July 13, 2011
NCDE staff sat down with Ming Canaday, University of Oregon student, wheelchair user, disability rights campaigner, and, most recently, Boren Award recipient, to find out more about her passion for international disability rights, how she got where she is now, and what she hopes to accomplish for people with disabilities in China.
NCDE: Where do you think your love of travel developed?
Ming: I grew up in a small orphanage [in China before being adopted by a U.S. family], and I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere. Because I was disabled, they were especially cautious with me. I remember at the orphanage there was a green gate, and I always wanted to go through that gate and explore.
NCDE: After you came to the US and enrolled in school, what was your first experience going abroad?
Ming: My first experience was during this past summer to Shanghai, China, through the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE, www.ciee.org). Before that point, I was struggling because everyone in the Chinese Language Flagship program (www.thelanguageflagship.org/) had the option to go to Chengdu, China, but the college there rejected me because they didn’t accept people with disabilities. They didn’t feel like their facilities would be suitable for me. I remember that when I found out, I told my school, “Ok, we can do something else.” But I was actually really upset, and wanted to say, “How dare them!”
NCDE: What was it like for you studying abroad in China as a person with a mobility disability?
Ming: When someone from the Language Flagship program told CIEE about my situation, CIEE said they’d be happy to accommodate me and encouraged me to apply to their program. That was only a couple of months before I would be arriving, and in that amount of time, they found a single room for me to stay, put in a ramp, and built a totally new bathroom with a shower chair and a lowered showerhead. They also changed the location of the classroom from the sixth floor of one building to my dormitory building.
In addition, CIEE provided two Chinese student assistants whenever I needed help with grocery shopping or heavy lifting. In industrialized cities like Shanghai there are some curb cuts, but in rural areas they didn’t have any, so it was really nice to have the two students available when I needed it. CIEE wanted me to have an opportunity that any other student in their program would have. I did not get the realistic, everyday Chinese disabled individual’s experience though; compared to that, I felt pampered.
NCDE: Did you ever travel around independently? What did you see as the biggest challenge for you??
Ming: Yes, definitely. Every day after my class I would meander through different alleyways in my wheelchair to see life around Shanghai. The taxis are kind of expensive, and the metro had all of the elevators locked unless I called about it. Sometimes I’d start to go somewhere, get halfway and think “Now what?” when I found no curb cuts. I wanted to know about the obstacles that local disabled people go through in China, and use that information in my career to help Chinese disabled people lead more productive lives.
NCDE: You’re going to China again this summer. What will you do there?
Ming: I’m interning at the Guangzhou English Training College for the Handicapped (GETCH). I’m going to be a teaching assistant, translate English-Chinese documents, manage their online blog, and be one of the leaders at their annual summer camp. I won’t have two assistants, and I won’t have people remodeling bathrooms for me. It will be very different, and I look forward to the challenges.
NCDE: You were recently awarded a Boren award for international study (www.borenawards.org). Congratulations! Do you have any advice for anyone who might be starting their Boren application?
Ming: Apply early because it is very involved. It’s not something you can do the night before it’s due. When you write, be sincere about your goals and what you want to do. They want people who have a goal to contribute to the world. I had several people read my essay before I submitted it. For the three recommendation letters, find people that know you well, and who know your strengths.
NCDE: Can you give us more details about what you’re going to do with the Boren award?
Ming: I’m going to China mid-January 2012, for a semester at Nanjing University, which is one of the top five colleges in China. I’m taking some classes in my majors: International Studies and Chinese. I’m very excited because all of the classes will be in Chinese. Then I’m doing a four-month internship as part of the Language Flagship requirements. I’ve read many articles about good laws for disabled people, but there are often problems with implementing them. I hope my internship will relate to that.
NCDE: How are you going to approach accessibility issues when you go to China again?
Ming: Having a good attitude and a smile can take me far, but I won’t cave if someone tells me something is impossible. If I keep persisting, that person will remember me and finally say “Okay, there’s a way to do this actually.”