From the 28th of May to the 4th of June I went to Strasbourg to attend a study session ran by ESN (the Erasmus Student Network), ENIL (European Network on Independent Living) and the Council of Europe. It focussed on intercultural learning within a mixed ability group, gathering young people from across Europe to learn together. Approximately half the participants were disabled.
I’d never even heard of study sessions before, let alone any of the organisations running them. I applied with the expectation that I probably wouldn’t get in and once I did I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I’ve attended events exclusively for students before, and events for disabled young people. However, I’d never been to something that tried to bring the two together.
I was surprised how much of an impact it had on me. Yes, I learnt a lot during the workshops but it was the friendships I made and the atmosphere of belonging to this group that had the greatest effect on me.
To tell you the truth I felt like someone was pulling all my feelings out of me and putting them back in a very different order. I had no idea how to handle what was going on inside my head, how to deal with the fact that I actually felt like I had a place within the group. People were so nice to me and it was a confusing experience. I hadn’t expected it, hadn’t expected people to read to me without seeming annoyed, to guide me, to ask me if I was ok. I hadn’t expected them to notice that I might need them. Yet they did. They noticed and they reached out to me, not letting me pull away as I normally would.
I cried a lot. Happy, confused, overwhelmed tears. The energy I normally spend fighting back had nowhere to go, for once, I was in a place where I didn’t need to be tense and on edge all of the time. I questioned myself constantly. What if this wasn’t real? What if I was taking too much of a risk hoping these people might actually like me. It sounds ridiculous when I write it down, but I grew up on the outside and I don’t think you ever really forget what that feels like. I navigated an education system in which I usually felt unwelcome, or at least obviously different from everyone around me. Trying to break out of that mentality and recognise my worth has been incredibly difficult.
I spoke to one of the organisers one lunchtime about all of this and she told me a few things that stuck with me. It’s ok to cry, especially if they are happy tears! However, it’s also understandable to second-guess yourself when your experiences have taught you to. As disabled people, we might question our friendships, wondering when people will suddenly realise that we are too much of a burden and leave. However, the good people won’t. Friendships can feel like a risk when you are worried that your disability might put people off, or that after a while they’ll simply get tired of it. However, not taking that risk, never reaching out to people and trying to connect is so much worse.
It was with this group of people that I danced very badly, sang karaoke, explored the city and actually got down to some serious work as well. We disagreed, we listened and I hope eventually we came to a place where we could really understand one another. I had to examine many of my own misconceptions about other people and countries, constantly challenging myself to see situations from other points of view.
I will miss the laughter and joking around. I’ll miss the ridiculously long coffee breaks that actually turned out to be a good thing! I’m not sure how much I will miss all the reflecting, but I’m sure there’s a little part of me that secretly appreciated it. I don’t know if we’ll ever come together as a complete group again, I hope we might. I do know that the people I met and the way they let me become part of something new and amazing will stay with me for a long time.