Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Centering Disability and Disablement in Global Service Learning: Invitations to Engage Differently and Generatively with Marginalized Southern Others

By Jessica Vorstermans

Critical Disability Studies, School of Health Policy & Management

York University


This paper discusses how to center disability as a core component of our shared humanness, while also making space for learning about ways disablement is produced through colonialism and racial and ableist capitalism in the field of Global Service Learning (GSL). I take up a case study of a small GSL organization that worked to center disability in its pedagogy. The organization, Intercordia Canada, mobilized disability as a way to invite student participants into relationality; into relationships that centered vulnerability and reciprocity. The pedagogy mobilized disability as a way to resist normative subject-formation in neoliberal times. This case study is not seen as a way to counter the irrevocably bad in GSL with the inherently good; instead, I aim to show the places where the pedagogy and model functions as a different invitation to student participants. I work to understand how the pedagogy makes room for a commitment to alternative preparation of student participants and ways it challenges the charity model and the de-politicization of inequity and disablement. I then discuss tensions in this alternative model and vision, asking how we can center engagement with disability in a field (GSL) that does not engage meaningfully, but also call for the need to take disablement into account. GSL is fundamentally about transnational encounters; so the need to engage with ways the Global North produced and produces disablement in the Global South is essential learning for student participants. I end by asking: How can disability be a radical interrogative disruption in the field of GSL?

How can we make known to students who will complete Global Service Learning (GSL) experiences that they are not separate from transnational colonial and disabling processes, and engage them in critical work that moves toward self-reflexivity and a willingness to stay in that difficult learning? In this paper I discuss how we can center disability as a core component of our shared humanness, while also making space for learning about ways disablement is produced through colonialism and racial and ableist capitalism. GSL, like many fields, does not meaningfully attend to the complexities of disability and disablement.

Disability and Disablement in GSL Pedagogy

This paper critically takes up a case study of a small GSL organization that worked to center disability in its pedagogy. I ask how we can center engagement with disability in a field that doesn’t engage meaningfully, but also to take disablement into account. GSL is fundamentally about transnational encounters so the need to engage with ways the Global North produced and produces disablement in the Global South is essential learning. Reinaldo Walcott reminds us that the university is a site of labor, oppression, and struggle (2020). GSL is a site learning in the university. GSL is a site of subject production, where Northerners develop their self and understandings of the world. GSL is a site of labor, of Southern hosts, educating, feeding, hosting, welcoming, and orienting student participants from the Global North. How can we, as anti-oppression and anti-ableism scholars and teachers, conspire and intervene in the field of GSL as a site of struggle? How can we center disability and disablement and the learning of how we, as Northerners, are complicit in the production of oppression in the spaces where GSL takes place. Finally, I take up the complications of this pedagogical work and end with some offerings of ways forward.

Conservatively, 66 percent of people with disabilities live in the global South (Meekosha, 2008; 2011). This number is likely larger as it does not take into account under-reporting. Simplistic narratives attribute disability in the South to large events like tsunamis and natural disasters. However, a critical disability framework re-orients the focus to the human-led processes that fuel and reproduce poverty. Systems of colonialism, imperialism, and globalization work to disable those in the Global South, while profits and resources flow to the Global North (Meekosha, 2011). Examples of transnational mining corporations in the Global South, many (most) headquartered in Canada, pollute water and food sources and produce impairments in those living in local communities. Transnational actors are producing impairment in non-natural ways through violence to the environment, malnutrition, the fueling of conflicts that leave people with impairments, and the refusal to protect worker’s rights when they are working with harsh chemicals, in unsafe working conditions and built environments, and a myriad of violations of human rights (Connell, 2011; Meekosha & Soldatic, 2011). This production of impairment is part of the process of disablement, which is produced through the material conditions of (neo)colonialism, (neo)imperialism, and capitalism which then produce disability in particular ways for specific bodies (Gorman, 2016; Grech & Soldatic, 2016).

In this paper, I explore a case study of a small Canadian organization, Intercordia Canada (Idealist, 2022), which engaged GSL programming; marrying academic and experiential learning from 2003 to 2018, when Intercordia closed. I forward, critique, and explore the pedagogy used by Intercordia, a pedagogy that —in my experience in the organization—invited student participants to challenge the organizational forces that shape our consent and complicity in our current phase of capitalism and capitalist forms of community. What Vrasti (2010), influenced by Foucault, calls “a more tolerable, equitable, and pleasurable phase/face of capitalism” that “conceal[s] its tensions and postpone[s] its crises” (p. 2). The Intercordia invitation to students was to not engage in different grand narratives of change, but to imagine and act in small and subversive ways; the littleness as powerful. This was the Intercordia invitation to enter encounters with marginalized Southern others.[1] I personally experienced that the pedagogy of Intercordia mobilized disability as a way to invite students into relationality, into relationships that centered vulnerability and reciprocity; as a way to resist normative subject-formation in neoliberal times. This case study does not counter the irrevocably bad in GSL with the inherently good (Intercordia’s pedagogy), instead I make known the places where the pedagogy and model functions as a different invitation to student participants: to understand how the organization was committed to alternative preparation and critical pedagogy, how it took up sites of difference (like disability), and ways it challenged the charity model and de-politicization of inequity. I then take up tensions in the model and vision.

