“If I expect the program to fully include me, then I need to provide them with as much information as possible," says Betsy Valnes, who has a brain injury and has participated in several overseas programs. "In my experience, people are more understanding about my need to excuse myself for a while if they know my reasons for fatigue."
You, too, can provide a welcoming environment to people with chronic or systemic health-related disabilities in your exchange programs, and plan strategies to address specific health issues in new environments and situations starting with these 15 tips.
- Avoid screening out participants based on personal assumptions or perceptions. Familiarize yourself with the issues related to screening participants who have, or whom you suspect have, a non-apparent disability.
- Encourage early disclosure by assuring applicants that disability is not in itself grounds for denial.
- Protect the participant's privacy. Once a student discloses her or his disability, the exchange program is only permitted to share that information with other parties on a “need to know” basis.
- Develop a plan to address immediate medical problems and health management questions should they arise during the exchange experience. For detailed questions, download and adapt the Access Information and Advisor Guidelines under Documents on this page.
- Research cultural attitudes towards the participant's disability.
- Connect the participant with possible medical resources or specialists in the host community.
- Help translate medical information or letters from his or her physician into the host language if necessary.
- Clarify expectations ahead of time. Discuss with the student what the consequences might be if the student has to leave the program early or is unable to complete all aspects of the program. For instance, will the participant still receive academic credit? Will the participant incur extra expenses for leaving early?
- Prepare instructors or supervisors for possible absences should the participant's condition flare up unexpectedly.
- Research the host school's policies for providing accommodations to students with disabilities (for example, extended time for taking tests).
- If environmental sensitivity is a factor, take steps to reduce exposure to environmental triggers such as latex, insects, pet dander and indoor/outdoor particulates. Offer to provide equipment such as air purifiers or furniture covers, or to remove, unplug or turn off equipment such as microwaves, cell phones, and other devices with electromagnetic transmission. If triggers cannot be reduced, arrange alternative sites for housing and activities.
- If food allergies are a factor, prepare culturally effective approaches to educating others about food allergies, and identify nearby medical facilities. Overseas program staff can assist participants to read ingredient lists on food labels and to discuss ingredients and cooking techniques with dining facility and/or restaurant staff when needed. When possible, work with the participant to arrange alternatives when program dining facilities cannot be made free of allergens. For example, a participant may be able to live in a dormitory or apartment with a kitchenette where he or she can prepare his or her own meals.
- If chronic fatigue is a factor, provide information about the program, daily schedules and academic, social and host family expectations so that the participant can plan time to rest. A program that schedules group activities in the morning and leaves the afternoon open may work best for those with reduced energy levels.
- If the participant uses a breathing machine, help him or her research information about the availability of portable oxygen and technical support.
- Schedule time for breaks in between planned activities. Participants who require breaks may appreciate a country with a cultural tradition of downtime or rest.