No two study abroad sites are ever quite the same, whether it's the vibrancy of the host community or the buzz of the host campus. The same can be said for how each country or host university includes and accommodates people with disabilities, as the local policies and resources can vary greatly. As University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s (UNC-CH) Study Abroad Advisor for Access, Lori Rezzouk helps foster better access to this vital information, which is key for students with disabilities who want to plan ahead for their adventures.
Each year, her office sends 1,200-1,500 students (with and without disabilities) on overseas programs to receive course credit. In addition to advising all students who want to study in Africa, the Middle East, France, Canada, or Switzerland, Lori devotes the other half of her time as the Advisor for Access, a unique position for ensuring that students with disabilities have opportunities to fully participate in study abroad programs. This includes advising students who will be studying abroad with medical or mental health conditions, learning differences, and accessibility issues.
"I help students think about what they will need to be well and successful abroad, and then make sure the student receives the necessary accommodations to have their same level of independence and confidence they have here at UNC. I try to remove as many barriers as possible by conducting program-specific and city-specific research for my students.”
This position is not common to every campus community across the nation. While many universities are improving their level of accessibility in the United States, not all are looking at how they can improve the quality of their services abroad. Lori’s work is part of her university's strategy to pave the way for all students to pursue opportunities abroad. By evaluating the accessibility of current programs and expanding the options for students with disabilities to participate, the university can take a more holistic approach to promoting inclusion in higher education.
To better assess how UNC-CH's overseas partners address inclusion, Lori made plans to visit every host site. She started developing her role by reaching out to disability organizations to ask for advice on how to better review access standards. Afterwards, she visited seven different programs in France and reported her findings to the university's Accessibility Resources & Service Office, which liaises with the Study Abroad office.
"[Our two offices] work closely together to support study abroad students. I also conduct a lot of regional research for my students and meet with them in person to discuss needs specific to their program and foreign location."
Now Lori trains other staff to perform the assessment as well. Once they collect accessibility information abroad, they post their findings and photos to the website under each program page's "Accessibility" tab. This information gives students with disabilities an idea of what to expect from specific programs so they can prepare for what is to come.
In program evaluations, returned students may choose to leave messages about their experiences traveling to various locations, opening a dialogue with future travelers for how to best navigate the overseas sites. Some students mention specific disability programs and resources to connect with, while others simply describe the physical and architectural levels of accessibility.
“I have worked with many students over the years who may otherwise have had no other chance to go abroad. I’m so happy that they came to me and we worked out a plan for them to study abroad during their undergraduate career. I like to help students prove themselves wrong and prove others wrong."
Since we wrote this article, Lori has moved on from her job at UNC, but she continues to be a strong advocate for inclusion in exchange programs. Thanks for your work Lori.