Eugene, Oregon: Breaking Barriers
by Catherine Heaton 1998  

In the summer of 1997, Catherine Heaton of Lancashire, UK, took part in Mobility International USA's Young Adult Leadership Program. This four-week program was held in Eugene, Oregon. Camping, horseback riding, and white-water rafting were just a few of the many experiences that shaped her adventure.

My name is Catherine Heaton, and I am a student at Edge Hill University in Lancashire England. Our school is a very forward thinking university and encourages applications from people with disabilities. Our campus is totally accessible and we are committed to Equal Opportunities. I am studying Politics and Disability Studies in the hope of training to do work in the Equal Opportunities advisory sector.

When I first started at Edge Hill in September 1996 there wasn't a disabled students group, so I and a couple of other students with disabilities decided to form one. The group is called AID - Against Impairment Discrimination, and although we are primarily a support group we have also been involved in getting access improved around the university and this has been very successful. I am the chairperson of the group. We have been funded mostly be the Equal Opportunities Committee at Edge Hill, and from our own fundraising efforts, which have included raffles and 80's night discos.

In January 1997, my tutor Mr David Johnstone, who is the Co-coordinator for students with disabilities and also a lecturer in Disability studies, told theclass about the programme that Mobility International runs in Oregon, USA for young adults who have made efforts to improve the lives of people withdisabilities. I never thought for a moment that I would be accepted but I applied anyway, and promptly forgot about it. Two months later, however, I received a letter from Mary Ann Curulla of Mobility International USA (MIUSA) telling me that I had got a place, and I would be representing the UK that summer in Eugene, Oregon, to say I was very surprised was an understatement!.

Most of the money to pay for the trip was donated by the Equal Opportunites Committee at Edge Hill without whom none of this would have been possible, so I have them to thank for this wonderful opportunity. We also had a number of fundraising activities in an effort to raise some capital for the flight which was 720, and the course fees were 500. It did seem an awful lot of money and I wondered if I would ever make it.

On the 7th July 1997 I left the UK for Eugene, Oregon where for the next four weeks I had the important task of representing my country at the first conference on disability that I had ever attended. I really didn't know what to expect although I had received plenty of information beforehand from MIUSA telling me what the programme would involve and some of the activities that I would be taking part in, it all looked really exciting but also a little scary too. I have only been disabled for 3 years as I have the relapsing remitting type of Multiple Sclerosis, and I did wonder how I would cope with all the activities that MIUSA had planned, even though they are designed for people with disabilities.

When I finally arrived on the 8th July I met all of the other delegates, who thankfully were just as anxious as me. MIUSA had picked two representatives from each country, one male and one female, my counterpart was Grant Douglas from PHAB Scotland. There were two representatives from New Zealand, also from Estonia, Malaysia, Philippines, Kazakstan, Russia, Canada, USA, Croatia, St. .Lucia, Australia, and India. There were many disabilities represented including deaf, visually impaired, paraplegia, cerebral palsy, ALS, and, of course, ms. After meeting my fellow delegates and finding out what they had done for disability awareness in their own country I felt very honoured to be there, we exchanged ideas and information about what our countries were doing for disability culture. I was amazed to learn that the UK is almost at the bottom of the list, our Disability Discrimination Act is almost pitiful compared to the Americans with Disabilities Act- ADA. Even countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada had done far better for people with disabilities than the UK, and I came back with a wealth of ideas to improve things in this country.

It was hard work. We had lots of seminars and we were in the classroom from 9:00 a.m. to 7 p.m. most days, listening to various experts from the field of disability rights, these were people who had taking part in forming the ADA, and other such acts in their own countries. But it wasn't all work and no play we were lucky enough to see the sights that Eugene had to offer and one of our visits was to the Independent Living Centre in Portland Oregon. We also took part in a camping trip to an area designed for people with disabilities, and experienced the wildlife that came with it!

We went white water rafting, which was just the most exhilarating experience I have ever had, also disabled horseback riding, we played beeper baseball, wheelchair basketball and tennis and many other activities that I thought as I disabled person I would never be able to take part in. But the MIUSA motto is - breaking down barriers - and we certainly did that.

I had such a great time in Oregon, and I would recommend the course to anyone with a disability. MIUSA holds an exchange programme every year, and whenever they can get the funding they do the Young Adult Leadership Exchange programme, which is the one that I took part in. You can e-mail me for further details about the trip or delegates who took part, guest speakers etc.

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