A year after I started working as an educational adviser at the Fulbright Commission in Austria, I realized that I had not to the best of my knowledge encountered a single Austrian student who had any type of disability, not even a minor learning disability. A few weeks later, while tabling at a higher education fair in Vienna, I noticed a group of deaf students standing along the periphery of the room.
I gestured for them to come over and after I explained that I advise students about opportunities in the U.S., one asked if students who are Deaf can study in the United States. The students were really excited when I told them that they can apply to any university in the United States, including universities for students who are Deaf. I also told them that there were scholarships available and that the Fulbright program strongly values the participation of diverse students, including students with disabilities.
Coming from the United States, it hadn’t occurred to me to specify that scholarships are open to students with disabilities. I assumed everyone knew that all programs are open to all qualified applicants.
I quickly realized that because many students with disabilities in Austria don’t have access to the same educational opportunities as their non-disabled peers, they assume that opportunities are not available to them and opt out of events and programs. This helped to explain why I had yet to work with any disabled students at Fulbright Austria. It was also the spark that motivated me to work on this issue.
My first step was to reach out to the disability community. I contacted various organizations but initially made little progress through email correspondence alone. I saw that Uniability, an organization that represents students with disabilities in Austria, would be at an upcoming fair, so I made a point to talk to them in person. Honestly, it was the best thing I could have done.
I explained that I work at an advising center and represent the Fulbright program and emphasized that we want students with disabilities to apply. People from the organization arranged for me to talk with some students with disabilities. I asked two questions:
- Would you be interested in studying in the United States?
- If so, what’s stopping you?
I was nervous because I wasn’t sure what their concerns would be or if they would have very complicated and disability-specific questions.
The students I spoke to that day were indeed interested in studying in the US and surprised me in that the concerns they voiced were those I hear from practically every Austrian student. Can someone help me with the application process? Will I have support as an international student in the United States? Is funding available?
I was reminded that you don’t need specialized information to be an effective adviser to students with disabilities.
Now we make it a point to reach out to students with disabilities through targeted mailings that include language encouraging students with disabilities to apply for Fulbright and other programs.
Progress has been slow, but finding one really strong partner organization has made all the difference in the world. And I try to remember that even if we don’t get a lot of applicants immediately, it doesn’t mean we haven’t planted a seed. Students with disabilities may now be thinking about the full range of options and opportunities available to them.
In addition to targeted mailings, we have taken steps to ensure that our advising services are accessible to people with mobility disabilities. The Fulbright office is located up 43 stairs on the second floor of a historic building in Vienna, so we’ve organized an accessible backup advising space on the ground floor of the building. I also make a point to ask about accessibility when we are going to higher education fairs. Is the location of our table accessible to people with mobility disabilities? Are sign language interpreters available?
Looking forward, as disability awareness and disability rights expand across Europe and Eurasia, and more students with disabilities are mainstreamed in secondary education, I believe that more will consider higher education and professional programs in the United States. It is part of our role as advisers to ensure that those students receive information and support to make their dreams of studying in the United States a reality.