Cultural Differences & Disability: Tips for the Program Advisor

A Muslim man with an American woman dressed in red head scarf smile.
Advising participants with disabilities who have concerns about cultural attitudes abroad.

Disabled or not, all international travelers have experienced the awkwardness of being different or standing out in a new country. A person with a disability may also experience other cultural attitudes because of their disability.

Such experiences can be confusing, frustrating, or empowering. By their very presence and active participation in your exchange program, people with disabilities can challenge their own and others' perceptions.

If they have concerns, remind them that being uncomfortable is an opportunity to grow, and that cultural connections often end up being the most meaningful part of an overseas experience. Also point out not all disability-related cultural experiences are negative, and they are likely to meet people who are very understanding, accepting, and encouraging.

Once abroad, check in to make sure these cultural differences are not affecting the safety of the individual. Keep this discussion balanced with reassurance in the participant's coping skills and information about counseling or related resources if they need support. 

Creating a Culture of Inclusion

Sometimes cultural conflicts happen when trying to work with partners in negotiating access solutions and arranging disability-related services at a location. The following are proactive steps to encourage a positive response:

  • When you are signing or renegotiating contracts or partner agreements, make it clear that you have a diversity of participants, including those with disabilities, and policies for non-discrimination.
  • If you encounter attitudes that are barriers to inclusion, get specifics about what concerns they have and problem-solve or dispel them one at a time.
  • There are allies or champions for people with disabilities in every community; find those with the right connections to join you.
  • Learn how change happens in their culture and what motivates reconsideration - is it leveraging personal connections, bringing up legal or economic arguments, or showing how others do it?

What have you found to be effective cross-culturally? Share your comments.