Melissa Gulledge, CIEE Regional Director from South Carolina, has years of experience placing international exchange students from all over the world with American families, but a last minute decision to host a teenager with a disability led to one of her own family’s most meaningful hosting experiences.
The clock was ticking to match Pinar, a young woman from Turkey who is blind, with a host family and school.
My role as a CIEE cluster leader is to organize enhancement activities that build the leadership and teamwork skills of my students. Last year I had sixteen students in my cluster, two of whom were students with disabilities. Both were studying in the United States on programs sponsored by the U.S Department of State.
There are certain activities that we do every year as a cluster. One of the most memorable of those activities took place in the winter. All sixteen of my students went up to our little cabin, which is what we do every year, to go cross-country skiing.
In the United States, the vast majority of secondary students with disabilities are mainstreamed in inclusive high schools per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). First passed in 1975, the IDEA is a powerful landmark civil rights law that guarantees access to a free, appropriate, public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) appropriate to every child with a disability.
It used to be that the majority of blind and low vision exchange students were placed in schools for the blind in the United States. That is no longer the case. Experienced exchange professionals know that there is no one size fits all approach to placing these talented students in U.S. high schools.
In the United States, the vast majority of secondary students with disabilities are mainstreamed in public high schools.
Youth with disabilities participate in high school exchange programs in the U.S. every year. Although many international students with disabilities will need few, if any, disability-related accommodations in the United States, others will need services and support to participate fully in their host schools. Students may receive services and support informally or through an IEP or 504 plan.
Luljeta Koshi has been recruiting students for the U.S. Department of State-sponsored Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program in Bosnia since 2008. In this interview, Koshi shares her perspective on the vital importance of disability inclusion in youth exchange programs and best practices for recruiting students with disabilities for these opportunities.
What has been your experience recruiting students with disabilities?
When Annie Reifsnyder became an Area Coordinator for CCI Greenheart, a non-profit organization that places international high school exchange students in the United States, she found a way to connect with students from around the world.
One Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) student from Russia in particular caught her attention. “I received Natasha’s bio and was kind of enamored by it,” Reifsnyder says. “I just thought how neat, how cool, how amazing, obviously a student who wanted to come to the U.S., but one who is blind.”
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.
When Stan Sowers, the principal of Eustace High School, learned that a blind exchange student would be spending a year at his school, he was apprehensive. His first thought was, “Oh, my goodness, why would we want to take on something like that, you know?”