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Accessibility for Students Abroad

Is There a Way to Travel and Study There?

Twenty years ago it was unusual for someone with a disability to consider studying abroad. When Susan Sygall, Transitions Abroad's disability travel editor, contacted her local Rotary club regarding a scholarship opportunity for the 1978-79 academic year, she was pleasantly surprised to learn that persons with disabilities were encouraged to apply. Assured she wouldn't be turned down because she used a wheelchair, she went on to spend one of the best years of her life studying in Australia. Upon her return home, she found out that very few people with disabilities had participated in any type of exchange program.The organization that Susan went on to found, Mobility International USA, is one of the many reasons that disability is no longer viewed as the barrier it once was to international exchange.

In the past 10 years, the pool of students with disabilities attending college has increased significantly. (In 1998, 9.4 percent of first-year college students reported a disability compared to less than 3 percent in 1978); however, a 1996 survey of Big Ten institutions revealed that students with disabilities represent less than 1 percent of students who study abroad. Study abroad offices may not be adequately prepared to serve the small but growing numberof students with disabilities who do study abroad.

In 1997, the Global Campus and Disability Services offices at the Univ. of Minnesota received a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education to explore disability issues in depth through the Access Abroad project. With the collaboration of Pennsylvania State Univ. and the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES), they focused their efforts on enhancing access to study abroad for students with disabilities in several areas, including awareness of study abroad opportunities, disability accommodations at overseas sites, and the advising process.

Promoting Overseas Study

Nondisabled students are frequently directed to study abroad programs by academic advisers or interested professors, but disabled students are often indirectly or explicitly discouraged from going abroad. Furthermore, because of internal procedures, study abroad staff may not be aware that students with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, psychiatric disabilities, or chronic systemic disorders are participating in programs, and thus are unable to anticipate their needs.

A number of simple promotional strategies can both make students with disabilities aware of study abroad opportunities and encourage them to disclose their needs before a crisis situation arises:

  • Add brief statements to all study abroad publications saying: "We encourage persons with disabilities to explore opportunities abroad." A longer statement, appropriate for acceptance forms and orientation handbooks, should invite students to disclose any disability well in advance so that your institution can help meet their needs in light of varying levels of accessibility at overseas sites.
  • Advertise study abroad events or scholarships in the disability services office through posters, brochures, or disability-related newsletters.
  • Keep disability services staff informed of study abroad information sessions and new program initiatives so they can pass this information on to their students. Create a study abroad advising brochure targeted at students with disabilities. Highlight the benefits of study abroad, the resources available on accessibility abroad, and the process for requesting accommodations overseas (a sample is available on the Access Abroad website; see sidebar).
  • Include photos of students with disabilities in catalogs, brochures, posters, and other promotional materials. Make sure your study abroad website is accessible to someone with a disability using a screen reader. Features such as unlabeled images, PDF files, tables, and banners can hinder access for the visually impaired. (For specific accessibility guidelines, see the resources in the box below.)
  • Develop a peer mentor database of students with disabilities who have studied abroad and can share their experiences with future students.
  • Highlight financial assistance and travel grants for study abroad.

If study abroad is to be a realistic opportunity for students who have not traditionally considered it, it may also be helpful to identify different types of study abroad options. Students with disabilities may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of living abroad for a semester or more, especially if they are uncertain about how their disability will impact their adjustment to the host culture and whether accessible accommodations will be available. For such students, short-term programs may be more attractive. The Univ. of Minnesota's Global Seminars attracted a number of students who had previously hesitated about going abroad by offering 3-week, faculty-led programs centered around a particular topic.

"I was so glad to hear about the Global Seminars," said Access Abroad participant Carrie Severson. "I was really uncertain about going away for a whole semester, not knowing how my disability would be received. I feel much better about going on a 3-week program with a U of M professor." Having successfully completed a short-term study abroad experience, some may go on to participate in longer-term programs.

