Learning Disabilities and International Exchange
Find answers to common questions about learning disabilities, assistive technology, and strategies for supporting exchange participants with learning disabilities.
Among the benefits of international exchange, participants with learning disabilities will often find that they develop new skills as a result of navigating in a new environment and culture. In many cases, international exchange offers individuals with learning disabilities the opportunity to thrive in an experiential learning environment in lieu of or in addition to more traditional educational settings.
Statistics from the National Survey on Student Engagement suggest that students with learning disabilities are more likely to study abroad than students with any other type of disabilities, but how effectively are these students being served in overseas programs?
- What is a learning disability and what are the different types?
- Should an exchange participant disclose a learning disability?
- Will the host culture and overseas staff be familiar with learning disabilities?
- What are the challenges and advantages of studying abroad for students with learning disabilities?
- What kinds of accommodations are typical for people with learning disabilities to use on international exchange programs?
- What types of assistive technology are commonly used by people with learning disabilities?
- Learning disability organizations
“Learning disability” is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of information processing disorders that affects learning. People with learning disabilities may have difficulties with reading, math, writing, spatial orientation or other skills that are not caused by or related to another condition or disability.
There are many different types of learning disabilities which include:
Auditory Processing Disorder - This condition affects the ability to process spoken words and sounds. Hearing is usually unaffected, but the brain inaccurately interprets signals received from the ear. This causes difficulty understanding and remembering orally presented information, distinguishing between different sounds and focusing on one sound in a noisy environment.
Dyscalculia - Dyscalculia involves difficulty with numbers or mathematical operations. People with dyscalculia may have problems aligning numbers and doing mathematical operations, or they may reverse numbers or have spatial difficulties.
Dysgraphia - People with dysgraphia have difficulty with producing organized or clear writing. The main problem may be poor handwriting, or there may also be disorganized constructions, mechanical errors, omissions of characters or words, or transpositions of letters or words.
Dyslexia - People with dyslexia have difficulty associating sounds and symbols. They may experience problems with spelling, accurate and/or fluent word recognition, reading speed and comprehension, as well as with mathematics.
Dyspraxia - Individuals with dyspraxia have difficulty processing messages from the brain to the body. They may have a poor sense of direction or coordination, such as catching or throwing a ball, using scissors, drawing, etc. Some individuals also have speech impairments.
Visual Processing Disorder - People with this disorder have a hard time accurately receiving and processing visual information. They may have difficulty discerning an object from other objects in the background or seeing objects in correct order.
These conditions are typically diagnosed by clinical psychologists, neuropsychologists or trained educational specialists through an extensive series of neurological, psychological, educational, and vocational assessments. The U.S. and other countries may require current documentation from such specialists to approve academic accommodations on an exchange program.
Above section adapted from: Building Bridges: A Manual on Including People with Disabilities in International Exchange Programs
It is generally very helpful for exchange program staff to know if a student is accustomed to receiving accommodations. Yet not all students with learning disabilities inform program staff that they have a disability, for fear they will not be accepted or allowed on the program or out of concern that they will be stereotyped in a negative way. Participants will be more inclined to disclose early if the program indicates it is willing to accommodate people with disabilities, and includes a statement that says students are encouraged to disclose after they are accepted.
If a person has disclosed a learning disability after being accepted to the program, discussion can then begin on strategies for successful participation in the overseas program. A student may want to discuss their needs with their disability support counselor and/or the study abroad staff at the home institution. Completing the Learning Disability Accommodation Form together to identify the participant’s strengths and to discuss disability-related accommodations, adaptations or assistive technology would be an excellent first step. Additional questions the participant or staff may wish to consider discussing may be found on Learning Disability and ADD/ADHD Questions.
Although many organizations and support services exist to serve people with learning disabilities around the world, there are many countries where learning disabilities are not recognized or well-understood. In these countries, the needs of people with learning disabilities may be underserved or unmet. For example, educators at a host institution may be confused by a student’s accommodations request or believe she is seeking preferred treatment. Furthermore, devices or computer programs an individual may use in her home country may not be available or compatible in the host country. Nevertheless, exchange participants have a right to choose any destination even if they understand it may be challenging.
If the exchange participant chooses to go to a country or live in a culture that generally does not understand learning disabilities, it will be useful to develop strategies for addressing misconceptions and misunderstandings that could arise with faculty, employers and others in the host country. Work with learning disability specialists or contact learning disability associations to locate resources on learning disabilities and strategies for providing accommodations to assure equal learning opportunities. To avoid situations where faculty are unwilling to provide accommodations, include language in partner agreements and contracts that addresses working with students with disabilities. Also include information on learning disabilities in staff and faculty training programs.
Talking to alumni of the program who have learning disabilities may assist individuals and staff in better anticipating what cultural factors may come into play. Local disability contacts can also be an important resource, and may help find people who can act as tutors and strategize for other types of learning supports.
Studying in a new educational environment may be challenging for some individuals with learning disabilities. Those accustomed to small classrooms or structured homework may need to adjust to larger lecture halls or open-ended assignments. Students with disabilities may wish to arrange weekly check-ins with advisors back at home over the Internet. Encourage struggling students to learn in the ways that work best for them. For example, a visual learner may find that taking the time to write foreign language words and phrases down in a pocket notebook will accelerate her language skills.
