Peace Corps recently sent out a newsletter to all volunteers explaining the importance of diversifying the volunteers and being inclusive of different ethnicities, races, sexual orientation, religions and ages. I would like to take an opportunity to share why people with disability should be part of Peace Corps. People with disability offer unique strengths that many volunteers without disability do not have and would be a huge advantage to Peace Corps.
Peace Corps has ten core expectations for being a volunteer. One of the core expectations is: “Serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under the conditions of hardship, if necessary, and with the flexibility needed for effective service.” People with disability have a lifetime experience of facing the challenges and being flexible. Because the society does not always accommodate the needs of people with disability, people with disability find ways to adapt and adjust to the environment that does not fit them. As a result, they are the most flexible people and are willing to adapt to different environments. For example, people using wheelchairs often have to take longer or alternative routes to be able to reach to destinations such as going inside a building as ramps are sometimes not in the same place where the stairs are located. Wheelchair users are also willing to switch to different wheelchairs that best fit the environment in which they are navigating. As blind people cannot drive, they are willing to spend more time commuting to places via public transportations. Many people with hearing loss need closed captioning when viewing movies. In the US, many movie theaters will offer closed captions during only certain times on certain days. Therefore, people with hearing loss are willing to revolve around the movie theaters’ limited time offerings to be able to see movies with closed captions. For deaf people who communicate primarily through sign language, they are willing to find alternative means of communication to communicate with people who do not communicate in sign language. For example, they would use mobile devices such as iPads so that waiters and cashiers can communicate with them.
Most Peace Corps Volunteers face communication barriers as they learn a new language and communicate in a second language. People with hearing loss are more experienced than people who hear normally in handling the challenges of communications. Even though I have hearing loss, communication has been the least stressful part of my experience in Peace Corps because the challenges have already been part of my daily experiences. I already know the strategies for asking people to repeat or clarify if I didn’t understand what they said. I just say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand what you said in the last sentence. Can you please repeat the last sentence you just said?” I’ve dealt with moments where people snickered at me for saying something completely off topic because I misunderstood what people said. Instead of feeling embarrassed, I say, “Oh, I’m sorry! I thought you said this…” When people with hearing loss sit with a large group of people speaking in a second language, they likely don’t get too frustrated because they have faced many situations where they go to a noisy place such as a bar with a group of people and not understand what’s being said. One solution I use is to try to focus on speaking to just one person or two people in the group.
Many people with disability know how to be very patient, a very important trait to possess during service as volunteers often have to await to see the results of their projects or wait for meetings to start or buses to depart when they don’t run on schedule. When I work on my projects in Cameroon, I am often reminded that my listening and spoken language skills were not mastered overnight and it took years of hard work to reach to where I am today. This case is the same for people who have learning disability such as dyslexia who may take longer to learn to read or actually to finish reading a book. Many blind people who prefer to read in braille often have to wait longer to read newly released books as braille versions often come out later.
People with disability are great problem solvers and creative thinkers. They are determined and resilient because they face so many failures and mistakes due to their inability to do certain things and being told what they cannot do. As a result, they know how to learn from mistakes, find solutions and keep on trying. They are willing to go an extra mile to reach goals. For example, in college, I did a drawing assignment completely incorrectly because I misheard the instructions that was spoken by a professor in a class. Instead of being willing to take a failing grade, I spoke to the professor and asked for a clarification. I redid the assignment within 24 hours. In the end, the professor liked the new drawing so much that she hung it up on a wall outside of the classroom. After facing the incident, I always went to the professors after classes if they gave the instructions verbally to verify that I heard the correct information. In fact, there was an international student in my drawing class who was still in process of learning English and misheard the instructions and did the drawing incorrectly too.
At last, people with disability can help accomplish one of the goals in the Peace Corps Act which is to “give particular attention to programs, projects, and activities which tend to integrate disabled people into the national economies of developing countries.” Volunteers with disability obviously have first hand experience in living with disability and therefore, they have a better understanding of how to truly help people with disability. When people with disability in developing countries are able to form unique connections with volunteers with disability, they are able to share things that volunteers with disability would be able to relate to and sympathize well and learn so much from them about how to improve their quality of life. Also, volunteers with disability can help the locals change their perspective of people with disability by showing them how hardworking they are and helping them fully realize that people with disability can truly be productive members of the society.
I would encourage more people with disability to apply to join in the Peace Corps and also encourage Peace Corps to reach out to more people with disability and recruit them. I strongly believe that volunteers with disability do not face greater frustrations or challenges than volunteers without disability. Instead, they offer a lifetime unique experience that many people without disability do not have that allow them to perform their toughest jobs very effectively.