Faculty-Led Study Abroad Programs Including Students with Disabilities
Though no two faculty-led programs may be exactly the same, there are some steps that all study abroad staff and faculty leaders can take to be inclusive of students with disabilities.
Table of Contents
1. Designing Inclusive Faculty-Led Programs
2. Outreaching to Students with Disabilities
3. Disability Disclosure and Screening
4. Providing Disability-related Accommodations Abroad
5. Critical Incidents and Disability Implications
Myth: If a student has a physical disability, he or she will not be able to participate in a faculty-led program because it’s an active, short-term program with little time for any changes or adjustment.
Fact: People with disabilities are living and working in all communities where international programs occur. It is the responsibility of faculty leaders to think creatively, work with each student and their institution’s disability services staff, as well as overseas disability organizations, to determine how inaccessible activities may be adapted. If there is no acceptable adaptation, an activity may need to be replaced with inclusive activities with equal interest, so all students can participate.
Further, at the application stage, it is illegal to turn any student away from a program based on their disability. Programs with formal university affiliation should be very familiar with institutional policies, mission statements and legal obligations regarding the rights of qualified students with disabilities to participate in university-sponsored programs.
To determine if an activity is accessible or learn how to make an activity inclusive, see “Design an Inclusive Faculty-Led Program” below.
Myth: If something comes up and we realize a student needs an accommodation we didn’t prepare for, we will deal with it then or, worst case scenario, the student can return home.
Fact: Every participant, disabled or non-disabled, needs a contingency plan. For a student with a disability, the plan should include support plans and resources for resolving disability-related issues, and advocacy techniques if accommodations are not effective. Prior to departure, develop and review a contingency or support plan with the student to anticipate issues in advance, including access to medications, supplies, services and environmental issues that may arise. Some types of accommodations might take months to arrange, so begin addressing accommodations as far in advance as possible. It is a faculty member’s responsibility, as the director of a program, to ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to have a safe and successful experience abroad. And, the faculty member can rely on knowledge from the student, disability professionals and study abroad staff for guidance.
Learn about how to find disability resources, bike repair shops, counselors and disability counterparts in-country by contacting the NCDE at email@example.com or browsing through NCDE Disability Tipsheets
Myth: It is going to require a significant amount of additional time to include students with disabilities. Faculty leaders and institutions simply do not have the time.
Fact: Many people with disabilities need very few accommodations and many accommodations can be made easily and inexpensively. In the United States, most people with disabilities own the equipment they need for everyday life and need only minimal assistance from others. University disability services offices and study abroad offices should already have resources and/or experience working with students with disabilities.
Some accommodations and inclusive program design modifications do require additional time, especially if this is the first time a faculty leader is considering disability inclusion on a program. Arrange a meeting with the student, study abroad, and disability or counseling services staff to discuss accommodation strategies and plans. Connect with disability organizations in the destination country to see what gains have been made for accessibility in the educational, tourist, transportation and community centers.
American schools or universities must take some proactive steps to encourage their overseas program partners provide physical and program modifications, auxiliary aids, and other accommodations, and not simply attempt to wash their hands of any responsibility for an American student’s accommodation needs while studying overseas. Lack of time, additional effort required accommodating a student, and modifications necessary to make a program accessible are not seen as adequate reasons for excluding a student with a disability from participating.
Before accommodation strategies can be addressed on a faculty-led program, faculty and faculty-led study abroad coordinators must ensure their programs are welcoming to and inclusive of potential students with disabilities. A program cannot create requirements that, by nature, exclude applicants based on disability.
How to create disability inclusive program design:
- Discuss in advance how disability-related accommodations will be funded either by the institution or through the program’s administrative office (students typically are not required to pay for their own accommodations to modify a program). Budget 1 – 3% of the overall program costs for disability-related needs.
- Share a faculty-led program proposal and design with disability specialists and ask them to complete a disability inclusion assessment. Tip: contact the NCDE for a referral and sample forms. Often, the best contact is a disability services office on your campus.
- Become familiar with your institution’s policies, risk assessment, and history of including students and staff with disabilities in international programs. These precedents and institutional commitments are critical to your understanding of your rights and responsibilities and will provide leverage when creating inclusive programs and requesting funding for disability-related modifications.
- Negotiate partner agreements and contracts in advance with language specific to disability so that overseas partners know to anticipate students with disabilities on your faculty-led program just as they know to expect other students from diverse backgrounds.
