Dream Big through International Exchange

Boats are out in the water and along the beach in Costa Rica.
Sarah Franz, who is Deaf and has chronic health-related conditions, participated in a summer study abroad program in Florence, Italy and a MIUSA summer exchange to Costa Rica. Though communication challenges were to be expected, Sarah shares how her experiences as a person with a disability helped her adjust to the new environment more readily.

In Italy, my friend Neika always did the haggling for me.  Left to my own devices, the shopkeepers would have taken me for thousands. She was skilled at bargaining and probably the reason I came home with so many delightful souvenirs and jewelry from Venice. 

It is not just with bargaining that I have trouble “putting myself out there.” Despite my tendency to shy away from things, I have always had very big plans for myself. Early in high school, I realized that I wanted to travel extensively, earn a PhD degree, and live an adventurous life. 

The first opportunity I had to travel abroad was as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. The university offers summer semester programs in various countries, including Italy, the country I eventually chose as my destination. I think this is one of the best ways to travel abroad if you do not have the resources to travel outside of school. 

Through a combination of scholarships, loans, and fundraising, almost anyone can study abroad for a semester or a year. By applying for summer session financial aid, and some study abroad scholarships offered by my university and outside organizations, I ended up paying what I could afford to pay.

Besides being deaf, though oral, I also have two major chronic illnesses. When I applied to study abroad, I wondered how I would fare in a non-English speaking country as a profoundly deaf person and worried about my health and access to medication. Like many people with chronic illnesses, I sometimes shy away from otherwise rewarding experiences because I worry about my health in unfamiliar situations.

This was one of the reasons I chose a summer semester program rather than a year abroad; it was only 2-3 months in duration. I knew I could handle that. Schools that offer study abroad programs typically offer traveler’s health insurance for participants. I stocked up on medication, made sure I could receive emergency medical care if needed, and since a friend was on the same program, I knew someone would be there to watch out for me. 

Only belatedly did I consider the accommodations I would need as a deaf student. I was traveling to Italy and did not know Italian or Italian Sign Language. I knew only American Sign Language, English, Spanish and, more importantly, “how to be resourceful.” 

Resourcefulness is a must in new and unfamiliar situations. It’s also important to have a sense of humor, a strong sense of self, and a willingness to do things differently than other people.

The biggest difficulty I encountered in Italy was taking spoken Italian classes using only an FM system to amplify my professor’s voice and that of my fellow classmates who lived in a villa with me. Italian people expect that Americans will not understand a word they say. I think I fared better than most because I typically do not understand hearing strangers. This I was used to. Through gestures, I can communicate my needs to probably half the world and overcome language barriers in this manner.

Learning to speak basic Italian was difficult, but it helped me experience Italy in a less touristy, more enriching way. Italian people always seemed very open, friendly and communicative to me, and I was able to converse with people my age during my travels to different parts of the country. The first word I learned how to say in Italian was “sordo,” which means deaf in Italian and Spanish. If you can tell people you are deaf by speaking or writing the word, it really helps alleviate potentially uncomfortable situations. 

Knowing how to write in the language of the country you are traveling to can also be extremely helpful to a Deaf person. Just because you cannot speak a language does not mean you cannot communicate in it. Don’t hesitate to learn to read and write in a different language; it can really come in handy.

I often think back to my memories of traveling to Venice, Florence, Sorrento, Rome, Pisa, and other cities in Italy and Costa Rica. I think about the fireworks over the water in Venice, my first glimpse of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and my visit to the small but breathtaking island of Capri where I witnessed what appeared to be a very expensive Italian wedding at an old church. I remember traversing the markets in San Jose, Costa Rica, camping on the Pacific Coast and seeing giant trees in the Costa Rican rainforest, all with a group of wonderful people with whom I was fortunate to travel. I would not trade these memories for anything. 

Sarah’s Tips for Deaf/Hard of Hearing Exchange Participants

Seek out other deaf people and learn the sign language of the country you’ll be visiting.

In Costa Rica I had an opportunity to learn a little – “un poco” – Costa Rican Sign Language (LESCO), and to talk to other deaf individuals. I also got to try my hand at speaking Spanish with members of my host family, all of whom were hearing and did not speak English. Mostly they wrote notes to me and I spoke and they also used a whiteboard to write down words I could not catch. It helped that the family next door was Deaf, and were friends of my family, so my family understood about deafness and was very open and willing to try different things. I didn’t have these opportunities in Italy because I was with a group of hearing students from my school.

If you have a disability and study abroad, know that you are entitled to services.

I used only an FM system in Italy, but should have advocated for myself to have an interpreter or captioning or other services which would have created a more beneficial learning environment for me.

Having completed master’s degrees in education and disability studies, Sarah later pursued a PhD in disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She went on to be a Disability Specialist at University of Illinois at Chicago.


Sarah Franz