Positionality & Methodology

I am an able-bodied, white, settler scholar taking up space and doing work on Turtle Island, specifically I live on Treaty 13 lands. I enter into this work with care and am always guided by an intentional commitment to reciprocity. My cultural formation, my entire childhood and young adulthood, was in L’Arche (, a federation of communities where those with and without intellectual disabilities share life in community. Reciprocity and mutuality are the guiding ethos of living in community in L’Arche. I now recognize the ways in which Indigenous knowledges have been erased, omitting ways that we, as settlers, have formed intentional communities and understand reciprocity and mutuality (Todd, 2016). Intimately tied to this are the ways in which settler intentional communities are formed and exist on unceded land.

This paper is also auto ethnographic in nature. I, too, have been formed by Intercordia and have been a part of the organization in a diversity of ways for many years. I am an alumnus of the program, I worked as a campus representative, I served as mentor to students living in the Dominican Republic (for one of the summers while I lived in L’Arche Santo Domingo), and, finally, I worked as co-director of the organization for the last three years it was in operation. This work is deeply personal for me and is rooted in a desire to understand the complexities of relationships of mutuality across difference as a way we can work towards a shared liberation that honours all parts of each of us.

I need to speak to the horrific history of L’Arche that came to light after the 2020 death of its founder, Jean Vanier (L’Arche International, 2020). This is relevant, as Intercordia Canada was a sister organization to L’Arche; and its ethos was shaped by Vanier’s thought (Intercordia Canada, n.d.). The uncovering of Vanier’s abuse and coercion of women in L’Arche communities sits within our patriarchal society and global capitalism; L’Arche was never outside of power systems that produce and reproduce abuse. One of the painful, difficult reckonings is with the teachings Vanier gave to us, particularly around vulnerability and mutuality. We must now hold this alongside his lived actions of dominance, abuse, and sexual coercion. Intercordia closed before the revelations of Vanier’s actions were released, so there was no institutional process on what it would have meant for the organization moving forward. Many have been left to grapple with ways to move forward holding the knowledge of the truth of who Vanier was alongside the work of L’Arche in our world (Barter, 2020). While there has not been a formal process for Intercordia, former directors and alumni must hold the truths together that Vanier was abusive while his work shaped transformative experiences. This grappling is just beginning and must be rooted in discussions of power and abuse in movements for justice, not moving to erase or ignore the truth of who Vanier was and ways that the institution of L’Arche allowed this history of abuse to flourish.

This paper comes out of a larger study where I completed in-depth interviews with twelve Intercordia student alumni about their global service learning experiences in the program.[2] I recruited participants who had engaged with disability in their Intercordia experience, which looked different for each participant. Some participants had volunteered in a school for children with disabilities (inclusive or segregated), a disability organization, or had lived with a host family member who had a disability. I asked them big questions about their experience: how they lived vulnerability, how they lived mutuality, about relationships of care and reciprocity, and about ways they struggled. I wanted to listen for the ways they brought up disability, the narratives or discourses around disability that they produced after going through the Intercordia program, which framed disability as a site of difference and also as a place for connection and mutuality.

Participants were all Intercordia alumni, of which two also had served as mentors, they came from various academic disciplines and universities, they overwhelmingly identified as women, and four identified as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and one identified as queer. I explicitly did not ask whether participants identified as having a disability and no one identified as such. Many participants spoke openly about their experiences with anxiety while in their international placement, embedding their experiences in structures outside themselves and not in a medical model understanding of disability (Oliver, 1990). I used pseudonyms for all participants and do not mention identifying parts of their stories in order to maintain their anonymity. I am grateful to each participant for trusting me with their intimate stories and was struck by their desire to enter into complex relationships of mutuality and care.

Intercordia Canada: Being with, not Doing for

Intercordia Canada was an engaged, accredited experiential learning experience that:

Partner[ed] with Canadian universities in order to offer students a unique, university accredited, engaged-learning experience. The goal of this innovative learning program [was] to encourage moral responsiveness, develop respect for diversity and a valuing of other cultures, religions and socio-economic backgrounds that [would] enable Canadian students to attain a well-educated solidarity with others who are different (Intercordia Canada, n.d.).

The larger ethos of the program was to provide spaces for encounters across difference, however that difference might manifest. The three major tenants of the program were:

  1. “Being With” people is more important than “Doing For” them. The primary intent of the Intercordia experience was not to change the world but to change our understanding of the world. Intercordia encouraged participants to enter into a host community/family with a desire to learn and an attitude of openness and non-judgment. Intercordia wanted to discover both the beauty and distress of the people who welcome us into their lives, so we can better understand the complexity of the global village.
  2. Encountering our weaknesses and vulnerability can be the source of significant growth and connection. When we are strong and think we are in control, we can get things done, but we might miss out on opportunities to build relationships with others. The Intercordia experience was all about making friendships with people who are marginalized by injustice or circumstance and learning from them what is most valuable. When we let go of control and allow ourselves to be vulnerable it can feel incredibly uncomfortable. However, we often discover this can lead us to deeper knowledge of oneself as well as create a greater openness to connection with another.
  3. The journey of learning is best made together. Relationship and community are at the heart of the Intercordia experience: to be immersed in a placement community, welcomed by our partners and locals and, for the time mentors are there, become part of their community. Everyone had the support of an Intercordia Mentor, there to encourage, assist and help to make the most of their experience.

