Accessing U.S. Community Resources as an International Student with a Disability
A guide to finding off-campus disability-related resources in the U.S. for everything from support groups to equipment repair.
For international students in the United States, on-campus resources can fulfill almost every need. But, where do you go for disability-related needs that are not easily solved with resources at your school, or by program staff? Below, several community disability resources are explored.
- Where do I start?
- What are independent living centers, and how can they help me?
- Where can I look if I cannot find an independent living center in my city?
- My family usually assists me with personal needs like eating and getting dressed. Who will help me in the United States?
- Who can I contact if my disability-related equipment breaks?
- How can I find a doctor that specializes in my needs?
- How do I pay for medical care, medications and mental health care expenses?
- Do I need to be a U.S. citizen to access services for people with disabilities?
- What are my options for off-campus accessible transportation?
- Where can I meet people who have similar disabilities and who I can talk to about disability-related issues?
- I have questions about disability rights laws in the United States. Who can I talk to?
- What if I want to be involved in my community outside of school?
The disability services office at your school will be able to help you identify additional resources; contact them first for local organizations and services that may not be listed below. You can contact the disability services office before you decide on a college, so that you can make sure the services you need are available on campus or locally, in the community. For participants on high school, volunteer, non-university based English language and professional exchanges, ask program staff to help identify resources.
Independent living centers, sometimes called CILs or ILCs, are the second place you should look when exploring disability resources in your town. The role of independent living centers in the United States is to work for the full participation and independence of people with disabilities in US society through advocacy and support services. An example is learning a bus route or finding housing. Independent living centers will have information about local disability-related services and activities, and are a good place to start when exploring your new home.
Four websites that list independent living centers across the United States are:
Besides independent living centers, there are also other types of local organizations with disability resources, or if you live in a rural area without many local organizations, some religious centers such as churches may have social service programs.
Here are some examples of organizations and you can find many more on our online database of disability organization around the world:
Lighthouse for the Blind
National Association for the Deaf
United Cerebral Palsy
Multiple Sclerosis Foundation
Disabled Sports USA
National Youth Leadership Network
You can also find information and answers to your questions online. Here are some places to start:
Disability Resources Monthly’s Guide to Disability Resources on the Internet
Clearinghouse on Disability Information, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services
The International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet
disABILITY Information and Resources
National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse
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My family usually assists me with personal needs like eating and getting dressed. Who will help me in the United States?
In the U.S., it is common for people who need personal care to hire a professional Personal Care Attendant (PCA). Typically, the PCA is not a family person or friend but rather a professional or Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). Some people use the services of a PCA only at certain times (for example, when getting ready in the morning or during meal times) while other people may use a PCA for most of the day for other tasks such as taking items in and out of backpacks, pushing a wheelchair or assisting with medication. Independent living centers often have a list of people and businesses in the community who provide these services for a fee. You may also find other low-cost arrangements such as hiring a student in a nursing program or training someone from the community. Also refer to the tipsheet “Personal Assistants on International Exchange Programs.”
Most cities have small businesses dedicated to medical equipment sales and repairs, including replacement tips for crutches and supplies for daily living. Independent living centers usually have referral services for local organizations that sell and service adaptive technology and equipment, such as wheelchairs, white canes, hearing aids, or crutches. Senior centers, nursing homes or classified ads online and in the local newspaper may also have postings of used equipment for sale. Bicycle repair shops also commonly fix flat tires and repair axles and bearings. For adaptive technology support and repair, such as software on a computer, first check with your disability services office and the information technology department on your campus. Before you leave for the United States read the tipsheet “Power Wheelchairs and Other Electrical Devices for International Travel” for information on preparing to travel with electronics.
It is also common in the United States to first see a general practitioner physician who can make referrals to other doctors that specialize in areas such as neurology or physical therapy. Many of your health needs can be filled by your campus health and counseling centers. These centers can also refer you to off-campus health care providers.
For mental health care, there are usually counseling centers on college campuses that offer counseling services or give referrals in the community. Medication related to mental health issues can be prescribed by a general practitioner physician or a mental health care provider with medical training, called a psychiatrist.
Your local independent living center may have lists of doctors that specialize in certain areas. You can also contact local people with disabilities similar to yours for advice on finding health care providers with expertise in your area of need.
It is important to have medical/health insurance while in the United States and to familiarize yourself with the terms and limitations of the insurance. In the U.S., healthcare is private, and fees are due at the time of service. Unless you have a pre-existing condition insurance companies will generally cover many medical fees, but if you do not have insurance, you are responsible for payment in full. Many cities also have free or discounted clinics that offer many services. You can search for such a clinic at http://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov/.
