Some international education professionals share anecdotes about scrambling to find accessible housing and transportation options when a student unexpectedly showed up to the program site in a wheelchair; others recall students who took them by surprise by exhibiting signs of depression shortly after arriving in their host destination.
Cara*, a UTEP student with a mental health-related disability, could have given up on her dream of studying European art abroad on an expedition to Rome when the faculty leader expressed doubts about whether she could bring her service dog. Instead she sought advice from the university’s Center for Accommodations and Support Services (CASS).
When she did, CASS staff sprang into action.
Floriane, who has muscular dystrophy, has been using a power wheelchair since age three, and when she was eighteen years old, she joined disability groups that planned holiday travels. She has traveled from her home country of France to the souks in Morocco to the museums in London.
“If you struggle at home, you won’t necessarily struggle in other countries. There are always great surprises!”
This love for discovery of cultures would carry on not only with her personal endeavors, but also her educational pursuits.
Sean didn’t know what to expect on his first journey abroad, so he focused on the usual.
“I wondered how easy it would be to get around, what people’s reactions would be to me, and how different it would be from what I’m used to in the United States.”
What he discovered in Nicaragua was the travel concerns ended up being much less of an issue, for which he now admits he may have over prepared. Instead, he found himself grappling more with the cultural contradictions he discovered there.
“Do international students get extra time? Is being a non-native English speaker a disability?” This question comes up frequently from international students and disability service offices. At first thought, many offices would easily say “no” and “no." Should it be that easy?
Many academic departments and student service offices may initially assume that issues arise solely from being a non-native English speaker, but it may also mean that a disability is not recognized, and a second look should be given to these students.
I was born in Cambodia and contracted Polio at nine months old. Even at a young age I dreamt of becoming a leader for people with disabilities, traveling to different countries, and living independently.
One reason Dwight Richardson Kelly chose his study abroad program was to work on his writing. The writing intensive aspects of the Oxford University system were appealing, even though he knew with his learning disability he would need the right accommodations.
“I absolutely wanted a rigorous experience, but I knew that without appropriate accommodations I would spend all my time writing the required essays and wouldn’t be able to experience the other parts of the program, which is really important, like the cultural pieces and to integrate into the university.”
Most international exchange participants are issued a J-1 or F-1 visa in order to enter the United States. Most of the rules and regulations for visas are the same for participants with or without disabilities, but there are also some additional considerations that people with disabilities should know. Find out how visa regulations may be impacted by a chronic illness, a pre-existing health condition, or personal assistance.
A qualified student, regardless of where the student is living when applying, cannot be refused admissions based on disability or anticipated accommodation needs.
Most disability service staff on campus or in the school district and disability organizations in the community can locate and provide what is needed for the student though it may take time, funds, and energy to find a good match for the student in regards to accommodation needs. The student may want to choose schools based on what is already available on campus and in the community.
Many exchange advisors assume that accommodating people with disabilities in their programs will be prohibitively expensive. In fact, many accommodations are cost-free or quite inexpensive. The key to finding low-cost solutions is to foster open communication with the exchange participant and to think broadly about the possibilities and resources available to the organization and the participant.