The pedagogy of Intercordia was fundamentally about inviting Northern student and Southern host participants into relationships of mutuality, where both worked interdependently towards a shared liberation. Simon Springer (2016) forwards this relational solidarity in his provocatively titled work, Fuck Neoliberalism. It expresses the very invitation that the pedagogy of Intercordia forwarded:

When the political system is defined, conditioned, enmeshed, and derived from capitalism, it can never represent our ways of knowing and being in the world, and so we need to take charge of these lifeways and reclaim our collective agency. We must start to become enactive in our politics and begin embracing a more relational sense of solidarity that recognizes that the subjugation and suffering of one is in fact indicative of the oppression of all (Shannon & Rouge, 2009, as cited in Springer, 2016).

Intercordia invited students to do just this, to engage in a relational sense of solidarity. Student participants lived alongside those who are different in order to understand this from them, on their terms, from their way of being in the world. The invitation to Northern students was to a space where one was asked to think about their experience as one that wasn’t only about them. It was an experience about many different people, communities, and stakeholders; their struggles and histories and ways of being. Student participants did not sign up to consume an experience that would be about their own desires to change the world, embedded in Northern ways of understanding what that means. It was an invitation into a relational experience of solidarity.

The Intercordia program had four major components: (a) a full-year academic course, (b ) four formation days led by Intercordia staff over the academic year, (c) a three-month placement and, upon return, (d) a two-day reintegration seminar in Canada. The international placements where student participants completed their three-month experiences were in the following countries: Ghana, Rwanda, Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, and in L’Arche communities across Canada. Intercordia characterized the placement experience as a time where students will spend up to three months living and working in an area of the world radically different from their present situation (Intercordia Canada, 2022). The work placement, described on the Intercordia Facebook page, is primarily about creating opportunities for relationships with people who are culturally, materially, or intellectually different than the student, and quite often living in vulnerable circumstances: “Participants return home with a deep understanding of how to develop relationships across difference and solidarity in the face of injustice” (Intercordia Canada, 2022).

The preparation for the program was extensive. Student participants were enrolled in a specifically designed university course that was led by a faculty member at a partner Canadian university. The academic component of Intercordia was integral to the experience. The academic formation was critical in intellectually preparing students to engage in constructive ways; making known the processes of colonialism, imperialism and unjust global structures of power and discourses that shape the contexts and politics of the places they would be living. Alongside the academic course, students engaged in an Intercordia seminar formation program animated by Intercordia staff. Each campus partner had its own seminar program, led by two Intercordia staff. The group met 4 times over the year, for an all-day Saturday seminar covering the following broad themes: (a) Who Am I?, (b) Belonging, Cultural Adjustment, Survival and Learning, (c) and What to Expect and Letting Go of Expectations. The group also met for a send-off supper before they departed. The formation program was essential to the program; it covered a significant breadth of preparation material, and was also a space for the intentional work of building of community. Many students came into the program with a desire to live in community, but did not have practical experience of living in community and were not ready for the intensity and difficulty that comes with living with others in intimate ways.

Throughout the Intercordia preparation, disability was centered in pedagogy as a site of difference. Because Intercordia was a sister organization to L’Arche Canada (, intentional communities of people with and without intellectual disabilities sharing life in community, those working with the organization came out of the culture and rituals of L’Arche. Part of the alternative invitation to student participants was that they did not choose their international placement from a drop-down menu of choices. Throughout the seminars, the Intercordia staff got to know the student participants and their gifts and challenges. At the second seminar the placements were introduced, highlighting the work of the partner NGO in each country, and alumni came to talk often about their experience in the placement. Student participants then engaged in exercises to dig deep into the concept of choice and privilege, what it means to have the privilege to make choices, who is entitled to that choice and who is not. Student participants were encouraged to think about what it means to engage in a program where they will enter the lives of others and situations of poverty because they choose to do so, and not because of historical conditions. Student participants then filled out a three-page questionnaire with questions like “What strengths or gifts do you think you will bring to your host community/work project?”, “What is your greatest concern about being in an Intercordia placement?”, and “What do you expect will be your greatest need while in your placement?” They were asked what kind of supports they thought they will need, whether they wanted to be close or far away from another participant, and whether they were drawn to a specific placement and why. They were also asked whether they were open to being sent to any placement, whether they were open to trusting Intercordia to make that choice for them. Intercordia staff then worked collectively to determine where student participants would be assigned, centering the needs and desires of host communities where students would be living.

The next piece of the Intercordia program was the three months spent in living in placement. Intercordia partnered with small, grassroots not-for-profit organizations in eight countries (Intercordia Canada, n.d.) and these organizations were the ones who facilitated the three month in-country placements. The organizations were diverse in their missions, work and philosophies, and all had a desire to welcome student participants to their communities, to live with families connected to the organization, and to work alongside them in the work they did.  Student participants would have lived with a host family in Lviv, Ukraine, and volunteered in a L’Arche workshop each day, or livede with a host family in La Ceiba, Dominican Republic, and volunteered on a re-forestation brigade in the mountains, or lived with a host family in Gisenye, Rwanda, and volunteered in an inclusive school founded by the Umbumwe Centre each day.

