Who Can Assist Me When I Go Abroad?

Close up of two young women smiling.
Before traveling to Tanzania, Rachel (left) connected with a PA through the organization MDA.
The good, the bad, and the unexpected when choosing a personal assistant (PA).

Personal assistance during your international exchange can come from a wide variety of sources, whether a hired professional, a friend or family member, a fellow traveler or even a friendly local. Weigh the potential pros and cons of your options to find the best fit for you.

Bring a PA from home 

So your regular PA says she'd consider going abroad with you? Great! Before making a decision, though, you should both be aware that a PA plays a more proactive role abroad, especially when encountering unexpected barriers. Hire someone who is physically and mentally prepared for the schedule and level of adventure involved. On longer or intensive trips, even the most energetic PA needs some rest. In this case, plan to have a backup support person so the PA can take some time off.

Pros: You can more easily determine a good PA match in advance of travel; the PA has professional experience and specialization

Cons: Risk of PA burnout; more work to arrange and pay for PA travel and housing

Hire a PA in the host country

Hiring a personal assistant who already lives in the host country, usually made through a referral from a local disability organization, can help you save on travel expenses and may allow you to replace an assistant more easily if needed. Bonus? You also get additional language and cultural immersion by spending more time with a local person. Just be careful that these language and cultural differences don't create a barrier in how you receive services!

Pros: An opportunity to work closely with someone from the host culture; no need to arrange visas or flights for the PA; PAS rates may be lower than at home

Cons: Possible language barrier or cultural misunderstandings; differences in professional standards; hiring process in another country may be more complex; PAS rates may be higher than at home

Parent or other family member

Some exchange participants choose to bring along a family member to assist them. While this can have its perks, consider how this kind of arrangement can affect the social dynamics of your international experience, especially if it's a youth or young adult program. It may not be easy to be away from your parents (or, at least, it may not be easy for them!), but doing so sometimes provides a chance for personal growth, confidence, and independence.

Pros: Family member is likely to be very familiar with your PAS needs; personal trust and familiarity with the PA; no PAS fee

Cons: Potentially limits opportunities for socializing with peers and personal growth

Friend from home

Several students with disabilities have trusted their friends to fill in as personal assistants during study abroad with great results, but be cautious. Break-ups and arguments happen, so set extra clear expectations for how you'll handle conflict without jeopardizing your services...or your friendship.

Pros: Personal trust and familiarity with the PA; PA blends in with the group of peers

Cons: Blurred lines between friendship role and professional relationship role; need to arrange travel and housing logistics; lack of PA experience

Host family member

Don't make assumptions about what your host family will help you with. While cooking for you or assisting with laundry may not be a problem, it might be too much to ask that your host family help with intimate personal care such as bathing and dressing unless additional compensation and instruction is arranged.

Pros: PA is in close proximity (if assistance with domestic tasks or at-home personal care is needed)

Cons: Lack of PA experience, cultural or language barriers

Fellow program participants

You and your travel companions will likely form deep bonds and offer one another support during your travels. However, don't assume that they will fulfill your personal assistance needs. Instead, make a formal agreement with one of the other participants to assist you in exchange for a stipend or reduced program tuition. Remember that in a group, accommodation is a two-way street. Just as you expect other people in your group to make adjustments to include you, you should expect to make adjustments, share responsibilities and consider other people's needs in addition to your own.

Pros: Can create a more intimate bond or foster a sense of interdependence within the group; other participants may feel that their overseas experience is enhanced; the participant providing assistance receives financial or other benefit

Cons: Can create a rift or foster a sense of resentment within the group; inconsistent if provided on volunteer basis; boundaries between role as a PA and as a participant may be blurred; lack of PA experience

People in the host community

The willingness of local members of the host community to provide assistance varies depending on the country and culture. You may find that people are eager to whisk you up some stairs or that they ignore you when you clearly could use a hand. Since this is the least formal way to receive assistance, it is important that you are comfortable asking for assistance when needed, clear on how you want that assistance to be given, and firm when assistance is not welcome or unsafe.

Pros: No financial obligation (usually); fosters interdependence between the participant and the host community

Cons: Not reliable or consistent; culturally-dependent; strangers may provide unwelcome assistance or use unsafe practices when assisting; there may be "strings attached"

"I soon realized that when I asked for assistance, people within the community felt more relaxed as I was no longer viewed as this foreigner who traveled there to ‘help’ them." - Megan Smith, power wheelchair user who volunteered in Costa Rica and Nepal