People with Intellectual Disabilities Can Study and Volunteer Abroad

Young man sits outside with professional exchange staff in front of wall art.
Students with intellectual disabilities already participate in colleges and universities across the country. Now, the next stop is international exchange.

In 2008, students with intellectual disabilities scored a victory in achieving access to higher education, following the reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunities Act (HEOA). The new law made it possible for those wishing to attend an approved Comprehensive Transition Program (CTP) to receive federal financial aid. A CTP is a program in which students with intellectual disabilities build their confidence, independence and career readiness by participating in college alongside their nondisabled peers.

Since that time, more communities have set up CTPs at universities across the country with support from the government. There has been a lot of interest from students and their families.

CTPs like the University Participant (UP) program, directed by Dr. Kelly Kelley at Western Carolina University, allow students with intellectual disabilities to take classes with their nondisabled peers. They live in the dorms, and participate in extracurricular activities. Just as they led the way into the classroom, CTPs can open up the way to international exchange.

Dr. Kelley organized a short-term exchange opportunity for students with and without disabilities to visit the United Kingdom, in order to learn about life for people with intellectual disabilities in London and Dublin. Access articles describing Doctor Kelley's UK exchange and MIUSA's trainings in the related links section.

MIUSA has also had opportunities to host international rights leaders with intellectual disabilities on our Women’s Institutes on Leadership and Disabilities (WILD) and Empower Partnerships for Inclusive Communities program.

Like other students, people with intellectual disabilities participating in international exchange build self-confidence, learn how to navigate an unfamiliar world, and explore a culture that is different from their own.

"My experiences abroad have challenged me to be more social, and they've given me the opportunity to listen to other people, their opinions… experiences. They have given me more tools to be a better self-advocate and activist."
- Maria Camila Lozano Ruiz, rights activist with an intellectual disability from Columbia.

Support for full inclusion

Planning for inclusion of a student with intellectual disability should start with discussion with that student. Learn what strategies the student uses to succeed at home, in school and the community. Discuss what might be different in an international context, and explore supports that would be most useful while they are abroad.

One accommodation that has been used successfully by people with intellectual disability is to travel with a companion or advocate. Some programs support costs of a personal assistant chosen by the individual; others offer built-in resources for personal assistance. Support is offered on a case-by-case basis.

In Dr. Kelley's trip to the UK, students with intellectual disabilities were supported by assistance from their peers. Prior to the program, the expectation was communicated that all participants, disabled and non-disabled, would contribute to making the program fully inclusive. Within this framework, non-disabled students naturally provided assistance and accommodations as needed by group members with intellectual disabilities. Clear communication was crucial to ensuring that all group members were full and equal participants.

When Maria Camila Lozano was selected as a delegate for WILD, she requested accommodations that had worked for her during previous human rights conferences. MIUSA paid for her personal assistant (PA) to travel with her to WILD. The PA accompanied Camila during each activity, assisting her by clarifying information (sometimes using visual diagrams), translating written documents into plain language, and assisting Camila to organize her thoughts in order to contribute to group discussions. Camila explained her accommodation needs to MIUSA staff and her WILD peers, and pitched in to assist other participants as needed. Using these and other strategies, Camila was able to fully engage in and contribute to all activities.

"In MIUSA I was the first woman with intellectual disability to participate. This was important because it allowed us to learn from each other, both for me on how to interact with a group of various diverse women, while at the same time they had to question their ideas about intellectual disability."
- Maria Camila Lozano Ruiz.

Suz Dunn, MIUSA’s WILD Program Manager, noted that “[Camila’s contributions to] WILD had a profound impact on everyone involved. Many of the other participants had never had the chance before to work alongside a person with an intellectual disability, to learn from them directly, and to see them take their rightful place as leaders. We hope to see more people with intellectual disabilities participating in all programs, as self-advocates and as leaders, and participating fully in all aspects of community life."

Consider reaching out to the CTP on your campus and the office for students with disabilities to seek out and recruit interested students with intellectual disabilities for your international exchange programs. They won't apply if they don't know what's out there. Talk to each applicant, and work with the CTP, to explore what supports might be effective.

Refer to our resources on advising, as well as our discussion on strategies for including people with ID abroad. ThinkCollege is a leader in postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities and they have a directory of CTPs in the United States and Canada.

For more reading on students with intellectual disabilities, take a look at our other resources under the table of contents and Dr. Kelley's Journal articles under the related links.

Many thanks to Dr. Kelly Kelley of the Western Carolina University Participant (UP) Program, Susan Dunn, WILD Program Manager and our friends at AUCD for their excellent feedback on this article.