Your Legal Rights as an International Exchange Participant with a Disability
Learn about your rights as an international exchange participant with a disability, and how they differ from your rights in the United States.
In the United States, people with disabilities regardless of citizenship are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The ADA ensures that accessibility is provided for people with disabilities and bars discrimination on the basis of disability. As a result, all aspects of an international exchange program that take place on U.S. soil are subject to the ADA. Here are a few examples:
- If the application process for an international exchange program takes place in the U.S., applicants cannot be denied on the basis of disability. If a travel program excludes an individual on the basis of disability, illegal discrimination has occurred, unless the program can show that not having the disability is necessary in order to conduct the program.
- If any part of the international exchange program, such as pre-departure orientations and classes, takes place in the U.S., the program is required by law to make these services accessible to participants with disabilities.
- Offices that provide information on international exchange programs, such as study abroad offices and volunteer placement organizations, must be accessible if they are in the United States.
For more information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, including publications, enforcement, filing complaints and mediation, see the U.S. Department of Justice's ADA home page.
Section 504 states that programs or activities receiving federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of disability, or deny services on the basis of disability.
Once a student leaves the United States, the application of US disability rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 is unclear. There have been a number of court cases on the “extraterritoriality” of the Americans with Disabilities Act, with several cases suggesting that universities and exchange programs are not bound by the requirements of the ADA while abroad. The National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA) has recommended that American universities conduct their study abroad programs as if both the ADA and Section 504 apply abroad. However, people with disabilities should not assume that universities will follow these recommendations. Programs based entirely outside of the United States, including foreign universities, volunteer programs, and internships, are not covered by the ADA or Section 504.
Regardless of whether an American abroad is protected by U.S. law, you will be subject to, and protected by, the laws of the host country. Many countries have laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities, though not all of these countries effectively enforce or implement these laws. Some countries, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, have particularly strong disability rights laws. Some countries may have laws in place that ensure accessibility and provide accommodations for individuals with disabilities, including Americans, while some may not, or may not be able to fully implement these laws.
It is recommended that you familiarize yourself with the disability laws of the countries you plan to visit.
The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) provides a list of international disability laws.
Mobility International USA has published Rights and Responsibilities: A Guide to National and International Disability Related Laws for International Exchange Organizations and Participants (2nd edition). Click on the page for free online downloads of this publication along with a list of legal updates.
To read the National Association of College and University Attorney's recommendations on U.S. disability laws as they apply to study abroad, see Federal Disability Laws: Do They Translate to Study Abroad Programs?
The U.S. Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 prohibits discrimination by American airlines on the basis of disability. In addition, the European Union also has laws in place to protect airline passengers with disabilities. To learn more about your rights as an airline passenger with a disability, see Air Travel Tips for People with Disabilities.