Rules and regulations that work for the majority of international exchange participants may need some slight adjustments to include participants with disabilities. Depending on the culture, some issues that may seem inconsequential can become rigid barriers. This is true for participants traveling from and coming to the United States.
Sometimes seemingly set in stone policies, such as courseload requirements for visa purposes or exclusion of pre-existing conditions in health insurance travel plans, can actually be creatively solved within the guidelines or effectively appealed for an extension or patiently negotiated with a small increase in fees.
Look for these opportunities to adjust policies to take individuals with disabilities into account, and thus to make the transitions for diverse international exchange participants more accessible and manageable.
These kinds of issues can be heard from government agencies to travel vendors to educational institutions that you work with:
- "Normally only staff, not visitors, can use the freight elevator”
- "Disabled individuals are not allowed on the tour of the coal mine"
- "Our insurance policy doesn't cover prescribed medications until the waiting period is over"
- "We don't provide sighted guides to blind students at the postsecondary level in the U.S."
- "Personal assistants are the responsibility of the individual to provide"
- "Standardized tests are only available in contracted braille"
- "Students need to show their financial aid forms (which international students would not have) to qualify for reduced fees for learning disability testing"
Changing these situations takes common sense and diplomacy. Sometimes a reasonable modification of policy and practice will allow an international participant with a disability to fully engage in the program and will take into account their unique situation coming from a different context.
Exceptions may include providing:
- Certified Deaf Interpreters
- Sighted guides
- Training on assistive technology, contracted and nemeth braille, or orientation and mobility skills
- Diagnostic testing and tutoring
- Personal assistant support
- Loans of more sturdy wheelchairs or crutches
- Support for medication or counseling costs
- Accessible transportation or funds for taxi fares
Programmatic Policies and Practices
International exchange programs, in order to provide equal opportunities, need to consider locations and formats for program activities from the standpoint of accessibility, even before someone with a disability takes part. Some advance thinking will go a long way.
Typically, solutions can be found to resolve barriers as most participants with disabilities are willing to use creative accommodations, or used to doing things a little differently, in order to have the experience. Yet, if you have an inclusion policy that states any opportunity offered to one program participant should be available to all participants - we like to call it "a practice of yes!" - there will be more impetus for access to be a non-negotiable part of planning.
This will avoid situations where participants with disabilities are singled out by having to use accommodations no one else does (e.g. dormitory vs. host family) or left out in order for a group to take part in an otherwise inaccessible excursion.
Contractually, your program should not be funding host location policies that are exclusionary of people with disabilities. By looking for more accessible venues that can provide equivalent experience for the whole group, this may prove to be an even better option, and become a regular part of all programs, regardless of if participants with disabilities are taking part in the future.
Also none of your policies should impose an unrequested and/or unnecessary accommodation on a participant with a disability as a condition for taking part in the program. This may take the form of restricting, for example, the only blind participant on the program from traveling independently in the host community, when other participants without disabilities do not have this requirement.
Disability Service Provision
Disability professionals also need to look at how their processes and services are meeting needs of international participants with disabilities. Upon doing so, you may see the need to adjust policies and practices at least in the initial transition period to accommodate gaps in funding, knowledge, or training needed for these overseas visitors to take advantage of commonly offered accommodations in the host country.
The different national sign language, assistive technology, or braille may mean a steep learning curve initially while adjusting to the way things are done in the host country. Additionally, individuals with disabilities, when they leave their country to go on an exchange program, may lose funding or their no-cost access to health insurance or personal assistance they would receive if they stayed home. They may not qualify for public assistance or other programs in the host country where locals with disabilities get their support.
Some accommodations and services (see the bulleted "Exceptions" above) not typically provided for local citizens who have grown up in the host country system, could benefit international exchange participants who have newly arrived in the culture.
Just as each sector of the community should become more aware and inclusive of meeting the needs of people with disabilities, organizations and offices that serve people with disabilities need to become more aware of the diverse, international community and make services inclusive of their different needs.