Advising Exchange Participants with Physical Disabilities

African-American wheelchair user strolling with his exchange group in Japan
People with mobility disabilities are underrepresented in international exchange programs, but this can be changed.

People with physical disabilities can include individuals who are amputees, of short stature or had polio, or who have cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, osteogenesis imperfecta, paraplegia, quadriplegia, spina bifida, and other disabilities.

Those who use manual or power wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, crutches, canes, prostheses, or other aids often have varying ability levels. They may be able to walk shorter distances unassisted, find it easier to walk on some days than others, or find it more difficult than others to navigate uneven, wet, slippery or cluttered walking surfaces.

Infrastructure, traffic patterns, and overall topography of the location can make access easier or more difficult than what they are used at home. They may use personal assistant services for tasks such as bathing, dressing, or housekeeping.

Every individual has a right to follow their dreams and ambitions and to decide what challenges they are willing to face and what international experience will best further their academic, professional, and personal goals. Planning for accommodations in advance makes it easier!

Find Resources Abroad

If this is your first experience advising a person with a disability, you may be surprised to find that disability resources - including equipment repair, assistive technology, and independent living services - are available in all U.S. states and increasingly more countries worldwide. Parent associations and disability-specific or cross-disability chapters of national organizations are common places to connect with resources or get referrals. As with many resources, these may be more common in urban than in rural areas, and may include:

  • Accessible transportation and housing
  • Advocacy and legislation
  • Education and youth issues
  • Employment and job training
  • Equipment and Service Provision
  • Rehabilitation and Personal Assistance
  • Sports and Social Activities

Be an Ally

As you advise someone with a physical disability about international opportunities, remember that disability is only one component of an individual’s life experience. Like their non-disabled peers, people with disabilities have talents, skills, goals, and abilities. Be respectful and let the individual guide the discussion regarding his or her international interests and disability access needs.

Most importantly, be encouraging! People with disabilities sometimes come with their own internal roadblocks. Having an advisor who is knowledgeable and willing to seek solutions can make all the difference.

Smita Worah was the first woman with a mobility disability to receive a Fulbright fellowship through the U.S. Educational Foundation in India (USEFI). “As I began to interact with Smita, I thought about some of my own preconceptions of people with disabilities,” says the former Regional Officer of USEFI’s Eastern India office, Dr. Sunrit Mullick.

“Acknowledging these attitudes is half the battle in addressing them. For me, this ultimately helped me to overcome the preconceived ideas I had and to instead devise strategies to help Smita with the logistical challenges she would face in planning her program.”

Plan for Access Abroad

Many people with disabilities do not require any accommodations in order to participate fully in their communities. Most people with disabilities own the equipment they need in everyday life and need only minimal assistance from others. Others will need information and resources about the types of assistive technology and modifications that can be useful abroad. Encourage any advisee with a mobility disability to think carefully about their disability-related access needs and to become familiar with expectations for people with disabilities in the destination.

To begin the conversation, you can download in the Documents the Physical Disability Assessment Forms and Guidelines. Also, see Related Resources for what to share with the exchange participant as he or she plans for the international experience.