There are so many variables to consider when anyone goes abroad. Many times the additional variables that people with various disabilities bring to the table can feel even more intimidating for both the person considering go abroad and the professional helping them through the process. Obviously, each person is a unique individual disabled or not. There are so many ways to meet the same needs or challenges and a single disability can mean variety of different practical realities in a variety of people with that disability. Disclosing the need for accommodations is an essential part of the process. But disclosure can be more complicated than meets the eye. Not only can there be fears of being judged or rejected; sometimes it’s hard to know where to start asking for accommodations in a new environment that isn’t very clear before detailed information has been given.
What is Disclosure?
First, let’s address what disclosure is. Disclosure in its simplest form is the act of making previously unknown information, known. Disability information is protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The information shouldn’t be used to screen out students from participating but fears can still remain to the contrary. Initial health questions that are often included on initial (conditional) applications are a way of essentially making a preliminary assessment of a situation. While this officially is not meant to be used to screen out students with disabilities many are still concerned about that possibility. After the application is accepted, generally called “conditional acceptance”, the predeparture planning process where specific needs are discussed and accommodations are planed begins.
There’s also another form of disclosure that many professionals may overlook which happens if a student wants to make a general face-to-face inquiry about a program or feels the need to ask accessibility related questions before filling out an application as part of their exploration of study abroad. It’s crucial that professionals realize the potential difficult emotions that students may be faced with not only during the more detailed disclosure that happens during the predeparture planning process but also the potential disclosure that is included on many initial applications when health questions are included. It’s a sensitive issue and it can be hard to know how to ease the worries while not making assumptions, generalizations, or giving inaccurate information.
But what kind of details can be given without getting into the murky waters of assumptions, generalizations, perceived discrimination? How can organizations catch the attention of people with disabilities and create an environment that leads to people being open about what their needs are? Here are the topics I suggest you consider including more readily in your program marketing both written materials, class presentations, and program information provided online.
What is the location like?
Urban city center, suburban neighborhood, rural area, close to a beach? Does the terrain have lots of hills or is it mostly flat? These differences could have a profound impact on how a student envisions not only whether or not they participate but how they envision some of their key needs.
What is the daily schedule/academic schedule generally like?
Any details about how the program is structured can be helpful! Knowing what sort of course load or amount of time spent in the classroom is valuable. Some students benefit more from a flexible schedule, others benefit more from a structured schedule.
Are excursions part of the program or are students responsible for any excursions?
Some programs involve excursions to learn about and explore various places in the host country as a group. Others do not facilitate these supplemental learning experiences outside of the classroom. As with any student, one format may make more sense to an individual than the other format. Some like the idea of independent exploration. For others this could be really intimidating and group excursions could be a better format to meet their needs.
What are the transportation options?
Transportation options can be an intimidating factor in deciding if and where to study abroad. An international experience is often the first time some are experiencing public transportation. To do this in another country that has different accessibility standards can be extremely difficult. Having an idea of how reliant you would need to be in one program versus another can help students make a wise decision about what the more realistic options could be. Accessible transportation option details add another layer of consideration but having a basic understanding of the usual options can either calm concerns or guide an individual to a different option. For example, needing to take a bus across the city from the housing to the university presents a different accessibility picture than the housing is typically located across the street or a couple of blocks from the academic building. A student may have a different reaction to either of those scenarios and knowing those scenarios will help guide those early decisions.
What are the housing options?
Similarly, do students typically live in dorms on-site, home stays, or apartments? How close are the housing options typically from the academic building? Of course, there can sometimes be an alternative arrangement made to accommodate individual needs. But it can be a significant concern for a student wondering upfront what the housing options are and how they’re usual needs fit into that typical scenario.
Are meals provided or are students responsible for finding/preparing their own meals?
Depending on the environment/location it can potentially be problematic to need to go out for most meals or to prepare your own versus having access to a campus cafeteria or meals provided by a host family. Knowing early what the typical expectation is can either guide a student in choosing that program or knowing that this is a detail where an alternative accommodation needs to be requested. For example, a host family may not typically be required to provide lunch. But if a student with a physical disability is situated in a location where it is more difficult to get around independently it may be good to ask the host family to provide lunch for that student.
What is the technology situation in this location?
If a program is in a remote area where technology/electricity is quite minimal or the electrical outlets are different it can have a serious impact on a student who uses assistive technology such as a power wheelchair. Many times solutions can be found but being aware of the technology in-country gives a student another idea of what to expect and what they need to be sure to address. If you haven’t been abroad before you may not always think about the electrical outlets being different and how that can potentially impact you.
Other Details to Address Early
There are other details that are more disability specific which may not need to be widely addressed but are common topics students with various disabilities. These are great details to include on a welcome page on a website specifically addressing disability issues. These details could include the following list.
What are the host culture’s attitudes towards disability and are disability accommodations common/well developed?
The answer to this will vary from country to country. But it is still important to provide general information to help students prepare. Mobility International USA is a great resource for individual stories of people with disabilities’ experiences traveling all over the world.
What questions about disability might an individual need to be prepared to answer in the host language?
Students are often accustomed to addressing questions about their disability. These same opportunities may come while abroad and it is worthwhile to be aware of basic vocabulary and phrases to address these situations. Writing common explanations about your disability and specific needs in the local language can be very helpful as well as practicing speaking those basic words and phrases that may need to use to communicate.
What are the guidelines for bringing prescription drugs?
This will vary from country to country but providing guidance in where to find that information is important and can help students be open about their need and prepared for anything they need to address concerning prescription medications. The following link from The International Narcotics Control Board provides country by country information and this list of U.S. Embassies around the world. Most embassies give prescription drug information by clicking on the “Medical Assistance” section under the “U.S. Citizen Services” tab.
What are the laws concerning service animals?
Similarly, the laws concerning service animals varies from country to country. This can be a particularly difficult detail to find concise country by country information online. Check out this article from Mobility International USA for a step by step guide on how to travel with a service animal and be sure to also consult the additional links at the bottom of the article for a list of foreign embassies. Some embassies list service animal information while you will have to email others for that information. Verifying specific airline requirements is another necessary step and this information is typically easier to find on the airline’s website.
Was that so scary? I hope not! See, the same things that are helpful to people with disabilities are also helpful to people without disabilities. While disclosing these to people without disabilities may fall into the “Thanks, that nice” or “that’s interesting” category these details could be the difference between a person with a disability declaring a desire to participate or disclosing non apparent needs. Then there are some specifics where it’s a good start to provide preliminary, general information that can lead to individual, specific conversations. Let’s commit to finding ways to encourage disclosure that go beyond saying, “we encourage early disclosure!” Let’s be committed to a culture of diversity where unique details are highly valued!