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Accessing Academia: Strategies for (Self)Advocacy and Study Abroad with a Disability

By Mark Bookman


As a wheelchair user, I always try to anticipate barriers to accessibility before traveling abroad. In practical terms, this means researching my destination ahead of time to discern if there are any stairs, closed-off spaces, or potential pitfalls (either literal or metaphorical). However, despite my best efforts, there are ultimately some barriers that I cannot predict. Perhaps the taxi from the airport is unable to accommodate my particular brand of wheelchair. Or maybe my hotel room is a bit farther than I would like from the nearest convenience store. Such barriers are normally inconvenient, but not insurmountable. I’ll find another way from the airport to my destination or make do without a convenience store for a couple of days. But I can only think of so many temporary fixes, and at the end of the day they are temporary. What if I’m in the situation where my stay is longer than a few days? What if I find myself visiting more places, doing more things, and having to anticipate more barriers than I would otherwise? This is one of the issues that sets apart studying abroad from other kinds of travel.


In this blog post, I draw on my personal and professional experiences working as a visiting researcher at four Japanese universities over the last ten years to call attention to some of the barriers that people with disabilities face when studying abroad. I’ll also explain how I overcame those barriers and offer a model for (self)advocacy and problem solving that may help other students in the future. My intention is to invite conversation about different kinds of strategies for navigating barriers to accessibility not only in the Japanese academy but in institutions of higher education across the world.


Now, without further ado, let me begin by describing my experience at Waseda University back in 2008. When I studied at Waseda, I was still able to walk, albeit with a limp. I stayed with a host family, and while I didn’t have much difficulty navigating their home, moving around outside was a different story. I spoke next to no Japanese and had a hard time making friends. Indeed, I definitely could not explain the nature of my disability to those who asked, and I became increasingly frustrated due to the language barrier. How I yearned to tell my peers why I couldn’t stay out in the heat for too long or how their offers to carry me upstairs made me feel uncomfortable. Instead, I simply succumbed to the pressure of the situation and let everyone around me do as they liked. It was an incredibly unhealthy lifestyle, and one that I now know to avoid. But how did I survive at that time? Certainly, I did my best to study Japanese. But learning a foreign language was a time-consuming process that I couldn’t rely upon for quick and easy answers. Eventually, I found another solution in prerecorded messages. After describing the situation to my English-speaking host-mother, she wrote up a series of flash cards that explained my condition to my peers. Usually, it only took them a minute or two to catch on to what I was saying, at which point they’d let me take the lead and decide where we’d go next. A bit of forethought about translating my disability was enough to enable my social participation.


My situation had changed by my second study abroad experience at Sophia University in 2012; I had started to use an electric wheelchair to get around town. Although I’d had an additional few years of Japanese training, I was still nowhere near the level needed to convey critical information about my disability. I was also in a completely different living situation. I’d moved into an all Japanese dorm with fifty guys who primarily spoke Japanese, and while I received general support from the study abroad office on campus, I didn’t have anyone to prepare flashcards for me on a daily basis or explain my situation to random people I met on the street. So, I had to find another way to advocate for myself. Self-advocacy became particularly important inside of the classroom, when I had to explain to my peers and teachers why I was unable to handwrite kanji and participate in group assignments. My solution here was to come prepared and devote extra time to all academic tasks. By building an extra fifteen minutes into my schedule before and after classes, I made sure that I had time to struggle through conversations about my needs with my instructors. Nothing was guaranteed, but I found that most of my teachers were willing to listen to me if I took the time to explain why they should.


My third study abroad experience at Toyo University in 2014 was remarkable in many respects. For the first time, I was in charge of taking care of all accommodations for myself, including living arrangements and academic affiliation. I learned exactly how difficult it can be to find a permanent address, investigating upwards of 250,000 apartments online (and 40 in person) before finding one that could work – but my problems didn’t end there. While my Japanese was finally good enough to convey information about my disability to those around me, I was still unable to access many of the spaces I needed to go. I was studying Buddhist philosophy, so visiting a number of temples and shrines was a must for completing my fieldwork. Alas, it was all but impossible for me to do so because many religious sites had stairs and other architectural barriers. Rather than abandon my research and resign myself to despair, I decided to embrace each barrier I encountered as a teaching moment. How could I reframe my struggles to help others create an inclusive society? By taking this question to heart, I simultaneously empowered myself and found a new way forward.


I am currently in the middle of my fourth study abroad trip to Japan at the University of Tokyo. My physical needs are quite different this time around then they were over the last few excursions: I rely on attendants for assistance, and spaces that used to be accessible for me are no longer usable. But I have learned several new survival strategies over the last few years that make my life easier. For one thing, I communicate frequently with my professors and peers at school. Constant contact allows me to share my frustrations with my friends, who help me brainstorm solutions to barriers. Indeed, my friends have become indispensable allies on my quest for creating an accessible world. Another trick that I’ve come to appreciate is relying on regional knowledge networks. My school does not know everything about living and working with a disability in Japan. How could they? Their jurisdiction applies to campus spaces only, which rarely extend beyond classrooms and dorms, let alone trains, shopping malls, restaurants, and other spaces that I visit each day. To find out information about non-academic spaces that still play a role in my academic life, I routinely turn to local organizations like independent living centers and disability advocacy groups for support. Paired with campus resources, the advice of those organizations is enough to sustain my success.


There are many more things I can say about my study abroad experiences in Japan. For now, I’ll condense what I’ve written above into five main takeaways: (1) translate information about your disability ahead of time; (2) devote extra time for identifying/explaining accommodations; (3) think about barriers as learning opportunities rather than roadblocks; (4) maintain constant contact with your peers to brainstorm solutions to challenges; and (5) look to local knowledge networks for answers about aspects of daily life that may not be covered by your university’s resource center.


What have you learned from your study abroad experience? Are there any strategies that you found particularly effective? If so, what are they, and why did they work? Let us know in the comments!


*Note: This post was adapted from a blog entry on AccessibleJapan.com (with permission).


Author Bio: Mark Bookman (he/him) is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. His research explores the historical contingencies that have allowed some impaired individuals to dictate how members of the public have understood constructions of disability in Japan over the last 150 years. Mark also works as a policy consultant for the Japanese government and United Nations on issues like inclusive education, accessible transit, and disaster response.


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