The final component of the Intercordia program was the two-day reintegration seminar that was mandatory for all students, in addition to a reflection paper submitted to the professor at their respective university. The two-day reintegration seminar was facilitated by Intercordia staff and provided a space and time for students to begin to unpack their experiences, talk about their challenges and times of beauty, to complete thoughtful reflection and self-reflexivity and participate in group activities with others who have lived their own Intercordia experience. Each experience was often very unique, and the strength of the communal re-integration lies in that difference, acknowledging that each student participant lived their own experience, however difficult or beautiful it was.

Intercordia: Embedded in Scripts Already Known

I want to turn to the complexities and barriers to this alternative invitation to enter an encounter across difference in neoliberal times, where encounters are structured as ones where young people from the North are invited to care for, help, and liberate disabled Southern others. Indeed, doing for others is the basis for almost all GSL experiences, which is an easy, feel-good and celebrated act in this pleasurable phase of capitalism (Vrasti, 2010). The shift to doing with othered others in the South: at their pace, on their terms is complicated, frustrating for both the student participant and the one welcoming the student participant, takes significant time and commitment and is deeply counter-cultural work. Indeed, it is hard for student participants from the Global North to do with, even when this is what they state that they desire to do. They can quickly become disillusioned, bored, angry, frustrated and move into the mode of doing for or just opting out of the experience and focusing on traveling, hanging out with others from their home country (Vrasti, 2010). Indeed this is the epitome of the privilege those from the North hold in this space, they don’t even have to engage in the volunteer work they went to complete when it becomes too tedious or monotonous. The choice is theirs after all. This choice sits in stark contrast to those in the South who engage in this tedious and monotonous work to stay alive in situations of poverty and injustice.

Intercordia’s invitation to be with and not do for, created as an alternative to the mainstream GSL helping narratives, still makes space for the reproduction of the Southern other as unfortunate and in need of help. David Jefferess (2013) is helpful here in his critique of the ‘Radi-Aid’ satirical song, which was released as a critique of the white savior complex in Africa, asking tongue-in-cheek for those in Africa to send radiators to the poor cold folks of Norway. Jefferess explains that the purported aim of the project, to critique the development agency aid complex, is subverted by its unintended reinforcement of the idea that the North should help the South, reinforcing the humanitarian nature of the relationship, saying “the anxious repetition of these images reinforces the idea—as already known—that we, the fortunate, have a moral obligation to aid them, who are unfortunate” (p. 75). Heron’s (2007) work echoes this danger, explaining that the focus on collaboration can obscure power relations. Intercordia, embedded in these narratives (Jefferess, 2013) is naturally not immune from the reproduction of these disabling narratives. Even with an alternative model and invitation to enter into relationships of mutuality, there is still a danger of the tendency to structure these relationships across difference as ones of pity. Gada Mahrouse’s (2008) work on transnational activists uses Hannah Arendt’s distinction between relationships of pity and relationships of compassion. Mahrouse explains the difference in these relationships as “a relationship of compassion is more or less an equal one and implies a sharing of suffering. Relationships of pity, on the other hand, re-enact the power differentials between the viewer and the sufferer, rather than disrupt them” (p. 98). The process of pity creates more and more distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’. She argues that the larger structures of globalized racism are such that we in the North feel compassion for the activists (what a difficult situation you chose to put yourself in, you are so great) and pity for those who experience the human rights abuses, those the activists are going to help. Mahrouse (2008) explains that this does nothing to disrupt global power relationships; those who are imagined in needing pity and those imagined to bestow this pity. Because Intercordia was embedded in global relationships of power, encounters that took place in the program can be read or imagined as ones of pity by the student participants and their friends and family in Canada. The narrative that disabled Southern others need to be pitied, and the subsequent compassion for the (mostly) able-bodied young Northerner helping them, is one that is still read through the photos and stories that Intercordia participants sent home to Canada. This is the space in which Intercordia was engaged, one fraught with already known disabling narratives, those who deserve pity and those who can bestow this pity. A space that needs disruption, troubling, and interventions.

Because GSL programs are based in our transnational system of racial and ableist capitalism, which is producing impairment and disablement, how can GSL be a space that resists ableism and disablement? Disability and colonialism are intimately intertwined; colonial powers institutionalized people with disabilities and used institutionalization to suppress resistance to colonial projects (Hillier & Vorstermans, 2022; Ibrahim, 2014; Meekosha, 2011). Impairment is produced because of neo-colonial processes that fuel war, conflict, natural disaster, poverty and associated diseases and illnesses (Meekosha, 2011). We cannot work toward decolonizing the space of GSL without taking up disability and impairment in complex and critical ways. These disruptions are important in the field of critical GSL as discussions on decolonizing and challenging the structures of the field have not yet meaningfully engaged with a critical disability analysis. These disruptions are important in the field of critical disability studies as GSL progams are self-making projects for Northerners; subjectivities are formed and reproduced through encounters with Southern others, including disabled Southern others. Theorizing disablement in this space is important because Northerners are engaging in the reproduction of disablement through encounters facilitated in GSL learning; individualizing and medicalizing disability, constructing charity and pity responses to disability in the South and work to obscure their own role as Northerners in the production of impairment (Vorstermans, 2018).

Ways Forward?

