Blind and Low Vision Tips for Going Abroad

Christi Gilson, who is a blind American, explores Hong Kong with cane and local friend
You have been accepted to a study, volunteer, or other program abroad. Now what? Here's quick preparation tips and advice upon arrival.

Preparing to Go Abroad

  • Disclose your disability to request accommodations well in advance, if possible. This might include connecting with a local blind and low vision organization where you are going.
  • Arrange a time for orientation training in the new location. Do this ahead of arrival so it is available and you can get to know your immediate surroundings and key routes without delay. It’s important to learn the rules of the road and determine accessibility for blind and low vision pedestrians.
  • Research public transportation. What methods of public transportation, such as buses or trains, are available in the destination country? How reliable are they? What services do they provide for people with disabilities.
  • Be prepared for different attitudes on disability. In some countries, people with disabilities are rarely out in public. You may face discrimination and unwanted offers for assistance.
  • Contact airports and airlines ahead of time. Request a “meet and assist” at any airports you will visit to ensure you will quickly get to your proper gate. Let a flight attendant know about your disability in case you will need assistance.
  • Research required documentation and vaccinations for a service animal. This can take weeks or even months, and in some situations, may be illegal to import a service dog into the destination country without a quarantine process. Learn about feral dogs in the destination country when deciding whether to bring a dog guide.
  • Consider using an assistant. In some countries, people who are blind or low vision generally use human guides. These guides can be especially useful at the beginning of a program. For exchange programs involving text-based coursework, a personal reader, note-taker, and scribe can provide assistance. Language differences and abilities need to be taken into account.

What to Bring

  • Take a cane. Even if you plan to use a guide or a guide dog, or if you don’t normally use a cane, your cane lets others know that you are blind or low vision. This can be useful in crowded areas, when crossing roads, and in unfamiliar environments.
  • Take a laptop with a screen reader or other assistive technology. Make sure you have the proper outlet plug adaptors and electrical convertors for charging your equipment. Also find out if they have regular power outages, and think what you will do if your equipment gets damaged or lost.
  • Take an assistant from home. Some will not need or want this option. If you do, keep in mind that taking family members may limit your opportunities to expand your comfort zones and interact with the group. You could ask others on the program to volunteer as an assistant, but consider rotating volunteers to share the responsibility.

Tips Once Abroad

  • Ask questions. Certain details might be obvious to a sighted person, but not to blind and low vision travelers. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance.
  • Be prepared to educate strangers about effective guidance techniques. Strangers might not know correct guiding techniques or have different techniques in their country, so be prepared to show them what you prefer.
  • Connect with locals who are blind or low vision. This is an opportunity to discover commonalities and differences. Also to get advice from people who live in the area on best ways to get around or find what you need.
  • Learn the currency. Do coins and bills have differences that make them possible to identify by touch? If not, use bill-folding strategies or assistive technology.
  • Learn how the toilets work. Flushing systems may be placed differently and extra features may exist. In some places, squat toilets or outdoor toilets might be common.
  • Carry written directions for important locations. If assistance is needed for getting to a classroom, dorm room, or other location, written directions can make it easier.
  • If rules of the road are not followed, cross with the locals. Especially in developing countries, traffic can be unreliable and dangerous.
  • Find a taxi driver you trust. This helps in getting to an unfamiliar location quickly, or if you get lost. Ask the cab driver to wait until you safely and visibly reach your intended destination before driving away.

Read stories from blind travelers in the Table of Contents, and also share tips from your international experiences by emailing us.