Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Teaching By Doing: Leading a Group of Students to Croatia

Group of college students standing with man riding power wheelchair in front of a building in Croatia.

Above photo: Terry Schlicting (left, front row), Assistant Director of Health Professions Advising at Colorado State University, with his group of medical students while on tour in Croatia.

When the time came for Terry Schlicting, Assistant Director of Health Professions Advising at Colorado State University (CSU), to lead a group of medical students on a two week exchange program to learn about the provision of medical services in Zagreb, Croatia, he was not quite sure what awaited him.

“My initial reaction was excitement. Then I immediately thought, what did I get myself into, but because I love to travel and the challenges that come with it, I was confident that I could make it happen.” – Terry Schlicting

Born with cerebral palsy, Terry is a full-time power chair user. He also requires the support of a personal attendant with activities of daily living. At the same time, he is familiar with the ways that inaccessible environments and policies can disable people.

“I subscribe to the social model of disability which states the person is disabled by their environment and its physical, attitudinal, communication, and social barriers. It is my hope that people with disabilities can develop pride in this aspect of their identity, recognizing that it may be a long journey for some,” Terry reflects.

He understandably had some questions about the program that he would be leading in the winter 2023 quarter. What would accessibility, or lack of accessibility, be like in Zagreb? What strategies would he need to use in order to be successful?

According to Vanessa Hayward, Senior Coordinator of Education Abroad in CSU’s Office of International Programs, “Our office aspires to support all students and program leaders based on their needs. I worked with Terry and our in-country partner, Atlantis, to ensure that the program was physically accessible for him.” Since the hostel where students normally would stay was not accessible, Terry was able to reserve a space for himself in a nearby hotel. CSU also gave Terry financial support with purchasing a portable ramp and a shower chair from a central source of funding which was not connected to student fees. He transported both items in his suitcase. The university also supported Terry to bring a friend along who could act as a personal attendant.

Croatia was, nevertheless, a challenging place to lead a program abroad. Terry was not allowed on the last flight going to Zagreb, because the crew believed that his wheelchair would add too much weight. Many restaurants in Zagreb were not accessible, which made finding locations where Terry could join the students difficult. Where it was accessible to enter a restaurant, Terry could not use the bathroom. While sidewalks were generally adequate, he encountered difficulties with the Croatian custom of parking mopeds and cars in the pedestrian walkways.

In one particular instance, a tree branch grabbed the recline lever of Terry’s wheelchair while he was trying to negotiate his way around a parked vehicle. This caused him to be tossed back since he was already on an incline.”I fell backwards and after a momentary lapse of panic, I attempted to ask passersby for assistance,” recalled Terry.

While he encountered many good Samaritans on the sidewalk, he had to wait a bit for one who had enough English to understand his instructions, after which he was able to get on his way. Some people would find an experience like this to be traumatizing, but Terry has learned to approach accessibility difficulties with equanimity. Terry shares that, “I have learned to embrace these situations as a calculated risk of traveling abroad when you have a disability.”

Terry also noticed a different attitude from certain members of the public. In one instance, airline staff interrogated Terry for his diagnosis. Another instance occurred when he was waiting outside of a store for a fellow traveler, gazing at the historical architecture. A local man interrupted his revelry to offer him some spare change. While his initial reaction was offense, Terry could appreciate that this individual had a different reference point around disability. Most disabled Croatians like Terry were, in fact, spending their time asking for spare change from passersby. “Looking back on it, I have developed an understanding that certain cultures have very limited exposure or interactions with people who have disabilities, and seeing me alone on the sidewalk, this person most likely came to the conclusion, I was in need of an offering,” Terry reflected.

While Terry enjoyed the education abroad program leader experience, he does hope to implement some changes in the future to make the itinerary more accessible. 

“On the excursion that the students took, which was basically a sightseeing tour of medieval ruins, I was not able to participate because of the lack of accessible transportation beyond the city center of Zagreb. Additionally, the previous trip leader was able to stay in the same living area as the students. I was not able due to accessibility needs,” Terry recalls.

Nevertheless, Terry has used the program as an opportunity to teach students about accessibility by sharing his point of view. 

