Blind and Low Vision Exchange Participants Going Abroad
Learn about going abroad as a blind or low vision exchange participant, including preparing to go abroad, arranging accommodations, and tips for having a successful experience.
In This Tipsheet:
- Preparing to Go Abroad
- Air Travel Tips
- Guide Dogs and Service Animals
- Personal Assistants
- Assistive Technology
- Tips for Having a Successful Experience Abroad
- Creating an Accessible Environment for Blind and Low Vision Exchange Participants
- Arrange disability-related accommodations well in advance. If you are taking part in an exchange program, it is recommended that you disclose your disability and request accommodations at least four to six months before the program begins. See our tipsheets on Negotiating Accommodations and Collaborating with Exchange Staff and Disclosing a Disability for an International Exchange Program for more information.
- Organize orientation trainings before you go. If possible, before traveling abroad arrange for an orientation training for when you arrive in the destination country. This will allow you to learn about your immediate surroundings and key routes without delay.
- Learn the local language. This is useful when asking for directions and using local services. If you are taking foreign language classes abroad, plan ahead in how you will get accessible materials in the foreign language. Learn more at Accessing Foreign Language Materials as a Blind or Low Vision Student.
- Take a cane. Even if you plan to use a guide or a guide dog, or if you don’t normally use a cane, your cane lets others know that you are blind or low vision. This can be particularly useful in crowded areas, when crossing roads, and in other unfamiliar environments. Canes are also more likely to attract offers for assistance, which may or may not be wanted.
- Request housing or book lodging in a central location. Minimize the logistics involved in traveling or living abroad by staying in lodging that is near classes, shopping, the airport, train station, or other location most convenient for your travel.
- Research public transportation. What methods of public transportation, such as buses or trains, are available in the destination country? How reliable are they? What services do they provide for people with disabilities, and are they generally accessible? You may also want to research key routes and other forms of transportation such as taxis.
“My time in Australia still ranks highly as an important period of my life. I established that independent long-distance travel for an extended time is well within my grasp and my disability is more of an inconvenience than a barricade in most instances.” Kevin Cosgrove, who is blind, studied abroad in Australia.
- Learn the rules of the road. How safe is the destination country for pedestrians? Be aware of basic traffic laws. If there are no safe, well-marked intersections or accessible signals, what techniques do local people use when crossing busy intersections?
- Be prepared for different attitudes on disability. In some countries, people with disabilities, including blind and low vision travelers, are rarely out in public. You may face discrimination, unwanted and persistent offers for assistance, and patriarchal or condescending worldviews.
- Be aware of laws and restrictions on guide dogs. If you are bringing a guide dog with you, or are planning on finding one in the destination country, be aware of applicable laws and restrictions, and plan arrangements for your guide dog well ahead of time. For more information, see our tipsheet Guide Dogs and Service Animals While On International Exchange.
- Take a laptop with a screen reader or other assistive technology programs with you. Getting access to accessible programs abroad can be challenging, particularly in developing countries.
- Get in touch with blind and low vision organizations in the destination country. In addition to opportunities to network with a new community, blind and low vision organizations and their members may have suggestions and tips about living with a vision impairment in the host country.
- Consider traveling with a group tour. Some blind travelers recommend joining a group tour to make the most of excursions and to receive auditory information about sights in the destination country. Angela Winfield found that "participating in short international exchanges or travel breaks is a good way to test the waters and develop confidence before going on a longer-term program."
For information on flying as a blind or low vision traveler, see our tipsheet Air Travel Tips for People with Disabilities.
For information on taking a service animal abroad, see our tipsheet Guide Dogs and Service Animals While on International Exchange. If you plan to take a guide dog abroad, it's important to start the process early, since receiving required documentation and vaccinations for a service animal can take weeks or even months. In some situations, it may be illegal to import a service dog into the destination country without a quarantine process. Learning about feral dogs in the destination country is important when deciding whether to bring a dog guide.
In some countries, particularly developing countries, service animals are rare and people who are blind or low vision generally use human guides. These guides can be especially useful at the beginning of a program for orientation training or when visiting new places.
For exchange programs involving text-based coursework or activities, a personal reader, note-taker, and scribe can provide assistance.
There are many ways that personal assistants can be incorporated into an exchange program, and some are low-cost or free:
- Ask others participating in the exchange program if they would be willing to volunteer as an assistant. Consider rotating volunteers to share the responsibility. The exchange program may be willing to offer a work study option or reduced fees to another student who is willing to act as an assistant.
- Take a personal assistant from home. This could be a friend, family member or professional personal assistant. Keep in mind that taking family members may limit your opportunities to expand your comfort zones.
- Hire an assistant in the destination country. This may be particularly effective if an assistant is needed only for an orientation training, or if the participant is in a developing country, where hiring an assistant may be more cost-effective. Language differences and abilities need to be taken into account.
- Hire a sign language interpreter that also acts as a sighted guide. This may be necessary for Deaf-Blind exchange participants.
Check our tipsheet Personal Assistants on International Exchange Programs for more information.
“I became more willing to ask for help, which for me is huge. I never felt comfortable doing it before, but I kind of had no choice in certain situations since I was traveling alone in a foreign country and visually impaired as well. And in that same respect I also think that I became more outspoken, more willing to advocate for myself.” Beth Ocrant, who is blind, studied abroad in England.