Here I take up how educators can work toward a more reciprocal and transformative practice of GSL; working to make known the reproductions of able/disabled binaries and our role in the production of impairment and disablement. The field of GSL is lacking a critical disability lens (Vorstermans, 2018). Student participants are not equipped with the analytical and theoretical tools to understand the encounters with the Southern disabled others in ways that uncover and engage with disablement and the production of impairment. Here, I begin to work through how we can work within critical pedagogies to ensure they don’t reproduce disablement and explicitly work to make known processes of the production of impairment. What are spaces that can facilitate the imagining of opportunities for enabling critical disability pedagogies and disabling simplistic pedagogies that individualize disability in GSL programs? There is a need to make existing alternative and critical pedagogies more inclusive of the intersection of disability, as it is still marginalized or hidden. How do we get students engaging in GSL programs to think about disablement and impairment in complex and structural ways, when disability is still seen as a special or othered category? There are three larger conceptual themes at work in GSL programs that effectively obscure this attention to complexity, and that make difficult learning about disability impossible to engender. They are: the overarching ableist narratives that characterize the field (Vorstermans, 2018), the lack of a critique of disablement and de-politicization of disability, and the creation of programs designed solely with the needs and desires of the imagined able-bodied students from the North. Mainstream GSL programs reproduce disability as individual and medical. Students are invited into an already scripted experience, the roles of able-bodied helper and unfortunate disabled other make it difficult to imagine differently, difficult to imagine an encounter of mutuality, difficult to imagine a politicized construction of disability, and leave no space for learning about an alternative disability politics (Vorstermans, 2018). This is coupled with not just the lack of a focused critique of disablement, but also with a powerful and dominant narrative of the Northerner coming to help, doing for, doing something, being an expert, knowing, and saving the disabled other in the South. The individual and medical model constructions of disability are part of the deliberate absence of a critique of disablement in the field of GSL.

Casey, one of the Intercordia student participants, told me a powerful story of learning that makes known our implication in the production of impairment that is obscured or hidden, but can be made known through GSL experiences. Casey was describing the region where the host family that they lived with, a region known for large flower plantations, grown for foreign export:

I just really hated the flower plantations. And, also the teachers at my school told me, and I don’t know if there is scientific proof, or just like something they think in the community, that so many people, there was such a high level of students with disabilities, in that, like area, because of the flower plantations, cause the women were working, while pregnant without masks, while the toxic spray. Cause I think, they said that statistically they are way higher than other regions. And that was the flower plantation region. So all the teachers, and the nurse there, thought that, that was why. I found that really interesting. And then, it made me sad that my host mom was working in chemicals all day. And then, she told me, she came home crying one day because a batch of flowers, that went to the US, had been, like, some giant poisonous spider in them. And I was like, I was so annoyed, cause she was crying. She was like, the US company threatened to, our boss said that they like threatened that they were going, to like, cut, trade with us. They were going to go to a different company cause they weren’t like checking the flowers. So she was so upset. She’s like, if that happens, I could lose my job, or they will shut down some of the, like, women who work here. And she was so upset, and I was like. I had been sitting there, thinking for like a month, that like I’m going to boycott roses. And I am going to tell everyone I know not to buy roses. ʼCause it’s going to, it’s a bad company, then I realized that like—it kind of challenged the way that, the way I was looking at the entire process. Like, no actually, this is a really great thing for this community, for people who had no options, for work other than farming, now have a full-time job, and like it does so many great things for the community. The issue is work labour, and worker’s rights. And I think, it wasn’t until I sort of saw her break it down, that I realized I was looking at a problem, really really wrong.

Here, Casey understands the role of their host mother as teacher. Casey explains that they had understood the situation of flower plantations in the South in a specific way, which was deeply challenged by their host mother’s experience. Because of this, Casey then begins to engage in a politicized structural analysis of the flower plantations. They move to think through the issue as one of labor rights, which has completely different solutions and struggles, the “reading of the world” was led by the Southern host mother (Freire, 1970, p. 8). But what I was struck by was the complete absence of a critical disability analysis. Casey was almost there; they were complicating our desire for roses as leading to the production of impairment, but the analysis did not move past that. Here I position this student as critical, engaged in critical thinking, structural analysis, open to recognizing the host mother as a teacher, but does not have access to the larger disablement critique needed to think through the complexity of the situation. This disablement critique was not part of the tools Casey had access too. The absence of pedagogical tools meant a reduced understanding of the complexity of the situation, the politicization of disablement was not made known, was not part of their learning. The potential of a critical disability analysis to deepen student learning, and uncover the role of the North in the production of disability in the South (Soldatic, 2013) is evident and needed.

Looking forward, I identify four strategic pieces that can be built to resist dominant ableist narratives and that can make space for a complex critique of disablement and our (Northern) intimate role in the production of impairment. This four-part strategic plan contains: (a) GSL programming with formal academic preparation rooted in an intersectional analysis; (b) the invitation to students in encountering the other needs to be intentionally rooted in vulnerability and mutuality that can work to disrupt the “emotionality of the self”; (c) Southern hosts deserve preparation and training to welcome, live, and work with Northern students; and (d) the ethos of the experience needs to be radically re-thought, regarding destabilization of knowledge and being uncomfortable.

