Exchange Students Prepped for Success in U.S. Schools

In a conference room, exchange students sit on the floor as they work together on a large sheet of paper, pausing to speak to a staff person who uses a wheelchair.
How do you provide youth with disabilities from over 20 countries a springboard to reach their highest potential?  

You include these young people in opportunities to live with host families and study in U.S. high schools for a year, opening a world of possibilities that they may not have envisioned. 

Each year, the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) and Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) programs bring nearly 2,000 students with and without disabilities from Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and countries with significantly Muslim populations to the U.S.  The goal of both highly competitive scholarship programs, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State – Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), is to foster a greater understanding between people.  MIUSA works with ECA to ensure full inclusion of youth with disabilities in these invaluable programs. 

In August 2021, MIUSA welcomed FLEX and YES students with disabilities from around the world to Washington D.C., for MIUSA Arrival Workshops.  At these interactive workshops, MIUSA prepared students with information, resources and support to take full advantage of the inclusive, accessible environments that they will experience in the U.S. 

What did students with disabilities learn at the MIUSA Arrival Workshops? They learned how to hold a rights-bearing attitude and how to advocate for their rights under laws such as the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Students learned about disability rights movements in the U.S. and how disabled activists took collective action to pass and enforce laws that entitle people with disabilities to equal rights and opportunities.  

FLEX and YES students learned about accommodations in school and how to request them.  They met with U.S. youth with similar disabilities who shared their experiences, insights and advice for having a successful, fully inclusive year in a U.S. high school.  

While in D.C., students also enjoyed a visit to a neighborhood park, designed to be fully accessible for children (and adults) with and without disabilities.  Students tried out inclusive features such as a swing for wheelchair riders, tactile toys and soundmakers, and ramps for climbing playground equipment.  Students rode the fully accessible carousel – a first for many who had never seen a merry-go-round let alone ridden on one.

Students departed the MIUSA Arrival Workshops to their host communities around the U.S., equipped with confidence and knowledge of what to expect – and what is expected of them -- as students with disabilities in the U.S.

In the words of a few of the students:

“During the workshop, I found out about different types of accommodations, the ADA, and some useful tips for the upcoming exchange year.  Now I know more about my rights as a disabled person, [so] I feel more prepared about the year.”
             -Student from Kazakhstan with severe hearing loss

“I learned new things that would make being a student with a disability easier.”
            -Student from Romania with a vision impairment

MIUSA will provide disability-related support and technical assistance to FLEX and YES hosting organizations, to ensure that these talented youth have full access to school and community experiences throughout their exchange year. 

Spending a year in the U.S. has an especially profound impact on youth with disabilities.  When FLEX and YES alumni return to their home countries, many will become involved with outreach to encourage other student with disabilities to apply to this life-changing program. We are confident that these young people are future leaders, who will create change in their countries and perhaps the world.

At MIUSA we envision a world where people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as non-disabled people do.  Toward that goal, MIUSA is proud to work with ECA and American Councils to support students with diverse disabilities to participate fully in the FLEX and YES Programs. 

Enjoy these additional quotes from FLEX and YES students with disabilities:

“[I learned] it’s absolutely okay to talk about disability in the U.S.  You can always ask for help and still stay an independent person.”
            -Student from Kazakhstan with severe hearing loss

“I learned how to ask for accommodations.  So if I need some accommodations I should not be worried or shy about asking for them.”
            -Student from Slovakia with physical disability

 “It has been my dream to meet someone with a disability like mine.  I have now had that dream realized thanks to MIUSA.” 
        -Student from Mongolia with a missing limb

“I liked this so much because the tips were given by someone with [the] same disability as mine.”
        -Student from Slovakia with severe hearing loss 

“Overall [I am] grateful to all of the MIUSA staff for giving clear and accessible explanations of rights and laws for the disabled people here in the U.S., [and for] sharing the personal experience of citizens with disabilities.”
            -Student from Kazakhstan with physical disability