For information on assistive technology that can be used abroad, including screen-reading software, accessible readers and portable devices for the classroom and community, check our tipsheet Assistive Technology Information for Exchange Students Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision.
Some of the following suggestions were provided by Carla Valpeoz, a blind woman who has traveled extensively around the world. Arie Farnam and Beth Ocrant, who are also blind and low vision, also provided tips.
- Get oriented. Start by becoming familiar with your living quarters in the destination country, and learn the basics, such as where the bathroom is. Then work out from there by arranging for an orientation to the area from a guide or a local blind individual.
- Ask questions. Certain details, such as the location of a toilet or a shortcut across campus, may be obvious to a sighted person, but not to blind and low vision travelers. According to Valpeoz, “Ask lots of questions. It will get you to your destination.”
- Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. Everyone needs assistance sometimes, particularly when traveling or in unfamiliar surroundings. Be prepared to ask for assistance if needed. According to Valpeoz, it’s important to be patient when asking for guidance. “Do not expect people to always jump and accommodate you right away,” she says.
- Be prepared to educate strangers about effective guidance techniques. You may encounter situations where you are offered unwanted assistance, or assistance that isn’t useful. Strangers may not know correct guiding techniques or have different techniques in their country, so be prepared to show strangers how they can best provide assistance.
- Learn how to quickly and inoffensively reverse arm holds. If you encounter unwanted assistance from strangers, practice methods to slip out of arm holds and to politely avoid unwanted assistance. According to Arie Farnam, a blind woman who has traveled extensively, “A martial arts instructor can be particularly helpful in devising quick, firm and inoffensive ways of reversing arm holds that can be done even by those without great muscle strength.”
- Get to know the locals. They can provide friendship, assistance and cultural opportunities. According to Valpeoz, “I feel that being blind and friendly goes a long way [when abroad].”
- Learn the currency. Do coins and bills have differences that make them possible to identify by touch? For example, Euro banknotes have distinctly different sizes and colors so that they can easily be identified by blind and low vision users. If the currency of the destination country can’t be identified without visual cues, consider a strategy to separate bills such as folding money. Carry smaller bills when shopping to reduce the chances of making a mistake or getting ripped off. For more information, see Vision Aware’s Identifying Money.
- Carry written directions for important locations. If assistance is needed for getting to a classroom, dorm room, or other location, written directions can make it easier.
- When crossing streets without assistance, cross with the locals. Especially in developing countries, rules of the road aren’t always followed and traffic can be dangerous.
- Find a taxi driver you trust. Getting around by taxi can be very useful when you need to get to an unfamiliar location quickly, or if you get lost. Ask for suggestions for trustworthy drivers from locals or from your exchange program and store the number for the service in your phone if you have one. When traveling by taxi to an unfamiliar destination, ask the cab driver to wait until you safely and visibly reach your intended destination before driving away.
- Bring hand sanitizer or disinfectant. In unfamiliar environments, you may find yourself in situations where you must touch unsanitary surfaces, particularly in bathrooms. Rubber gloves may also be useful.
- If traveling in developing countries, be prepared to go to the bathroom outside. In some places, squat toilets or outdoor toilets may be common. It may be a good idea to practice going to the bathroom outside ahead of time.
Making exchange programs accessible for blind and low vision participants can be relatively straightforward and cost-effective. Exchange program and study abroad coordinators can take the following steps to ensure that programs are accessible.
- Arrange disability-related accommodations well ahead of time. Teachers should provide a reading list of all required materials so that accessible versions can be found or made. Ask the participant what accommodations he or she generally uses, and have a contingency plan if those accommodations aren’t available or complications arise in the destination country.
- Organize an orientation training for the exchange participant when he or she arrives in the destination country. The training could be conducted by a campus liaison, a volunteer, a guide, or another available party with knowledge of the area. Trainings should include orientation to the participant’s living quarters, the closest bathroom, the surrounding area, and to classrooms and/or the exchange program area. If possible, orientations should also include nearby shops and public transportation.
- Provide housing near the exchange program site. If possible, housing should also be near shops and other key locations.
- Offer to provide assistants for participants on field trips or for assignments if the participant wants them. Other program participants may be willing to volunteer as guides, note-takers, readers and/or scribes in exchange for a reduced program fee or work study option.
- Foster good first impressions among the group. Before introducing the student to his travel peers, ask how he would like the introduction to go. He may or may not want his disability to be part of the initial introduction in the group setting, and instead may prefer to bring it up casually at another time.
- Include the participant in all conversations about accommodations and other arrangements. The blind or low vision participant will know best which accommodations are most effective.
- Safety should come first, but not at the expense of participation. Blind and low vision Americans have developed tools for self-sufficiency and independence. They are just as capable of being safe abroad as their sighted peers, and they shouldn’t be excluded from programs for disability-related reasons.
The American Foundation for the Blind has extensive resources for blind Americans, including scholarships and information on technology.
The National Federation for the Blind has extensive resources on technology, connecting with blind students and much more.
Lighthouse International provides resources for blind and low vision people, and there are numerous local chapters of the Lighthouse for the Blind around the U.S.
“Traveling Blind” is a short article that was written by blind traveler Tony Giles for Lonely Planet magazine.
“St. Louis to Japan: An Experience with Study Abroad,” is an article from the Braille Monitor with in-depth information on how a blind student arranged disability-related accommodations for his study abroad experience in Japan.
Read stories on our website about blind and low vision exchange participants who have gone abroad or come to the United States from other countries.
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