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Disabilities and Inclusion

U.S. Fulbright

Celebrating the ADA’s 30th Anniversary: Q&A with Alumni Ambassador Alyssa Meyer

February 20, 2020

Thirty years ago, the United States became the first country in the world to adopt national civil rights legislation banning discrimination against disabled people. Since that time, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has had a profound impact both at home and abroad.

Last month, we launched our yearlong celebration of the ADA’s 30th anniversary, which will include profiles of Fulbright alumni with disabilities. This dynamic group of Fulbrighters will tell stories from their experiences abroad, offer advice to future applicants, and discuss Fulbright’s impact on their careers.

Today’s story comes from Fulbright alumna Alyssa Meyer, a 2012-2013 U.S. Student Researcher in Energy to the Kyrgyz Republic. Meyer spoke with Fulbright on her path to the program, her research, and navigating home and abroad with a disability.

Q&A with Alyssa Meyer

1. Tell us a little about your path to Fulbright. Who or what inspired you to apply?

The prospect of an opportunity like Fulbright had been on my mind for several years before I applied–largely because I wanted to seek out opportunities to use my language skills in native settings. My first exposure to Fulbright was through Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants, who had come to the States to teach their native languages (Uzbek and Russian) at Michigan State University. My second encounter with Fulbright came the summer after my sophomore year, when I visited Berlin on my way home from a study abroad program in Turkey; there, while watching a soccer match, I met a Fulbrighter who had lost track of whether the announcer was speaking English or German. All I could think was, “Wow, I wish my language proficiency was that strong!”

The next summer, my resident adviser for a study abroad program in Tajikistan was yet another a Fulbrighter, and I was in awe of her ability to communicate in and navigate her host country. Given that I grew up in rural Northern Michigan, I can’t claim to have grown up with examples such as these, but I knew that I wanted to emulate them.

2. Tell us a little about your Fulbright research topic and project. What did a typical day as a Fulbrighter look like for you?

As a research grantee in energy to the Kyrgyz Republic, my project was focused on energy insecurity, and whether small-scale renewables could help bridge gaps in access to heat, electricity, and gas provision. My initial intent was to conduct a benefit-cost analysis in partnership with locals interested in community-level solutions to the country’s energy crisis.

I don’t think I had a typical day; I lived by a mantra to take in everything I could and talk to everyone I could–because I didn’t know whether ever get the same chances a second time. I spent five hours a week with a Russian tutor and interviewed researchers, policymakers, international organizations, and academics doing similar work. I also shared a two-bedroom apartment with a native Russian speaker from Turkmenistan, who remains one of my closest friends and travel partners to this day.

3. What advice would you give to current Fulbrighters in the field about how to get the most out of their Fulbright experience?

Be open to letting your work and your expectations of what you think you’ll accomplish evolve. For me, this happened in the most unexpected of ways: I became quite ill in the middle of my grant, and during a hospital stay, I began to see my own research from a new perspective. I don’t relay this story to wish that experience on anyone, but rather, to say that living in the very conditions I was researching taught me far more than working within a library ever could have.

Even before I got sick, I was vividly aware that my aforementioned benefit-cost analysis was far more complex than I had initially foreseen it to be. It wasn’t overly difficult for me to gain a picture of how many houses lost power in a given outage, but data as to how those outages impacted quality of life was much more complex to come by. And while I was by no means unaware of this, I was unwittingly smacked in the face with it when I experienced a power outage during a hospital visit. Even after I made a full recovery, I continued to be haunted by questions of what would have happened had I been on the operating table or on a ventilator during an outage. Eventually, this new question–the impacts of energy insecurity on quality of life–became not only the topic of my master’s thesis, but of a second grant application to return to the Kyrgyz Republic two years later.

Two years later, as a Boren fellow, the research became even more complex when I realized that what my household data was showing didn’t match the narrative being reported on the news and in political speeches. My point is: setting goals for what you’ll achieve during your Fulbright is an important piece of showing selection committees that you know what you’ll be doing when you land in your host country–but sometimes, it’s the detours you never anticipated that teach you the most.