Despite the occasional difficulty, interacting with students and the locals was a highpoint of Terry’s experience. The medical practitioners, whom his students were shadowing, were very interested in learning about how Terry found their city, as well as his ideas for making it more accessible. He also took his accessibility difficulties as an opportunity to educate the program participants. His students joined him in the search for accessible dining spots and he openly shared his observations with them, such as when he was offered alms.

“When we seek to explore and travel, we gain an understanding that expands the frame of reference that we have beyond the place we developed socially. Thus combating biases and fostering the development of empathy and understanding within ourselves.” Terry Schlicting


Man rising a powerwheel chair seen from behind on a car-lined cobblestone sidewalk. Stone arches are in the background.
Terry navigating cobblestone sidewalks in Portugal.

Terry’s Travel Tips

Concerning flights:

  • Look for location of booked seat (proximity to exit, bathroom and legroom)
  • Research aircraft you will be flying on (dimensions and weight of mobility devices allowed)
  • Know your battery type if you are a power chair user:  lithium vs gel cell
  • Print and attach instructions for disengaging the motor of the wheelchair so airplane employees can push your chair. This is where most damage happens.
  • Bring a battery charger in your carry-on, if possible, because you do not want to be separated from your charger. 
  • Expect delays and be patient, but assertive. When interacting with airline personnel Croatia airlines was very concerned with what battery type I used. I found out later it was because the smoke detector in the cargo hold was not working. 
  • Check an airline’s website for its reasonable accommodation policy
  • Contact the airline a couple days in advance to request an accommodation
  • One wheelchair may be checked for free but I actually have been able to bring two and have never been charged. 


Some thoughts on the mindset needed while traveling.

  • Many cultures can be seen as lacking inclusivity or accommodations for people with disabilities, as they may have never interacted with someone with a disability
  • Remember the value of your visibility. Try not to be discouraged by incidents of biases recognizing that this requires a tremendous amount of emotional labor and resilience. Try to look at it from an educational lens. You are dismantling prejudices and preconceived notions regarding people with disabilities. 
  • Always have a plan B and don’t feel guilty if you need to punt. It will not go exactly as planned, do what you can do, and be okay with that. 


Resilience and patience

  • You are going to encounter bias, ignorance, and patronization. 
  • People may assume that you are a panhandler or in need of handouts
  • People may ask your diagnosis in unusual circumstances. I had this experience at the airport in Zagreb; they asked what my diagnosis was. This is something that I thought was unusual as it is often illegal to ask that question in many circumstances in the United States.   
  • You may be told you’re not allowed to use services, especially transportation. I had this experience in Singapore. They told me I was not allowed to go on the subway even though I was with my brother who could easily assist me.  
  • People may speak to you as though you’re a child. They may also speak to your able-bodied caregiver. This can be a common occurrence in the United States as well. 
  • It is my opinion that the benefits and enjoyment of traveling far outweigh those possible negative experiences. 


Hotel/living accommodations recommendations:

  • Look at proximity to accessible transportation. Have the hotel take pictures of the room and especially the bathroom’s accessibility features.
  • Things that may be perceived as luxury for non-disabled folk are actually very helpful for people with disabilities, for example room service. 
  • Use maps software such as Google earth to look at sidewalks for things like curb cuts. Youtube also can be helpful when planning trips abroad. It can sometimes allow you to view the accessibility of storefronts or other businesses. 

Looking towards the future

In January 2024, Terry returned to Zagreb with the International Medical Shadowing Program with a new group of students. CSU provided funds for Terry and Vanessa to perform a scouting trip in Lisbon and Coimbra, Portugal, looking at both cities with an accessibility lens for future education abroad programming. While there are still accessibility challenges in Portugal, both Lisbon and Coimbra are making moves to improve accessibility with wheelchair accessible trains, buses, portable ramps for entry over lips into buildings, and accessible hotels and bathrooms. In January 2025, CSU’s program will travel to Lisbon, Portugal for medical shadowing at a local hospital through partner Atlantis. The long term goal is to rotate the program location between Zagreb & Lisbon. With Terry’s leadership, CSU and Atlantis are striving to create increasingly more accessible programming for students and program leaders.

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