Fulbright Alumna, Young Professional Journalist Program 2015/2016
The German-American Fulbright Program prides itself on promoting understanding through cultural and academic exchange. But when it comes to realizing inclusion, there is a fine line between “preferential treatment” and “necessary help not fully acknowledged.” Understanding what defines this line can incite change. In an interview, Allyssa Schoenemann and Dorothée Stieber shed light on inclusion, dialogue, their philosophy on living with a disability, and their challenges as Fulbright grantees abroad.
Allyssa Schoenemann was a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Bielefeld (Germany) in 2015/2016. An English and Special Education major at Stony Brook University, she is from Long Island, New York. German Fulbright grantee Dorothée Stieber currently studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Schoenemann has dystrophic dysplasia (dwarfism). Stieber has mild cerebral palsy.
These disabilities complicate the already stressful experience of traveling and living abroad. “Life with a disability is often about courage, creativity, and going the extra mile, from incorporating special health requirements into our busy lives to just getting around,” Stieber said. “I do a lot of research when I go somewhere. [Fulbright] is the biggest undertaking for me.” Taking part in a program abroad allows them to accomplish things commonly dismissed as unlikely for people with disabilities. “In America, people are shocked I even learned German,” Schoenemann said. “First, Americans don’t leave the country. Second, I have a disability.”
“Right now, we are sitting in squares” Schoenemann said when I asked about the difference between wheelchairs and mobility scooters. Both women use wheelchairs; Schoenemann’s is electric and Stieber’s manual. “Scooters are more like narrow rectangles. They’re easier to navigate.” But in Germany, public transportation vehicles are not required to accommodate scooters. And wheelchairs pose problems as well. “Very often people are not equipped to accommodate a wheelchair,” Stieber said “In Hamburg there was not a single store I wanted to go in that I could enter or easily navigate, as the space between the rails was too small. That is often like a slap in the face, considering the amount of public attention inclusion has been getting in the last few years. I do not expect society to solve my problems. From my own work in politics I know that there are real obstacles in transitions towards accessibility. But if I get the impression that someone is obviously not making an effort, then I take it personally.” The idea of inclusion in the public discourse in Germany is relatively new. Still, according to Stieber, German society has changed. “About two-thirds of people ask if they can give me a hand.”
Both women agreed that mobility was where Fulbright has been most helpful. The program financed Schoenemann’s wheelchair, and made sure the Berlin seminar in March 2016 was accessible for them, with Fulbright staff ensuring that the women could easily get around. “Fulbright has been extraordinarily helpful in making my stay in Berlin comfortable,” Stieber said.
Yet even with Fulbright, major shortfalls remain. “On the last night of the event, we were meeting at the Universität der Künste for the reception.” Stieber said, recounting one incident at the Berlin Seminar 2016. “Food was served both up- and downstairs. But there was no elevator. So we ended up being unable to speak to the majority of the people, as they were upstairs. It would be an understatement to downplay the effect this had. We both felt like this made all the previous attention and fuss about making us comfortable look a bit weird. We felt that being unable to join half or even a third of the Fulbrighters that evening was a major barrier. Ironically, this is a good example for our discussion.
Another core issue is the interpretation of “preferential treatment” as opposed to “necessary help.” “That is such a fine line,” Stieber said. “And it matters to us. Making the additional challenges of going abroad with a disability a bit easier to deal with would help a lot and be no ‘unfair’ or ‘preferential treatment’... If there were a fund for this or some Fulbright regulation, it would be great to have more info on the options provided. But of course you have to remember how many different disabilities there are and how specific each patient’s need is…”
Concrete changes can go a long way towards transforming the program. “If there is additional help available, mentioning it in the documents for applicants could encourage more people with disabilities to apply,” Stieber said. “[But] if you want to become a Fulbrighter, I think you should be the kind of person that is very self-reliant and definitely only wants special treatment where it is really necessary.” But often, the most concrete issues are not the ones that are most difficult to change.
For grantees that belong to disadvantaged or minority groups, it can feel like they are only there for one reason. “You’re the token. [They] want people like us to be the exception.” Schoenemann said. Even this interview was an example, she remarked, “If you want inclusion to happen, have society reflect that.” Stieber added, “Make innovation happen. That’s not a burden, but a very positive process!”
“A good way to improve their approach towards grantees with disabilities is making individuals with disabilities more aware of the opportunity Fulbright has waiting for them,” Schoenemann said. “More often than not, individuals with disabilities see traveling and studying abroad as a practical nightmare. On the website or in the application, they could include questions relating to disability and which ways an individual with a disability can be assisted. Encourage diversity workshops for all grantees considered a minority.” People with disabilities are often assumed to be either passive victims or sensitive rebels with a cause. “I have met quite a few people with disabilities or disabled family members who say ‘you have to fight for everything - sometimes against the system,’” Stieber said, “I don’t think this is the right approach. You have a fight within yourself for what you want. While it is a challenge, often working with authorities rather than feeling you are against them gets you further.”
As an English Teaching Assistant, Schoenemann has dealt with issues of respect as a teacher. “At times they didn’t take me seriously. The students all called me by my first name and I hated it. [I] want to be treated as an educator first, and have my disability come second.” For her teaching position, Schoenemann was placed in Bielefeld, an area with a large number of people who are also disabled. “There is inclusion, but there is also still segregation. One day I was taking the train home and was asked, ‘You’re going to Bethel, right?’ I’m in an area where ‘this is your area.’” Their role in society is predetermined–they label themselves whether they confirm or go against expectations.
These grantees deserve to talk on their own terms. They are teachers and aspiring diplomats first, but their disabilities often dictate what people think, whether on an application, a resume, or in everyday interactions. Such change centers both on concrete improvements and increased awareness through dialogue.
Working with the grantees with disabilities is indispensable in developing a continuously evolving awareness of the issues involved in disabilities rights. Addressing the complexities of inclusion in a way that gives these grantees the freedom to address the shortcomings of the system without fear of backlash is imperative to this change. The Fulbright Commission is demonstrating a willingness to challenge the status quo, even if this means confronting areas where they have fallen short. By inviting critique and being willing to evolve, Fulbright continues to adhere to their mission of creating an unobstructed physical, social and psychological environment for all participants.