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Dealing with Doubts

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Most of Our Original Concerns Have Been Unfounded

Alyssa Hillary Zisk, an Autistic student blogging about their study abroad experience in China, is having a successful time, but the initial reaction from the overseas university would have made one think that was not possible.

“[Chinese administrators] said people like me shouldn’t go to college, and they tried to get the program to un-accept me, and they tried to have me sent home.”

Instead the professors have worked with Alysa to use augmentative communication in class as needed and to allow them to email other responses as part of their class participation. Alyssa has also learned from their experiences, and in working with the resident director, to better transition during and following excursions. This includes building in breaks during the activities, and on return reducing changes to routines and taking rest away from human interactions.

“Directly insulting a person to their face isn’t so much a thing [in China]. Makes it hard to know what people are really thinking of me, but it also helps shield me from discrimination – my residence director [dealt] with it instead.”

Resident directors or other exchange leaders do have the responsibility to navigate and negotiate not only the cultural setting but individual differences of participants in the destination. This can be frustrating and enlightening at the same time.

In Jordan, Elena Corbett, a resident director for Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), found the information she received from the home institution, or when trying to read about a participant’s disability online, tended to couch disability in a way that brings more worry than necessary.

“We wish the home institution would have just said, ‘You have an awesome student coming to study with you, and [they are] an autistic person.’ The different issues related to being autistic weren’t defining in our experience with [them]. [They were] one of our best students – [they are] really bright and very social.”

If cultural or disability assumptions arise when seeking access solutions and arranging disability-related services at an overseas location, the following tips lay the groundwork for a positive response:

  • When you are signing or renegotiating contracts or partner agreements or training exchange leaders on their responsibilities, make it clear that you have a diversity of participants, including those with disabilities, and provide policies for non-discrimination.
  • If you encounter attitudes that are barriers to inclusion, get specifics about what concerns they have and problem-solve or dispel them one at a time.
  • There are allies or champions for people with disabilities in every community; find those with the right connections to join you and educate your partners.
  • Learn how change happens in the host culture and what motivates reconsideration – is it leveraging personal connections, bringing up legal or economic arguments, or showing how others do it?

Learn more about Global Disability Culture in Related Resources.

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Keywords: autism

[Editor’s note: This page has been updated since its initial publication to reflect the exchange participant’s preferred pronouns, which are they/them/their]

This article is part of the International Education Professional Pathway.


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