Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Tips for Parents of Students with Disabilities Studying Abroad

A small group of young people stand or sit watching a woman who is presenting to them inside an office.
A small group of young people stand or sit watching a woman who is presenting to them inside an office.

Are you worried about your child wanting to study abroad? You are not alone.

Many parents understandably worry when their adult children study abroad for the 1st time, and even more so if disability adds an unexpected layer of complexity.

That’s not to say that you are not excited that your child is going to access such an amazing opportunity for personal and professional development. Whether a student is in high school or has reached college, it is time for them to spread their wings, and studying or volunteering abroad is a great way to do that, especially if they have a disability. 

Nevertheless, you do a lot to support your child, and you worry what it will be like without this support, when they study outside of the United States. This can be particularly true if they are under the age of 18, and have had limited experience being independent. If your student is planning to study in the United States, you might have heard that people with disabilities in the United States are expected to be extremely independent and Americans are seldom willing to assist.

Never fear. Whether your student is going to the USA, or from the USA to another country, international education providers and colleges are becoming increasingly good at supporting students with complex needs and assistance is available where it is requested. You can provide support and manage your own anxiety by guiding your child in the planning process, and by stepping back once everything is in place so that the child can learn through experience and exploration.

Choosing a program

Offer to help them select a program. Sometimes students don’t always get the time to search all of their options online. See for yourself at the exchange provider’s website and send your child links to programs that you think might interest them. Discuss the pros and cons of each when you check-in. Work with them to check with the programs about reasonable accommodation policies and funding. Research disabled people’s organizations in the countries or regions that interest your child. Inquire if parents can attend program info sessions or predeparture orientations, so that you can meet the staff and ask questions.

Check in with your student periodically to make sure they are keeping up with deadlines. After submitting the application and getting accepted, they will most likely need to apply for a visa, purchase travel, and obtain required vaccinations. If they use a medication, adaptive device or service animal, or if they benefit from the services of a PA or an interpreter, they will need to take steps to ensure that these are in place preferably six months before the program starts. Will they be able to bring their medications with them, or will they need to obtain medications in the host country? Will they need to purchase extra travel insurance coverage for a preexisting condition? Will they be able to continue receiving coverage under your family insurance plan? What importing requirements must they observe for their service animal, including forms, health certificates and rabies tests? Do they know who will provide interpreter services for them abroad? You can work with them using the following sources.

  • The disability resource Center
  • the study abroad office
  • The exchange provider’s health and safety department
  • your student’s medical care provider
  • your student’s health insurance
  • the travel health insurance company used by the program
  • The International Narcotics Control Board
  • The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
  • and of course the National Clearinghouse on Disability in Exchange. 

While your child’s likelihood of injury is low, mishaps do happen, so it is good to have your passport current and handy in case you need to travel. Many international education programs offer travel insurance plans which will cover parental travel expenses in the event that a student experiences sickness or injury. Make sure that the program has your contact information on file so you can be quickly reached.

“My mother was so worried that she could not sleep for whole nights,” shares Arisha Karim, alumnus of the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program for Pakistani students who is blind. Arisha contacted the United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP), to ask if her mother could attend the two day predeparture orientation with her. Staff reassured her mother that Arisha would be well supported in the United States. They describe some of the reasonable accommodations that would be available to her such as an orientation and mobility instructor to show her how to get around the college campus where she would take her classes. After learning more about the program and the supports for students with disabilities, Arisha’s mother felt much better letting her daughter go abroad for a semester.

Set up a communication plan for while they are abroad.

After your student goes abroad, they will most likely experience culture shock due to the different customs, food and lifestyle of their host country. Having a disability, they may also find that things are harder than they are used to. They also may find some aspects to be easier. Culture shock happens in stages.

  • For the 1st couple weeks, everything seems new and exciting. There are lots of public buses. The vibrant outdoor market offers fresh fruits and vegetables all year round.
  • After the 1st few weeks, reality starts to set in. The flaws and differences start to make themselves noticed. The outdoor market is dirty, and the vendors are impatient and just in a hurry to sell you something. The public buses are always late.
  • After a couple months the student eventually will settle into acceptance, in which they learned to appreciate both the positives and the negatives of their new home.

Feel free to call or email to see how they are doing a day or 2 after they have landed; however try to make these check-ins less frequent. It is important that your child begin to integrate into their community, and frequent calls home could slow the process. 

Personally, I benefited from having parents who were compassionate ears. Sometimes being abroad is a difficult transition and having a support network at home really helps ease the challenges! – Kristen Popham, women with chronic health disabilities who studied and taught in France


You know that international exchange is an amazing opportunity for anyone, but especially for your child. They will meet new people, build their independence and access career and academic opportunities that would otherwise not be available. By following these tips, you can support them to make the most of it.

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