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Supporting Study Abroad for Students with Disabilities

Author: Nicholas J. Hoekstra; info@ciddl.org

One of the most unique and rewarding experiences a student can have is to study abroad. The chance to travel to a foreign country while pursuing high school, undergraduate, or even graduate studies is an amazing opportunity to learn a new culture, a new language, and a new way of perceiving the world.

A growing number of students are realizing these facts. Data demonstrates that over the first decades of the 21st century, the number of students from the U.S. who studied abroad steadily increased. In the 2017-2018 academic year, over 300,000 students from the U.S. studied abroad.

Despite this encouraging trend, students with disabilities find themselves under-represented among globe-trotting academics. In 2017-2018, only 9.2% of study abroad students were students with disabilities, despite the fact that students with disabilities represent approximately 19% of students on college campuses.

There is no reason this should be the case. The author of this blog – himself a person with a disability – found studying abroad to be challenging, but ultimately a life-changing experience. In this blog, we will explore how factors like technology and a commitment to accessibility can facilitate study abroad for students with disabilities.

Factors that facilitate study abroad

In a 2020 article, Johnstone and Edwards explored the factors that impact study abroad for students with disabilities using the A3 model: advocacy, accommodation, and accessibility.

  • Advocacy: Studying abroad is a gray area regarding what services might be available. It is often necessary for students to disclose their disability early in order to advocate for any accommodations they might need during study abroad. Similarly, offices of disability services are playing a growing role in advocating for the rights of their students: emphasizing the right that all students have to take part in such programs.
  • Accommodations: A major result of advocacy is accommodation. According to their study, accommodations were one of the most frequently discussed factors that facilitated study abroad. Accommodations often require discussion to best understand a student’s need and what is available/possible.
  • Accessibility: There will always be a need for accommodations for individual students, but as study abroad for students with disabilities becomes more common, accommodations will lead to programs being designed with accessibility in mind. Some U.S. study-abroad offices have already begun to choose international partners based on their ability to provide an accessible experience.

In particular, Johnstone and Edwards found that successful study abroad for students with disabilities relies on collaboration between staff within and between universities, as well as efforts by the students themselves. While each student who studies abroad pushes the envelope for what is possible, the future of study abroad may depend on universities having a commitment to accessibility in all their programs.

Making study abroad more accessible

Technology can be the tool that provides access to information for students with disabilities, but it can also be a barrier. As Justin Harford from Mobility International writes in a 2017 article,

“If an online application form for a study abroad program does not use the proper HTML tags, has poor contrast, or uses complex language and distracting elements, it can bar a student with a disability from applying. If there are not multiple methods for contacting a program such as through texting and voice protocols, it can shut out a deaf or hard of hearing student.”

When it comes to examples of how technology can facilitate study abroad, Harford makes the point that students can continue regular check-ins with their mental health specialists through online platforms such as Zoom or Skype.

In a podcast by Mobility International, Nicholas Hoekstra shares how getting accessible books and texts can require some negotiation, but technology can facilitate this process. If a host university is unable to provide materials in accessible formats, a student’s home university may be able to receive the physical texts and make them digitally accessible, before sharing through email or Dropbox.

When Maiya Schroeder – a University of Kansas student with a physical disability – wanted to study abroad, she requested photographs of local housing. Combining these photos with a scan of google maps, Maiya was able to get a better grasp of the physical accessibility of different housing options.

Pack your bags

Just as each student with a disability may have unique needs, the solutions we come up with are equally diverse. Technology – rather than providing a single solution – provides a number of strategies that can make studying abroad possible for everyone. Do you know of examples of how technology has been used to facilitate study abroad for a student with a disability? Stop by our CIDDL Community page and tell us about it.