Able to Travel: How a West Michigan Woman Helps Disabled Students Take Off

Juanita Lillie remembers the professor who told her she wouldn’t be able to study abroad because of her visual impairment.

It didn’t slow her down a bit when she traveled to Costa Rica in 2013.

She credits her parents, Sheryl and Russell Lillie, and an amazing support system for helping her make the necessary adjustments and accommodations to make her trip possible.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t have that,” she said.

Ensuring that others with disabilities feel empowered before they embark on a trip is a passion and a calling for Lillie. The 26-year-old started Abroad with Disabilities (AWD) while still an undergraduate student at Grand Valley State University.

The organization provides resources, advice and strategies for students with disabilities who want to travel to other countries and for parents and professionals who want to help them achieve their goals. She was recently awarded the 2016 Discover Ability Award by Disability Advocates of Kent County for her work.

Lillie runs the non-profit with the help of a small team of volunteers. They work virtually through the organization’s website and Facebook page to answer questions and help students prepare for their upcoming journeys. From illuminating the differences in accommodations available in different countries to cultural differences that might exist in terms of how people view people with disabilities in a client’s destination, AWD works to answer the questions people might not even know they need an answer to before they set out on their trip.

Lillie said traveling allows people to discover their own abilities and discover themselves in the process.

“The people we do get to work with – it’s so much fun to see their experiences,” she said. “I love seeing their smiles and their reactions and their accomplishments.”

Lillie quoted disability justice activist Mia Mingus in her award acceptance speech, acknowledging that nobody gets through life without help.

“With disability justice, we want to move away from the “myth of independence,” that everyone can and should be able to do everything on their own. I am not fighting for independence, as much of the disability rights movement rallies behind. I am fighting for an interdependence that embraces need and tells the truth: no one does it on their own and the myth of independence is just that, a myth.”

Fitting for a woman committed to helping others find their own bliss, with a little help. Even more fitting was the delivery of the acceptance speech, which was read by Lillie’s cousin. With a travel bucket list that spans the “whole world”, Lillie was enjoying the beautiful state of Maine when the awards took place in Grand Rapids.

For more information about AWD resources, including prep tools and upcoming classes, visit their website or Facebook page.

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Photo credit: kansasphoto (feature), courtesy images via Juanita Lillie

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