By Rachel Chaikof
Rachel Chaikof is a 29-year-old woman who has Usher 1F. A month ago, she returned to the U.S. after completing two years of service with the Peace Corps in Cameroon, Africa, where she worked in the health education sector, specializing in reaching those with disabilities, a woefully neglected community in Cameroon. At the end of her service, the U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon, Michael Hoza, presented her with an unprecedented award for her work.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
“A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.” – Nelson Mandela
As I reflect on my two years of Peace Corps service in Cameroon, I think back to seven years ago in September 2009. I was a very young adult who was a senior in college and had such a big hunger to see and change the world. I applied to join the Peace Corps but as rejected solely based on my disabilities. The decision made by one person in the medical office was wrong. The decision was so clearly wrong.
That first rejection, however, also represented a blessing in a disguise. Because of it, I contacted Mobility International USA (MIUSA) when I was reapplying to join the Peace Corps three years ago, in 2013, looking for support and advice on reapplying as a person with disabilities. I contacted them simply because I wanted to make sure I would not be rejected again. When I then received an invitation to serve in Cameroon and I contacted MIUSA again to inform them that I had been invited and thanked them for their support, they connected me to a person with disability living in Cameroon. This person with disability then became my official Peace Corps counterpart. My work assignment, working with persons with disability by providing them greater access to health education, happened only because of this very rejection letter. It was the best work assignment I could have received. I have never worked with anyone who is more motivated than the work partners with whom I established a great rapport.
I am so eternally grateful that I made the decision not to give up and try again. Choosing to reapply to join the Peace Corps was obviously the best decision. As I look back on my two years of service, pulling that door open that was once shut to me has clearly brought so many wonderful gifts. I can live no longer regretting that I didn’t fight for my right to serve as a person with disability and that I never had the opportunity to live my dreams. While I can live no longer resenting that initial rejection, my story teaches real lessons. No matter how complex a person’s disabilities may appear on paper, they do not define a person’s life. They do not equate to obstacles and prevention from doing work successfully and living safely. A Peace Corps Medical Officer said to me during my service, “I didn’t know about Usher Syndrome until I looked at your medical files. I looked it up and learned about it. Thank you for teaching me about it. I now know that when I review applicants, a person like you who has complex conditions can serve successfully.”
Living in Cameroon with cochlear implants posed no obstacles. The hearing devices were so durable that they lasted throughout my two years after having been beaten up by dust and downpouring rain. I was still able to get my hearing tuned up through the internet, working with an audiologist 6,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, in the U.S., thanks to the innovation of remote MAPping, also known as telepractice. I passed the French exam on my second day in Cameroon, which meant that, unlike the majority of volunteers in my training group, I did not need to take any additional exams to prove my competency in French. This meant that my hearing disability did not in any way pose any barriers to learning a language. I climbed up to the top of Mt. Ngaoundere one month after I arrived in Cameroon. I think that pretty much says if this girl can climb a mountain, then vestibular issues are really nothing. Even though I can’t walk on a balance beam, the world is not full of balance beams. As for my vision, legally blind people have successfully served in the Peace Corps, including one woman who served from 2006 to 2008 in Extreme North, Cameroon. If a woman who is legally blind can serve, then there is no reason why a person who is slowly going blind can’t serve too. The bottom line is that no matter how complex the medical conditions may appear on paper, persons with disabilities find ways to tear down walls by finding alternative ways to function in their own bodies.
Now that I have returned to the US, I hope to share my story with as many people as I can so that we can open up more doors that have been shut to persons with disabilities. Also, I would like to thank whoever was in the medical office in 2013 and 2014, reviewed my application and decided to give me the chance to serve in the Peace Corps. You obviously made the very right decision, and I am very thankful.
This article was republished with permission from Rachel’s blog.