Danielle Tucker doesn’t look like a typical explorer or trailblazer. But by being the first wheelchair user to attend a study abroad program offered by Memorial University, this is exactly what she has become.
Ms. Tucker decided to go to Harlow in January 2007. At that point she hadn’t done much travelling, mainly back and forth from her home in Labrador to St. John’s. But like many English students, she was drawn to the idea of reading classic works of literature while lapping up the culture and landscape of Britain.
The possible difficulties she faced in travelling abroad weren’t an issue because, as Ms. Tucker said, “Overcoming challenges doesn’t really faze me. I knew I was going into something uncharted.”
She immediately contacted Drs. Michael and Annette Staveley who were in the process of organizing the fall 2007 Landscape and Literature Program at the Harlow Campus.
The former dean of Arts and Dr. Annette Staveley were about to learn a thing or two about travelling from a student embarking on her first trip to England.
Ruth North has been coordinator of the Blundon Centre on the St. John’s campus for 16 years, working to foster the centre’s goal of co-ordinating on-campus services for students with disabilities. And in January 2007, the Blundon Centre’s feedback into the consultation process on Memorial’s new strategic plan included a recommendation to retrofit the Harlow campus to enhance accessibility for persons with disabilities.
When Dr. Michael Staveley approached her seeking advice on how to accommodate Ms. Tucker’s intention to attend his Landscape and Literature program, Ms. North knew that the time had come for an immediate short term solution regarding renovations at Harlow.
Ms. North’s stack of well worn files testifies to the level of planning that went into this pilot project.
Ms. Tucker was asked to identify and anticipate her needs and was included in all ensuing discussions. As Ms. North explained, services that Ms. Tucker might have potentially needed wouldn’t be required for every student and vice versa. “It very much depends on the individual,” she cautioned.
Other key members of the successful team led by Ms. Tucker and Drs. Michael and Annette Staveley were Dr. Michael Collins, who “was a great help in respect to the renovations at Harlow,” Professor Peter Ayres, Dr. Lilly Walker, Dr. David Wright, a former chairman of the board of trustees at Harlow, and Sandra Wright, the general manager of the Harlow campus, and her team who handled much of the advance planning and preparation.
Upon arriving at Harlow, the opportunity to socialize with her fellow students within the smaller, more intimate framework of the U.K. campus was a revelation to Ms. Tucker.
“I finally had a chance to experience the everyday ‘drama’ of student life. In the past I had always been focused on school this was a great opportunity for me to socialize and be more focused on my peers,” said Ms. Tucker.
For the Staveleys, the emphasis had to be on the timetable and scheduling. In the centre of London, the group would often have to split into two Ms. Tucker in a taxi with Dr. Annette Staveley while the larger group hopped on the non-accessible older London underground with Dr. Michael Staveley.
“The biggest issue for us was the speed needed to get on trains and the need to improvise and adapt to broken-down lifts, non-working escalators, sudden disruptions of train services, and the unfortunate attitude of certain officials,” said Dr. Annette Staveley. “Our skills in problem-solving and improvisation were well tested on this trip!”
This emphasis on advance planning and adaptability is a fact of life for people with disabilities. In terms of accessibility issues, Ms. Tucker says the sites she has visited while in the U.K. were head and shoulders above certain buildings in downtown St. John’s. The cobbled streets in Canterbury and Cambridge did pose a bit of an issue as did travelling by train and bus to far flung locations such as York and the Bronte parsonage in Haworth.
For both Ms. Tucker and the Staveleys, the positives of the trip far outweighed any negatives. Over the half term break, Ms. Tucker and fellow student Leah Stone embarked on a London theatre blitz, seeing 10 plays in eight days. The act of learning on location was the key to the whole experience, according to Ms. Tucker.
“Reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles and then going on a trip to Stonehenge I experienced a whole new level in my studies,” said Ms. Tucker. “And the Staveleys were great you could always go to them and talk freely.”
The Staveleys make the point that the success of the trip owes much to the other students on the trip and to Ms. Tucker herself. “She was applied and perceptive about what she saw, and taught us a multitude of lessons, adding immeasurably to our experience of the semester,” said Dr. Michael Staveley.
North praises the work of the Staveleys as an extraordinary effort and an example to others and she recommends that other faculty and students in a similar position follow their lead and contact the Blundon Centre as early as possible to begin the planning process. She points out that the ongoing feedback she has received from Ms. Tucker, the Staveleys, and other team members will help the Blundon Centre identify best practices and recommendations for future study-abroad programs. This will include a long-range plan for enhancing the physical accessibility of the Harlow campus.
Ms. Tucker calls Harlow, “the best experience of her university career” and she would not hesitate to attend another study abroad program. Some friends are considering the Literary London course on offer this spring but Ms. Tucker has reluctantly decided to forego another trip this year.
“I haven’t seen my parents since last summer as I went straight from London to spend Christmas with my brother in Korea and then the two of us visited China for New Year’s,” she says matter-of-factly. “So I think a visit home to Labrador is next on the agenda.”