Mobility Disabilities and International Exchange
Tips and strategies for providing accommodations to individuals with mobility disabilities and planning ahead for inclusive programs.
- Manual Wheelchairs
- Power Wheelchairs
- Prostheses, Crutches and Other Mobility Equipment
- Creating an Accessible Environment for People with Disabilities
- Personal Attendants
- Guide Dogs and Service Animals
- Lifting and Transferring
- Policy Adaptations for Organizations Working with People with Mobility Disabilities
“When I graduated from college in 2010, I knew I wasn’t done with traveling and exploring the world. My thirst for discovery had only just begun, and being in a wheelchair was not going to stop me.” Emma Verrill taught English in France. Read more about her experience in À la troisième, c’est la bonne!
Adapting a wheelchair for a new environment and preparing for potential breakdowns and repairs can go a long way towards ensuring a hassle-free, rewarding international experience. These tips can help:
- Consider replacing a wheelchair's high pressure tires with tires that have extra tread. This can provide a better ride as well as better grip and durability.
- Consider wider front caster wheels for difficult terrain. Casters smaller than five inches in diameter can get wedged in storm grates, cracks, or holes.
- Determine who is responsible for major repairs, including costs, before the exchange program.
- Identify the nearest wheelchair or bicycle repair shop in case of emergencies.
Power wheelchairs are heavier and bulkier than manual wheelchairs but can still be effective tools abroad, especially when navigating difficult terrain.
- Assemble an emergency kit of frequently-broken parts. Parts may be expensive and difficult to find in rural areas or developing countries.
- Make sure to have proper adapters and voltage transformers for
charging equipment, or to take a battery charger that works for the host
- Check airline policies on power wheelchairs, as many air carriers have policies on packing power wheelchair parts or may have a ban on materials found in some wheelchair batteries. Some chairs may need to be dismantled completely for flight.
- Consider taking a manual wheelchair for programs that are particularly inaccessible or don’t have options for charging batteries. In this situation, it may help to have a personal assistant for daily tasks.
Find detailed information on taking power wheelchairs abroad at Power Wheelchairs and Other Devices for International Travel.
For people who use crutches, braces, canes or adaptive (orthotic) shoes, it's important to consider which adaptive equipment will work best abroad.
“I use the cane when I walk on a regular basis. I used the wheelchair only when I got tired. I did ride in the wheelchair sometimes, but I walked as much as possible… Either way, I was able to enjoy every bit of the trip and participated in the activities.” Sumitra Krishnan studied abroad in Morocco and Spain.
- Crutches and canes generally have replaceable rubber tips that wear out over time. Consider bringing spare crutches along with extra crutch or cane tips.
- If replacement parts are not available in the host country, look into having equipment repaired locally. For example, someone with welding equipment may be able to repair crutches.
- Consider locally available alternative equipment if equipment breaks down. Possibilities include a different type of crutch, cane, or wheelchair.
- Ask detailed questions about the location of overseas program activities to anticipate possible barriers to participation and request alternative arrangements.
- Remove batteries when the prosthetic is not being used to prolong battery life.
- Make sure to clean the prosthetic socket, limb, and stump socks daily, particularly in hot, humid environments.
Read the insights of individuals with mobility disabilities abroad in these stories: An Unexpected Detour in France and Reflection: Being Part of a Group and Having a Disability in Thailand and Outside the Classroom: Environmental Fieldwork in Costa Rica.
An environment that is fully accessible will include accessible ramps, bathrooms and transportation. In certain circumstances, creative adaptations to an environment can improve accessibility. Here are a few suggestions:
- Add a shower chair or bench and grab bars to make a bathroom more accessible, making note of the individual's requirements.
- Provide a portable commode when there is no accessible toilet. A commode can also double as a shower chair or a seat. Commodes can be rented or purchased through medical equipment suppliers. Read more at Toilet Tips: Using the Bathroom No Matter Where in the World You Go.
- Adjust the height of inaccessible tables by placing blocks of wood under the legs or cutting the legs down.
- Adjust the height of a bed by using a mattress and box spring without a frame or replacing the bed with a futon of a different height.
- Use a wooden plank and bricks to build a temporary ramp for accessibility, or bring along a portable ramp.
- Bring the right luggage to make travel through different environments more accessible. Find suggestions for luggage and other portable equipment at: Packing for Easier Travel with a Mobility Disability.
