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Most Accessible Study Abroad Destinations for Students with Disabilities

wheelchair, girl, europe, sagrada familia

Study abroad is for everyone, and as it becomes a more and more popular part of the college experience, it’s also becoming more accessible for those with special circumstances. Most program providers will now work with students in wheelchairs to make sure they can attain a smooth and positive study abroad experience.

Some study abroad destinations are just innately more wheelchair-friendly.

Of course, while your program may be able to help you find special wheelchair-friendly accommodations and classes, they can’t control the way cities are designed. Some study abroad destinations are just innately more wheelchair-friendly, and the following are some of the best.

Quick Tip: If a city has hosted any sort of large-scale event -- think Olympics -- in the recent past, its probably a decent destination. Accessibility tends to be one of the goals for cities preparing for such events.

The Best Destinations for Accessibility

Australia
Sydney opera house, Australia

As a relatively young and progressive country, it’s no surprise that much of Australia is very wheelchair-friendly -- and not to mention Australia has long been a popular spot among study abroad students! In particular, cities like Sydney and Melbourne are very accessible, with lots of buildings with ramps, wheelchair-accessible public transportation, and much more. And of course, Australians tend to be extremely friendly and accommodating people.

The Disability Discrimination Act of 1992 has helped to ensure accessibility in housing, public buildings, and transportation throughout Australia. And in following with that Olympic rule, plenty of other improvements were made in Sydney leading up the 2000 Summer Olympics (we even found a bungy jump for wheelchair users on the sunshine coast -- likely unrelated, but kind of cool if you're an adventurous soul!)

And of course, with so many study abroad programs in Australia you're sure to find one that meets your interests an academic goals as well!

Top Universities in Australia for Accessibility
New Zealand

Like Australia, New Zealand is a young and progressive country. While New Zealand is also known for a rugged and adventure-activity-filled country, which may seem less than wheelchair friendly, its cities are generally easy to get around.

There are even wheelchair-focused tour companies that will help you explore this wonderful country

Plus, many of its beautiful national parks are handicapped-accessible and there are even wheelchair-focused tour companies that will help you explore this wonderful country while studying abroad in New Zealand.

Top Universities in New Zealand for Accessibility
England
England, Fall

Ahh, England -- that classic, ever popular study abroad destination! Fortunately for wheelchair users, even the beaches in England are handicapped accessible, and you'll find that as a student here, you'll be able to enjoy just about everything that makes England, well, England.

London is surprisingly wheelchair-friendly, with fantastic wheelchair access on transportation, including tubes, buses and special black cabs with ramps. Not to mention, the big attractions are all wheelchair accessible, including Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, and most museums. London also has much less cobblestone then much of the rest of the Europe, which, in this case, is a definite pro.

In regards to universities, do your homework when choosing where to study in England as a wheelchair user. While most of England's top universities are very much wheelchair accessible and have disability offices that can help you navigate your time here, not all provide the same services. Even if you're going through a third party provider, we still recommend you get in touch with someone who works at the university's admissions or disability office.

Top Universities in England for Accessibility
Germany

Again, another top notch study abroad destination, Germany also ranks high on our list for accessibility. Germany is working toward becoming a barrier-free destination, with increasingly accessible transportation and attractions. In 2013, Berlin won the Access City Award, which recognizes cities for their efforts to remove barriers for people with disabilities in the areas of transportation, infrastructure, information and communication, and public spaces, facilities and services.

In 2013, Berlin won the Access City Award, which recognizes cities for their efforts to remove barriers for people with disabilities.

For wheelchair accessible student housing in Germany, be sure to start planning well in advance, and contact your host university's "Studentenwerk" (student service organization) to get help on arranging this. We also recommend reading through this guide on studying in Germany with a disability for more Germany-specific advice.

So whether you want to come to Germany to brush up on your German with German language classes, or focus on your major while taking courses in English at a top ranking German university, you're sure to make your dream come true -- and have fun while you're at it!

Top Universities in Germany for Accessibility
Scandinavia
University of Oslo

Known for their overall progressiveness, the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden are all working toward being some of the top accessible destinations in the world. Oslo, Copenhagen, and Stockholm -- a finalist in the 2013 Access City Awards -- are all highly accessible cities with top notch education systems.

This means, not only will you be able to get around and travel throughout, but you'll also be getting a great study abroad education while you're at it. These universities also have a good selection of courses in English, if studying Economics 302 in Swedish isn't exactly a challenge you feel up to at the moment.