GSL Programming with Formal Academic Preparation Rooted in an Intersectional Analysis

The first piece is formal academic preparation rooted in an intersectional analysis, with the inclusion of disability as a site of difference and oppression, must be foundational in GSL programming. Student participants need to be equipped with the intellectual tools they will need to understand and challenge Northern and ableist ways of thinking about the world and those who live in the South. Northern students need tools to enable them to engage in complex analysis that brings disablement into the open, countering medicalized and individualized analysis of disability. I posit that housing an alternative relational program like Intercordia in a Critical Disability program would provide the intersectional framework needed, attending to all sites of difference and oppression. Nirmala Erevelles (2014) tells us that disability studies:

forces students to think outside the edges while imagining precarious possibilities. Because it asks questions about the very practices of pedagogy that produce damaging and sometimes death- making effects for bodies deemed non-normal. Because it insists on recognitions that pedagogical practices would rather ignore (n.p).

Housing a radical GSL program in a critical disability studies department would allow for possibilities for complex learning about disablement of non-normal bodies and also ensure this imagining of precarious possibilities needed in this colonized and problematic space. The placement component of GSL programs must be bookended by academic courses. Student participants I interviewed spoke to the importance of the academic preparation for their experience; three in particular, named the academic preparation as integral to the deepness of their learning. Barbara Heron (2006) calls for not just the debriefing of the experience, but also a deconstruction of the experience in a formal academic space. I argue that this deconstruction does not necessarily have to happen in a formal academic space, but with critical pedagogical tools taken up in a collective learning environment is necessary. Tools like Andreotti’s (2016) HEADS UP is open source and can be facilitated in a group. The deconstruction of the experience is vital. The retelling of damaging narratives without serious intellectual inquiry and interrogation reproduces bad learning, learning that “instrumentalize learning and essentialize human difference” (Tarc 2011, p. 64).

An Invitation to Students in Encountering the Other Needs to be Intentionally Rooted in Vulnerability and Mutuality

The second piece of this strategy is the invitation to students in encountering the other needs to be intentionally rooted in vulnerability and mutuality that can work to disrupt the “emotionality of the self” (Chouliaraki, 2013). In the Intercordia invitation to engage with difference, the encounter with difference is introduced in a way that allows for a diversity of ways for imagining how one might be in the experience. Cultural scripts of doing for, helping, charity, and, knowing best, were challenged through pedagogical exercises. This invited student participants to imagine engaging in relationships with others in more just and reciprocal ways. When one goes into the encounter thinking that they know best, or are there to help, or impart knowledge, the possibility for mutuality, of even being open to thinking about mutuality, is erased or already known as not possible. When one enters the encounter already de-valuing the other, it is impossible to engage in a mutual way. The prior disruption of the damaging and dangerous cultural scripts is essential, the labor-intensive pre-work is necessary.

Southern Hosts Need Preparation and Training to Welcome, Live, and Work with Northern Students

The third strategic piece to be developed came through my own collaborative research with host families (MacDonald, 2016; MacDonald & Vorstermans, 2016), where Southern hosts asked for preparation and training for them to welcome, live and work with Northern students. This is an essential area for significant development, enabling the role of Southern hosts in the pedagogical project of GSL. Northern students receive preparation and space to work through issues and challenges in GSL. Southern hosts need this as well; and part of programming fees should go to fund this preparation. I imagine this preparation not as ‘how to welcome and care for a Northern student’ but rather, ‘how to deal with a problematic student,’ and ‘what are recourses available when students are not living well with your family? Or your organization?’ Hosts would design and execute the workshops and they would be financially compensated, as this is labor essential to the program. Further research is needed with Southern hosts on what this preparation could look like and necessitate. A shift in thinking that we only need to prepare those from the North to live in the South is long overdue. Katie MacDonald’s (2016) work looks at the motivations and experiences of hosts in Nicaragua using a transnational feminist perspective. MacDonald argues for more focus on hosts as meaningful participants in the pedagogical projects enacted in volunteer abroad programs, as teachers with tools and strategies in the learning journeys of the Northerners they host (2016).

Entangled here is the ability of Southern hosts to challenge Northern students in difficult learning. By this I do not mean that hosts are not capable of this challenge, indeed MacDonald’s (2016) work demonstrates the myriad of desires that Southern hosts have for the learning with which they want Northern students to engage, being social, political, and structural in nature. By this I mean that Southern hosts are constrained by structural economic and power considerations. Southern hosts are invested in this work for many reasons, and the economic and social capital they gain are primary reasons (MacDonald & Vorstermans, 2016). These tangible rewards could be at stake if they are imagined as too critical or not welcoming enough of Northern students, or if the learning gets too difficult or uncomfortable for Northern students. Southern hosts are also not outside the colonial and imperial structures and processes and internalization of these logics can work to reproduce power imbalances. Challenging colonial constructs and inequities is fraught and violent work; can we ethically ask Southern hosts to engage in it to further Northern student’s learning? When I asked student participants about a time they were challenged by the Southern other, they revealed stories that were uncomfortable for them, signalling the fraughtness of hosts engaging in this space. How can GSL organizations work with hosts to open this space and not have the negative blowback fall upon hosts? What are the ethical considerations when we consider hosts as teacher, as knowledge-holder, and how do we compensate this labor?

