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How Students with Disabilities Can Study Abroad

Sheffield, England

“I was really afraid of the subway in Paris and London. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep up with the pace of the group and that ‘minding the gap’ idea was a worry for me,” Elyse began.

I was in the middle of a Skype interview with a group of study abroad alumni, known as Abroad with Disabilities -- some of whom had studied abroad while having disabilities.

And though at first they voiced their fears just so I could get a handle on how their experience differed with mine, the conversation then continued to an empowering, and extremely mainstream, study abroad conversation about what they had learned and their favorite parts of their time abroad (and no, I didn’t allow ‘everything’ to be the answer – though many wanted it to be)!

Many students with disabilities believe that studying abroad is out of the question... but people like Juanita and Elyse are trying to change that

Elyse, though worried about that gap, dominated her study abroad. “I realized that I can conquer everything and I gained a lot of independence,” she commented. Another interviewee, and the founder of this group, Juanita, spoke about how her favorite part was her “supportive host family” in Costa Rica that truly made her feel at home and took the national slogan of “Pura Vida” (Pure Life) to heart.

These individuals are students with disabilities and they, like thousands of students every year, experienced the magic and transformation that study abroad instills in everyone’s lives. It shows that everyone can experience them – disability or not.

Many students with disabilities believe that studying abroad is out of the question because of the fears or worries they have, but people like Juanita and her supportive team are trying to change that -- with spreading the word that all should be able to experience what they got to experience. In the past few years, these young people are assisting to extend awareness about studying abroad with a disability – and it’s working!

Students with Disabilities: How You Too Can Study Abroad

Students on campus, Charleston

When looking over the Institute of International Education (IIE) research on students studying abroad with disabilities, we see that there has been a rise in interest -- and that’s mostly because there is more information, support, and assistance now for those who need it.

At the same time, the numbers of students with disabilities actually studying abroad could be higher. In the 2006/7 school year, it was reported that only 116 institutions were providing assistance to those with a disability in order for them to study abroad.

Naturally, we at Go Overseas and our friends at Abroad with Disabilities hope to see this number increase dramatically in years to come!

Here is some information on how you can help bump up that number -- most of it simply has to do with spreading awareness and understanding! For students with disabilities who want to study abroad, it all starts with research and asking questions:

1. Details with Parents

Of course when dealing with having a disability, your parents or guardians are going to have a very large say in you getting on a plane and taking off into someplace unknown.

“My mother was so worried because ADA (American Disabilities Act) doesn’t follow you abroad -- so she was worried as to what I would have to deal with,” Elyse said. However, there are ways that you can persuade them that this is something you definitely need to do and that you’ll be ok doing it!

This undeniably starts with Juanita’s explanation of early disclosure -- where the minute you decide you’re seriously thinking about studying abroad (that is probably now seeing that you’re reading this article!), you should be discussing the options and opportunities with not only your study abroad office, but also your disability support office and have them communicate. Then, when your parents have questions about your experiences, you’ll have the answers prepared!

2. Details with Your School

Even if you do convince your parents that taking off and exploring the world is an amazing experience that you cannot pass up (duh! Of course it is!) you may still have to work with your school to ensure they understand your disability and that you can completely handle the situation at hand -- even if the first response from them was a positive one!

Showing them my previous accomplishments allowed my school... to support me in studying abroad with a disability.

Nick, another team member in my interview, explained that even though his parents were fully supportive in him hiking through the mountains of Chile with the disability of being blind, his school hadn’t yet experienced how to assist a student with a disability wanting to study abroad, so he had to show them that he could definitely do it!

“Being present and speaking to them about my concerns and confident areas was key, as well as showing them my previous accomplishments, allowed my school to understand the situation better and get us to common ground and have them support me in my study abroad decision!” Nick explained.

And as he described what his favorite part was about his hiking experience, Nick left me with the quote that proved his persuasion to go abroad was worth it. “Anything is possible.” I believe he is right.

3. Personal Research

One thing the group definitely focused on was that all students need to do their own research along with their study abroad and disabilities offices.

Though these organizations can help you dramatically in the search for the perfect program, only you know your independence level and what you’d be comfortable with. You can start by looking at Mobility International USA, with whom Abroad With Disabilities (I’ll give you an introduction for this great group in a second!) has worked with to provide valuable information on study abroad and what you need to do to prepare to travel your butt off!

Make sure you write down questions you want answered, and narrow down where in the world you’d feel comfortable studying in, and what resources that country or city has to assist people with disabilities. This will just assist the Study abroad and Disability offices to help you find your perfect match!

4. Find Platforms to Help

Abroad with disabilities

The other option you now have available is Abroad With Disabilities.

