Think Global, Act Universal

In the foreground graphic, a metal pole supports an orange rectangular road sign labeled “Collaboration” and below it, a green sign labeled “Portland Community College.” In the background photo, fir trees tower above a narrow road that bends through a forest.
It’s a question that often arises in conversations about accommodating students with disabilities in international exchange: “What if they don’t disclose?”

Some international education professionals share anecdotes about scrambling to find accessible housing and transportation options when a student unexpectedly showed up to the program site in a wheelchair; others recall students who took them by surprise by exhibiting signs of depression shortly after arriving in their host destination.

While of course no one wants to feel caught off guard or uninformed, some forward-thinking international educators are less concerned about whether international exchange participants disclose their disabilities in advance. Instead, they place greater emphasis on something that is more within their control: implementing good program standards that allow for broad access and flexibility for diverse students.

Anne Frey, Education Abroad Manager at Portland Community College (PCC), is one such international educator who, over the course of advising a PCC student in his study abroad pursuits, came to recognize how adapting processes and systems to be more inclusive diminishes the need to focus so much on any one individual.

“As an open access institution, every student should have access to everything that is offered at PCC. My role is to meet the students where they are and figure out policies and processes that will allow every student access to study abroad if they choose to do so.”

Studying abroad was a goal that Chris*, a PCC student, had expressed many, many times to his professors. So when one faculty member offered an opportunity to join a faculty-led course outside the United States and far from Portland, Chris was ready to dive in! He completed all the required tasks for the application process.

However, some red flags started popping up in the pre-departure phase. He disclosed concerning behaviors such as difficulty getting to class and sleeping all day. He had also expressed being in a dark emotional state. “We were a little alarmed about whether or not this student could succeed in the program, and whether or not he should go abroad,” Anne confides. “Our greatest fear was that the student was going to spend a lot of money and be a long way from home, only to be unsuccessful in completing the course and not be able to take advantage of being in the host culture.”

For guidance, Anne reached out to PCC faculty and staff familiar with the student. When they suggested that the student may have a non-apparent disability that affects his social interactions and executive function, Anne next reached out to Kaela Parks, Director of PCC’s Disability Services.

“We had connected a bit prior to that about how our offices might work together, but we hadn’t really had the chance to dig in together on any specific project.”

Per Kaela, the role of Disability Services is to serve as a consultant to PCC staff and faculty. When Anne reached out, Kaela made it clear in their series of conversations that, while there was no magic wand that she could wave to satisfy everyone, it would be important to strike a good balance in terms of how Education Abroad could work effectively with a very diverse population, including students with non-apparent disabilities.

Students perceived to have a disability—including Chris—may not identify as such and therefore may not formally register with disability services or request disability-related accommodations. Even students who do identify as disabled may opt to not register with disability services if they don’t anticipate needing any of their services, or for other reasons.

With this in mind, Anne and Kaela both agreed that it was time to take a more direct approach. They saw an opportunity to have clear, objective conversations with the student, the faculty, and the study coach about what behavior was causing folks to feel concerned about the student and to talk about those concerns openly. A key outcome of the conversations was to identify specific, concrete tasks that Chris—and all students going abroad—should be expected to fulfill.

A short while later, Chris not only went on the trip abroad—he thrived on the experience, exploring ancient ruins, completing his coursework, and forging friendships with his fellow travelers. Upon his return, he started planning for another faculty-led experience in Oceania and joined a peer mentor program to advise prospective study abroad students. Some of the same characteristics that initially caused concern in PCC staff are the same characteristics that make Chris a stellar peer mentor.

“It was a wake-up call,” says Anne. “What if we had not figured this out? What if we had prevented him from having this amazing experience? It brought weight to us as far as our ability to support a student to be successful in an experience like this.”

Kaela agrees that the experience served to challenge assumptions.

“We shouldn’t limit someone’s opportunity based on what we fear might happen. We need to be clear and objective and give people opportunities to show what they can do.”

The next step was to scale up the lessons learned from advising Chris in order to change how the Education Abroad office approaches working with students with disabilities, recognizing that students with disabilities are an ever-present population in higher education, and that they contribute to a culture of valuing all aspects of identity and intersectionality. At the design stage of study abroad programming, it’s sustainable to anticipate that students with disabilities will participate and plan accordingly. Otherwise, it’s harder to retrofit a program that wasn’t designed with disabled students in mind.

Concrete ways in which Education Abroad has modified its processes include changing some of the language in the program documentation and more clearly outlining behavioral expectations to all participants. They are adding information to the website – such as student stories, videos, and useful links—to signal that students with disabilities are encouraged to go abroad.

Encouraged by this progress, Anne believes the international education field is turning a corner.

“Rather than having something exclusionary, the field needs everyone to be included in this experience. We need to figure out a way to support diverse students and all they bring to the table.”

*Not the student’s real name.

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