In an emergency, a hospital must treat a person, regardless of their ability to pay. If you need a service not covered by insurance, most hospitals have programs to help you pay or will give you an option to make payments on bills over several months, so that you get the care you need regardless of your ability to pay in full.
Payment to university health centers generally works differently than to outside providers. If you are an enrolled student, you usually receive services from the university health center at little or no cost. It is included in student fees. Some programs or universities require that you provide proof of medical insurance coverage, which may require purchasing international student health insurance.
Please see our tipsheet “Insurance Considerations for People with Disabilities” for specific information on what you should consider.
When in the United States, all people with disabilities regardless of citizenship are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other non-discrimination laws, which includes receiving disability-related services and accommodations from schools, businesses, etc. You may need to show medical documentation to prove you have a qualified disability that requires the requested accommodations. You can also learn more about how international students are covered by the laws in academic settings.
For some organizations funded by the government (national, state, or local), you may need to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in order to access services. If you are told that you need to be a U.S. citizen or are otherwise not eligible, then ask if they are able to give you advice and/or refer you to another organization. Private or religious foundations or non-governmental organizations typically provide services regardless of citizenship. They may have other types of requirements, such as financial need. If needed, students on student visas such as J-1 are able to get Social Security numbers to work on campus, and this can be shown to an independent living center or community organization to receive services.
If seeking services from government agencies, note that it is a violation of immigration law for non-immigrants (F-1, F-2, J-1, and J-2 students and dependents) to accept government granted public assistance, such as food stamps or unemployment benefits. For example, Medicaid – a federally and state-funded healthcare program for people who are low-income in the United States – is only available to U.S. citizens. However, there may be exceptions. Emergency Medicaid is available regardless of immigration status. In another example, Vocational Rehabilitation funds can be used by individuals from other countries if the individual with a disability is currently in the United States, can legally work in the United States, and he/she can be determined eligible for these services by meeting these eligibility criteria:
- Has a disability which causes impediments to employment;
- Requires Vocational Rehabilitation services to address those impediments;
- Can benefit from services.
Check with the applicable U.S. state Vocational Rehabilitation Department for more information.
At some point while in the United States you will want to go somewhere off-campus on your own. Public transportation is a great way to increase independent mobility off-campus. If a public bus is not accessible, communities are required to offer an accessible alternative.
Many cities will have information about accessible public transportation and what is commonly called “para-transport” service that picks people up at their homes in an accessible van or automobile and takes them to their desired destination. Both public and para transportation are usually affordable and have discounts for students and people with disabilities. Also, if private business, such as a hotel, has a shuttle but it is not accessible, they must arrange and pay for accessible transportation equal to the shuttle.
Easter Seals: Project Action provides technical assistance for finding accessible transportation.
You may want to explore the option of buying your own car while in the U.S. Cars and vans adapted for people with mobility disabilities are widely available, but also expensive. You may be able to find a used adapted vehicle in your town, or, depending on the adaptations you need, you may be able to outfit any automobile with adaptive equipment, such as hand controls. The best place to find what will be available locally is at the independent living center closest to you. If you do decide to drive, make sure to check the U.S. Government’s guide, “Foreign Visitors Driving in the US."
Where can I meet people who have similar disabilities and who I can talk to about disability-related issues?
Just as your campus probably has a club for international students, it also likely has a club for people with disabilities. Many communities in the U.S. also have Deaf clubs or sports clubs for people with disabilities. A club can be an important source of support personally as you make new friends, and for finding answers to your disability-related questions. Your local independent living center may have social and disability support groups, and there are many online disability communities – both cross-disability and disability specific:
You can find many other sources of support by searching for “disability support group” or "Deaf clubs" on Google.
The disability services office at your school will have a lot of information about disability laws and will be able to answer many of your questions. Other resources for questions about disability rights laws in the United States include:Americans with Disability Act
ADA Regulations and Technical Assistance Materials
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF)
National Disability Rights Network
Rights and Responsibilities: A Guide to National and International Disability Related Laws for International Exchange Organizations and Participants
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People with disabilities are welcome into all types of community organizations in the United States. Are you interested in knitting, hiking, volunteering at a local non-profit, or any other hobbies and interests? Ask around! There are sure to be organizations you can join in your community – both on and off-campus.
For example, many towns have adaptive recreation (sports) programs and community fitness classes; hobby shops often sell supplies and offer classes, and local coffee shops and other businesses often have notices offering clubs in everything from cooking to monthly book clubs. There is so much out there to explore – make the most of your time!
Although efforts have been made to ensure accuracy, MIUSA/NCDE cannot be held liable for inaccuracy, misinterpretation or complaints arising from these listings. Mention of an organization, company, service or resource should not be construed as an endorsement by MIUSA/NCDE. Please advise NCDE of any inaccuracies you may find.