After studying abroad with a disability in Costa Rica, Juanita (who conveniently organized my entire Skype interview with her team -- thank you so much again, Juanita!) realized there weren't many outlets that allowed a person with a disability to openly ask questions.

At the same time, she couldn't easily find many others who had gone through the same experiences.

Because of this and motivation from her former professor, Dr. Natalia Gómez, she decided to begin Abroad with Disabilities -- a discussion platform with resources and other information to help your research and study abroad experience go much smoother!

What is their focus? “We want people to ask questions and tell their stories,” Juanita explained. Their aim is to encourage discussion and bring about more awareness that students with disabilities are underrepresented in study abroad demographics.

Along with their website, you can also check their page out on the Abroad with Disabilities Facebook page for etiquette lessons, updates on world events regarding disabilities, collaborations with other students, and more!

5. Address Your Concerns

When speaking with some of the Abroad with Disabilities team, they mentioned that many of their fears were focused on:

  • The housing situation they would be in.
  • The transportation they would have to use to get around town, do their grocery shopping, etc.
  • Overall daily tasks that needed to be taken into consideration.

Juanita said she was lucky to have a host family willing to help her out from the minute she met them, “they had had experience with another person with a vision impairment, so they were able to understand when to help and what I was capable of doing on my own.” She explained.

[Abroad with disabilities'] aim is to... bring about more awareness that students with disabilities are underrepresented in study abroad demographics.

She also highlighted the fact that being with a host family eliminated some of her worries -- for example, with a host family, she didn't have to worry about cooking her meals and was able to leave some assistive-living aids behind -- a huge help!

But when it came to dispelling these worries, Elyse explained that her study abroad office couldn’t do everything for her -- and she didn’t want them to!

“I usually get... more time to get on and off public transportation if I inform someone first. I was a bit worried about that when in London -- so I researched the 800 numbers I’d need to call and spoke with many people to see if they could accommodate me better. Almost everyone was highly helpful and really helped make me feel better about the entire trip!”

6. Make the Leap

Once you've decided on your program and have gotten everything in order to head out on that road of exploration, you'll probably be nervous about actually traveling and finally living this experience!

This is absolutely normal for everyone studying abroad and heading away from home. But you've surely done your research, talked to all the right people, and are ready to take the leap. Do it, it's worth it!

Students: Understanding Study Abroad & Disabilities

So maybe you’re reading this and you don’t have a disability but a person in your class or a friend does. Sometimes, it's difficult for someone that doesn’t have a disability to understand how to go about understanding how to act around a person with a disability when abroad. When I asked the group about this -- there was one resounding answer: “Just ask.

“I’d rather have someone just be truthful and ask what they should do to help me and what I can do on my own,” Elyse explained. Don’t think that they are exceptional or an “inspiration” because they have a disability and are studying abroad. They’re just doing something they love to do and are more like you than you think!

The group really wanted to inform everyone that people with disabilities are independent and more often than not, they don’t need your help. They signed up for this believing in themselves and that they could achieve their goals!

As long as they are confident in what they can do, you can simply be there as a friend and have as much fun and adventure as humanly possible.

Quick tips not to step on toes: Always say a person with a disability, not a disabled person -- their disability does not define them. Also, the crew explained, don't get so worried about misspeaking. Don’t excuse yourself or get embarrassed because you said “Hey look at that” to your friend that is blind.

They understand these figures of speech and are not offended by it. Instead, speak and act like you would with anyone – if there is something that bothers them, they’ll let you know how to fix it!

What Educators and Study Abroad Programs Need to Know

Students studying abroad

When it comes to educators in this situation, they leave much to be desired. Studying abroad with a disability is still unfortunately a new concept for many program providers and universities, and that is something that we need to change as much as possible!

Are you working for a program and want to know how you can help? Here are a few tips from my excellent board of students:

1. Don’t Over-Promise

One of the largest issues that the students had when attempting to find the perfect study abroad program was that many programs would over-promise what they could provide to students with disabilities. Don’t do this, admit the limits in your program!

Students with disabilities understand that the resources for study abroad are currently limited (and hopefully we can change that in the future!) so they are not looking to be promised something that cannot be delivered. Make sure that you are detail oriented so people can understand the ease or complexity that the situation or program will have and then handle it appropriately.

If there are incidences that some service or assistance is promised and then is not actually available, you are only hurting your own program, but also the opportunity of a lifetime for a young adult that wants to explore.

2. Don't Assume You Know Their Goals and NEVER Use the C Word

No, no it’s not the word you may have been thinking, silly readers, it’s the word can’t! Can’t shouldn’t exist in the university vocabulary. Elyse explained that sometimes, some educators may think they understand what the student wants out of their study abroad experience, but they may be completely off.

