On the Rio Grande, Dreams Matter

In the foreground graphic, a metal pole supports a red octagonal road sign labeled “Policy” and below it, a green sign labeled “Univ Texas El Paso.” In the background photo, we get a close-up of an asphalt road with double yellow center lines as it rolls away in the distance through sparse landscape with some rocky hills and scrub.
A sense of mission and a presumption that the ADA applies to international exchange programs means the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) does not shy away from supporting its disabled students in overseas programs.

Cara*, a UTEP student with a mental health-related disability, could have given up on her dream of studying European art abroad on an expedition to Rome when the faculty leader expressed doubts about whether she could bring her service dog. Instead she sought advice from the university’s Center for Accommodations and Support Services (CASS).

When she did, CASS staff sprang into action.

First, they researched whether or not the faculty’s concerns were founded by looking up whether or not a service animal would be welcome in Europe. After they discovered that there would be no issue for Cara to take her animal on flights, through customs and into places of public accommodation, they met with the faculty member. They shared what they had found, and explained that as far as UTEP was concerned, disability civil rights laws required that the student’s request be accommodated.

Where many universities and providers of international programs have struggled to interpret the application and jurisdiction of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to their overseas programs—a longtime source of confusion and controversy—UTEP has found an elegant solution. It simply proceeds as if those laws do apply.

“We just interpret the ADA as going worldwide,” explains CASS Director Bill Dethlefs “If the student is going to be traveling and needs some kind of an accommodation, we work with them to get it.”

This approach has served the institution well. Between 2016 and 2018, the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education published a list of the disability-related complaints that it received. Bill points out that there were 50 complaints about universities in Texas during that time, but UTEP was not among them. They want to keep it that way.  

Apart from wanting to avoid OCR complaints, UTEP also regards the ADA as going overseas because it is just the right thing to do.

“Just like any other student at the university, many of [the students registered with disability services] have exciting dreams on where they want to go, and we want to make those dreams come true.”

They would not be able to make those dreams into reality without the support of the study abroad office, which is just as enthusiastic as they are about preparing students to achieve their international exchange goals.

“It is rewarding every time!” says Dania Brandford-Calvo, Director of the Study Abroad Office. “For me and others, it extends our knowledge, humanity, balance and commitment.”  

For UTEP, when it comes to making a student’s experience possible, it is all about “we,” without any distinction between the student, the CASS, the study abroad office or overseas hosts. Disability Services Coordinator Manelic Alcala agrees that it’s all about collaboration.

“That’s why we refer to it as ‘we,’ because we would not be able to accommodate our students without the help of other departments as well as Mobility International USA [the NCDE]. It’s a team effort.”

Leadership at UTEP have also supported a proactive policy around disability access. In 2008, the Vice President of the Student Affairs Division collaborated with CASS to develop a training module reviewing disability-related etiquette, laws and techniques for providing disability-related accommodations. It became a requirement for all staff under the Division of Student Affairs—including the Office of International Programs—to complete that module. The administration wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page with UTEP’s goal to facilitate access for all students.

With a culture of inclusion in place, CASS has been able to provide support to students in a variety of different situations overseas. When concerns arose about the need for an accessible hotel room for a wheelchair rider traveling with a group to London, CASS found, through its conversations with the student and the hotel, that the single step in the front would not pose an obstacle for the student to get over with or without assistance, and that the hotel could make a room on the first floor available. In another case, a student had concerns about accessible transportation in Mexico City, so CASS did some research and found that the student could use taxis to get around. When a deaf student participated in a program in Costa Rica, CASS fortuitously found a certified ASL interpreter living San Jose who provided communication access during the student’s classes.

It’s all about ensuring that all students can access a quality education, according to Bill Dethlefs, whether that education takes place at home or abroad.

“Study abroad is an educational program. For adventurous students with disabilities, part of their education is to go and experience what it’s like to have, for example, a mobility disability in Rome versus New York City. Maybe for them there isn’t any difference, but it’s part of their willingness to pioneer and experience something new.”

*Not the student’s real name.

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