Intercordia’s model of mentorship can mitigate some of the difficulty that Southern hosts have in working with Northerners. Kana, an Intercordia mentor, explained that working at bettering the relationships between the student participants and host families was important work for them in their role. They described a moment when they worked through confusion that a student participant had with their volunteer placement that was causing frustrations in the host community. Kana explained that they had given a lot of energy to working through the situation with the student participant and the host family who was invested in the relationship, and wanted to know that the student participant was well. The role of mentor here was integral in working through a conflict that the Northerner was unable to do on their own. The labor of supporting the Northerner through the conflict in the volunteer work placement did not fall upon the Southern host organization, which is engaged in their own labor and struggles of working in poverty, but fell on the mentor. Support of the learning of hosts while students are in placement is also needed. Hosts enter into GSL for experiences of mutuality (MacDonald & Vorstermans, 2016), but there is no institutionalized support for their learning. What would/could this look like? Would the role of mentor be useful in facilitating a space for a mutuality in learning between hosts and students? Narda Razack (2001; 2002; 2009) takes up experiences of Northern racial minority students who participate in social work experiential placements and international learning. Her research shows that because of neoliberal colonized educational climate and practices they can “never feel totally safe” (2001, p. 224) because racism is embedded in all social structures. She found that field instructors do not engage in “substantive analysis of anti-racist or cross-cultural practices” (2001, p. 225) in this space. This leads to racialized students feeling like they will be penalized if they bring up experiences of racism, which indeed her research uncovered. Racialized students experienced isolation while in placement, more so than white students (2001). Her research participants, racialized students, offered recommendations for decolonizing this educational space: an association of racialized field instructors who would act as advisors to students in placement, anti-oppression seminars while in placement; students should be informed of their rights in relation to discrimination before placement, and a space for racialized students to access support (2001). What could this look like for disabled students in the space of GSL?

The Ethos of the Experience Needs to be Radically Re-thought

            The fourth piece of this strategy for a complex critique of disablement and our (Northern) intimate role in the production of impairment is that the ethos of the experience needs to be radically re-thought, with a focus on the destabilization of knowledge and being uncomfortable. GSL programs need to make space for complexity and embrace pedagogies that move away from erasure or de-politicization. A radical movement away from the experience being palatable for the student participant (and increasingly, their parents). Gada Mahrouse (2011) posits this interesting question in her work with ethical volunteer tourists. The experience for the small group of women she interviewed was overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, many of the women were planning to repeat the experience with the same organization. The stated goal of the organization was to show the reality, the inequity, of those in the Global South. When one evaluates their satisfaction with the experience, the volunteer tourists were satisfied with the quality of inequity they saw others living. It was authentic enough inequity for them. Mahrouse asks, “Indeed, if one considers that the tour in which they participated is such a highly racialized encounter, and that they are women with a social justice consciousness, one has to question how the experience can be so gratifying and comfortable” (2008, p. 386). This speaks to the deep unsettling nature of GSL, the Northerner’s choice to consume the inequity of the other is the foundation for all experiences. This should be the starting point for all pedagogy in this space, building on this the learning should not be pleasurable. Understanding our role in disablement and in the production of impairment should not be gratifying, but instead should move us to uncomfortable and uneasy ground. We should not be left satisfied or nostalgic, but confused and angry at our own role and complicity in inequity and disablement, ready to ask more complex questions. The goal of GSL education should be to invite students into the difficult learning that moves into the complexity and harshness of structural inequity, disablement, and transnational racial and ableist capitalism, rendering them unable to move back to the comforting individualized explanations for poverty and disability. A learning that leads to solidarity and allyship, not repeat GSL experiences.

Intercordia’s model of mentorship offers a way to support this difficult learning while in placement. One mentor, Jordan, explained that the engagement with student participants while they are living the experience, as opposed solely de-briefing it post-placement in Canada, is essential in working through the levels of injustice, and the complexity of the situation. They posited that, without a mentor, it is easy for student participants to live the experience in a surface way, not engaging deeply. The role of the mentor is to encourage the deeper and more complicated learning, calling students back to this when they move away. But of course the presence of a mentor can only invite student participants into a space for difficult learning. Kana, the other mentor I interviewed, spoke about the difficulty of living the role of mentor, being with and supporting students who are engaged in really difficult learning while in placement. They explained this moment of difficulty: The student participants had gathered together for a formal Intercordia reflection session, it was at a pivotal time in the placement, one that they described as the “point where can you step into the discomfort or retreat, a crossroads point.” Kana explained that a number of the student participants were very angry, and they were moving toward retreating into that anger and not working through what was making them angry or frustrated. Kana revealed that they did not feel confident in front of this anger, unsure about how to intervene and support them. Kana explained that the student participants were not in a place to engage in the inward reflection needed, that they would not engage below the surface of their frustration, were taking it out on individual hosts and situations, and not approaching the anger as about their own frustrations or reactions. Kana explained that they felt the door close, they were not ready to engage and work through this difficult learning. This was a difficult space for Kana to be present in, difficult to work at getting students to engage but not succeeding, and difficult in knowing that Southern hosts absorb the anger and frustration of the Northern students. Mentors need training on intervening in these situations, and support and time for self-care as they do this front-line support work.


Lastly, I end with some questions in response to Judy Bruce’s (n.d) exploration of the emergence of a post-critical GSL that is responding to the shortcomings and Eurocentric nature of critical GSL projects. How can disability be a radical interrogative disruption here? Different than other disruptions? How can disability be a radical departure for the introduction of different ontologies and ways of being in the world? How do we take these questions forward in the site of GSL, a site of labor, struggle, and oppression (Walcott, 2020).