Many study abroad programs offer students alternative ways to learn the materials outside of a traditional classroom through field trips and excursions to art galleries, museums, historical sites, and other interactive settings. The homestay experience is another unique way for exchange participants with learning disabilities to continue to learn about the host culture and immerse themselves in the local language beyond the classroom. Study abroad alumni with learning disabilities often comment that the experience of living in another country can be just as enriching and educational as the coursework, so be open to exploring extracurricular options with the student.
What kinds of accommodations are typical for people with learning disabilities to use on international exchange programs?
In the United States, most students with learning disabilities have access to accommodations to assure equal access to education, including note takers, extra time for testing, use of a computer for essay exams, alternative format print materials, and environmental arrangements such as areas with reduced distraction for work and testing. International exchange providers can often collaborate with in-country staff to arrange similar accommodations at the host location.
Interactive/experiential teaching methods – Many people with learning disabilities are drawn to the experiential nature of international exchange programs. Learning about art by going to an art museum may come much more easily to someone with a learning disability than reading about art in a book. Even programs with a strong experiential component will still have significant time in a traditional classroom setting. For those times, the accommodations and assistive technologies below will be helpful.
Extra test time and quiet location - Arrange for a distraction-free environment where students can complete tests, study independently or focus on homework. If the program is not in a traditional campus environment, staff may need to get creative by finding, for example, an empty hotel room or unused office. Ear plugs can also be useful.
In-class note-taker - Another exchange participant may be willing to serve as a note-taker. If the student prefers anonymity, arrangements can be made to have notes delivered and picked up in an office. The note-taker should be clear about his/her responsibilities, and whether a stipend is available from the home institution.
Tutor - While tutoring is not considered an accommodation in the U.S., it can be a valuable service for a student with a disability who may have difficulty processing information in a classroom environment. Formal tutoring or writing assistance will require additional funds, so be sure to consider who would cover the cost and budget for inclusion if the program will be responsible.
Reduced course load or Pass/No Pass grading option - Students with learning disabilities may be concerned that grades achieved in a less accessible, overseas academic environment may be lower than their average and thereby reflect poorly on their overall academic success. Students may consider programs in which there is an option for overseas coursework to be ungraded, or for grades not to be reflected in the overall grade point average. It may also be possible for students to arrange for their overseas work to be combined into a portfolio to be graded upon their return to the United States.
Class materials in an accessible format – See Assistive Technology section below.
The term "assistive technology" (AT) is any kind of device, equipment or system that an individual with a disability uses to independently access information, activities and places. The term AT has usually been applied to computer hardware and software and electronic devices, but can include low-tech solutions as well. Today, many AT tools are increasingly available on the Internet and through mobile applications. Although AT doesn't eliminate learning difficulties, it can help people with learning disabilities capitalize on their strengths. For example, an individual who struggles with reading but who has good listening skills might benefit from listening to audio books.
Common types of AT among people with learning disabilities may include:
Tape recorders - A digital tape recorder allows students to record lectures, download them onto a computer, and play them back from the computer. Students without access to computers abroad may instead use a mini tape recorder and cassette tapes. Students may choose to bring extra tapes in case their availability in the host country is limited.
Voice recognition software – Also known as speech-recognition software or dictation software, this type of AT allows users to create or dictate a document using speech. As users speak into a microphone, the words appear on the screen quickly. Recent versions of Windows and Mac operating systems either include or support speech recognition applications, and major brands of dictation software now recognize multiple foreign languages.
Scanners, screen-readers and text-to-speech software – A person who has difficulty with reading text can utilize a screen-reading program capable of reading text aloud from an electronic document in a synthesized voice. Some products that were designed for users with vision disabilities are now popular systems among sighted people who have difficulty in reading comprehension.
Many programs that are capable of text-to-speech can recognize some foreign languages and have other tools to aid in processing and organizing the text in a document, such as text highlighters, circling tools, bookmarks, and a feature that allows users (or instructors) to leave comments. Those who bring their own computers equipped with screen-reading software can access electronic text while overseas. For text that is not readily available electronically, the individual will also need access to a scanner that is compatible with the software system in order to convert the text on a page to an electronic format before it can be read aloud. For a student who is not able to access or scan class materials while abroad, a program or university may be able to acquire the materials ahead of time and scan them for the student. The student could then either take the scanned materials on CD or access them via the Internet.
Many similar products exist that are low or no-cost. For instance, Windows comes with a basic screen reader which reads aloud text on the screen and describes some events such as error messages appearing. OS X operating systems are preinstalled with a program which uses speech to describe what is happening on a computer, and Mac users can use it to control the computer without seeing the screen. Free software like Balabolka converts text to audio, and includes a speech-to-text application, allowing the user to ‘talk’ to the computer. The online library Bookshare.org offers more than 40,000 books and periodicals in accessible formats such as digital text-to-speech audio, and is free to qualified U.S. students.
