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UMD Student Raises Disability Awareness

Anna Hewitt

Anna Hewitt, a senior teaching communication, arts, and literature, English, and special education major, has wanted to become an English teacher since she was a young girl. When she came to UMD, Hewitt decided to add special education to her career goals.

Hewitt is a recipient of the Marcia Bevard-Kulick Scholarship, a scholarship for students with disabilities. She has mild cerebral palsy, a disease that affects the body’s mobility and can weaken muscles. She has had multiple surgeries throughout her life. "I've had to grow up really fast, but it has made me more empathetic and appreciative of my life," Hewitt said.

She has struggled daily not only physical limitations but with discrimination as well. Her struggles throughout her life have caused her to become sympathetic toward those who have disabilities and to strive to eliminate the discrimination they face daily.

"I can tell when people are being fake toward me and befriending me for reasons that have nothing to do with getting to know me as a person," Hewitt said. "But from my experience with discrimination, I have learned a lot about myself and have become stronger from it."

International Disability Awareness

In the summer of 2009, Hewitt went on a trip to San Jose, Costa Rica, with 12 other people from across the U.S., all of whom had some form of a disability. The program was called Cross Cultural Perspectives on Disability Rights Leadership Program and was sponsored by the organization Mobility International USA (MIUSA), an organization dedicated to empowering people with disabilities to achieve their human rights.

This trip provided Hewitt with many firsts. “I never thought I would do something so risky. I had never flown by myself or traveled by myself,” she said. “It was so different to leave my entire family and be completely independent.”

Hewitt and the 12 other delegates faced many challenges and learned about how disabilities are dealt with in other countries. “It was amazing to realize just how hard it is for people with disabilities in Costa Rica. It made me feel so blessed and so much more driven to make the world better for all people,” Hewitt said.

Differences in Disability Awareness

On the trip, the group went on different excursions to see how people with disabilities are treated. The differences between Costa Rica and America shocked Hewitt.

“We went to a labor shop that hired people with disabilities. Even people who were completely mentally capable still ended up doing menial work. There was man who was putting springs into clothespins, and I could tell from talking to him that he had so much more potential. He had a physical limitation, like I do, but he was considered one of the lucky people because the majority of people in Costa Ricans who have disabilities are unemployed.”

People with disabilities in Costa Rica have a harder time getting around. In San Jose there are no sidewalks. When possible, they had accessible taxis on the trip. At one point, the taxis weren’t available so the group was forced to get creative.

“We had to go down the middle of the street because there wasn’t enough room for all of us, and it was uneven on the side of the road. The traffic in San Jose is crazy,” Hewitt said. “I’ve never been more scared in my life. We all went together. It made me realize that that’s what people with disabilities have to do everyday. If you want to go to the grocery store, you basically have to risk your life.”

Hewitt helped her fellow delegates swim in the ocean without barriers. Photo by Anna Hewitt.

Leaving Barriers Behind

While in Costa Rica, Hewitt and her fellow delegates had a unique experience. She was able to help other delegates swim in the ocean, some for the first time in their lives. MIUSA's main goal is inclusion. Hewitt and the other delegates came up with creative ways to get wheel chair users into the ocean.

“It was a life changing experience for me. The wheelchairs, braces, and walkers were all left on the beach. It signifies leaving behind all the barriers and obtaining that freedom of the ocean,” Hewitt said. “Some of the delegates thought they would never get in the ocean. It was so powerful.”  

“My perspective was transformed and enhanced by that trip. It was a blessing that I look back on, and I still can’t believe it happened,” Hewitt said.

Teaching in a Diverse Society

This past fall 2010 semester, Hewitt was a team teacher with Helen Mongan-Rallis, associate professor of the Department of Education, in the course Teaching in a Diverse Society.

"Helen treated me like another teacher and that helped me grow so much," Hewitt said.

The topics of the course include racism, gender and sexual orientation, culture, family, religion, and disabilities, especially in education.

Hewitt added her own take on the class as well. When she previously took the class, disabilities were not included in the curriculum. "I felt like we were only getting one side of the issue and not exploring disabilities as a culture," she said. "I implemented lessons on disability rights and social justice."

Breaking Barriers

The confidence Hewitt gained from her trip to Costa Rica, encouraged her to travel more and help more cultures with disabilities issues. Currently, spring 2011, she is student teaching in Punta Gorda, Belize, for eight weeks as a part of UMD's International Student Teaching program.

"I wanted to experience how beautiful it is to become involved with another culture," Hewitt said. She is teaching English to students in Belize for this half of the semester. She just finished teaching seventh grade in the United States.

Before leaving for Belize, Hewitt said, "It will be different teaching English there. I'll have to be more straightforward and be more of a director for the students. Teaching in Belize will surely provide me with a different set of challenges than student teaching in the States. I'll have to tailor my teaching to the culture and the lives of my students."

From all of her experiences, Hewitt is highly motivated to advocate for equal rights, opportunities, and education. Though she's experienced discrimination in her life, she understands where people are coming from.

"It's not that people do things to be intentionally hurtful, they just don't know," she said. "That's a part of my motivation for being a teacher: to educate people."

"I'm very much an activist. I feel a call to help people in need," Hewitt said. Her ultimate career goal is to teach special education and English at the same time. She hopes to eventually teach in a Spanish-speaking country.

Spreading Advocacy

Recently, Hewitt was selected from a nationwide search of university students to attend the Department of State’s National Council for International Visitors (NCIV) National Meeting in Washington, D.C. The NCIV is currently marking 50 years of leadership in citizen diplomacy by implementing the concept that in a vibrant democracy, the individual citizen has the right, even the responsibility, to help shape foreign relations “one handshake at a time.” Each year the aggregate efforts of NCIV members involve more than 80,000 volunteers. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed the Meeting’s reception on Feb. 17, and her remarks can be heard online.

Written by Mandee Kuglin

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