Visa Considerations for Exchange Participants with Disabilities

A magnifying glass is held to a document labeled "visa."
Find out how visa regulations may be impacted by a chronic illness, a pre-existing health condition, or personal assistant care.

Most international exchange participants are issued a J-1 or F-1 visa in order to enter the United States. Most of the rules and regulations for visas are the same for participants with or without disabilities, but there are also some additional considerations that people with disabilities should know.

Academic Credit

Will you be coming to the U.S. on a student visa? Students on an F-1 visa are required to maintain a full course load at school. For undergraduate students, this usually means 12 credits. For graduate students, the school will determine how many credits are considered a full course load.

Students with learning disabilities, chronic health conditions, or other disabilities sometimes need to take a reduced course load due to medical or health issues or as an approved academic accommodation by the U.S. disability office. Your doctor or the disability office can help you determine whether or not you should take a reduced course load. 

However, as an international student, you will only be allowed to have a reduced course load of 12 months total (though it can be taken at different times) for illness or medical conditions. You can apply for an extension, especially if it is an approved academic accommodation for a disability, but the process may take several months and involve a fee.

A reduced course load means that you receive permission to take fewer academic credits than you are usually required. This is less than full-time status.

Health Insurance

Whether you are coming to the U.S. on a J-1 or F-1 visa, you will be required to have adequate health insurance coverage while living in the United States. People who have pre-existing health conditions sometimes have difficulty qualifying for supplemental health insurance coverage, which is common to use if you are in the U.S. for less than one year.

If you have a pre-existing condition, find out if your exchange program or host school offers group health insurance plans, which are more likely to cover pre-existing conditions. Be sure to ask.

Otherwise it may be easier to purchase a health insurance policy in your home country if it also provides coverage in the United States, or from the health insurance plans offered to individuals in the U.S. state where you are going.

If you will need to return to your home country to receive medical care, it is important to be aware of program and visa requirements for leaving and re-entering the United States.

A pre-existing health condition is usually defined as treatment received for a health condition up to 1 or 2 years before coming to the U.S.

Personal Care Assistants

Some travelers who receive personal assistance from a friend or family member want this person to travel to the U.S. with them. If you are coming to the U.S. on a government-sponsored program and receive a J-1 visa, then your dependents (children) and spouse (husband or wife) may be eligible for a J-2 visa.

If your assistant is not your spouse or dependent, they will not receive a J-2 visa. Instead, they may be able to apply for a tourist visa and extend it as needed. Your other option is to hire a personal assistant or arrange for services in the U.S.