Mission possible: how to study abroad successfully with disabilities

Studying abroad is hard enough, requiring considerable investments of time, money and planning. It can also impose significant emotional and mental strain as a result of marked changes in daily routine and academic schedule. While every disability presents its own challenges, students with disabilities can still enjoy their experiences abroad to the fullest.

Disabilities themselves are perceived differently in different countries. In the U.S., certain legal protections such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act exist to prevent discrimination by state or federal agencies and other entities, while in other countries, the legal framework for disabled citizens may vary. Most countries of the world are either signatories or parties to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, but international disability law is still a growing field and is not yet an established norm. This means students with disabilities may receive less accommodation abroad than at home, particularly in academic settings.

Attitudinal barriers like social stigma related to certain disabilities may play a much larger role abroad than at home. Non-apparent disabilities may be less accepted or given little medical validity in the eyes of host country communities or medical establishments.

The primary impact of a learning disability, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), is unlikely itself to change dramatically during a student’s time abroad in comparison to their time at home. However, the many changes to a student’s everyday life, like moving to an unfamiliar place and culture shock, can still strongly affect those with learning disabilities academically. It is essential for students to understand how their personal management strategies will be affected by studying abroad before they leave, specifically in regard to medication.

“I had just switched a medication right before I left, and I wasn’t sure how it impacted me yet, and it turned out not to work so well for me, so I would recommend you not switch your medications right before you go overseas,” first-year NCF Accessibility Representative Liz Bates said in an interview with the Tangent. “Study abroad is important because it’s something that anyone can do and having a disability does not exclude you from that, even though the accommodations aren’t advertised to be something that will allow a disabled student to travel,” Bates added.

Certain medications that are legal domestically may be illegal in foreign countries. When planning to study abroad, students should consult with their prescribing physician about bringing enough medication to last them the duration of their studies and continuing treatment while away from home.

Mobility issues present some of the most acute barriers for students considering spending their time abroad. The infrastructure of less developed countries and regions—particularly paved sidewalks, elevators and handicap accessible entrances and exits—may make daily commutes between home, university and other locations unfeasible or impractical. This is not to say students with mobility issues could not successfully study abroad in less accessible environments, but students should consider carefully the differences in accessibility between various locations.

Culture shock and its symptoms are common and normal responses to studying abroad for all students. For those with emotional, behavioral or other mental health issues these changes may be felt more strongly.

According to data from the 2017 Open Doors Report, during the period from the 2006/07 through the 2015-16 academic years the percentage of students with some form of disability who studied abroad for academic credit steadily increased. Those with learning and/or mental disabilities constituted the greatest proportions of students with disabilities who studied abroad between these years.

Students with disabilities can take advantage of dedicated sources of funding, programs and international exchanges offered by a variety of institutions to make the most of their time abroad and don’t have to assume any one limitation will make studying abroad impossible.

While many sources of funding exist for study abroad in general, there are also a number of scholarships, grants and other resources offered for students with disabilities. Private study abroad companies like the Center for International Education Exchange (CIEE) and the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES Abroad) provide their own scholarships for participating students with disabilities, while social organizations like the Julie Sargent Memorial Foundation, Diversity Abroad and Abroad with Disabilities offer scholarships and grants for students with particular disabilities. The U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs also supports disability inclusion through a number of its own initiatives, including the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

Fortunately, there are some major organizations specifically dedicated to helping students with disabilities study abroad through a variety of initiatives. Mobility International USA (MIUSA) was founded in 1981 with the mission “to empower people with disabilities to achieve their human rights through international exchange and international development.” While MIUSA does not offer grants, their online Resource Library holds a wealth of information on a variety of relevant topics for students with disabilities studying abroad, including sources of funding, events, webinars and personal anecdotes from travellers and participants in MIUSA exchange programs. On campus, students can visit the Student Disability Services office in HCL 3, which can assist with documentation of disabilities, applications for accommodations and additional resources for disabled students.

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