Disability Accommodations Immersed in Universities Abroad

Kathryn Carroll outside Norwegian building
Meet Kathryn Carroll, who studied business and politics in Norway and France. She has low vision and uses a white cane, ZoomText software, and a scanner to access her studies.

Given Kathryn Carroll's strong negotiation skills and ability to find creative solutions, which helped her strategize accommodations overseas, it is easy to imagine why she would be drawn to international relations, management, and other such subjects. In this interview we learn more about the months she spent a universities abroad.

Was your international exchange experience arranged through an exchange organization? 

For my first experience going abroad, I heard about the University of Oslo in Norway program from family acquaintances, then did independent research online.

Later on, I applied for study at the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo, a program similar to the one I had done at the University of Oslo's International Summer School.

I applied for the five-month Sciences Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) program in Paris, France, through my university. It was not a typical program in that it was a competitive exchange. This meant that it was handled differently from the standard study abroad programs. It meant I had more responsibilities, such as finding my own housing, and that fewer people had done the program in the past, let alone persons with disabilities.

If you received any scholarships, stipends, or other funding for your exchange, who provided them?

The two programs in Norway provided scholarship applications along with their regular applications. Through the University of Oslo application, I received the Bessie Haugen Johnson scholarship to study at the University of Oslo, which covered the cost of the program. The business school had its own full-tuition scholarship, which I also received.

I didn't receive any scholarships specific to going abroad in France, but I applied to some outside scholarships, including one from the National Federation of the Blind. Those helped a great deal.

What were your concerns as you prepared to travel? What kinds of resources did you use?

I had many concerns about living and studying abroad in Oslo for the first time. I contacted the directors of the program about where I would live, how I could get my class materials in an accessible format, and how to receive testing accommodations. I provided a letter from the Disability Support Services (DSS) at my university, detailing the usual accommodations I received in class.

Before going to Paris, I spoke to the coordinators of the Sciences Po program who told me that no other people with disabilities had participated in the program. I got copies of my documentation from my DSS office and started emailing whomever I could find via the program’s website to gather the information I needed.

I also started calling to staff in France, which meant getting up early in the morning to reach people on the phone. France’s shorter working hours made getting timely responses difficult. I was assured that I would receive some kind of accommodations for class and tests while in France.

However, I had no help with housing, which caused a considerable amount of stress. I needed to be as close to my host school as possible to make transportation easier. It wasn't until my parents and I made a complaint to the coordinator at my university that the coordinators at Sciences Po began helping me find accessible housing.

What was your experience living in the host country?

Since the University of Oslo was an international program, not only did I have to become acquainted with the culture of my host country, but also the many cultures of people from other countries who had come to be in the program as well. This included different cultures’ approaches to being visually impaired.

My housing situation changed with each program. When I returned to Oslo for the second program, I chose to stay with relatives and commuted to school, although I could have stayed in the school’s accessible housing. In France, some staff at the university found some options for me using their contacts. I was also able to get tours of the Science Po campus by talking to the staff in charge of exchange students.

If you used assistive devices or accommodations, were they helpful to you in your new environment?

The process of receiving accommodations at the University of Oslo was made significantly easier by the fact that this was a relatively small study abroad program of approximately 500 students. I asked members of the University of Oslo staff to personally create electronic copies of the books I needed. In addition, the professors generally provided students with electronic copies of the slides and class notes, so the materials were fairly accessible.

Although there was no set protocol or person designated for arranging testing accommodations, various members of program staff assisted in the process. Interestingly, their flat hierarchy and little job division demonstrated what I learned about Norwegian culture during my time there.

For my exchange program in Paris, I worked with the Social Welfare office to get testing accommodations. Once I had met with a doctor to explain what I needed, the process was streamlined so I never had to worry about testing again. The school contacted me before tests to let me know where to find the testing accommodations room.

Negotiation is a large part of French culture. In order to get what you want, you have to negotiate with the persons in charge, and continually keep in contact.

Accommodation for disability took creative measures. For example, a librarian at the university library gave me a Researcher library card to supplement my Student card so that I could borrow books for a longer period so that I could scan them.

One surprising method the university used to provide accommodations was to offer students with disabilities “assistants,” who could help study, scan books, or take notes. I was assigned an assistant, but found that I was used to doing things independently, so I rarely asked for help.

What were the benefits of the experience?

I enjoyed the University of Oslo program immensely. In Norway, I created many lasting friendships with the other students, and had a wonderful experience overall. For both experiences in Oslo, I had to be prepared to explain my disability to people from many different cultures, not just Norwegian.

My experiences in France made me realize that what you “get out” of a program is determined by what you put in. In the end, I had to do a considerable amount of work to get what I needed out of the exchange program. I had a great time living in Paris and would not have traded the experience for anything.

Kathryn went on to graduate from St. John's University with a focus on disability law and policy. She has