“It’s worth it.” Interviews with travelers who have made the journey overseas—as a person with a disability or as an exchange leader with participants with disabilities on the program—admit to the reflective value of the experience time and time again. Yes, assistive technology breaks, fatigue sets in, and getting lost happens, but these travelers and program leaders always find something more: the knowledge they gained about themselves and others, the ability to laugh despite the setbacks, and the delight in new cultural perspectives and places that drew them abroad in the beginning.
For the last decade, people have contacted the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) with questions ranging from finding adaptive equipment or sign language interpreters overseas to locating a peer with a similar disability to learn tips on navigating abroad.
The NCDE, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by Mobility International USA, answers a wide range of inquirers, from how an exchange organization can make its new language school in Italy open and accessible to those with and without disabilities to what recourses there are for a person with a disability who was turned away by a high school exchange program for reasons that were solvable.
The NCDE recognizes that international programs offer new challenges and experiences related to accessibility, and also opportunities to explore new strategies for independence and inclusion. People with disabilities, like their non-disabled peers, have much to gain from work, study, and volunteer abroad experiences. Whether you have a disability and want to travel or run a language school abroad in a place with less than perfect accessibility, do the research on what is available, but don’t try to plan every last accessible detail. Making inclusion work takes a bit of a leap, and willingness to learn, change, and enlighten people along the way. Like travel, it is a journey that is worth it in the end.
What follows is a list of referrals to international exchange programs, disability organizations, websites, and publications to get one started in the international and inclusive direction. The next step is up to you.
—Michele Scheib, Mobility International USA