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.
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.
Like many other people with disabilities, I struggle with the issue of disclosure. Legally, I’m not required to disclose that I am Deaf unless I plan to ask for accommodations. At the same time, I’ve learned that I need to disclose my disability at some point in the process of applying for an international exchange program, school, or job in order to be successful. I can’t hide my disability, and nor should I feel I have to.
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.”
Maegan, who is Deaf, lives by her principle of speaking out against injustices. Her first experience abroad opened up her eyes to international disability advocacy, a field that she’s dedicated herself to ever since.
By your very presence, and by your active participation in an international exchange experience, you can help challenge negative perceptions. People with disabilities who have traveled abroad have tried a variety of strategies.
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.
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.