|By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, July 20, 2003 - 10:56 am: Edit Post|
Peace Corps invited Sarah Presley to serve as an English teacher in a school for blind students in Morocco.
Peace Corps invited Sarah Presley to serve as an English teacher in a school for blind students in Morocco.
Teaching English (and More) in Morocco
In 1993, I was working as a computer programmer in Washington, DC. I had just returned from a wonderful trip to Costa Rica with a friend that April. During the ten days I spent there I had such a blast speaking another language and learning about another culture that I wanted more. The day after I returned from my trip, I walked into the national Peace Corps office here in DC and asked for an application. I received two very different reactions to my request. One person bubbled over with enthusiasm as she told me what a wonderful time I would have. The other person in the office was a little less optimistic. He explained many of the challenges I might face, such as the fact that it is sometimes necessary for Peace Corps volunteers to ride from village to village on a motorcycle. He wondered how I would manage that.
You see, I am a severely visually impaired 30-year old woman. I use a cane, read Braille, and use speech access software when working with computers.
The reaction I received when I visited the Peace Corps office was not as daunting as the 14-page application itself. It took me a year to gather all of the application materials and walk them over to the recruiting office. Truthfully, It wasn’t the length of the application that held me back. At that time, I worried more about whether I had the kind of experience that Peace Corps was looking for than whether my disability would cause me any problems. I was accepted, and after a few ups and downs, the Peace Corps invited me to serve as an English teacher in a school for blind students in Morocco. When I applied to the Peace Corps, I had hoped to go to Latin America, and I had not expected that I would be working with blind people. However, I was so thrilled about the prospect of living in another country for two years that none of this mattered. I was on my way!
Once I had been accepted, I found the Peace Corps staff in the United States and in Morocco to be very helpful and supportive. I did not require much in the way of adaptive equipment. I had Peace Corps ship my Perkins Brailler to Morocco for me and I took my CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) with me. As a last gift for myself while I still had money to buy one, I purchased a laptop computer with a little printer built in and loaded it with my speech access software. This turned out to be invaluable. Because most of my friends and family cannot read Braille and I cannot see well enough to write, and since the phone situation was so tentative for my first few months in Morocco, that little computer/printer was my only way of communicating with everyone I knew in the States. I did have to type those first letters without being able to see them, though, because my voice synthesizer broke down soon after I arrived, and we were not able to get it fixed for four months. That was the first of several opportunities I would have to learn the lesson that one must be prepared to do without adaptive equipment sometimes when living in developing countries. At least I learned that I was a good typist!
It was more difficult to adapt to the three months of training that preceded my service than it was to adapt to my actual job in Morocco. I was fortunate, though, to meet two volunteers who were working in the various schools for blind students. They Brailled some of the handouts, gave me my first couple of tours around our training compound and the surrounding neighborhood and generally helped me over a few rough spots. I was able to get most of what I needed from the training, particularly the language course, through listening. We learned Moroccan Arabic — the teaching method depended heavily on listening and speaking. Language instruction proved to be the most important aspect of the initial training for me. Because I am not able to see people's gestures and facial expressions, I found that learning the language and learning it fast was an absolute necessity.
My first few months in Morocco were very exciting and quite overwhelming. New Peace Corps friends, a new culture, new sounds, new smells, a new language: all of these were exhilarating and exhausting. One challenge for me was that I didn’t feel that I could share my thoughts and feelings with the other volunteers about what it was like to be blind and be having this experience. I knew they wouldn’t understand what it felt like to have someone try to lead me by my cane or call me "poor thing" in my presence. I longed to meet some blind Moroccans, and during the last month of training, I finally had that opportunity at a school where veteran Peace Corps volunteers were teaching.
When we finished our ESL training, those of us who would be teaching English completed a practicum in a school with Moroccan students, including seven blind students. Fortunately, there were a few students whose English was quite advanced, and talking with them fueled my excitement about being in Morocco and working in a school for the blind. Although we came from completely different cultures, I learned that we held much in common. As my new friends were not students at my school, they turned out to be very helpful to me once I started working in the school and dealing with the attitudes and politics I found there.
