Why You Should Really Consider Going Abroad

I have seen many posts online highlighting why studying abroad can be an enriching opportunity for anyone but I want this post to be specifically about why people with disabilities have so much to gain from studying abroad. Hopefully if you are on the fence about whether or not study abroad would be right for you, this can help provide some pros for doing so.

1. International Travel

If you have never traveled to another country this will be an excellent opportunity for you to explore what it is like to travel internationally with your disability. This can be a huge milestone especially if you are traveling independently for the first time, and will be a great learning opportunity that can prepare you for traveling in the future for work or leisure. However, I should worn you that this may not be the best experience of your trip, and I have heard many horror stories, but I share this because regardless of what your experience ends up being you will have had the opportunity to learn and navigate some of the challenges that can come with international travel. This will not only prepare you for future trips, but can help further develop your self advocacy skills.

2. Living Abroad

I alluded to this in an earlier post, but I think that living abroad in an unfamiliar country is meant for people with disabilities. We are constantly having to adapt to environments and spaces that were not designed with us in mind, and I think this gives us a leg up in international travel because we are not expecting for things to be a certain way, instead we come prepared with the tools and strategies to acclimate to new surroundings. We are accustom to asking for guidance when necessary, which can be very beneficial when trying to locate things in an unfamiliar city.

3. Connecting with Locals

Before going abroad, I didn’t realize how my blindness would tremendously impact my ability to positively engage and connect with local people. I think this can be especially true if you speak the local language, I was able to build relationships with local store and restaurant owners and employees since I frequently visited their establishments and would sometimes request their assistance with locating a table, reading the menu, or finding a particular item. however, through these small interactions we build rapport and eventually I came to know these people relatively well. Given that my academic program consisted of only U.S. students, I don’t think I would have built such connections with locals had I not been visually impaired.

Similarly, you may find yourself with an opportunity to connect with the local disability community and gain an insight into disability rights, and culture, in that country. As part of my study abroad experience, I was connected to a local school for the blind and visually impaired, which allowed me to meet some local blind college students. I was able to learn so much about how blindness is perceived within Argentina and I gained a greater understanding of the educational system for blind and visually impaired students. For this reason, if you are hoping to learn more about international disability rights, participating in a study abroad program will be an excellent way to build that knowledge and experience.

4. Learning a Local Language

I know this is a fairly obvious positive of studying abroad, but please still read this paragraph. When I say learn a local language this can mean very different things depending on your disability and your primary form of communication. For those blind and visually impaired people who wread braille, you may be able to learn the braille code for the local language. If American Sign Language is your primary language, you may have the opportunity to learn the local sign language. If you don’t use English braille or American Sign Language you can still learn these in the local language of the country you choose to study. You can also see if there are courses for you to take in a local language that is not the primary or a dominant language in the country, I took a one day class on Guarani and it was a very cool experience, and I wish I would have taken the time to explore opportunities like these further. These are just examples, but my point is that learning a foreign language for people with disabilities can be especially beneficial and rewarding as it can take many forms and look very different depending on who’s learning it.

5. Employment Opportunities

If you study abroad with a program, such as the Gilman Program, you will gain access to a large network of other program alums who may be working in international affairs or some other related field. Having access to these alums can help you build a network of professional connections simply by having participated in a study abroad program. This can be especially beneficial if you already know you want to work in the international space . With a study abroad experience you can also demonstrate to potential employers that you have the cultural and linguistic competencies to interact with individuals of varying backgrounds and nationalities, which can be further enhanced if you completed an internship or volunteered at a local organization while you were abroad. Given that in the U.S. the employment of disabled people lags significantly behind the non-disabled, I think being able to add the completion of an international program on your resume can help boost your applications for employment.

Resources

Below please find a list of resources I have compiled that I think may help facilitate your study abroad experience. Some are disability focused while others are scholarships/programs that can assist in covering the financial cost of an international study experience.

These listed resources are by no means all the options you have for further researching and applying to international education programs, but they are the ones I am most familiar with. I hope they are able to provide a starting point as you begin learning about international exchange.

Mobility International USA

MIUSA is a disability-led non-profit dedicated to advancing disability rights globally through international exchange opportunities. In a previous post I mentioned that they can be a great way to connect with someone who has studied or worked abroad. However, they also provide excellent programing and trainings for individuals interested in studying abroad and for professionals working in international exchange. Additionally, they have information for both U.S. citizens interested in going abroad and non-U.S. citizens coming to the United States. I would recommend suscribing to their Access to Exchange E-News as they often share programs or events where you can learn about studying or volunteering abroad. In addition, they host informative panels with alumni who have varying disabilities and have completed study abroad programs, such as the Fulbright Program. I highly suggest connecting with their staff as well and asking any questions you might have about what resources may be available to you in another country.

Diversity Abroad

Diversity Abroad is another great organization that I wish I would have known about before embarking on my international experience. They are dedicated to connecting young people from traditionally marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds with the knowledge and resources needed to study abroad. they have an article focused exclusively on students with disabilities, and have created their own list of questions and considerations for you to use. You can find the article here. They also have links to programs and scholarships for you to check out,. Lastly, they host a Global Student Leadership Summitwhere students of diverse backgrounds share their international exchange experiences.