4. What advice would you give future Fulbrighters on the application process?

Show a desire to engage with your local community. Fulbright isn’t looking for academics who never leave the ivory tower, they’re seeking applicants truly intent on promoting mutual understanding between their home and host countries. That means a willingness to engage with and challenge local stereotypes about you/your home country whenever possible, and to share those experiences when you return home.

5. What might an American/someone from your home country be surprised to hear about your host country/institution/state/etc.?

People often remark that I’ve become much more assertive after several years in the Kyrgyz Republic, but what they don’t understand is why that happened. Want to get off a bus in the Kyrgyz Republic? You’ll need to physically ask the driver to stop. Want to buy nearly anything? You’ll need to ask a seller to retrieve it for you from behind a counter or the inside of a glass case. Want to order or pay a bill in a restaurant? You’ll need to call to your waiter across a crowded restaurant. Want to receive standard medical care? You’ll need to go to a pharmacy and ask for the medicines and supplies you’ll need to purchase/bring with you, and if you can’t find something, you’ll also need to call the doctor to ask about acceptable substitutes.

My oddest “things I would have previously been terrified to do in my native language” story? Calling my veterinarian on her cell phone in the middle of the night to explain that my cat (also a Fulbright alumnus) had been vomiting and had pooped out a needle I wasn’t aware he’d swallowed. (He’s thankfully fine.)

6. What is your biggest takeaway from your Fulbright?

Few things make a person more self-aware than moving abroad alone. And for me, one of the things I’ve become most aware of by moving abroad is how often I’ve taken the Americans with Disabilities Act for granted in the United States. I have mild cerebral palsy, and–after five corrective surgeries–other than a small limp, it doesn’t drastically impact my quality of life…in the United States. I make this qualification because, while I do have worse-than-average balance going down stairs, I don’t often have to think about it in the U.S.–because of ADA requirements for railings on staircases.

Moving to Central Asia alone meant that I very quickly came to terms with the fact that I might fall going down stairs or a sidewalk in the winter (because ice isn’t cleared as readily as it is in the States). Indeed, my own struggles with uneven paths and railing-less staircases in Central Asia has shown me that I was to everything–from ATMs to pharmacies–being accessible via stairs. The years I spent in Central Asia have also shown me that people with disabilities are largely not visible within society–not because they are unable to participate, but rather, because life is just not structured in a means that is accessible for many of them.

This is a realization I do not take lightly. My life is not without its challenges and instances of outright ableism–including those who still challenge my ability to move abroad independently despite a track record of more than four years of working and researching independently in Central Asia. Nevertheless, had I not been born in the United States, it is not lost on me that I may not have been afforded the very opportunities for self-enrichment that have made me the public servant I am today.

U.S. Fulbright

Being There: A Conversation on Collaboration in Barbados

May 11, 2016

Katherine Cloutier is a 2012-2013 Fulbright-mtvU alumna, currently finishing her PhD in ecological-community psychology. Her Fulbright-mtvU grant was a participatory research project that was done in collaboration with a sexual health education program and secondary school students.

Matt Saleh is a 2015-2016 Fulbright U.S. Student in Barbados whose research focuses on collaboration and service coordination among community service providers, government agencies, and secondary schools in school-to-work transition for youth with disabilities.

After learning of the overlap between our two Fulbright projects and experiences in Barbados, we decided to sit down and try to put some of the commonalities into words for the benefit of future Fulbright Students. On the shores of Accra Beach over refreshments at the Tiki Bar, we quickly got to work. 

Katherine Cloutier

Katherine with Lisa Thompson from PEPFAR (left); Katherine Cloutier, 2012-2013, Barbados, with previous U.S. Ambassador Larry Palmer; and dance4life partners Maisha Hutton, Leila Raphael, and Shakira Emtage-Cave (middle to right) at the 2012 World AIDS Day Event where the participatory action research project was presented by the secondary school students.

