Makenna Sewell is a CEA alum from Chapman University who studied abroad in Seville, Spain during the Spring 2017 semester. She returned to Spain a year later to visit her host family. We caught up with her about her experience as a student in a power wheelchair, and the decision to study abroad. Here are her tips and thoughts about accessibility abroad.
What concerns did you have before you studied abroad?
In the United States, we are so spoiled by a government that enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act. This act ensures that any building or public space must be fully wheelchair accessible for people living with physical disabilities. Requirements range from curb cuts outside buildings to accessible restrooms and elevators that meet specific dimensions, etc. A majority of my concerns before leaving to study abroad were centered around the likelihood of inaccessibility and how I planned to overcome these obstacles in a foreign country on my own. Additionally, I have someone who helps me on a daily basis with tasks ranging from helping me get dressed to assistance with laundry, etc. Besides fear of inaccessibility, finding that assistance abroad and being without that person was my biggest fear. However, CEA did an excellent job of helping me find a host mother who could help me with everything I needed.
At what point did you let CEA know you may need an accommodation? What was the plan?
If I’m being honest, my heart wasn’t initially set on studying in Seville with CEA. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to study in a Spanish speaking country and had my mind made up on a few other cities. Fortunately, I had an incredible study abroad counselor at Chapman University who did a lot of communicating between various universities for me about their accessibility on campus and the surrounding areas. We discovered that many of the universities I was considering were not only not wheelchair accessible, but they were unwilling or unable to make accommodations for me to attend. In the midst of feeling discouraged, we received an email from CEA that seemed too good to be true. Their building was wheelchair accessible and so was the surrounding area of both campuses. In addition, they could guarantee me a host family with a host mother who was willing and able to help me with any physical needs I had. I was sold, and so was my family. I chose CEA because of how willing they were to go above and beyond to make my semester abroad as comfortable and obstacle-free as possible. CEA held my hand throughout the entire process, and I couldn’t have asked for a better team of people or overall abroad experience. If you are open and upfront about your needs immediately, CEA will do their best to meet them.
What was it like being in a host family?
My experience living with a host family was absolutely incredible. Initially I chose living with a host family over an apartment solely for the immersion and language exposure; however, little did I know I would gain so much more than that. I was fortunate enough to be paired with an incredible roommate and two local students. The bonds and relationships you will form with your host family if you simply immerse yourself in their lifestyle and customs will last a lifetime. Spend time with your host family like you would your own, and you will be blown away by the relationships you will form with them. I love my host parents as if they’re my own and already told myself returning to Seville every summer to see them is a must. You also have the constant language exposure. As a Spanish minor, this exposure was important to me. I left Spain nearly fluent in Spanish, and I owe a lot of that to living in a household where my host parents didn’t speak any English. It immediately forced me out of my comfort zone, and I was shocked by the amount of Spanish I learned in the first week.
What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenges I faced abroad were finding a group of people who understood my limitations and were willing to join me on my journey of making all of my wildest travel ideas come true. If you’re going abroad solo without friends, like I did, be open and forthcoming about your limitations when you’re traveling with your new friends. Sometimes it just takes a few extra minutes to find the perfect AirBnb without stairs or spending a little extra on the accessible train. Studying abroad with a physical disability can be challenging, so remind yourself that every obstacle you encounter is only a part of the journey. (Below you will find some of my biggest tips for traveling abroad that will better answer this question).
Why was studying abroad important to you? Looking back after a year, how did it help you as a person and with your career goals?
Studying abroad was important to me to get a different perspective on the world and to explore outside my comfort zone. As a future health administrator, it was eye-opening to see how people live in another culture and ways I might be able to help different populations in the future. It has been a year since I returned from abroad, and I am constantly blown away by the day-to-day skills I use which I learned abroad. This experience taught me just how capable and strong I am. I was tested in unimaginable ways I couldn’t have prepared for, and the lessons learned made every obstacle worth it.
Tips for overcoming obstacles:
- Don’t sweat the small stuff and ask for help! Strangers are so willing to help you into a restaurant, onto a train that was supposed to be accessible but isn’t, or up a flight of stairs because it’s two in the morning and your hostel, which claimed to be accessible, isn’t.
- All museums, castles, Starbucks, etc., have a wheelchair accessible bathroom, so if you find yourself in a pickle, unable to find an accessible restroom, find the nearest landmark or overpriced coffee chain and you’re good to go.
- Speaking of museums, castles, hop on/off bus tours, etc., you get in FREE along with one of your companions. This was a pleasant surprise to discover while traveling abroad. More times than not you and someone you’re traveling with will get to enter places for free. This will save you hundreds of dollars abroad.
- Mentally prepare yourself for not being able to do everything. For example, unless you’re able to climb 1,710 stairs, you won’t be able to reach the top of the Eiffel Tower. However, you will be able to catch an elevator (and skip the long lines) to the second tier of the tower and the view is more than worth it. When you find yourself in situations like this, simply remind yourself how lucky you are to be abroad and don’t let it bring you down.
- People are going to look at you funny in your wheelchair because they’re not used to seeing someone like you living your best life and so independent. Smile at them and be kind. Show them that people with physical disabilities are capable and prove their instincts wrong.
- When you’re booking hotels, Airbnb’s or hostels, pay attention to the littlest of details such as the number of stairs, width of the elevator or bathroom door, walking distance to main attractions, etc. ADA laws abroad are virtually nonexistent in some places, so spending the extra time seeking out these small details will save you the hassle later on.
- Take every online forum about accessibility in a city with a grain of salt. For example, it was my dream to go to the Amalfi Coast; however, every online forum I read about Italy and the Amalfi Coast said both were impossible for people in wheelchairs. Evaluate your abilities and make a decision whether or not you’re up for the challenge. I made it to both and had the time of my life. I can’t imagine if I had let those forums get the best of me and had missed out on the views and the culture of these places. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
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