Student to Student
Studying Abroad with a Disability
Studying abroad is a wonderful way of seeing and experiencing the culture of another country, an opportunity you may never have again. Thats the way I felt when I spent seven months in Melbourne, Australia studying at Deakin Univ. finishing my requirements for graduation in marketing. Since I use crutches and a wheelchair for mobility, the biggest challenge I faced was my fear of how the culture would treat someone with a physical disability. All I can say is, it was worth every scary experience I thought I might have.
Some countries are more accessible than others. Australia has a pretty good level of accessibility, and Deakin Univ. even had its own disability services to help me with physical access if needed.
Most public transportation is accessible. I used my wheelchair to complete my marketing internship and to see all of the beautiful sights in Melbourne, a city filled with old cathedrals and fun coffee shops. Almost all of the stores were completely accessible except for the front step to get into the store. Fortunately, Australians are very helpful and I wasnt afraid to ask for help.
Catch a tour bus or hitch a ride to see the sights outside of the city. A 2-hour route winds around beaches and cliffs called the Great Ocean Road, which leads to the marvelous Twelve Apostles and London Bridge--the most beautiful scenery I have ever laid eyes on. If you head in the opposite direction, you travel up into the mountains and through the rainforest, breathing the purest air that will ever fill your lungs.
Along with all of the beautiful sights, I experienced some culture shock. This is one of the biggest challenges of study abroad: nothing is the same as at home. My advice is to turn the culture shock into the experience you have been waiting for. Try new foods, participate in rituals or customs, do as the locals do, and enjoy yourself. Dont expect anything, just be open to absorb everything.
Ask Yourself Questions
Any student preparing to study abroad has to think about questions like, Why am I going? What do I want from this experience? and How is study abroad going to open my eyes and change my life?
As a student with a disability, I had to ask myself additional questions like: What kind of situation am I putting myself into? and How will I respond if I receive negative responses to my disability?
These are the things you really need to think about before you go so that when situations are tough in another country--and they will be in the beginning--you dont forget why you were determined to go in the first place.
In my opinion, the hardest thing for a disabled person studying abroad is having to give up some independence. In the U.S. we take it for granted that there will be curb cuts, elevators, paved sidewalks, accommodating professors, and a resource center to help us when we are in need. Then, all of a sudden, you arrive in another country and there is the possibility that all of these things you worked for and depended on will no longer be there. This can be very discouraging, but dont give up; there is always a way around these kinds of situations if you are open and willing to use other resources.
To think about all the situations or problems that might arise while you are there, such as inaccessible classrooms, bathrooms, laundry, housing, kitchen facilities, or computer labs. If you know that these situations might occur and are prepared for them, you will be able to handle them without feeling like all you want to do is give up and come home. Remember that you left home to experience something different!
In short, the most important thing to do when traveling abroad is to prepare yourself: Think about where you might encounter difficulties and then think of positive solutions to overcome those difficulties. There are a lot of useful resources out there that will help you find information about accessibility in your host country and the cultural attitude toward disability might be. Talk to other students with disabilities who have traveled abroad, or ask study abroad staff to put you in touch with someone on site who has a similar disability and can give you firsthand information about the potential barriers and available accommodations in that country.
It was easy to overcome my fears in Australia because Australians are very open-minded about disabilities. The locals are so friendly--just say GDay and they will show you the ins and outs of Australia. If you always remember what motivated you to travel in the first place, I bet you can overcome anything as well!