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Working in the Intercultural Field in Japan

Mar 26, 2003
Working in the Intercultural Field in Japan
By Jessica Voigts


Exhilarating, exasperating, inspiring…Living and working abroad is a life-changing experience. For people with disabilities, living and working abroad requires mental and physical flexibility, and it’s different from adapting to living and working in the United States. I have been fortunate enough to have had excellent and successful work abroad experiences, although at times it was difficult for me in the new environments. I have a mobility-related disability due to an injury I had when I was 18, I have chronic pain in my ankle and cannot walk for more than two blocks.

In 1989, while I was a sophomore at Michigan State University, I was invited to participate in an internship program in Japan working with the Labo International Exchange Foundation. Labo is a foundation dedicated to worldwide international educational exchanges for students in elementary and secondary school. Japanese students exchange places with students from the United States, Korea, Australia, and many other countries involved in the programs. My college internship consisted of promoting international exchange and conducting cross-cultural counseling, which involved everything from preparing Japanese students going overseas to helping U.S. students work through culture shock.

The Labo Foundation was unaware of my disability at the time I was hired. I hadn’t thought about requesting disability-related accommodations. In the United States, I drove myself places, parked close, and if necessary, used a wheelchair to get around. I hadn’t imagined how different my life might be in Japan. In Japan, I was expected to bicycle from my home to the train station, take the train to work (a two-hour commute each way!), and walk for about 15 minutes to get to work in downtown Shinjuku, Tokyo’s business district.

After the very first week of doing this, I was in such pain that I could not cope with anything else. I was not yet used to thinking about ways to help myself in this aspect of my life. Luckily, my host mom was a strategizer and helped me think of ways to get to work less painfully — she drove me to the station; we arranged for my work hours to be slightly flexible so I did not have to ride the train during rush hour and stand the entire two hours; and she arranged with my employer to pay for a taxi from the Shinjuku Station to the Labo Building. After these arrangements had been made, it was much easier for me to enjoy my job and learn about Japan and its people! My host mother gave me the awareness of and the courage to speak out about my need for accessible housing (no stairs) and rides to the train station.

Living for a year in Japan helped me grow in so many ways — personally, emotionally, intellectually, and cross-culturally. However, the most growth came from having to acknowledge and to work at adapting to daily life with a disability — in a country that is not accessible in many ways. From the long walks home, the stairs at the train station, the crowded public transportation, to the lack of awareness of the need for accessibility — Japan presented challenges from which I learned about my own inner strengths. Although I am sure that much has changed since then, I can honestly say that I saw no one with a physical disability while I was in Japan, and to most Japanese, I was the first person with a physical disability they claimed to have met.

Returning to the United States was in some ways a great relief. Having a car and the generally accessible infrastructure helped to decrease my pain and I was able to do more activities. However, in Japan I had become aware of my disability in a way that I was unlikely to have gained in the United States. In an environment that presented barriers, my disability was something that I could creatively and flexibly deal with in almost any situation. This has served me well in all aspects of my life, and prepared me for a later job in London as a resident director for summer study abroad programs. Overall, I learned that my disability was not a problem or barrier, but instead became just another perspective through which to view the world.

I would choose to work overseas again in a heartbeat — the experience is invaluable and life changing. I needed to be flexible about what accommodations I required, but I was always able to see and do the things I wanted to, and I explored more than I thought I would have been able to explore. If I could give advice, it is this: Be flexible and go for it because overseas work and travel are worth more than gold!

To explore international exchange opportunities, contact the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE). NCDE, a project managed by Mobility International USA and sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State, provides free information and referrals regarding international opportunities to people with disabilities. It also offers consultation and resources to international exchange providers as they work to make their programs accessible to all.

National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange
PO Box 10767
Eugene, OR 97440
(541) 343-1284 (Tel/TTY)
(541) 343- 6812 (Fax)
clearinghouse@miusa.org (E-mail)