- Review group health insurance policies to ensure pre-existing and mental health conditions are covered or if students provide their own coverage talk with them about these issues and suggest supplementary coverage for the duration of the program to cover unforeseen health needs.
- Review resources such as those listed on the mental health and study abroad bibliography or other disability-related tipsheets on the NCDE website in light of accommodations that may be needed as indicated on health history and clearance forms from student’s physicians or counselors.
- Consider how a student with a sensory disability (Deaf/hard of hearing or blind/low vision) could access all program activities and academic settings. Will an interpreter, transcription services or other arrangement be needed? If so, contact the disability services office or equivalent on your campus or review disability-related tipsheets.
- Make sure that all facilities are wheelchair accessible. If there are areas, buildings, or activities that you know are inaccessible, consider how that particular activity or place could be adapted to make it accessible. If there is no possible adaptation, find alternative locations or activities. Carefully review program activities that may be deemed essential to the program but which in reality have very reasonable alternatives, such as favorite traditions, excursions, hikes, cultural activities or social events.
Disability Inclusive Outreach Strategies:
- Work with your college or university’s disabled student services office or local independent living center for ideas about how to recruit and support people with disabilities.
- Make sure that promotional materials are presented in a way that makes it clear that people with disabilities are encouraged to apply for all programs.
- Have outreach and program materials available in large print, Braille, and/or electronic documents for people with visual disabilities.
- Include a statement on your outreach and program materials that reasonable accommodations will be made for students with disabilities and include contact information for your institution’s disability services office.
- Read more on the Inclusive Recruitment & Outreach.
Whatever the application process may be for faculty-led programs, applicants must be considered solely on the basis of their qualifications, regardless of disability. Once an applicant has been accepted, the process of facilitating appropriate accommodations can begin (see below for examples and tips). Faculty or faculty-led coordinators in study abroad offices should provide opportunity for all participants, regardless of whether they have a disability, to confidentially disclose what they need to have a successful exchange experience.
An effective strategy for seeking information about disability-related accommodation needs is to request that each participant (whether or not he or she has disclosed a disability) complete an optional accommodation assessment. An accommodation assessment should encourage applicants to disclose any type of disability, stressing that provision of accommodations will be facilitated by early disclosure, and reinforce that no applicant is required to disclose a disability if they choose not to request accommodations. The form should also allow the applicant to indicate what accommodations are being sought.
- Encourage each student to carefully consider any adaptations he or she is currently using to evaluate whether any of them will be unavailable or unnecessary in the host country. Consider, too, that some types of disabilities involve fluctuating accommodation needs; an individual may need more or different types of assistance or adaptations in different situations.
- During pre-departure orientations, encourage all students to take responsibility for making the program inclusive, and to disclose any needs that arise during the program so that they may be addressed right away. If a student has a disability and would benefit from the support of his/her peers, this provides the student an opportunity to share these ideas with other students and effectively advocate for him or herself.
- Faculty should consider arranging an in-country orientation for students with disabilities, especially for students with vision and physical disabilities. An investment in developing the students familiarity and independence such as how to use local transportation, navigate using landmarks, locate curb cuts, ramps and elevators, and similar tips will quickly make the student more independent.
- Arrange frequent check-ins with the student during the course of the program to assess the effectiveness of accommodations, address any new issues that arise and make adjustments as needed.
It is important for all students and faculty leaders to know the plan in case of an emergency.
Some health insurance providers that offer international coverage provide round-the-clock access through a travel assistance company. Services such as emergency hospitalization often must be pre-approved and arranged by the assistance company in order to be paid or reimbursed. Confirm with your agent that they provide this service and that services including TTY or text messaging are available at all hours. Know in advance whether the insurance provider will also pay for a companion to accompany the person with a disability in case of medical evacuation or early return.
Additionally, asking students to sign HIPPA privacy and confidentiality waivers in advance can help insurance companies to work with students when timing is critical and services need to expedited. Students with mental health-related disabilities may also consider advanced support plans.
Use the CDC’s online guide to Traveling with Chronic Medical Illnesses for more information on preparing for travel with certain conditions. Familiarize yourself in advance with preparedness steps to consider should a major environmental event, political unrest or damage to infrastructure occur while the program is underway. Would you know how to evacuate a building, communicate without a sign language interpreter, or respond to a mental health issue if necessary?
Register your program and participants with the U.S. Embassy in the country where your program takes place and alert them of any participants with disabilities in case of major evacuation.