Most of us applying to study abroad programs are unaware of students with disabilities who may experience more difficulties in finding and being matched to a program that can accomodate their needs. How exactly then do students who are handicapped find and prepare for travel abroad?
As a high school student applying for college, I was smitten by the numerous number of study abroad opportunities that each college offered to the me then who was begging to merely sample a bit of that international experience, the independence, and the worldliness of it all. I’m certain that this feeling is not exclusive to me and that every college student has dreamt of taking that newly acquired independence as an undergraduate and extending that into a semester abroad in an entirely new area equipped with an unfamiliar culture. And as a current college student drawing ever closer to that leap across the Atlantic Ocean into a foreign land, I am preparing to immerse myself into another set of cultural etiquettes.
However, while I (and possibly many of you), are sitting in our dorm room writing down our tentative itineraries on the back of our chemistry notes and writing down the souvenirs we’ll be getting for mom, dad, best friends, and your next door neighbor, most of us are oblivious to a certain group of the student population who may not be able to commit to this study abroad program, or more appropriately, cannot find one that adequately meets their needs. This group of students, more specifically, students who are physically/mentally handicapped find it much more difficult than the average student in searching for a program that both satisfies their needs and piques their interest. Most of us take for granted the fluidity and simplicity of the process and it largely evades us (I too, am guilty as charged) that this process is complicated for students with disabilities. However, not only are students oblivious or perhaps just unversed in this sphere, but most study abroad authorities are as well since most of the questions I directed at such advisors regarding this issue were returned largely returned with uncertainty.
Though largely unaddressed, it is certainly not impossible! In fact, many students who are mentally/physically handicapped have been able to check that study abroad box on their bucket list thanks in part to a handful of programs and arrangements that have dedicated themselves to accommodating these students’ needs.
For most of us, applying to study abroad programs begin almost a semester ahead of time in order to have adequate time to deal with paperwork and other technical aspects of the process, however, for students with disabilities, the preparation is a much more strenuous process in that they must take into account additional accommodations such as arrangements for their disabilities. These arrangements and needs such as the need to have a ground floor dormitory must be reported to study abroad advisors in advance to ensure that the accommodations be approved and prepared before arrival.
However, before we get into the nooks and crannies of the actual process of planning for accommodations, what programs exactly are there that can properly addressed the needs of students with disabilities?
One very well organized set of programs hail from The College Consortium of International Studies. This is essentially a partnership between many colleges and universities who are committed to providing a fruitful and safe experience for students, those with and without disabilities alike. However, for students who are physically disadvantaged, there are special accommodations made in order to reassure the nerves of worried parents and uncertain applicants such as the accompaniment of a set of trained staff who would help those students who require outside assistance and the accompaniment of other peers with the same disabilities. Essentially, there are numerous programs that can accommodate students with disabilities, but the importance lies in planning ahead of time and notifying authorities of appropriate accommodations. Though daunting, it is certainly not impossible!
Though the technical aspect of this process is important, one additional area in which others overlook is the emotional and cultural preparation prior to departure. Even for students without disabilities, adequate preparation and research must be made in order to prevent culture shock and to really make for a smooth transition between cultures. This fact cannot be emphasized more for students with disabilities. The fact of the world is that people hailing from different areas have different opinions, values, and perspectives and really acknowledging and seeing these multifaceted personalities are benefits of the experience abroad, however, for those with disabilities, it is important to be mentally prepared in terms of how these opinions will affect them. In American culture, it is common courtesy to be rather soft spoken and indirect in regards to addressing physical and/or mental disadvantages in another, however in other cultures such as the Chinese, words are used more directly and bluntly. Though Chinese culture tends to approve of blunt comments toward the physique, the intention is not to hurt another, but to express concern for one’s body condition. However, because of different cultural upbringings other study abroad students can interpret such comments to be harsh and rash. Thus, it is especially vital that students prepare themselves mentally to receive different and sometimes compromised treatment in another country.
The study abroad experience is heavily recommended for all college students because it is an opportunity to see the world beyond the campus bubble despite the amount of diversity present on college campuses. This highly valued experience is not exclusive and should not be exclusive no matter the disabilities or disadvantages any student may possess. Despite possible discouragement from worried family members and even advisors, it is imperative that those interested, regardless of any disabilities they may have, venture into this beautiful pool of cultures from different geographical areas and take the first step into really savoring the experience as a young and vivacious undergraduate.