Advocating for Access

In the foreground graphic, a metal pole supports a brown road sign labeled “Advocacy” and below it, a green sign labeled “Univ Illinois Urbana-Champaign.” In the background photo, a straight road passes through shadows to bright sun as it leads to golden grass, green trees, and blue mountains beyond. A map marker shows Hugo Trevino in front of a Buddha statue
The international education field is comprised of many champions for students with disabilities to access international exchange, but some of the greatest champions of all are students with disabilities who advocate for themselves and others.

One of those students was Hugo Trevino, who developed his passion for international travel while an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Hugo’s first international exchange experience was a two-week exchange program through Mobility International USA which took place in Costa Rica and focused on disabled youth and leadership, bringing together young people from the United States and Costa Rica with diverse disabilities. This trip impacted Hugo significantly because he not only discovered how it could be possible for a person with his disability - Spinal Muscular Atrophy - to travel abroad, but how it could also be possible for his peers who have sensory disabilities, invisible disabilities, and more.

Hugo’s epiphany on the short-term program became the genesis of an impressive chain of events that included additional studies abroad to such disparate destinations as Costa Rica, China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Italy throughout his higher education career.

But it also led to another outcome that would potentially impact countless Illinois students with disabilities: Enabled Abroad, a scholarship and support resource offered through the University’s campus study abroad office, Illinois Abroad and Global Exchange (IAGE).  

Advocating for Access

Hugo knew that study abroad was an experience he would want to integrate into his college career. He figured that since Illinois is regarded as one of the most accessible universities in the United States for wheelchair users, and recognized as one of the first higher education institutions to establish a disability services office, why shouldn’t it also excel in facilitating access abroad? Hugo was confident that with his self-advocacy skills and his institution’s reputation for inclusive excellence, studying abroad would be a realistic option.

“Knowing it was possible because I did it before, helped me advocate for myself because no one could tell me I couldn’t.”

Hugo wasted no time getting started. He would frequently visit the IAGE to meet the advisors, learn about different programs (taking into account his goal to learn Spanish), discuss accessibility at the various host sites, and identify an advocate who would commit to join Hugo in his quest to find the best study abroad fit for him.

Hugo found a fellow champion in Teneisha Ellis, his study abroad advisor at the time. Teneisha was curious to learn from Hugo about what he would need to fully participate in a study abroad program. From there, Teneisha began thinking creatively to explore all options for Hugo and reached out to the IAGE director to ensure that the university’s stellar accessibility reputation would also extend to their study abroad programs.

Indeed, Illinois strives to arrange reasonable accommodations for students with documented disabilities going abroad. IAGE reached out to a few programs that interested Hugo, including the university’s centers in Costa Rica and Spain, to determine whether they were physically accessible to a student using a wheelchair. Although Illinois informs students that certain accommodations may not be possible at all sites, in this case the program was able to arrange for the sites in Costa Rica and Spain to install ramps when it was discovered there were none.

IAGE was excited to offer these options to Hugo, but there was still one more major logistical question. Hugo would also require a personal assistant for tasks like lifting, transferring and personal care. While such services would allow him to fully participate in the study abroad experiences, they also come at a hefty expense. How could such costs be addressed to level the playing field for Hugo and other students requiring similar accommodations?

It was a puzzling question that was new for IAGE, but their director was committed to finding a solution and therefore reached out to their long-term partner, the director of the University’s Disability Resources & Educational Services (DRES) office, Susann Sears, for support.

Together, the two offices decided to draft a proposal to the University’s Vice Provost for International Affairs and Global Strategies office for possible scholarship options for Hugo and other students with disabilities. The directors interviewed Hugo frequently to capture the importance of disability inclusion in study abroad, the additional expenses needed for students with disabilities to go abroad, and Hugo’s specific needs for a personal assistant. Outlining the expenses and seeing the significant hardship it could be for students with disabilities to access study abroad was important to make clear in the proposal and to the university. After reviewing the thorough proposal, IAGE and DRES received strong support from the Vice Provost’s office.

And so the Enabled Abroad Scholarship was launched. This scholarship is specifically designated for Illinois undergraduates with physical and/or sensory disabilities to study abroad. The scholarship is offered on a rolling basis at an amount determined after an assessment of each student’s individual needs. To fund the scholarship, the University solicits donations from various academic departments and donors.

Besides scholarship funds, IAGE also maintains an online resource center to provide practical information for prospective study abroad students with disabilities as well as those from other diverse backgrounds. For instance, in addition to Enabled Abroad, students can find entries for LGBTQ+ Abroad, Women Abroad, Race and Ethnicity Abroad, and more. Each of these resource centers are developed in collaboration with cultural and student services offices across campus.

Institutional Commitment

An important piece of the proposal was to illustrate that Enabled Abroad wasn’t merely a collaboration between IAGE and DRES; rather, it was part of a larger institutional commitment to inclusion.

The proposal emphasized how it was in Illinois’ best interest for its students to be global citizens and to be more marketable upon graduation. Unfortunately people with disabilities generally face more discrimination when it comes to employment. By prioritizing removing barriers to study abroad, students with disabilities can be as competitive as their non-disabled peers in a job market that values international experiences.  

Hugo saw this first-hand when he started his own job search.

“An employer loved me on paper and in my interview, but it always comes back to my disability. They asked if I would be able to get to work every day. I was able to use my study abroad experience and say ‘well if I made it to Costa Rica and China, coming to work will not be a problem.’”

The domino effect, resulting from a conversation which started in a small office, will continue to stay in motion as a number of other students with disabilities access the Enabled Abroad Scholarship to study abroad and as employers reap the benefits of hiring Enabled Abroad alumni.

This article is part of the AWAY Journal - Champions for Inclusion Issue.