Katherine Cloutier: I came to Barbados through a series of planned accidents, I suppose. I remember walking into the office of the Fulbright Program Adviser at Michigan State University, my alma mater, and telling him, “I’m going to get that scholarship; it’s just a matter of when.” The next thing I knew, I was walking off a plane in Barbados on a humid September day in 2012, about to begin my year as a Fulbright-mtvU grantee. Two individuals from my host community partner, dance4life (a sexual health education and youth empowerment program), were waiting for me at the airport. I had never been to the Caribbean before, let alone this particular rock, but I felt so welcomed by these two. Here I am, years later, and I am back in Barbados, my second home.

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Foreign Fulbright U.S. Fulbright

Fulbright: An Inspirational and Inclusive Community

June 9, 2015
Disability Seminar - 1

Fulbright Disability Seminar attendees at an offsite session at the Bay Area Recreation and Outreach Program

Are you a U.S. citizen with a disability interested in applying for a Fulbright grant? Attend the webinar for applicants with disabilities on Friday, June 12, 3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. ET. To learn more, click here.

“The disability community is the one minority group that you can join.” In her key note address, Paralympics medalist and humanitarian aid worker, Tiana Tozer, shared her story of becoming disabled at the age of twenty when a drunk driver hit her car in oncoming traffic. Through her story, Tozer touched upon common assumptions, attitudes and stigmas that reinforce the exclusion of those with disabilities. She called on Fulbrighters to “educate change” through leadership and service and set the tone for an eye opening, interactive seminar.

From April 29 to May 3, over sixty Fulbrighters from forty different countries attended the Fulbright Enrichment Seminar on U.S Disability Rights in Berkeley, California. This seminar is one of several enrichment seminars that the U.S. Department of State sponsors for Fulbright Foreign Students in the United States.

Throughout the seminar, participants heard from key figures in the disability rights movement as well as those working towards broader community inclusion through policy, advocacy, and design. Several sessions stood out as exceptionally inspiring.

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U.S. Fulbright

Spectrums of Development: Developmental Disabilities and Mutual Understanding in China

July 3, 2013
Rachel Reetzke

Rachel Reetzke, 2011-2012, China, works with a father and son at the YangAi Parent Club for families of children with developmental disabilities

The impetus for me to begin my Fulbright U.S. Student Program application came during the summer of 2010, as a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholar. That summer, I tested my intermediate Mandarin skills by independently organizing a month-long service project at Beijing Stars and Rain Autism Education and Research Center. Through volunteer work at Stars and Rain, I was exposed to a new method of parent training, which provided insight into the diagnosis, and treatment intervention methods for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in China. Ultimately, the experience revealed to me a dire need for evidence-based practice (EBP) research in the field. I aimed to return to China as a Fulbright student to further explore and develop my place within the networks of doctors, teachers, students, and clinicians serving individuals with ASD in China.

As a Fulbrighter, I became part of an interdisciplinary research team and contributed to the validation of the Chinese Autism Diagnostic Scale (CADS). Currently, there is no autism diagnostic scale based on Chinese linguistic and cultural differences. Therefore, once published, CADS will be a vital tool for current and future diagnosis of ASD in China.

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U.S. Fulbright

Good Karma: Volunteering While on a Fulbright Grant in Nepal, By Franz Knupfer, 2008-2009, Nepal

March 21, 2012

When I visited the Naxal School for the Deaf on my first day in Kathmandu, the students crowded around me asking questions. “What’s your name?” they asked. “Where are you from? Are you Deaf?” I touched my index finger to my ear and then my mouth, the sign for Deaf in both Nepali and American Sign Language. I was Deaf, too, and I knew immediately that I had found a community that was willing to accept me as one of its own. In fact, I was beginning to realize that I am part of a much larger community of more than one billion people with disabilities worldwide.

The focus of my Fulbright research in Nepal was creative—I was there to work on a collection of short stories. Just as importantly, though, I knew that I wanted volunteering to be a big part of my project. In my Fulbright application, I had mentioned that I planned to teach at the Naxal School in order to find inspiration and material for my stories.

