December 8, 2011
Earlier this year I had the great pleasure of traveling to Spain as a co-leader for MIUSA’s delegation of emerging leaders with disabilities. For 10 days we immersed ourselves in Spain’s disability rights movement, met prominent disability rights leaders, participated in disability law and policy workshops and visited world renowned accessible cities and sites, all the while soaking up the warm sun as we rolled and walked down the ancient, yet accessible, streets of Madrid. We ate delicious tapas, visited picturesque castles and swam in the warm waters at an accessible recreation center. This was certainly the Spain on the postcards: warm, vibrant and a country as passionate about disability and equal rights as they are about their beloved Don Quixote.
But the truth is: Spain and I have a long, complex history together.
When I was a college student, I studied abroad for 8 months in Sevilla, Spain. I imagined Spain would be like a nice warm vacation—with some studying thrown in, of course! Surprisingly, the most beloved vacation country in the world, where life is mediated by fiestas and siestas, was where I encountered more physical and emotional challenges than I had in all of my previous travels.
During that trip, I was faced with what seemed like historical fears surrounding disability. Regularly, I was told by elderly women that I was made deformed and was meant to suffer for my mother’s sins. I was sometimes referred to as ‘diabla’ or ‘devil’, and not in a teasing way. The general attitude, unspoken but apparent, was the most difficult. In general when I travel, people stare, though usually out of curiosity. Here, people stared unabashedly and with such distaste that I found myself cringing when I went out.
As my fellow disabled travelers may know, total equipment failure can happen anywhere, and unfortunately, on top of attitudinal barriers, I had to overcome this barrier as well.
While most people were reading the stories of Camilo José Cela on a warm bench surrounded by freesia, I spent the majority of my time getting down and dirty in the mechanic shops of Seville. Before leaving the U.S, I bought a new wheelchair thinking it would be far safer then my seven year old chair. It turned out I had bought a lemon. When mixed with cobblestones, “the lemon” led to my gradual breakdown. I felt like Mr. Potato Head with his various bits falling off—first my foot rest, then my arm rest, then my second footrest—eventually I would see my tire run down the road…without me… on a regular basis. The upside is that I probably have the highest scores for mechanical vocabulary of any student who has returned from Spain, and if you need a Sevillian mechanic, I can tell you who’s the best!
With these kind of memories haunting me, I arrived in Spain in 2011, more than skeptical. However, as I rolled along the streets of Madrid with 8 young adults — using wheelchairs, guide dogs, sign language, white canes and crutches — I encountered a new Spain, a country that I absolutely fell in love with! The city and country welcomed my fellow disabled travelers and me with open arms. As we toured new accessible features of the city—curb cuts, talking walk signs, accessible buses and trains—I was most impressed and inspired by the friendly, educated Spaniards dedicated to pioneering disability rights and inclusion.
But perhaps the most poignant result of this 10 day cross-disability, cross-cultural leadership program was not the redemption of Spain in my eyes, but what the program and Spain’s advancements in the area of disability rights inspired in the 8 emerging leaders who participated in the program. They came back with a renewed vigor and passion for disability rights accompanied by a newly acquired foundation in international disability law, policy and inclusive education. More than anything else, that is why I can unequivocally sing Spain’s redemption song forever—with amor.