Invisible obstacles, the hurdles you never even knew where there.
Note: In this post, I’m just going to be detailing my own experiences, and how I currently understand my situation. This understanding could be incomplete or even misinformed, though I have tried to double-check my information. That doesn’t change the way this experience has made me feel, which is why I decided to write this blog post.
When I mentioned in my intro post that I was hoping to teach abroad, I didn’t expect my journey would become the topic of my very next blog post. Unfortunately, it’s not good news.
I’ve been working towards this goal since essentially the middle of last year. I was inspired by the journey of someone very close to me – who achieved her dream of moving to Japan for a teaching job – to indulge my love of travel and try my hand at teaching abroad. At first, it was an impulsive desire, born out of a need to escape the stress and uncertainty I’d found in my life ever since the pandemic had thrown all my plans into question. As I thought about it though, I realized this was a good way to “get out of my own head” and refocus my priorities. I’ve lived abroad before and doing so always provides this amazing sense of resetting and starting fresh. Being completely thrown out of your normal life puts things into better perspective.
Japan was my initial goal too. The thought of getting to live there was so exciting, that it motivated me to work hard towards achieving it. I even took online teaching classes to get a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) certification to better my chances.
I faced rejection after rejection. It was difficult, especially since many programs required a lot of effort to apply to. Yet, I did my best to persevere, even as I began to wonder “is something wrong with me?” It’s hard not to let that kind of continual rejection get to you. Yet I knew tons of people teach abroad every year even with no experience, so I remained firm in my belief it was just a matter of time. Still, even after broadening my search to include other countries such as South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, and Poland I continued to find no success.
Ironically, it was just when everything was starting to look up at last that it all came crashing down. I found a service that you could pay to guarantee you a job placement in any of the countries they did recruitment for. While I checked and it was above board, I was still uncertain as paying for a job is regarded as a foolish move in TEFL circles. After all, many countries have an almost constant need for English teachers, so shouldn’t you be able to find a job for free? But given how much I’d been struggling, I figured I might need the help. Especially if they might be able to get me to my number one choice, Japan.
I had some calls with them, and things were looking good. I was excited. Of course, as I had with other programs, I mentioned to them needing to get a prescription for my ADHD medication while in the country. I’d already researched its availability in Japan, and while the country was known to be strict with stimulants, all information I’d found online assured me the meds I took would be available with a prescription.
And then I got a new follow-up email from them. As it turned out, while those meds may technically be available in Japan, that was far from the full truth. As they were reportedly told by a contact in Japan; “To be honest, it’s easier to buy bullets for a gun than to get medical stimulants for ADHD.” Japan’s gun control laws are no joke, so it was a comparison that truly drove home just how hopeless my situation was.
In short, Japan may have never been a possibility.
Technically, I could get the meds if I was willing to jump through every hoop possible. Technically, Japan’s public schools would never discriminate based on a medical condition.
But the reality was it made me far too much trouble for most programs to place, especially when they had so many other candidates with either far better qualifications or far more manageable medical needs. Every reason for them not to bother with me at all.
Having spent months applying for Japan exclusively, I was devastated. I was furious. All that time wasted. All that time getting rejected, wondering what was wrong with me, and never being told the truth. It’s a common policy for most of these programs to give no reason for rejection, so it was only by chance I learned this. I could have easily never known.
I also don’t think this is the case for only Japan, though they’re the most extreme. Most of the other countries I’ve applied to have given me similar research results; stricter regulations on stimulants than the US, but allegedly my meds are available. But after what I learned about Japan, how can I trust that? The reality is most of this info is centered on tourists entering the country, and whether they can bring certain medications with them. It’s much harder to get a clear picture of the actual prescription process, other than from a few handfuls of anecdotal evidence from ex-pats. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the information on this is hidden from me in pages written in the country’s native tongue. I’ve been forced to accept the reality that probably even in cases where my ADHD only makes me a little bit harder to place in a country, that’s still often enough to knock me off the list entirely.
It’s hard to put into words the despair that came with realizing my ADHD had proved to be an almost insurmountable obstacle to the goal I’d been pursuing for almost a year. It’s been a terrible reality to face.
And it’s not just my ADHD by itself. My Autism is extrinsically tied up with my need to medicate my ADHD, and why I can’t contemplate just trying to go without meds. My meds give me the focus I need to mask the most noticeable symptoms of my Autism, to attempt to appear “normal”. Whether Autistic people should even have to mask is something that can and has been debated heavily. The reality though is that it is still so often a necessity. Especially when contemplating starting a new job in a new country. Understanding and accommodation just aren’t guaranteed.
