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 Disability Studies in Mexico

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UMD Students Apply What They've Learned

Child in Mexico
Students going on the trip help schools that cater to children with disabilities.
The students will help out at rehab centers in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
UMD students will also help at schools like this one.

This winter, a group of 14 students will spend almost two weeks of their winter break giving back to a community in Mexico. The Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) and the Department of Education are bringing students to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for a service-learning trip on disabilities.

This is the sixth year that advisors Education Associate Professor Mary Ann Marchel and CSD Instructor Shannon Godsey have offered the trip. Each year they learn something new about the Mexican community and disability services.

This study abroad experience was offered to education majors and CSD majors. The students will be there from Jan. 4-15. The students will be working at four different sites, in area schools and rehabilitation centers with children who have various disabilities.

Disabilities in Mexico

Unlike the U.S., Mexico has no laws regarding equal access for all. Two of the sites are run by the federal or state government, but the other two sites were created by advocates for people with disabilities. "The child care rehab center was started by a mother who has a child with disabilities," Marchel said. "She realized that there was no place for these children with disabilities to go when their parents were at work. She created this rehab center that we will be working in to help the community."

The students will do various activities to help out the school in any way possible. "It's really about supporting this group of advocates to help them do their work," Marchel said. "Students in the past have been assigned to cook food for the whole school or help out in the classroom. We do whatever we can to help these children and the advocates."

Children with disabilities in Mexico often have a difficult time getting to school. Transportation is typically an unattainable necessity. "Many parents bring their children to school, but they won't go in the school. They will wait outside for six hours until school is done," Marchel said. "They believe very highly in the services offered and the teacher's. They seem to view the schools as sacred ground."

Crossing Disciplines

Marchel says that the most important part about this trip is that it provides students with a unique opportunity to blend CSD and Education. "Rarely do students have the opportunity to cross disciplines. This trip gives students the exposure to the idea of blending departments," Marchel said. "Some sites allow students to be placed in disability classrooms. Students get the experience of working in a class with children who have disabilities."

Other than being in Mexico in January, Senior Spanish and Speech Pathology major Annie Haglund decided to go on the trip because it was a perfect blend of her two majors. “I’ve never been able to combine my two fields of interest before,” Haglund said. “I was really excited to be given the opportunity to use my Spanish skills and my speech pathology skills with a population that I am interested in working with in the future.”

Knowledge of the Spanish language was not a requirement for the trip, but Haglund is fluent in Spanish. Though Puerto Vallarta is a primarily English-speaking city, Haglund will become a translator for her fellow students.

Parents in Mexico value their children's education.
In the past, UMD students have enjoyed the experience of working with kids.

Exposure to Mexican Culture

Puerto Vallarta is known as a tourist town; however, it has high levels of poverty and many difficulties regarding children with disabilities. Marchel says that one goal of this trip is to expose the students to another outlook and method of teaching children with disabilities.

Students will have a reflection period once a day to make connections to their UMD education and their experiences in Mexico. "This trip is really about cultural congruence," Marchel said. "We ask the students to think about who they are culturally. The culture around serving children with disabilities in Puerto Vallarta is so strikingly different so it's an interesting contrast for the students to see."

Marchel says that students will experience the major difference between the cultures. "In the U.S.  inclusion is emphasized in laws and within educational systems. " Marchel said. "In Mexico, due to differing policies, inclusion for children with disabilities looks different.

There are also differences in the way Mexican families view teachers. "In the U.S. the goal of the educational system attempts to create a system in which the teacher and the parents are equal partners in the child's education," Marchel said. "In Mexico, teachers are viewed as the 'experts,' with an emphasis placed on teachers working with the child in isolation of the parent."

The students will also be exposed to indigenous communities in Puerto Vallarta. An Indian community called the Huichol live up in the hillsides of the city. They will present a cultural demonstration to the students, including a cultural dance. The students will also be exposed to the Mexican culture through the artwork, which is featured all throughout the town.

Marchel describes one experience students had in the past with a man who is blind. "I asked him to write me a letter so he wrote it in Spanish and Braille and then translated it into English and Braille," Marchel said. "I thought it was wonderful to see him manipulate three different languages at once."

The students will have exposure to many of the interesting people that Marchel describes. “I'm excited to experience a different culture and see how disabilities are treated there,” Haglund said.

Written by Mandee Kuglin

UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830

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Last modified on 04/22/11 02:36 PM
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