Does disability inclusion ever seem like a nice, theoretical idea and yet somehow unattainable. As a person with a disability I see so many times where people and organizations clearly like the idea of being inclusive but they don’t have any practical idea of how to actually be inclusive. And what’s the result, I don’t necessarily feel like I belong. Not because anything blatantly rude or disrespectful was said or done. But, rather there were missed opportunities to blatantly communicate that I as a person with a disability was seen and valued. Inclusion doesn’t need to remain a lofty, complicated ideal that we aspire to yet never achieve. There really are actionable ways to be inclusive that aren’t all that complicated and time-consuming.
Talk to In-Country partners about disability inclusion
The on-site, in-country partners that you work with are part of your inclusion strategy and therefore need to be actively aware of your commitment to inclusion of people with disabilities. Open communication about needs and expectations helps individual experiences go more smoothly. In-country partners will likely need specific information in order to provide adequate accommodations. It’s also worth bearing in mind that everyone’s cultural construct of what makes something accessible is different and therefore it is important to be descriptive rather than simply assuming that, for example, when a partner says there is a ramp available that it is at a slope that is sufficient for independent use. In many countries ramps are quite steep and a wheelchair user needs assistance to use it. In many countries something is deemed ‘accessible’ if it is accessible with help. It is good to clarify those kinds of specifics as early as possible because it can change the kind of accommodations individual people may need.
Make sure disability is explicitly included whenever talking or writing about diverse groups
A simple yet powerful way to be inclusive is to make sure to explicitly mention people with disabilities any time you are mentioning people of other diverse groups. You may not have as much experience working with people with disabilities as you do the LGBT community or racial minorities or first generation students, but being conscious of including people disabilities in how you talk about diversity will go a long way in expanding your opportunities to work with people with disabilities. Including statements about how your department or organization welcomes people with disabilities will catch people’s attention and send the message a positive message. It can help people with disabilities feel comfortable starting a conversation and disclosing their needs when positive statements about inclusion are highly visible. The University of Minnesota is great example of how to do this on a department website.
Collaborate with Disability Professionals
Building relationships with professionals who work with people with disabilities whether it is the campus disability services office or a local disability organization is a great way of learning some of the common issues that affect people with various disabilities and some of common solutions to those issues. Once you have established those relationships those people can continue to be people you go to to keep learning about the latest information.
Familiarize yourself with accessible travel resources
The accessible travel industry is growing all the time and producing a plethora of resources related to different disability types, destinations, and modes of travel. It’s a good idea to dip your toes in and familiarize yourself with what’s out there; both so you are aware of what information resources exist to direct students to in the future and to become familiar with some of the common needs and accommodations people with various disabilities encounter.
Learn about resources to facilitate inclusive student advising and have those resources visible on your website
Inclusive student advising doesn’t need to be an allusive ideal that is something we’ll do later when somehow our circumstances change. Student advising resources that take into account students’ unique needs are an important inclusive tool. Right now there are student advising resources available that help students and professionals think about and plan for accessibility needs. Check out these resources from Mobility International USA and consider incorporating them into your inclusive student advising strategy.
Follow up with students to learn from their perspective what went well and what could have been done differently
Reflection is an important life skill. We learn about how to make improvements for the future by reflecting on the past. Sometimes it’s obvious that we should do something different in the future. Other times it isn’t until we have a reflective conversation other people involved in the situation that we learn about other issues that arose or other suggestions for future improvements. People with disabilities often have great insight into how things can be improved in the future in terms of accessibility. Getting information and suggestions from people who have various disabilities is an excellent way of building accessibility that is truly functional and inclusive.
If you don’t know where to start in making your international programs inclusive here are a few places to start making an impact. The point is to start. If you don’t start now, when are you going to start? Inclusion is about taking every opportunity to communicate that people from all kinds of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and identities and that includes people with disabilities. Let’s not keep missing opportunities to take action and include people with disabilities in international education programs. Inclusion is for everyone and it requires everyone involved to be aware and empowered to make inclusive decisions and actions.