Far too often, college and university students with disabilities recall being discouraged from going abroad by faculty leaders or other university staff.
The University of Texas at Austin (UT), for one, is determined to never let this happen, recognizing that greater visibility to the inclusion of people with disabilities in study abroad is one of the most important steps to shifting a campus culture to greater access.
With more than 4,000 students studying abroad each year, the university strives to ensure that this growth in numbers reflects its population of students with disabilities through multiple outreach strategies. It initiates relationships with a broad range of stakeholders—students with disabilities, study abroad staff, disability services staff, and faculty members—to bring about a campus-wide consciousness of the fact that students with disabilities can and do go abroad!
To help keep everyone accountable for disability inclusion in education abroad, the International Office at UT designated Laura Caloudas, one of its study abroad advisors*, to serve as a liaison to the Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) office. In this role, she collaborates with SSD on a number of initiatives such as planning study abroad events targeting students with disabilities, coordinating reasonable accommodations for international exchange participants with disabilities, and being the point of contact whom faculty and staff can turn to when questions arise about access abroad.
Since incorporating a disability liaison position into UT’s International Office, Laura believes a change is definitely happening.
“There is more visibility on campus that study abroad is an option for students with disabilities.”
Every semester, the International Office and SSD offers a workshop for students with disabilities about how they can explore opportunities abroad, and one of the highlights of such events is the participation of returned international exchange alumni with disabilities who can share their experiences as peers. In the past, this has included a student with a physical disability who studied in Barcelona as well as a student with a mental health disability who studied abroad.
The two offices share the joint task of promoting the workshop to reach the campus disability community but also to the larger campus community, even getting it featured in the campus newspaper on occasion. By broadcasting it to media outlets beyond the disability community, non-disabled students and staff can also learn more about UT’s disability inclusion initiatives.
The UT International Office also has peer advisors in their office who serve as the frontline to meet students interested in study abroad and have found it key to recruit peer advisors who represent diverse backgrounds and communities—first-generation college students, LGBTQ students, students of color, and students with disabilities, and more—to show that all students have access to study abroad.
In this leadership role, peer advisors are provided a seat at the head of the table to share their experiences and recommendations.
Long-regarded as a model institution in the field of international education, UT International Office is frequently contacted by other programs for guidance when it comes to inclusion. To enhance professional development and cross-sharing in the field, Laura Caloudas has presented her experiences supporting students with disabilities at live and virtual events hosted by Diversity Abroad and NAFSA while also connecting with champions for disability inclusion at other institutions.
Study abroad and other educational programs offered through higher education are not limited to one type of student. Ensure that access to these programs includes the full tapestry of your student population by implementing strategies of collaboration and connection across your campus.
*Laura is now working as a Senior Program Coordinator on the President’s Award for Global Learning initiative at the University of Texas at Austin, and will continue to advocate for disability access in her new role.
This article is part of the AWAY Journal - Champions for Inclusion Issue.