Crossing Countries: Challenging Boundaries, Changing Lives

Are we truly aware how our attitudes affect people with disabilities? Which unspoken social conventions negatively affect how we interact with them? Can you imagine what it’s like to be a blind European going surfing in South Africa? Jean Cathro, a note taker for disabled students at the University of Edinburgh, understood these questions far better than most. That’s why, in 2014, she founded Crossing Countries, a project that offers opportunities for everyone and anyone to volunteer abroad. In  this editorial, Jean tells us all about this exciting social enterprise.


Jean Cathro

Crossing Countries provides a unique, individualised opportunity for disabled and non-disabled people to volunteer abroad together. Our tag line “Challenging Boundaries (1), Changing Lives” epitomises (2) our undertaking (3). We seek to raise awareness of everyone’s value to society and empower people to be more than they thought they could be.

[cml_media_alt id='4535']Crossing Contries Team with Ela Ghandi in South Africa[/cml_media_alt]
The Crossing Contries Team with Ela Ghandi

In 2014 we made our first trip. A team of six people, including two wheelchair users and a blind person, travelled to Durban and volunteered in township crèches (4) with abused children, on maternity wards with new mums and gave presentations in schools to disabled learners and the students of a township high school. On a trip to the Phoenix settlement – where Ghandi developed his philosophy of civil resistance – we were interviewed alongside Ghandi’s granddaughter, who said she was honoured to learn of such a worthwhile project. We even made the newspapers, when Agata (who is blind) went surfing and Jude (who thought she would never again be able to visit a beach) swam in the Indian Ocean.

This year’s team faced a different set of challenges as our Traveller did not look disabled, which sparked many conversations about hidden disabilities. We facilitated the creation of an outdoor art instillation and learning space using recycled objects at a rural school and held workshops in art, drama and study skills in township and special needs schools. We played with the kids in a township crèche and visited a school for children with learning disabilities and their affiliated residential welfare centre.

[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”]PLACE_LINK_HERE[/youtube]

We want to facilitate a social change, a move which is well supported by
recent statistics from the UK government. 16% of UK adults of working age are disabled and one third of them have difficulty accessing services. They are less likely to be employed and less likely to volunteer. Disabled charity Scope found that one fifth of young British adults avoid talking to disabled people and a quarter of disabled people feel less is expected of them than is expected of other people.

[cml_media_alt id='4537']Cosmopolita Scotland Disabilities Crossing Countries 6[/cml_media_alt]
Mark making kites with the abused kids from the programme Bobbi Bear.

Although much has improved since the 2010 Equality Act, there is still more to do to provide equal opportunities for disabled people. Society tends to focus on practical access issues and although this is a barrier it is not the only one. Attitudes towards disabled people and their own expectations also create barriers. We want to change this.

Like gender theorist Judith Butler, we seek to destabilise constructed identities and categories. We seek to challenge social perceptions and labels to show that everyone is equal; that everyone faces challenges; that everyone has the ability to support each other. Philani, a young Zulu man, perfectly sums up our purpose: ‘I may look like I am a normal person, but mentally I believe I was disabled. I had a stereotype… I believed there were things which were just made for white people. That was my barrier… But Suzi, Laura and Jean took me in to an adventure. I challenged my boundaries and I am so grateful about that.’ (Philani 2015)

Our mission is also supported by academic research into the topics of volunteering and disabilities. For example, we integrate Michel Foucault’s theories on the power of institutions to construct and categorise people, Judith Butler’s destabilisation of gender identities through performativity and Homi Bhabha’s ideas of a hybrid space between culturally designated identities. We mix these up with Mike Oliver’s work on the rights of disabled people, Colin Cameron’s affirmative model of disability, and the disparate research on the benefits of volunteering and travel to health and social wellbeing. I also regularly reflect on my own increased sense of self-worth and empowerment from the experiences I’ve had in Durban, South Africa. Put these all together and you have the foundations of our social enterprise: Crossing Countries.

[cml_media_alt id='4532']Cosmopolita Scotland Disabilities Crossing Countries 1[/cml_media_alt]

If you know anyone who would like to be part of this enterprise as a traveller, travel pal, founder or an advisor please get in touch using this email.

If you want to know more about Crossing Countries you can visit their website, Facebook page or follow them in Twitter (@CC_Traveller)

Use of English for Spanish speakers

(1) Boundaries

  • Definition: something that indicates bounds or limits, as a line.
  • Example: “Our tag line “Challenging Boundaries, Changing Lives” epitomises our undertaking.”; “Nuestro eslogan “Retando fronteras, cambiando vidas”, representa el objetivo de nuestro proyecto.”
  • Translation: frontera, límite.

(2) Epitomise

  • Definition: to contain or represent in small compass; serve as a typical example of; typify.
  • Example: “Our tag line “Challenging Boundaries, Changing Lives” epitomises our undertaking.”; “Nuestro eslogan “Retando fronteras, cambiando vidas”, sintetiza el objetivo de nuestro proyecto.”
  • Translation: sintetizar, tipificar, unificar, representar.

(3) Undertaking

  • Definition: a task, piece of work, enterprise, etc., that is undertaken or begun.
  • Example: “Our tag line “Challenging Boundaries, Changing Lives” epitomises our undertaking.”;Nuestro eslogan “Retando fronteras, cambiando vidas”, representa el objetivo de nuestro proyecto.”
  • Translation: proyecto, tarea, empresa.
  • Comment: Pay attention to the different meaning of undertake and undergo.

(4) Crèche

  • Definition: a day-care center; day nursery.
  • Example: “[…] travelled to Durban and volunteered in township crèches with abused children”; “[…] trabajaron como voluntarios en guarderías locales con niños víctimas de abusos”.
  • Translation: guardería.

Have worked in this article:

Author: Jean Cathro.

Edition: Noelia Martínez

Proofreading: Poppy Henderson and Alex Owen-Hill.

Use of English for Spanish Speakers: Noelia Martínez (Not Just Words).

Images and video from Crossing Countries

Autor: Noelia Martinez

Periodista con especialidad en estudios africanos y gran experiencia en interculturalidad (Escocia, Filipinas, estudios africanos, España). Emprendedora autónoma, fundadora de Not Just Words, empresa proveedora de servicios de traducción (ING>ESP), comunicación y redacción de contenido. Twitter @peli_1982 o Linkedin.

Specialised journalist in African Studies with great experience in intercultural issues (Scotland, Philippines, African Studies, Spain). Self-employed entrepreneur trading as Not Just Words providing translation (EN>SP) communication and content writing services. Twitter @peli_1982 or Linkedin.

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