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Students with Disabilities: Studying Abroad

Studying abroad has become an essential part of a student's college experience, with many schools requiring all students to participate in a study abroad program. In today's global economy, students must be exposed to the cultural factors that will impact their future careers. Not only will going abroad result in personal exploration and growth, it will also significantly increase job marketability and future success.

For these reasons, it is vital that schools consider the accessibility of these programs to students with disabilities. Traveling to another country is stressful and requires great flexibility for all students, and those struggling with identified physical, learning, or emotional difficulties must make additional considerations when preparing to go abroad. However, the increased self-reliance and opportunities for social and professional relationships are sure to make the experience fully worth any extra effort.

 Where Should You Begin?

Students should consider the possibility of studying abroad at the beginning of their freshman year. Appropriate self-disclosure of their disability will ensure that students receive adequate support, including the support needed to successfully study abroad.

Nine to twelve months before expected departure, students and their current advisors may reach out to the study abroad office and begin the discussion of necessary accommodations and potential study abroad destinations. Each country, as well as each host school, will vary in their level of acceptance and available accommodations for the range of disabilities. For example, an institution may have an adequate mental health counseling center, but may not have appropriate hearing or reading devices. Thus, a student with a physical disability may fare better at a different institution.

The application and placement process may be extensive, with much planning and adjustments made. For this reason, students must take action far enough in advance to secure an appropriate placement. This extra time will also allow the student to sufficiently prepare and inquire about any concerns related to their disability.

The following are examples of some of the concerns that should be addressed before going abroad: 

  • How should I respond if people give me unsolicited help?
  • Am I willing to disclose my disability to others?
  • How accessible are places in my host country?
  • Will my disability prevent me from participating in certain excursions because of inaccessibility?

These questions highlight the fact that, again, different countries and different institutions have varying beliefs and resources available for those with disabilities. Some places, like the US, value independence and self-sufficiency, while others value a collective nature and may offer generous assistance. It is important for students to recognize what they are comfortable with, as well as know how they will respond to these differences once abroad. It may be useful to talk to other students with similar disabilities about their experience abroad, including what they found helpful and what they would've done differently.

Some other tips for a smooth transition abroad: 

  • Attend any available workshops and orientations before departure; this will provide you with enough knowledge to know what to expect in your host country, and plan how you will manage any challenges.
  • Learn how to speak the basics of the host language, including any words or phrases relevant to your disability. This will help in communicating with staff while abroad, and will help you to access accommodations more easily.
  • Ensure that all medical information is updated, and that you will have an adequate amount of needed medications, etc. before leaving. Be sure to contact healthcare providers and let them know you will be abroad for an extended period of time - they may have advice for you in making sure you remain well while away.
  • Be flexible and creative in preparing for your time abroad - it may be necessary to brainstorm ways to minimize stress, access support, or manage inappropriate comments while in your host country. Do not let these things stand in your way of an incredible learning experience!

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