.
Taking the Long Road
Whether it’s a talk with an international neighbor, a one-week cruise, or a two-year-plus commitment volunteering, taking the long road will widen your perspective, possibly changing your life in amazing ways.
In this two-part series, I discuss two major ways to explore the world, venturing out, or letting it in. In Part One, written during the pandemic, I’m going to explore how you can find out more about the amazing cultures right at our doorstep, usually without spending one red cent.
Armchair Traveling in Many Forms
You’ve probably heard of “armchair travelers,” people who read or watch shows to find out what’s out there. Here are some suggestions:
• For people who are blind or visually impaired, the National Library Services for the Blind and Printed Disabled (NLS) has an amazing collection of fiction and non-fiction books embracing nearly every era, continent and perspective you can imagine. If you’re a BARD user (a free library service of downloadable braille and audio reading material) you can easily do a keyword search for topical interests or specific travel writers. If you prefer, you can always call an NLS librarian in your state (US), or a local librarian in your community, to get some great recommendations.
• If you enjoy discussing literature with others, you may check with your local library or use online resources to track down book groups devoted to international writings.
• If you enjoy documentaries, any number of media including Netflix and public television have rich archives of travel TV. Much of this content contains audio description (AD) (narration service that helps people with visual impairments enjoy movies, TV, etc.). Even when AD isn’t available, many documentaries boast a wealth of their own descriptive narrative, making such shows easier to follow than, say, “Hawaii Five-O.”
• Let’s say your ears have had their fill and you still want more travel experiences, you may be surprised to find out what your city or county has to offer. Many towns and cities have sister city programs. These linkages foster dialogue between where you live and somewhere in another country. For example, towns and cities are often matched according to geography, industry, arts scene, or some commonality (for example the sister cities of Bland Shire Australia; Boring, Oregon; and Dull, Scotland). In non-pandemic times, it’s common to have visitors or programs between the areas, promoting friendly dialogue and exchange. A quick call to your local city hall or a look on Wikipedia for your community usually yields information on what programs are available. This information can open the avenue to visits, learning and other forms of exchange where you can participate.
• Joining groups devoted to international issues and travel lets you operate in tandem with others. Groups supportive of the blindness community such as Lions, Kiwanis and Rotary host international projects including international youth exchanges, visitors from organizations abroad and sponsorships. Why not give your local group a call to see what’s up and how you can be involved?
• If you are part of a faith community, many faith-based organizations have mission projects, sponsor refugee families, and offer different direct-input ways to help others while also learning about their cultures. Don’t ever think of blindness as a barrier in such efforts. The very fact that you speak English gives you a great tool to share with people. Your willingness to speak English combined with any special interests, skills and talents you have (like music, crafts, or cooking), or your simply taking time to talk with recent immigrants has the power to help improve the life of someone who is new to the country.
• Perhaps you live near a college or university community. Most of these have international student offices that foster learners from other countries. Students are often grateful for a visit with a family and home-made meal over the holidays. They also appreciate in-person or phone tutorials as they struggle with editing their writing, figuring out exactly how to get a cell phone contract, or ordering a pizza. Volunteering to help in such a program can give you freedom to learn newcomers’ perspectives about where you live, as well as providing the satisfaction of being able to help someone who is probably as full of questions and special needs as you’ve sometimes felt yourself.
• Life may also offer you many more ways of befriending people and learning about the world than you think. Chances are if you enjoy international food, you’ve spoken with serving staff who struggle with English. Almost certainly, if you travel by Uber, Lyft or other taxi services, you’ve met drivers whose first language was not English. Most new Americans are eager to improve their life and talk with people. Even a friendly two-minute explanation of the difference between “truck” and “track” offers immigrants insights, patience, and kindness and they usually want to share their world or help you in return.
Stay Tuned for Part Two
In Part Two, I’ll share some resources and thoughts on going abroad and different ways to do so. Meanwhile, feel free to contact me at [email protected] if you have additional questions on bringing our amazing world into your house and heart.