H’sien Hayward — Volunteering, Travel and Bulls

Circa 2009

For H’Sien Hayward, the rewards of international travel are boundless. A graduate student at Harvard University, Hayward has traveled to thirtyfive countries on four continents. It was an undergraduate study abroad experience in Spain, however, that sparked a lifelong desire to travel with confidence and joy to some of the most remote places on earth—and to “turn heads” in the process.

Hayward, who has a spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair, heard enthusiastic stories from friends returning from study abroad programs and decided she didn’t want to miss having her own overseas experience. “As a person with a disability, I think it’s important to challenge my and others’ perceived barriers to international travel. I heard from others that I couldn’t make it work, and then, of course, I had to go! On a personal level, it was important for my sense of self to know that I could do anything.”

During her junior year at Stanford University, Hayward applied to study Spanish and Spanish Art/Architecture in Barcelona, Spain, through Portland State University’s Institute for Social and International Studies (ISIS) summer abroad program. At the time, she was hesitant to do a semester or year abroad in a country without a law equivalent to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “The great thing about ISIS was they offered a one month summer program, and I knew I could do anything for a month. Stanford didn’t offer a Spanish study abroad program, so most students who wanted to study Spanish abroad chose the ISIS program. Over the years, Stanford had developed a relationship with ISIS and all of the credits were transferable.”

Location was also a factor in Hayward’s decision to study in Barcelona. “It’s a center of art and architecture, so I knew it would be a culturally rich experience. Also, it’s located on the Mediterranean coast so it was guaranteed to be warm and beautiful, and finally, because Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympics, I had heard that wheelchair access was improved.” Once she arrived in Barcelona, Hayward discovered unexpected benefits to the ISIS program, as well. “A great thing about the program was it wasn’t just for American students. I met an incredible network of friends from all over Europe that summer, a handful of whom I’m still in touch with 10 years later. I think that had something to do with the intensity of study abroad experiences. Everyone was out of their element—it made for a really intense bonding experience.”

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Prior to her departure for Spain, Hayward didn’t know how responsive the study abroad staff would be to her questions and concerns regarding accessibility. “I went into it knowing I would have to be prepared to advocate for myself, but the program staff was wonderfully responsive, both in the U.S. and in Barcelona. Although they hadn’t had a lot of experience with people with disabilities, they were eager to learn and never treated me like my requests were anything but an exciting learning experience for them. It’s all about teamwork and knowing how to communicate your needs without alienating others.”

Although Barcelona is relatively accessible compared to other cities in the region, finding a host family with an accessible home was challenging at first. It was also an area in which Hayward had to advocate for herself. “For some people, accessible simply means a first floor entrance, but the most recurrent challenge I find is bathroom access. I also had to work out what was essential versus what was desirable. For example, I was asked if it was ‘ok’ if an elevator stopped four inches above the floor. In my case, it was, but six inches would have been too much.” In the end, Hayward was placed with other students in a bed and breakfast type accommodation run by a local woman and her son. The mutual regard and friendship Hayward developed with the program coordinator in Barcelona helped to make the placement possible and bridge cultural differences. “My host mother spoke Catalan, not Spanish, and the site coordinator was able to communicate my needs to her in Catalan. I’ve discovered that if connections can be forged, it’s worth the extra time. It pays dividends in the end.”

Although her study abroad program lasted just one month, Hayward took advantage of every moment to experience the local culture through both group and independent travel in the region. She and her fellow study abroad participants traveled by train to the Salvador Dali House—Museum and the Picasso Museum, and viewed Gaudi architecture all over Spain. She also set off with friends for some unique cultural experiences, including the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. “That was a fantastic experience and I think that being in wheelchair was actually an advantage because people made room for me in the crowd. It turns out I was watching right up against a fence where the medics happened to be, and at the end of the race they started rolling me towards an ambulance assuming I had been injured in the race. I guess it didn’t occur to them to ask where I had gotten a wheelchair so quickly! My whole trip was dotted with these types of funny experiences.”

Hayward emphasizes that her enjoyment of Spain hinged on a willingness to request and accept help from strangers. “Access in many places is simply not available. Going into a situation with that expectation is helpful, as is knowing how to attract and direct helpers.

The first things I learned to say in Spanish were ‘help’ and where people should place their hands on my wheelchair. My adventurous attitude made it fun for others to help find access.” In fact, having traveled to more than thirty countries, Hayward has discovered that an inaccessible physical environment doesn’t always make a place inaccessible. “There are definitely some things about other countries that make life easier. For example, a greater desire on the part of strangers to help. Here in the U.S., I often find that people do not offer to help because they don’t want to offend me, but when I’m struggling up a steep hill, I would love help. In Barcelona, I was carried up seven flights of stairs to watch a bull flight! In fact, I was basically carried all over Spain by strong strangers, and that willingness to be carried made it all the more wonderful because I got to experience so much more.”

In Barcelona, Hayward also made fast friends with the youngest members of the local community. “The children were the ones who helped me the most. They would hail a taxi for me, help to disassemble and place my chair in the trunk, then run via side streets to my destination where they would do it all over again in reverse. It was a surprising and adorable experience. They had such open little hearts and enormously curious minds, and were young enough that they didn’t have a sense of what a person with a disability supposedly could or could not do.”

Although she had traveled internationally before spending a month in Spain, her study abroad experience uniquely effected her ability and desire to travel in the future. “Because it was a cultural immersion program where I didn’t know anyone beforehand, and because I had very little experience speaking Spanish, I developed tools and techniques that summer for traveling anywhere in the world, simply because I had to.”

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In the years since her study abroad experience in Barcelona, Hayward’s infectious confidence and zeal for adventure have taken her to countries as diverse as Mongolia and Costa Rica as a volunteer with United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) Wheels for Humanity. In addition to helping others, Hayward believes that her presence alone in countries without progressive disability rights laws expands local awareness of what is possible for people with disabilities. “I had a powerful experience in Mongolia where I met peers my age with spinal cord injuries. It hadn’t occurred to them to press for inclusion in higher education even though they had a strong desire to go to college. The universities did not have ramps or accessible bathrooms, and the students’ perceptions of their own limitations were so strong that they didn’t consider advocating on their own behalf.” Hayward later learned that one of the students she met in Mongolia decided to approach the administration at a local university to discuss ways to make simple and inexpensive accommodations in order to pursue her higher education dreams. She adds, “I have a strong belief that anywhere in the world when people with disabilities act in a way that does not conform to the medical model of disability, it subtly changes the face of society.”

by Stephanie Gray

Stephanie Gray is a consultant with the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, which provides free information and referral services to increase the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange programs.

H’Sien Hayward is a graduate student in experimental psychology at Harvard University where her research is aimed at improving the lives of people with acquired disabilities, including spinal cord injuries. Since her study abroad experience in Spain, Hayward has volunteered abroad with United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) Wheels for Humanity in Mongolia and Costa Rica and traveled to Thailand following the 2004 Asian Tsunami to conduct trauma recovery workshops with colleagues in the mental health community.

National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange


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