[1] I italicize other to highlight the word as othered from other words; an othering process here.

[2] See Vorstermans (Forthcoming, 2022) for a thorough discussion of methodology for this study.


Andreotti, V. (2016). Critical GCE: HEADS UP tool. Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures.

Barter, J. (2020, April 30). I once thought Catholic humanist Jean Vanier a hero. Now I’m wrestling with his coercive legacy. The Conversation.

Bruce, J. (n.d.). Preservice teachers’ views of global citizenship and implications for global citizenship education. [Unpublished manuscript.] University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

Chouliaraki, L. (2013). The ironic spectator: Solidarity in the age of post-humanitarianism. Polity Press.

Connell, R. (2011). Southern bodies and disability: Re-thinking concepts.” Third World Quarterly, 32(8): 1369–1381.

Erevelles, N. (2014). Thinking with disability studies. Disability Studies Quarterly, 34(2).

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. Continuum.

Gorman, R. (2016). Disablement in and for itself: Towards a ‘global’ idea of disability. Somatechnics, 6(2), 249–261.

Grech, S., & Soldatic, K. (2016). Disability in the global South: The critical handbook. Springer.

Heron, B. (2006). Critically considering international social work practica. Critical Social Work, 7(2).

Heron, B. (2007). Desire for development: The education of white women as development workers. [Thesis]. Laurier University Press.

Hillier, S., Vorstermans, J. (2022). Disability and Disablement in Settler Colonial States: Indigenous Perspectives of Disability Since Time in Memorial. In: Rioux, M.H., Viera, J., Buettgen, A., Zubrow, E. (eds) Handbook of Disability. Springer, Singapore.

Ibrahim, M. (2014). Mental health in Kenya: Not yet Uhuru. Disability and the Global South, 1(2), 393-400.

Idealist. (2022). Intercordia Canada.

Intercordia Canada. (2022). Intercordia Canada: About. [Facebook page].

Intercordia Canada. (n.d.). Intercordia Canada: About Us. [Linkedin page].

Jefferess, D. (2013). Humanitarian relations: Emotion and the limits of critique. Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices, 7(1), 73-83.

L’Arche Canada (n.d).

L’Arche International (2020). Summary Report.

MacDonald, K. (2016). Pedagogical encounters and volunteer abroad in Nicaragua. [Doctoral dissertation, University of Alberta]. ERA (Education and Research Archive).

MacDonald, K., & Vorstermans, J. (2016). Struggles for mutuality: Conceptualizing hosts as participants in international service learning in Ghana. In International Service Learning: Engaging Host Communities, Marianne Larsen (Ed.), 131-146.

Mahrouse, G. (2008). Race-conscious transnational activists with cameras: Mediators of compassion. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 11(1), 87-105.

Mahrouse, G. (2011). Feel-good tourism: An ethical option for socially-conscious Westerners? ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 10(3), 372-391.

Meekosha, H. (2008, September 2-4). Contextualizing disability: Developing southern/global theory. Keynote, 4th Biennial Disability Studies Conference, Lancaster University, UK.

Meekosha, H. (2011). Decolonising disability: Thinking and acting globally. Disability & Society, 26, 667–682.

Meekosha, H., & Soldatic, K. (2011). Human rights and the Global South: The case of disability. Third World Quarterly, 32(8), 1383-1398.

Oliver, M. (1990). The politics of disablement. Macmillan Education.

Razack, N. (2001). Diversity and difference in the field education encounter: Racial minority students in the practicum. Social Work Education, 20(2), 219-232.

Razack, N. (2002). A critical examination of international student exchanges. International Social Work, 45(2), 251-265.

Razack, N. (2009). Decolonizing the pedagogy and practice of international social work. International Social Work, 52(1), 9-21.

Soldatic, K. (2013). The transnational sphere of justice: Disability praxis and the politics of impairment. Disability & Society, 28(6), 744–755.

Springer, S. (2016). ACME, 15(2): 285-292.

Tarc, P. (2011). Bridging (representations of) the “global present” with the life-world of the classroom: Researching toward “learning to teach” global citizenship education. In L. Shultz, A. Abdi, & G. Richardson (Eds.), Global citizenship education in post-secondary institutions: Theories, practices, policies (pp. 64-75). Peter Lang.

Todd, Z. (2016). From classroom to river’s edge: Tending to reciprocal duties beyond the academy. Aboriginal Policy Studies, 6(1).

Vorstermans, J. (2018). Imagining, constructing and reifying disability in volunteer abroad: Able global citizens helping the disabled southern other. Journal of Global Citizenship & Equity Education, 6(1).

Vorstermans, J. (2022). Storying vulnerability: Creating conditions for generative relationality in international experiential service learning. In A. Eizadirad & S. Sider (Eds.), Counternarratives of pain and suffering as critical pedagogy: Disrupting oppression in educational contexts. Routledge.

Vrasti, W. (2010, February 17). How to use affect in late capitalism. [Paper presentation]. Theory vs. Policy? Connecting Scholars and Practitioners Annual Conference, New Orleans, LA.

Walcott, R. (2021, January 27). Anti-Blackness: Institutional constraints & pedagogy. FCS          News and Events. [Anti-Black Racism, Institutional Constraints and Pedagogy, a

follow up to November 26 panel discussion].

Skip to toolbar