Do I have to disclose my disability?
Short Answer: No, you are not required to disclose your disability when you apply for or at any point in an international exchange program. If you do not need specific accommodations, you can choose not to disclose your disability.
Long Answer: If you require accommodations or other types of support that will facilitate your success in an international exchange program, you will likely need to disclose your disability. Many exchange program policies require documentation of a disability in order to provide specific accommodations.
For six weeks this summer, I’ll be interning at a media organization in Accra, Ghana. By night I will share a house with fourteen fellow students from the University of Oregon. By day I will likely travel solo to and from work in a densely populated African city. This will also be my first time traveling internationally by myself. Eek!
As I navigated my way through piles of paperwork and broke the news to my family, I was rather amused at others’ reactions to my summer internship.
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.
Just as access is not perfect in the U.S., access won't be perfect when you are abroad. Laws similar to the U.S. may or may not exist in the countries you are considering for your international exchange experience. It is important to do your research and begin preparing for environmental and cultural differences in how disability is addressed in the country (or countries) you plan to visit. You might be surprised to find that some countries with less protective laws have very open and progressive attitudes toward people with disabilities.
Three ways you can help make a smooth transition into your international exchange experience are disclosing your disability, being your own advocate, and determining disability accommodations for access.
“A barrier is of ideas, not of things.” –Mark Caine
I can confidently say that the largest barrier that inhibits people with disabilities from traveling abroad is attitude. In preparation for going abroad, many travelers with disabilities worry and are often overwhelmed by the perceived physical barriers associated with disability, whether it be lack of ramps, lack of Brailled signage, lack of accessible public transport, or communication barriers to getting around.
Stephanie Blum, who is a personal agent at Full Access in Eugene, Oregon, traveled to Jerusalem and Kiryat Ono, Israel as a part of MIUSA’s Empower Partnerships for Inclusive Communities program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. While there, she partnered with a nonprofit for people with disabilities along with a higher education institution to work on self-advocacy and independence for people who have intellectual disabilities.
Although disability-related accommodations and services are provided at no cost to the student, disability office staff may request documentation from the student prior to his or her arrival on campus in order to arrange them. Often, international students to the U.S. will be asked to provide a written report or disability assessment by a qualified diagnostician. For students who are blind or low vision, a school may request a current visual acuity test or functional vision assessment. For Deaf or hard of hearing students, a school may request a recent audiogram.
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.
Conversations about an exchange participant's disability and/or disability-related accommodations should be done in a confidential setting. Only information from those conversations should be shared with others when they have a need to know.
Do not be surprised if disabled participants do not require any accommodations. Many people with disabilities own the equipment they need for everyday life and will only need minimal assistance from others. Remember that each individual participant will have a unique approach to his or her own disability.
Recognize that finding reasonable adaptations is a process of negotiation between exchange coordinators and the participant; the goal of both is to ensure that participant has an accessible, and hopefully successful, international experience.
It is a participant’s choice to disclose (or not disclose) a disability. Once a participant has been accepted, you can confidentially inquire with the participant to determine whether he or she may need accommodations during the program related to mental or physical disabilities. In making disability-related inquiries, you might want to include disability professionals in the conversation too. The individual is protected by the non-discrimination laws if they are perceived as having a disability (even if they did not tell you).
When making choices about accepting or denying an applicant, disability information should be disregarded in the same way as any other non-discrimination status such as religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
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.