"It was harder and easier than I expected. It was harder because, for example, some streets in Europe are not paved, so getting around in a wheelchair is hard. But there's also a large sense of community and a different kind of focus. The professors were so accomodating and flexible."—Angela Finney (Semester in Spain)

Advising Your Students

The study abroad staff, the student, and the disability services staff must jointly determine whether or not special accommodations are needed. Using the information on the overseas environment and program structure provided by study abroad staff, the disability specialist should discuss with the student the possible impact the disability will have on the study abroad experience and what accommodations or modifications the student should request.

The Univ. of Minnesota has developed a Student Accommodation Request Form (also available on the Access Abroad website described below) to communicate such requests to on-site staff. Besides listing the student's needs and requests, the form provides definitions of terms and a way for the overseas site to respond regarding what accommodations will actually be feasible in the host culture.

Students need to understand that, depending upon the country and culture, there may be different ways to define accessibility and different expectations in terms of accommodations that can or should be made.

"In Venezuela, for example, the infrastructure is lacking to provide the physical accessibility that is expected in the U.S., but the culture is supportive," explains Heidi Soneson, Global Campus Program Director and Co-Director of Access Abroad. "A student with a mobility disability may find that elevators are lacking, but it may be perfectly natural for fellow students to carry a friend upstairs."

In short, cooperation and independence may be culturally defined, and students may need to be prepared for a certain loss of independence as they adjust to a new way of dealing with a disability. For Americans, it may be necessary to revisit our own assumptions and ask simply, "Is there a way to get there?" rather than "Is there an American way to get there?"

Accessing Overseas Site Accessibility

Through the Access Abroad initiative, some 40 overseas sites in more than 20 countries have responded to surveys of onsite accessibility and possible disability accommodations or modifications. Summaries of the information provided are on the Access Abroad website.

Study abroad offices can conduct their own surveys of the overseas programs they sponsor or endorse, either by sending out the access assessment forms available on the Access Abroad website or by incorporating questions concerning physical and programmatic access into regular on-site visits.

The following are key questions to ask while visiting an overseas site:

  • What campus or community offices are available and how receptive are they to working with U.S. students with disabilities?
  • What is the on-site staff's sense of overall cultural attitudes about people with disabilities? Are some disabilities recognized while others are not?
  • What kind of healthcare facilities are available for students who need medication or psychological counseling? Are services available in English?
  • Are the classrooms, housing, food services, and library wheelchair accessible? Could classes be relocated to the ground floor, if necessary?
  • Are doorways and bathrooms in key areas accessible?
  • Are there gradually sloping ramps for wheelchair users to circumvent steps and uneven ground?
  • What possibilities exist for providing housing for a student with a disability?
  • How far must students travel between classrooms, housing, food services, and library? What forms of accessible transportation are available on campus or in the community?

Programmatic Access

  • What options might exist to provide assistance to students (e.g. note-taking, reading) when needed?
  • What accommodations could be made for a student with a learning disability who needs extra time on tests or a quiet space to take exams?
  • Would it be feasible for a student to take a reduced workload or allocate periods of time each day for rest?
  • What types of adaptive technology (computer labs, tape recorders, scanner, braille printer) can be made available to students on the program?

For More information

The Access Abroad website is available as a national resource on study abroad for students with disabilities. Access Abroad is funded by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education.

Web site Accessibility Guidelines. Check out the Univ. of Minnesota's Computer Accommodations Program, or the international international Web Accessibility Initiative.

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices are submitted annually by the U.S. Department of State to the U.S. Congress. They provide summaries by country of the current status of internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and include policies toward individuals with disabilities.

Travelers' Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides health information for travel to different geographic regions worldwide.

SHARON GERLACH is a 1991 graduate of the Univ. of Minnesota and worked in international education for ten years. She returned to the Univ. of Minnesota to pursue an MA in Linguistics and became involved in the Access Abroad project as a graduate assistant.

Related Topics
Disability Travel
Study Abroad Advisor

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