Funding Access to a Priceless Experience

In the foreground graphic, a metal pole supports a yellow diamond-shaped road sign labeled “Funding” and below it, a green sign labeled “Univ Arizona, Duke University.” In the background photo, an inclining road with yellow double center lines rises towards reddish rocky hills below a hazy pink sky. Map markers show photo of a young white male student seated in a wheelchair with a dog in one and leaning against a camel in another
To fully soak in sunshine-drenched Italy or to behold the towering sandscapes of Namibia are priceless experiences. But even priceless experiences have their price tags!

That’s the idea behind many higher education institutions’ forward-thinking approach to ensuring that no disabled student is denied the opportunity to study abroad due to the costs of facilitating access.

In a perfect world, there would not be any extra costs associated with having a disability because the built environment, virtual environment and learning environment would already be accessible to everyone. Until that becomes a reality, the cost to remove those barriers is often another barrier still for people with disabilities, putting opportunities like study abroad even further out of reach.

To counter this, institutions like the University of Arizona and Duke University have established sound strategies for relieving students with disabilities of some of those financial burdens.

 The University of Arizona proactively engages disabled students and Study Abroad staff to strategize for access abroad. In addition, it uses a unique funding model to pay for “unforeseen and unpredictable funding accommodations” to support disabled students to study abroad.  In other words, it’s a safeguard against the dreaded, frustrating, and inequitable: “Whoops! There’s no funding for this!”

Arizona established the central institutional account over a decade ago. Initially the fund—currently $1 million, reloaded annually, was housed in the provost’s office but later moved to Student Affairs to be stewarded by the Disability Resource Center (DRC), separate from DRC’s departmental funding.

This offers several advantages says Amanda Kraus, Director of the DRC, such as providing a centralized resource that is consistent and practical. It also allows the DRC to nurture campus relationships and identify emerging trends that might not be as apparent if requests were made via multiple points of entry.

The institutional fund also offers peace of mind.  On a campus with many departments and divisions—with varying budgets—it’s risky to allow individual departments to determine whether they will be able to meet unforeseen requests for accommodations. Ultimately, says Amanda, it’s the University of Arizona’s responsibility—not the individual departments’—to ensure an accessible experience for its students and employees.

“It’s not just about ADA compliance issues; it also fits with the social model of disability.”

Some examples of disability-related accommodations that Arizona was able to fund include:

  • Transportable ramps and assistive equipment in an apartment bathroom for a student studying geosciences in Italy.
  • Upgrade to business-class airfare for a student studying business in China, when a standard economy seat would cause extreme discomfort due to their disability.
  • American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for a student traveling to Namibia and beyond.

Access to ASL interpreting abroad comes with the heftiest price tag by far - Amanda estimates that about 80% of the funding for study abroad accommodations is applied towards communication access. With its institutional account system in place, the University of Arizona makes it possible to meet this need without depleting the financial resources of any single department.

Not all disability-related accommodations are expensive; in fact, some incur no additional expenses at all, such as adjusting the time or location of a class if needed. Ensuring that accessible course material is built into the curriculum design means that fewer resources need to be dedicated to retrofitting or adapting later on.

At Duke University, meanwhile:

“No two abroad programs look exactly the same, and that is very much true for funding too.”

So says Leigh Fickling, Director of Duke’s Disability Management System, which is housed under Duke’s Administration instead of being under Student Affairs like at the University of Arizona and many other institutions. Duke uses an integrated system that oversees all disability-related requests for students, faculty, staff and visitors which allows them to reach every part of the University and Health System.

Whether accommodations are needed for use at Duke or away, the Disability Management System reviews all requests on a case-by-case basis and partners with many other stakeholders to plan next steps. This includes the student, the ADA Facilities Director, the Global Education program, external resources like MIUSA, among others.

While Leigh’s office assists with some of the larger expenses as needed, the academic department in which the student is enrolled also contributes. For example, they’ve worked with the institution’s Psychology Program as well as the College of Arts and Sciences to reach this goal.

With these supports in place, jet-setting Duke students with disabilities have accessed housing in Morocco and transportation in Oxford. Duke has arranged for one student, who will study in Berlin this summer, to access both.

Of course, achieving equitable access to education abroad for students with disabilities entails much, much more than just locating funding. And yet, without it, it’s often one of the first hurdles that diverts a student from their path to go abroad. Perhaps, with time, establishing funds for “unforeseen and predictable individual accommodations” will signal to disabled students that their participation in international opportunities is in fact foreseen, predicted, and encouraged.

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