Of course, that was only part of the reason I wanted to volunteer. As a former AmeriCorps volunteer who spent two years working on environmental projects in Portland, Oregon, I knew that volunteering would help empower both the community I was working with and myself. Also, it felt good to volunteer. Volunteering gave my Fulbright experience a deeper, more fulfilling meaning that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It gave me the opportunity to make new friends and to give back to the community that was so generously hosting me for ten months.

I volunteered to teach art and American Sign Language at the Naxal School. Soon, I discovered that my students were used to learning drawing through copying and rote memorization, just like their hearing peers in most of Asia. My goal was to teach my students to think creatively, so I taught them art techniques like shading, perspective and drawing three-dimensional objects. Eventually, I showed them how to combine all of these techniques to make a landscape, and I was rewarded one afternoon when I came into the classroom and discovered that my students had drawn a landscape on the board for me.

After school, I taught students American Sign Language and learned more Nepali Sign Language in return. During lunch breaks, I sometimes played soccer and cricket with the students. Through my experiences, I made many close friends and I also got to know a Deaf Sherpa who eventually became my guide for a month spent in the Everest region of the Himalaya. Near the end of my time in Nepal, I helped arrange an overnight camping trip around the Kathmandu Valley with ten of the older students.

While volunteering is not a requirement for a Fulbright grant, I highly recommend it. Citizen diplomacy is an important part of the Fulbright experience, and in my mind, volunteering is citizen diplomacy at its best. Fulbright grantees, with or without disabilities, may find it particularly rewarding to volunteer within the disabled community of their host country. There are many opportunities to work with people who have disabilities, especially in developing countries. Disability-related organizations and people with disabilities are helping to lead a new worldwide human rights revolution that is working towards full inclusion and participation in all aspects of society for people who have disabilities. Volunteering has the potential to leave a high impact and allows Fulbright grantees to see disability in a new context.

In Nepal, being disabled has traditionally been considered a karmic curse and people with disabilities often weren’t allowed to marry. That is gradually changing, as more people with disabilities are being included in society and are working, marrying and speaking out for their rights. While I was in Nepal, I felt anything but cursed—instead, I felt blessed to be there on a Fulbright, and by volunteering, I wanted to spread some of that good karma around.

Photo: Franz Knupfer teaches students at the Naxal School for the Deaf in Kathmandu how to draw a three-dimensional landscape.

Franz Knupfer now works as the Project Coordinator of the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, a project administered by Mobility International USA and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Specific resources for people with disabilities interested in applying for a Fulbright grant can be found at: http://www.miusa.org/ncde/fulbright/.

U.S. Fulbright

The Diplomacy of Mutual Inspiration: Combining Service and Creativity in a Fulbright Grant, By Franz Knupfer, 2008-2009, Nepal

September 14, 2010

As the Fourmile Fire rages in the canyons west of Boulder and smoke covers the city, the autumnal light has taken on a hazy, golden quality, like the lighting in a painting by one of the Old Masters. I’m reminded of autumn afternoons in Kathmandu, where the lighting was almost exactly like this. I’m reminded, too, of how much I miss Kathmandu and my friends there, and how much my experience as a Fulbright grantee in Nepal changed me. As I write this, it’s been almost two years to the day since I left the States for a Fulbright grant in Creative Writing in Nepal. Though I’ve been home almost a full year, I still remember the route I took from my apartment in the neighborhood of Hadigaun to the deaf school where I volunteered in Naxal. When I close my eyes, I can still walk through the rooms of the school and see my students in their classrooms.

In my Fulbright proposal, I wrote about how I planned to volunteer with the deaf community and write a collection of short stories. Though I wanted to learn and write about Nepal’s deaf community, I hadn’t realized how much I’d learn on a deeper level, on the level of the body; the body’s knowledge, in many ways, is far more ineffable and profound than the mind’s. It’s what we mean when we say, “you had to be there.” It’s exactly the kind of experience that writers and artists need for their work, but it’s also the kind of experience that can be of tremendous benefit to anyone.

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