So, I have no choice but to be upfront about my medication needs, even as the rejections continue to pile up. This has prompted me to be even more direct about it. If I’m going to get the door slammed in my face, I’d rather it be sooner instead of later.
Of course, I can’t imply that I have exclusively been rejected because of my ADHD. I know for a fact that some places turned me away before they could even learn I had it. Even with a TEFL license to bolster it, my resume is hardly stellar for a teaching job, I’m not the greatest with kids, and I’ll be the first to admit my interview skills can still leave a lot to be desired (even after plenty of practice). But people are picking up international teaching jobs every day with worse resumes, speaking no language other than English, and without even any kind of license. Sometimes you must make compromises, must accept a
worse salary or a less ideal location. I was prepared for that. But if you persevere and keep applying, almost anyone with a pulse can eventually find an overseas teaching job. That was the message that was sold to me. And now it feels like anyone else with a pulse could probably beat me out for a job in most places.
Even writing this all feels like whining. I feel the pressure to make these concessions. That of course I’ve probably been rejected for other reasons too, or that having better qualifications might have made the difference. If I didn’t then I would fear accusations of “learned helplessness” or using my disability as an excuse for my failures. But isn’t that messed up in its own way? That I’m expected to be better, surmount bigger obstacles, and face greater hurdles, all without complaint? People love a good story about those who can “overcome” their disabilities, but what about the rest of us who just don’t make the cut? Who are exhausted, burned out, and unable to fight all the hard battles necessary to achieve the same things we watch our neurotypical peers do all the time. I fully admit that I could be doing more, doing better, throwing myself into the grind of applications and interviews and personal essays harder each day. What I’m trying to say here is that isn’t the point. It’s not about whether I could achieve my goals, it’s about the crushing realization of seeing just how much harder it will be. It’s about not being sure if I’ll be able to succeed, and how terrified I am about how I’ll feel about myself if I don’t.
I think this expectation that people with disabilities should always be prepared to take our lumps and work harder is why I was not warned about this directly in most places I looked. Even though I would have appreciated a frank picture of the extra difficulties I might face. Instead, I am haunted by the word “technically”. Technically you could get those meds in this country, so let’s not talk about how difficult that process is. Technically this school or program doesn’t discriminate based on your disabilities, never mind that the interviewer might quiz you on how fit you are to teach once you disclose them. Technically plenty of other people with disabilities have been able to find teaching positions, so no reason to even talk about the extra obstacles you might face. To seem accepting and accommodating, most organizations preferred to blindside me to the difficult reality. The information is often out there to some extent, as I’ve since discovered, but it took a lot more digging through more palatable reassurances to find it.
My main takeaway from this is, in its purest form, a feeling of frustration. A wish that I had known about it sooner, that I had been able to get a more realistic view of my situation and a better understanding of what countries to focus on months ago. That even now I can’t shake the feeling that this wouldn’t even be such an obstacle if I was somehow “good enough”. I’m angry that I’ve had to endure such a beating to my self-esteem over something I can’t ever change. That I shouldn’t have to change. But I can’t help but feel like that’s talk for some nebulous and idealized future, not the world I live in. For now, I’m just frustrated.
What do you even do when the answer to “is there something wrong with me?” turns out to be “yes, there is”? It’s a sad but familiar moment for many people living with disabilities, but it’s never hit me as strongly as it has now. It’s downright painful.
So where does this all leave me? I wish I had a reassuring answer for that. I’d hoped I would before I published this blog post, but that currently doesn’t seem to be the case as I’m writing it. I’m still exploring my options. I’m even still following up with a few stray applications to Japan if they do get back to me, though maybe that’s just a case of being unwilling to give up hope despite the odds. I’d still like to believe I could do it.
If nothing else, I’ll try to come away from this knowing that I did my best. There’s always the question of whether I could have done better in my mind, and I’m sure the answer is always yes, but I must accept that I did the best I was able. It’s not exactly the most hopeful note to end this post on. But I didn’t write this to provide hopeful platitudes, I wrote it to document my feelings around this latest obstacle in my life. I’m hopeful that at least if others are struggling like I am right now, dealing with these feelings of helplessness against systems that at times do not find their disabilities worth accommodating, they can know they’re not alone. There’s power in having your feelings put into words by someone else, so at least I can offer that much.