Reading pens – Reading pens, or “Smartpens," are hand-held portable scanners that look like large pens. Like an electronic dictionary, reading pens store hundreds of thousands of words, allowing users to scan a word on a page and hear the definition pronounced aloud and displayed on a screen. Livescribe’s Pulse Pen is a ballpoint pen equipped with a digital recorder so that students can use it like a normal pen to make handwritten notes while recording audio that can be played back instantly or uploaded to a computer.
SmartPhone Apps –SmartPhones and similar devices (such as iPad) are becoming increasingly popular platforms for portable AT in the form of “apps.” Users can download apps to access educational games, learning tools, vocabulary words, math help and more. Many of these apps are portable versions of other kinds of commonly-used AT programs. For example, Dragon Dictation is a free voice recognition application powered by Dragon NaturallySpeaking that allows users to easily speak and instantly see text or email messages in their iPhones or iPads. Other apps are available to assist an individual outside of the classroom or study setting, such as time-management tools, maps and GPS, task managing tools and visual schedules, and language translator programs equipped with speech-to-text.
Calculators – Individuals with dyscalculia sometimes report difficulty adjusting to foreign currency while abroad. A pocket calculator, foreign currency exchange smart phone application or a telephone that can perform basic calculator operations may be useful for some, but for those who struggle with using calculators, exchange participants may prefer to rely on a friend to handle monetary transactions.
Word processing software – As opposed to specialized software, some individuals with writing difficulties find everyday computer software programs sufficient. For example, a person with dyslexia can benefit from regularly using built-in word processor features such as spell checking, grammar checking, font size, and text coloring and highlighting options. A student creating an outline for a report can create a multilevel list to organize and sort thoughts and ideas.
Electronic organizers – International exchange participants with learning disabilities may need extra assistance with time management and planning as they adjust to new routines, schedules and responsibilities. Electronic organizers come with a myriad of features that can help them stay on task, such as recording and playing messages activated by a timer. Low-tech, low-cost alternatives to an electronic organizer include day planners, to-do lists, wall or desk calendars, and index card holders.
Electronic dictionaries – Speaking dictionaries pronounce hundreds of thousands of words and read full definitions. Individuals with dyslexia will benefit from a phonetic spell correction feature, which allows the spelling of words by the way they sound. Many of these devices are multifunctional and include additional features such as a calculator and currency converter.
While not all types of AT will be available in the host country, substitutions are available. Explore whether the AT that a student currently uses is available at the study abroad institution. If not, explore whether the study abroad institution will allow the student to bring a laptop equipped with AT to use it for exams.
Some new technology provides alternatives to software installation. For example, the Key to Access device enables students to take a suite of assistive software with them on a portable USB MP3 Player so that no software needs to be installed on a computer.
Be sure to also look for options that are low-cost, portable, and (in destinations with limited access to computers or electricity) low-tech. For example, in some locations where using screen reading or dictation software is not feasible, it may be cost-effective to hire an individual to act as a reader and/or scribe.
Adaptive Software and Applications for People with Disabilities
Assistive technology for kids with LD: An overview
Assistive Technology and Learning Disabilities
EASI Webinar on Free or Open Source, easy to use support strategies for LD in Higher Ed
Assistive Technology Training Online Project (ATTO)
iPhone, iPad and iPod touch Apps for (Special) Education
40 Amazing iPAD Apps for the Learning Disabled
Screen Reading and Speech Recognition Programs
The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology & Devices: Tools and Gadgets for Living Independently, by Suzanne Robitaille
A World Awaits You - Non-Apparent Disabilities Issue
Assessing the Disability-Related Needs of Exchange Participants
Creating a Safe Environment for Students with Learning Disabilities on Study Abroad Programs
Finding a Good Fit: Two Students Study Abroad with ADHD
Foreign Language Learning and Students with Disabilities
Learning Disability and ADD/ADHD Questions
Medications and International Travel
Stories by International Exchange Alumni with Learning Disabilities
The following is a selection of learning disability organizations with a focus on those that can provide international contacts. For additional resources in a specific country, please contact these organizations or consult our database for organizations that support people with learning disabilities around the world.
Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)
CHADD is an advocacy group for people diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. Contact a Health Information Specialist with a question or request for information through the National Resource Center on AD/HD, a program of CHADD. The CHADD website also contains helpful information about ADD/ADHD and links.
International Dyslexia Association, International Office
This organization is specific to people with dyslexia. They offer information and referral and the website contains information and resources about dyslexia.
Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA)
LDA is a national nonprofit organization providing information and referral services for people with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, Asperger Syndrome and others.
National Center for Learning Disabilities
National Center for Learning Disabilities in the United States provides national information and referral services, educational programs, public outreach and advocacy on behalf of children and adults with learning disabilities. The website offers links to a variety of U.S. learning disability resources at the national and state level.
World Dyslexia Network Foundation (WDNF)
The World Dyslexia Network Foundation aims to provide information, international contacts and links by putting organizations, researchers, practitioners and all those seeking information in touch with each other, helping them to share their knowledge and experience for the benefit of dyslexic people everywhere. WDNF does not have funding for projects, but provides a forum to share information and international contacts. WDNF can provide contacts in several countries via email, and will eventually have this information available on the website.
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.