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What’s it like to live and work abroad when you have a visual impairment?

October 25th, 2017 / View in own page?

We are back with a new blog post for you from one of our fabulous members, Elin. For years, Elin wanted to live and work abroad but didn’t know if it would be possible due to her visual impairment.

In this post, Elin discusses how she’s done exactly that!

If you’d told me last October that within the year I’d be living in a foreign country, I would have laughed with disbelief. Because, I’m blind. And even though living and working abroad has been a life-long dream for me for as long as I can remember, I’ve always told myself to try to be realistic. After all, let’s face it; living abroad is tough for anyone, let alone a visually impaired girl from Wales with a guide dog alongside. Turns out I was wrong though, because here I am… living and working in Belgium and learning French as I go.

Last Autumn I was twiddling my thumbs after graduation wanting to embark on the next great adventure but wasn’t really clear on the details of what that adventure would be. I’d been googling various combinations of the words ‘volunteering’ ‘abroad’ and ‘disability’ for weeks without finding anything that seemed suitable. Trying to find an opportunity that fit my long-term career aspirations, as well as meeting my access needs and being reasonable for my guide dog was a little tricky. In a last-ditch attempt before resigning myself to the job centre I emailed my CV to a handful of European organisations asking about work experience, but never received any replies.

Weeks later I got an out of the blue phone call from a European phone number, that turned out to be an Italian girl called Clara contacting me to tell me all about the volunteering project she was currently participating in. She was at the time working for VIEWS International as part of her adapted European Voluntary Service Programme and after seeing my email had decided to call me to tell me about the EVS programme. She told me all about how the projects in Liege are specifically adapted for visually impaired people to include things like mobility and accessible language courses to suit the individual’s needs. I remember ending that phone call and being absolutely stunned. It sounded so perfect, so right that I almost didn’t believe it. In fact, I proceeded to apply for the programme without telling anyone but my boyfriend. Partly because I thought my parents would freak out, and partly because if it didn’t work out I wouldn’t have to admit it.

Clara told me that to be eligible for the programme I needed a sending association from my own country that would effectively sponsor me to participate in the programme. She said that VIEWS International had collaborated with a charity called Look UK in the past and that they might be the best people to ask about this. Before we hung up she also casually mentioned that I only had a month left to get my application in on time if I wanted to try for the 2017/18 programme.

Amazingly, as soon as I approached Look with this crazy plan, they immediately jumped on board and couldn’t do enough to help, despite Charlotte (CEO) having never heard of the EVS programme or their responsibilities as sending association beforehand. The team even went so far as to help complete my application with me by writing as I dictated over the phone, because my laptop had conveniently decided to go on the blink at this most crucial point.

Something I was mostly concerned about was the language requirements for the programme. An accessible language course was being included in the project, but they strongly advised you to have a working understanding of French before you started your placement. Having scraped a D in my French GCSE, this was something of a worry for me. Look immediately set to helping me find accessible online language tutoring, they put me in touch with a French teacher who was willing to conduct lessons with me over Skype and they introduced me to one of their volunteers who is a native French speaker so that I could practice conversation. In addition, Charlotte and Megan were incredibly supportive throughout the whole application and preparation process. There was a period of time when I’d been offered a place, but that funding implications meant that it was unconfirmed as to whether I’d be able to participate. The Look team stayed in contact with me throughout, helped facilitate conversations between me and my hosting association in Belgium when I had questions and did their best to alleviate any and all of my concerns.

I am especially grateful to them for accompanying me on my ‘advanced preparatory visit’ to Liege, Belgium. A few weeks before my official start date on the programme, I was offered the opportunity to visit where I’d be living and working in Belgium in advance of moving there, in order to prepare appropriately. Even though this opportunity was a dream come true, the nerves had started to get to me a bit and I was feeling very anxious about the whole thing. Luckily, the APV went amazingly well; I felt much more assured and comfortable and a big part of that is thanks to Megan and Charlotte being there with me to ask the questions I might not have thought to ask.

So now I’ve been here almost three weeks. The first two weeks of induction were very intensively focused on receiving lots of mobility and French lessons and as a result I’m now able to get to work on my own and hold a reasonable conversation in French. This week I’ve started volunteering for VIEWS International and in the coming weeks I’ll begin volunteering at a local youth centre for refugees as well. I’m living in an apartment with two other volunteers, an Italian girl and a French guy, and I’m happy to say we get on very well. There is a fantastic support network here of people ready to help with anything from doing the weekly food shop to finding the nearest dance classes. What’s all the more humbling for me is that all of these people, from my mobility instructor to my French teacher, are helping me and my housemates completely voluntarily. My overall impressions of my new home are that people are extremely helpful here; strangers greet you like an old friend and as a rule people will offer help before you have to ask for it.

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