At a recent study abroad conference over 250 professionals chose to attend our panel session on mental health. Why was there so much interest?
People attended our session largely to find out how to avert or deal with a crisis. After we did our best to relieve some of their uncertainty and shared suggestions for improving the design and preparations of study abroad programs, we had a chance to end with this message:
For every student with a mental health-related disability who experiences a crisis abroad, many more will succeed.
"Every four hours, every day, for the past fifteen years I have had to insert a tube to empty my bladder" writes John Hockenberry in his book "Moving Violations," which accounts his international travels as a journalist who happens to have a disability. "It is a detail which can remain fairly discreetly hidden in most situations."
Hidden, that is, until Hockenberry found himself reporting abroad in a remote area of Iraq "soaked in mud and surrounded by human waste," struggling to minimize the risk of contamination while going about his business.
When traveling on international flights, people with mobility disabilities have to figure out how to find relief. This starts when booking the ticket.
Four billion people worldwide use squat toilets, including most of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America. Generally, these toilets have a water bucket or hose for hygiene, not toilet paper. Some wheelchair travelers find squat toilets more accessible than western-style toilets with the proper modifications.
Do you have fears or concerns about not being able to use the bathroom when on an international exchange program? Fortunately, people with disabilities have lived, volunteered and studied in some of the most remote areas on Earth and have shared their strategies for handling challenging bathroom situations.
For wheelchair users, trying to decide between the portability of a manual chair and the independence of a power chair can be a difficult decision. Some travelers choose to bring both in order to use a power wheelchair as a primary means of mobility while having a back-up manual wheelchair with them just in case.
When you've just arrived in a foreign country after a long flight, the last thing you want to hear is that there is a glitch with your wheelchair battery. So what do you need to do?
First, know that most countries use electricity at approximately 220 volts/50 hertz, while North America (along with Central America and part of Japan) uses 110 volts/ 60 hertz. If electronic or electrical equipment is used with the wrong voltage, it can be severely damaged, pose a fire or electrocution hazard, or not charge properly.
Adapting mobility equipment you use for a new environment and preparing for potential breakdowns and repairs can go a long way towards ensuring a hassle-free, rewarding international experience.
Traveling internationally with a mobility disability may be smoother by choosing luggage that fits you. Try experimenting before making a new luggage purchase to see what is most comfortable to transport on your own or what is best to protect your equipment when others handle it.
Being carried is an uncomfortable experience for many with disabilities, both physically and emotionally. Lifting a person up stairs or around obstacles is not an acceptable alternative to appropriate accessibility measures. Most people prefer to be lifted only as a last resort.
The slope of a ramp should be no greater than 1:12, which is 12 feet (or meters) of horizontal ramp for every 1 foot (or meter) of vertical height. Some people with disabilities can use personal ramps that are shorter and steeper than 1:12. Before building a short ramp to provide access for a person with a disability, discuss whether a steeper ramp would work for that individual.
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.
No one likes to feel un-informed, especially when having to make arrangements or decisions related to international exchange. Learn now how to be prepared even without knowing who has a disability (or might have their first onset of one overseas).
You can shift from focusing on how to know enough, early enough, to accommodate someone with a disability – why not instead focus on your own ability to put in place good program standards (or verify such standards with those you partner with)? This is more in your control.
Disabled or not, all international travelers have experienced the awkwardness of being different or standing out in a new country. A person with a disability may also experience other cultural attitudes because of their disability.
Such experiences can be confusing, frustrating, or empowering. By their very presence and active participation in your exchange program, people with disabilities can challenge their own and others' perceptions.
Match your best intentions with best practices! Successfully include someone with a disability in your international program.