The only thing to keep in mind is that in winter, ice and snow can make it more difficult to get around, especially if your classes are in buildings that require some distance outside to be covered.

Top Universities in Scandinavia for Accessibility

Other Destinations to Consider

You’ll notice that most of these wheelchair-friendly destinations are developed countries and culturally similar to the United States / Canada. But if you have your heart set on heading to a more off the beaten path study abroad destination, don’t be deterred just yet!

Many cities and countries around the world are constantly working to improve their accessibility.

While many places may not be built in an especially accommodating way, that doesn’t mean you can’t make it work. Many cities and countries around the world are constantly working to improve their accessibility. It's also important to keep in mind that while a country may technically be considered "developing" they won't necessarily be lacking modern amenities -- at least in urban areas. A few examples to get you thinking:

Brazil

Brazil is revving up for the World Cup (and then the 2016 Olympics!), and you can bet they’re making some improvements to their infrastructure. And interestingly enough, Curitiba, Brazil’s 7th largest city, has an accessible transportation system that is held up as an exemplary model.

As a student there, you'll have the opportunity to immerse yourself in a vast and vibrant culture, learn Portuguese, and witness the day to day life of one of the world's most rapidly expanding economies first hand.

Ecuador
Ecuador, Cuenca

We know, we know -- you're likely surprised to see us list Ecuador as a study abroad destination for wheelchair users. However, Ecuador’s previous vice president, Lenin Moreno, was a paraplegic who made great strides in the country in regards to accessibility -- and now serves as United Nations Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility.

With such an important figure advocating on behalf of the disabled, accessibility is slowly improving everywhere, from Quito -- where you’ll enjoy easy access to top attractions, Spanish courses, and cultural immersion -- to more remote areas like Banos and even wheelchair-friendly tours to the Amazon. Still, public transportation is limited in accessibility and could pose problems.

Japan

Japan already has some measures in place to help the disabled, such as tactile paving on sidewalks and in train stations that lead to elevators, which usually have priority buttons for wheelchairs. And it’s not surprise that a country so famous for its toilets has pretty great handicapped bathrooms as well -- at least in the major cities.

Japanese people tend to be very helpful and will often go out of their way to help you. Plus, with the Olympics coming to Tokyo in 2020, there are surely many more improvements on the horizon!

Getting out into rural Japan you may find more issues, but fortunately there are plenty of study abroad programs in Japan's major cities. Japanese people tend to be very helpful and will often go out of their way to help you. Plus, with the Olympics coming to Tokyo in 2020, there are surely many more improvements on the horizon!

Singapore
Singapore Street Scene

The Asian city-state of Singapore has long emphasized accessibility in its building codes, with a barrier-free building policy since 1990. Recently the country has put a renewed emphasis on accessibility, both in the upgrading of old building as well as transportation. In the past, Singaporeans have had a reputation of being less accepting of the disabled, but this mindset seems to be changing.

This is especially good news for student wheelchair users who want to study abroad in English, at a top ranking university, and not worry about transferring back credits. The National University of Singapore has exchange programs with dozens of top-tier American universities, making study abroad there a cinch!

Keep Your Options Open

And finally, culture is another thing to consider. Many places that have an infrastructure that is hard to navigate may also have communal, collaborative cultures with the most friendly, helpful people, who are always watching over each other.

So while you may come up against more curbs and stairs, you may also find that you’ll quickly and easily make a lot of new friends as complete strangers come to your aid to help you over those barriers.

Do some research, start planning, talk to your study abroad and disability services offices... and make it happen!

In the end, the best study abroad destination is the place you really want to go, whether you’re in a wheelchair or not. Yes, some places will be easier than others, but part of the point of studying abroad is to challenge yourself. So if you have your heart set on a place that is less accommodating or accepting of those with disabilities, don’t be discouraged, but do be prepared.

Do some research, start planning, talk to your study abroad and disability services offices, reach out to a program provider, local disabilities organizations in the country/city you want to study in, and make it happen!

Other Resources for Wheelchair Users Studying Abroad
Photo Credits: Hai Linh Truong, Maurizio Costanzo, Mathrong, Singapore, and Mendhak.
Rachael Taft

Growing up in the Midwest, Rachael couldn't wait to get out and see the world. She's studied abroad in Italy and Thailand, interned abroad in Sydney, worked abroad in Australia and Fiji, and traveled to 30+ countries, including backpacking solo across South America. In addition to working in international exchange, Rachael obsesses over all things her blog Girl, Unmapped.