The biggest challenge was that they wanted to know everything about blind people in this country, and there was a lot I couldn't tell them. It seemed that during the whole time I was in Morocco, people expected me to be some kind of an expert on blindness in the United States. I decided that once I returned to this country, I would try to pay more attention to the broader issues of blindness.
Once I completed the three-month training, the real fun began. I moved into a small apartment in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, and tried to get myself established in my school. I soon found my Arabic stretched to its limit in discussions with my landlord about things that needed to be fixed in my apartment or with the director of my school about discipline problems in my class. But I was having a good time and gaining confidence as I discovered that I could have these discussions and others with the food vendors in my neighborhood, with my students, and with the people who populated my daily life.
My confidence grew further as I found that I could get around Rabat without too much difficulty. I found that the same method that I used in unfamiliar settings in the US – that is, becoming very familiar with the areas around my house and job and then branching out – worked just as well in Morocco. I just had to be a little more careful of potholes! In some ways, getting from one place to another was easier for me in Rabat than it is in most cities in the United States because, since fewer people have cars, there is more public transportation. Shopping was also easier for me in Rabat because shops were small and plentiful; and all customers, sighted and blind, had to ask the clerks for what they wanted.
My job was, perhaps, the most frustrating and rewarding part of my experience. During my first year, I taught high school seniors, most of whom had advanced cases of senioritis and no interest in learning English. This wouldn’t have been so bad except that they tried in every way possible to disrupt the class and the administration didn't always back me up when I tried to impose discipline.
My reward came from working with the students who wanted to learn — they were a joy. They really appreciated the efforts I made to make accessible materials for the class and to make the class interesting. After class, I spent some time planning lessons. However, because there were no textbooks, I spent most of my time, especially during the first year, Brailling lessons for my students.
All of my students, even the ones who were rowdy in class, were quite entertaining and humorous outside of class. We had many discussions about the situation of blind people in the United States and in Morocco. Sometimes we argued about such things as whether blind people should use canes and whether it is necessary for blind students to learn contracted Braille. Usually, though, we just talked about life in general and laughed a lot.
I don’t know that my students learned that much English, but I believe that they learned something much more real about Americans than what they see in the American movies and TV shows that make it to Morocco. I also think that they appreciated getting to know a blind person from the United States and gaining a firsthand account of how people who are visually impaired live in this country.
I am sure that my students didn’t learn as much from me as I learned from them and other Moroccans I met during the two years I spent there. I learned that I could survive in another country using the same coping skills that I use at home. Despite differences in language and culture, I already knew how to become familiar with new places and I had learned from years of experience in the United States how to deal with people who were skeptical of my ability to do one thing or another. In one way, I think I had it easier than many of the sighted volunteers: I already knew what it was like to have people notice that I was different.
I also realized that I liked working with people who are blind and with everyday issues of access to education, jobs and community life. All my life, I had purposefully avoided both getting involved with groups that dealt with issues of visual impairment and being pushed into blind-related occupations – something I felt many people expected me to do. For this reason, I wasn’t totally thrilled when I had been assigned to work in a school for the blind in Morocco. However, looking back, I think that that was the best possible assignment for me. I now know how important it is for those of us with disabilities to share our experiences, especially in the areas of education, adapting to the world around us and gaining our equal rights. As Americans, we have much to share with others about what we have tried in these areas, about what has and has not worked. It is also true that people with disabilities in other countries have just as much to share with us.
I have only scratched the surface in this summary of my Peace Corps experience in Morocco. I hope that my story will encourage everyone with a disability who has ever thought about volunteering abroad to apply to the Peace Corps or to any other organization that offers the opportunity. Don’t wait to be recruited. Just apply – have an open mind and a few ideas about how you might deal with the differences you might find in another country. I found that once I got them thinking in a positive direction about how I might manage, Peace Corps staff and Moroccans alike were very helpful and even came up with creative suggestions of their own. Take the chance, and you may have one of the most enjoyable and educational experiences of your life.