Faculty-Led Study Abroad Programs

Power wheelchair user on a study abroad site visit in S. Korea
Faculty-led study abroad programs are a great way for students with disabilities to have a study abroad experience.

How do you design a faculty-led study abroad program that includes students with disabilities? Start by adapting a program, addressing legal responsibilities, learning tips collected from other leaders, and browsing links to examples of faculty-led handbooks and site accessibility forms.

Feelings don't matter, but attitudes do.

A faculty member or advisor cannot simply 'feel' that a person will not fit in or be successful because of their disability. Don't create requirements that, by nature, exclude applicants based on disability. Some universities are developing essential requirements for their study abroad programs in collaboration with the disability office. These describe aspects of the program that students must meet with or without accommodations; all students can read these criteria to better self-assess what the program will involve.

Approach inclusion as an equal opportunity right and focus on how to accommodate the student. Faculty should also share their program design with disability service staff on campus and ask them to provide feedback.

Become familiar with your institution’s policies, risk assessment, and history of including students and staff with disabilities in international programs. These precedents and institutional commitments are critical to your understanding of your rights and responsibilities and the culture of disability inclusion on your campus.

For example, Northwestern University encourages faculty to respond to students who disclose a disability "Thank you for trusting me with this important information, and I know who to put you in touch with now to take this to the next step."

Dollars and cents.

Figure out in advance how disability-related accommodations will be funded (students typically are not required to pay for their own accommodations to modify a program or receive disability-related services). Many institutions fund study abroad accommodations through a shared cost pool or disability services budget and do not come out of the specific program budget or program fees collected by a faculty or institution.

You should also review group health insurance policies to ensure pre-existing and mental health conditions are covered. Or, if students provide their own coverage talk with them about these issues and suggest supplementary coverage for the duration of the program to cover unforeseen health needs. Connect with SOS International, HTH Global or other emergency travel insurance services to determine their level of support for students with disabilities in remote locations.

Get local.

Consider how a student with a sensory disability (Deaf/hard of hearing or blind/low vision) can access all program activities and academic settings. Will an interpreter, transcription services, or other arrangement be needed?

Make sure that all facilities are wheelchair accessible. If there are areas, buildings, or activities that you know are inaccessible, make a plan for how a particular activity or place could be adapted to make it accessible. If there is no possible adaptation, find alternative locations or activities.

Carefully review program activities that are declared essential to the program but which in reality have very reasonable alternatives, such as adjustments to favorite traditions, excursions, hikes, cultural activities or social events.

Encourage each student to carefully consider any adaptations he or she is currently using to evaluate whether any of them will be unavailable or unnecessary in the host country.

Group think.

During pre-departure orientations, encourage all students to take responsibility for making the program inclusive, and to disclose any needs that arise during the program. If a student has a disability and would benefit from the support of his/her peers, this provides the student an opportunity to share these ideas with other students and effectively advocate for him or herself.

If possible arrange early arrival and an in-country orientation for students with disabilities, especially for students with vision and physical disabilities. An investment in developing the students familiarity and independence such as how to use local transportation, navigate using landmarks, locate curb cuts, ramps and elevators, and similar tips will quickly make the student more independent.

Arrange frequent check-ins with the student during the course of the program to assess the effectiveness of accommodations, address any new issues that arise, and make adjustments as needed.

Everybody call 911.

It is important for all students and faculty leaders to know the plan in case of an emergency including contingency plans for students with disabilities. Use the Centers for Disease Control’s online guide to Traveling with Chronic Medical Illnesses for more information on preparing for travel with certain conditions.

Familiarize yourself in advance with preparedness steps to consider should a major environmental event, political unrest or damage to infrastructure occur while the program is underway. Would you know how to evacuate a building, alert a student who is Deaf to a fire alarm, communicate without a sign language interpreter, or respond to a mental health crisis if necessary?

Pitfalls to avoid.

Myth #1

If a student has a physical disability, he or she will not be able to participate in a faculty-led program because it’s an active, short-term program with little time for any changes or adjustment.

Fact #1

People with disabilities are living and working in all communities where international programs occur. It is the responsibility of faculty leaders to think creatively, work with each student and their institution’s disability services staff, as well as overseas disability organizations, to determine how inaccessible activities may be adapted. If there is no acceptable adaptation, an activity may need to be replaced with inclusive activities with equal interest, so all students can participate.

At the application stage, it is illegal to turn any student away from a program based on their disability.

Myth #2

If something comes up and a student needs an accommodation not prepared for, deal with it then or, worst case scenario, the student can return home.

Fact #2

Every participant, disabled or non-disabled, needs a contingency plan. For a student with a disability, the plan should include support plans and resources for resolving disability-related issues. And, advocacy techniques if accommodations are not effective.

Prior to departure, develop and review a contingency or support plan with the student to anticipate issues in advance, including access to medications, supplies, services and environmental issues that may arise. Some types of accommodations might take months to arrange, so begin addressing accommodations as far in advance as possible.

It is a faculty member’s responsibility, as the director of a program, to ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to have a safe and successful experience abroad. And, the faculty member can rely on knowledge from the student, disability professionals, and study abroad staff for guidance.

Myth #3

It is going to require a significant amount of additional time to include students with disabilities. Faculty leaders simply do not have the time.

Fact #3

Many people with disabilities need very few accommodations and many accommodations can be made easily and inexpensively. In the United States, most people with disabilities own the equipment they need for everyday life and need only minimal assistance from others. University disability services offices and study abroad offices should already have resources and/or experience working with students with disabilities.

Some accommodations and inclusive program design modifications do require additional time, especially if this is the first time a faculty leader is considering disability inclusion on a program. Arrange a meeting with the student, study abroad, and disability or counseling services staff to discuss accommodation strategies and plans. Connect with disability organizations in the destination country to see what gains have been made for accessibility in the educational, tourist, transportation and community centers.

Refer to the Related Links for examples of faculty-led handbooks that include sections on disability and mental health, site accessibility forms, and other tips for including students with disabilities in faculty-led programs.