“One girl came into the study abroad [I work at] office looking for information -- and it was absolutely certain that she wouldn’t have been able to travel by plane because of her particular disability. But instead of turning her away, we assisted her and gave her brochures and helped her to the best of our ability.” Elyse said.

Universities need to encourage all people to study abroad to the best of their ability.

Elyse explained that this opportunity to collect information helped out this girl so much because that was truly all she wanted. She was satisfied that she could simply gain information that could help her independently make a decision and that she was helped positively.

Universities need to encourage all people to study abroad to the best of their ability. Whether that's hiking through Chile or simply picking up pamphlets in the office. There's a happiness and a goal for everyone -- so don’t assume you know if you can fulfill their wishes or not until you help them to the best of your ability. Just their appearance when they come into your office should be the deciding factor on if you will deny them a chance of a lifetime.

3. Focus on the Student in Front of You

While having experience with students that have disabilities will definitely assist educators in understanding studying abroad with disabilities, not every person is the same. Each individual has their own experiences and abilities and it is simply unfair to categorize anyone simply because of their disability.

“If two students who are blind went abroad, and one was a success story in a particular program, it doesn’t mean that the next person will have the same success.” Juanita said. "Most likely the programs, academic goals, and personal approaches differed. This isn't to say the other student wouldn't be successful, but to not assume the outcome."

If schools were truly taking the time to work with the individual needs of each student, there would be a larger success rate on students with disabilities studying abroad and it would also give well-deserved recognition to this under-represented group that wants to study abroad as much as the next student!

Manchester

4. Have a Diversity Page

After writing another article on the ever-growing amazing fad that is studying abroad, I noticed many schools and universities don't have their study abroad page easily accessible (*hint hint*). But once I did find it, I there was also something else missing: a diversity page.

The group suggested that many sites begin a diversity page that would provide information for students not only with disabilities, but also for study abroad students in the LGBT community, or perhaps those of a lesser recognized race or religion in the study abroad demographics.

Many schools have specifically asked them how to obtain more diversity and provide opportunities for all students. Their thoughts? Simply providing good information for studying abroad would definitely reach out and provide insight to all!

5. Understand that Abroad with a Disability May Actually Be Easier...

With some of those students I spoke to, they found that being abroad was actually sometimes easier than being home! When studying abroad with a disability, you can discover how other countries are able to assist those with disabilities in daily life. The Skype chat exploded with interesting (and of course never-before-thought-of for me) facts about other countries that make it pretty awesome to study abroad.

“The money was huge for me,” Juanita explains, “because there are different sizes for dollar bills in Costa Rica, it made it much easier for me to understand what bill I had in my hand. At home, I need to use an app to figure it out sometimes -- so that was really helpful in daily life.”

Nick and Kelsey spoke of walkways with bright colors and coordinating bumps or grooves to assist persons with vision impairments. The students also found that some other countries were more fine-tuned into understanding and assisting persons with disabilities.

“In Brazil, they have etiquette courses that allow people to learn limited sign language, and how to use specific wording in order to better allow their speech to be understood and translated for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing," said Kelsey.

Study Abroad: Broadening Horizons

These types of programs are extremely valuable and allow us as Americans to understand how the world perceives disabilities in different ways – sometimes better than home, sometimes not as well. In other areas, you may have to go a little bit farther out of your way to gain some assistance, but if you find it, you’ll see that most are very capable of offering assistance while you’re overseas.

“I can conquer anything.” “I’m not in high school anymore and I can be extremely independent.” “I overcame my fears.” “I met amazing people.” These quotes from the Abroad with Disabilities group proved one thing to me above all others -- studying abroad is an incredible opportunity that allows you to truly find yourself and allow you to push through your own boundaries and fears.

“I can conquer anything.” “I’m not in high school anymore and I can be extremely independent.” “I overcame my fears.” “I met amazing people.”

I was extremely honored to delve into a realm of study abroad that is up and coming -- especially thanks to these individuals to take it upon themselves to be the trailblazers in order to see others succeed in the future.

I hope that this article assisted you, the reader, in understanding studying abroad with a disability and hope you also spread the awareness. I hope someday in the future, this article won’t even have a purpose anymore -- for no one will believe that having a disability will prevent them from their explorations.

Extra Resources

Want to learn more about study abroad and disabilities? We recommend looking at these super helpful resources:

Photo Credits: Ellie Taylor, Clara Mattheessen, and Derek Craker.
Lisa Saltagi

Lisa studied in Ascoli Piceno, Italy in 2010 and since has always needed to have a flight booked somewhere. After failing at office life, she flew to Italy and became a European tour-guide for a year. Now, she’s focusing on her writing while living in Florence with her husband. Check her out on Google+.