Ramps are important adaptations that provide access to public places and other buildings. The slope of a ramp should be no greater than 1:12, which is 12 feet (or meters) of horizontal ramp for every 1 foot (or meter) of vertical height. Some people with disabilities can use personal ramps that are shorter and steeper than 1:12. Before building a short ramp to provide access for a person with a disability, it's important to discuss that individual's personal needs.
Portable ramps can be a great way to temporarily provide access for wheelchair users and can be ideal for orientation meetings, short homestays or field trips. Most are around six or seven feet (1.83 meters to 2.13 meters) in length and many fold for easier storage.
Portable ramps ramps may be purchased or rented from medical supply stores, and moving companies may also be able to lend or rent ramps. Homemade ramps or motorcycle ramps are also options.
Standard ramps may not be sufficient for some types of wheelchairs or three-wheeled scooters, so sturdier ramps may be needed.
People with mobility disabilities who do not use wheelchairs can benefit from ramps as well, particularly if they find using steps difficult. Handrails can also be helpful and should be placed on both sides of a staircase or ramp.
“Although I had several challenges and extra planning to arrange with traveling in a wheelchair with two personal assistants, my Australian adventure during the summer was by far the most rewarding, influential, and best experience of my life.” Lauren Presutti, in “Living Down Under: ‘No Worries, Mate.’”
Personal assistants can help with activities such as dressing, bathing, bathroom needs, cooking and other household chores. Those who plan to hire a personal assistant abroad can contact individuals with disabilities and/or disability organizations in the host country for suggestions.
Most people with disabilities, including manual and power wheelchair users, do not use personal assistants. Overseas, some people may find they need assistance in navigating less than accessible environments. For more information, read Personal Assistants on International Exchange Programs.
A service animal can provide a person with a disability unlimited access to assistance and can also adapt to situations in ways equipment cannot. There are specific considerations when taking a service animal on international flights and to other countries. Find out out more about participating in international exchange programs with Guide Dogs and Service Animals.
Being carried is an uncomfortable experience for many with disabilities, both physically and in terms of personal dignity. Lifting a person up stairs or around obstacles is not an acceptable alternative to appropriate accessibility measures. Most people prefer to be lifted only as a last resort. In some countries, almost all buildings have steps, and lifting may be the only option.
When necessary, a proper lift and transfer should be a comfortable, safe experience for the lifter as well as the individual being lifted. The person being lifted should direct the lift, as he or she knows what will work best. The people lifting need to have a good understanding of safe lifting techniques to protect themselves as well.
"My friends became experts at lifting and disassembling my wheelchair so that we could get on public transportation and into inaccessible areas, and they assisted me with tricky obstacles and terrain." Jenn Fitz-Roy studied abroad and traveled throughout Europe.
Bruce Curtis of the World Institute on Disability says that it is important to be assertive in directing a lift, especially in situations where locals will likely have no familiarity with proper lifting techniques. "Sometimes too many helpers lifting on the stairwell can be dangerous," he says. "Try to direct your assistants and stay in control of the process.” He also suggests learning key words and phrases related to lifting in the host country's language such as:
- "Don’t hold onto this; lift by the frame."
- "Be careful, I may lose my balance."
- "Let’s all lift on the count of three...one, two, three, lift."
- "Would you please help me?"
- "No, I don't need any assistance."
It is best to ask before offering assistance with standing, walking, rising, or other activities. Let the person know that he or she can ask for assistance when it is needed. If assisting with balance, take direction from the person being assisted about his or her specific needs.
International exchange organizations should provide reasonable alternatives to regular program expectations for people with mobility disabilities. Examples of alternatives include:
- Waiving a requirement that a student carry their own luggage.
- Providing extra logistical assistance to a participant in a wheelchair.
- Allowing someone whose disability affects their fine motor skills to answer evaluation questions on tape instead of in writing.
- Providing living accommodations in a centrally located residence hall to minimize walking distance to classes.
- Providing a room on the first or second floor for easier accessibility and for evacuating quickly during emergencies.
After applicants have been accepted to a program, international exchange organizations should send accommodation forms to all participants regardless of disability status. These forms are useful in learning what assistance each individual will need. Sample accommodation forms can be found at Assessing the Disability-Related Needs of Exchange Participants. Exchange professionals are also encouraged to learn about each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.
Professionals should also consider evaluating program policies to determine if alterations could help include participants with disabilities in their exchange programs.
Information condensed from Building Bridges: Including People with Disabilities in International Programs.
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.
"Czech Tram Symbols," copyright
cs:ŠJů, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license:
Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic.
“The Roman Catholic Church of St Thomas and Elizabeth Thurnham Doorway,” copyright Alexander P Kapp, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license: Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.