What are the Study Abroad Opportunities for Students With Disabilities?

An individual with a disability is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as: a person who has a physical or mental impairment which limits major life activities; and has a record of such an impairment or is regarded as having such an impairment. In 2012, the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Report reported that 273,996 U.S. students studied abroad–a 1% increase from the prior year. While most higher ed institutions don’t record the disability status of international students, the IIE’s research suggests that of these nearly 300,000 students, just over 4% have disabilities, as compared to 2.6% in 2007 when this data was first collected.

Four major programs and organizations

A number of different programs and organizations are focused on helping students with disabilities take advantage of study abroad opportunities. While these may directly address potential students about available options, they also raise awareness by addressing education abroad advisors and administrators at home institutions as to best practices for increasing accommodations for students with disabilities.

Mobility International USA (MIUSA): With a mission of empowerment, MIUSA helps create opportunities for students with disabilities who want to study abroad by providing a variety of tools, including tip sheets for traveling abroad and real life stories. MIUSA also provides a searchable database of scholarship and financial aid opportunities.

The Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE): Working with students with disabilities for over 60 years, CIEE–which currently offers nearly 100 programs in 35 countries across the globe–seeks to encourage more people with disabilities to study abroad.

Access Abroad: A federally funded collaboration between the Learning Abroad Center and Disability Services at the University of Minnesota, Access Abroad prepares students with disabilities interested in study abroad by training advisors–both at home campuses and overseas–in best practices.

Association of International Educators (NAFSA): This group promotes the exchange of scholars to and from the United States in order to strengthen institutional programs and services related to international education. In response to the growing number of students seeking these opportunities, NAFSA provides valuable procedures and resources to education abroad advisors.

Woman in wheelchair attending group meeting

Five important points to keep in mind:

1) Funding

Some scholarships and financial aid opportunities are designated specifically for people with disabilities. Study abroad advisors, however, recommend that students with disabilities also consider general funding options. Most of these are seeking a diverse constituency and look for candidates with varying backgrounds.

2) Disclosure

It is important to keep in mind that not all disabilities are visible. Learning difficulties, attention deficit disorders, chronic systemic disorders, traumatic brain injuries and psychological problems are all examples of hidden disabilities. While students are not required to disclose a disability, this information can be helpful to advisors and administrators seeking to secure the very best environment for prospective students. The earlier a student discloses a specific need, the more to potential options and arrangements can be considered. Overseas accommodations can significantly vary from what students are used to in their home countries, and full disclosure adds a critical layer of clarification in terms of understanding and accommodating a disability or special need.

3) Flexibility

Any student seeking to study abroad should be adaptable, and a student with a disability may require more adaptability than most. Study abroad programs are not one-size-fits-all. Candidates must be willing to consider different options–from countries, to type of program, to length of stay. Students and advisors can prepare for the unexpected by identifying multiple options.

4) Program First

Study abroad advisors recommend that students with disabilities first prioritize their academic, cultural and personal interests before considering accessibility, as focusing on the latter first can be unnecessarily limiting. While some students will want to know whether an accommodation can be fulfilled before forking over an application fee, all students should be permitted to apply to a particular school or program if accommodation-related specifics aren’t yet known. Each student’s particular disability needs will be different, and should be treated as such. Whether or not a country has disability regulations can be misleading, as some countries with minimal formal legislation can be more accommodating to a particular disability need than others with formal specifications.

5) Consider the Culture

Keep in mind that it’s not possible to determine whether a country is accessible or inaccessible sheerly on the basis of current legislation or state of societal advancement. Other factors come into play, such as cultural circumstances, which can influence how people with disabilities are perceived and treated.