The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program

This is a scholarship administered by the U.S. department of State to assist students of limited financial means interested in studying abroad. They are particularly interested in awarding the scholarship to students who have typically been underrepresented in international exchange such as students with disabilities. You can find more information about the program and the application here. You are required to submit an essay as part of your application where you can express why you are interested in visiting the country you’ve chosen, and it can be a great place to highlight why you are interested in international opportunities as a disabled person. Additionally, if you wish to travel to a country or program that is not commonly chosen by U.S. students, you can explain the particular interest you have in that country/program which will definitely help your application stand out.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program

You have probably heard of the Fulbright Program, but in case you haven’t, it is a program that provides grants to students interested in studying, conducting research, or teaching English abroad. The program is very prestigious and competitive but they are definitely looking for students who will bring a new and diverse perspective to international exchange. They host virtual panels before the application is due and you can learn more about the process of applying. I would also ask your home institution about this program as they might have more resources on how you can apply as a student of that university.

WeRepresent Conference

This is a conference that was shared with me by a member of MIUSA’s staff, and which is an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning about international exchange from students who are disabled, black, LGBTQ+, or low-income. The 2021 conference was held virtually and all their sessions are available online so go explore! I would also keep checking their website to see if they have any upcoming panels or programming that you could join live.

Institute of International Education

The Institute of International Education manages many programs in over 180 countries. They have a section on their website where you can browse programs and scholarships available depending on what region of the world you’re interested in. Additionally, you can search for programs based on fields of study which can be helpful if you are required to complete certain educational components as part of your degree or if your interested in finding programs that could lead to employment in international affairs or international development.

Connecting with Others Who Have Studied Abroad

I have dedicated a post to this topic because it was only whilst studying abroad and upon returning that I decided to connect with other students who had studied abroad. When talking and comparing experiences, we discovered we had similar concerns prior to going abroad, and we had considered many of the same factors when choosing where to study despite our different disabilities. For this reason, I think it is an excellent idea to reach out to other students and inquire about their international education experiences, or to share a similar interest in exploring a certain country/region.

I would recommend connecting with any disability organizations or resources on your campus and seeing if anyone there has, or knows someone who has, studied abroad. It’s possible that someone may know a student who has already graduated but who completed a semester abroad at the same location you are interested in . Although a student may not have the exact same disability as you, they will still be a great source of information to get a better understanding of not only the physical accessibility of the country you wish to visit, but can give you some insight of what the culture around disability is like. Additionally, connecting with other students can give you an idea of what fun excursions they went on and how to access them.

I would also suggest connecting with the team at Mobility International USA, they are a great resource in general and they have a very large network of students and professionals who have completed programs abroad. They might be able to reach out to someone who lives in your host country or who has also studied there, and connect you. If you are able to speak with someone who has worked with MIUSA it is also possible that they have been featured on MIUSA’s website or externship program which will be another great source of information.

Lastly, I simply suggest going online and searching “studying abroad with a disability”. There are many people who have shared their experiences online whether it be through blog posts , video interviews, or as part of virtual panels. You may be surprised at the amount of stories you’re able to find from disabled people who have gone abroad, in some cases people who have been abroad multiple times in very different areas of the world, and which can help give an insight into what the process might look like for you. In particular, I suggest looking at the Gilman Global Experience Blog, as it contains blogs from Gilman Ambassadors, who are Gilman Scholarship recipients, chosen to write about their experiences while abroad. Many share what it is like to be living in a specific country or region with a particular identity, and how they chose to prepare for their time in their host country.

Questions to Guide You

Questions to Consider When Choosing a Study Abroad Location
Before you decide on where you would like to go for your study abroad experience, or what program you may want to enroll in, here are a few questions you may want to consider.

  1. What are you most interested in gaining from your study abroad experience?
  2. What accommodations will you need and are they available in the host country?
  3. What housing options will be available? Will any of these options work for you and your disability?
  4. What public transportation is available in the region/city/town you will be in?
  5. How would you like to spend any downtime/what activities would you want to participate in while abroad?
  6. Are you interested in going somewhere where you speak the local language or will you be learning a local language? How will this impact your experience?
  7. Are there any communities (religious, social, cultural, etc) you will want to connect with?
  8. What services are available to locals with disabilities? Are these same services available to foreigners? ?
  9. Are there any educational requirements you must complete as part of your abroad experience?
  10. Are you interested/required to volunteer or intern abroad?

Questions to Consider When You’ve Chosen a Study Abroad Location 
You’ve chosen where you want to go, great! Here are some questions to guide your preparation for this adventure.

  1. Will you be traveling to your destination alone? If it is your first time traveling alone, try to think of any type of assistance you will need on your journey.
  2. Where will you be staying and can you connect with anyone there before you arrive?
  3. What do you know about disability culture/understanding in the country you are going to?
  4. Have the local administrators/program staff worked with someone with a disability before? Can you connect with them virtually beforehand?
  5. Do you know anyone who may be able to connect you with someone who shares the same or a similar disability?
  6. What places/areas will you want to visit when you’re there?
  7. Will you need any specific documentation to verify your disability in order to access disability services?
  8. Are there disability anti -discrimination laws? If yes, how are they enforced?
  9. Will you want to visit other cities/countries in the region?
  10. Will you need a personal care attendant to accompany you during the duration or part of your trip?
  11. What is the social scene like? What do locals do for fun?

Addressing Possible Fears/Concerns

Can I Even Do It?
something I think that needs to be addressed and which I feel international education programs can do better is recognizing possible fears or concerns that students with disabilities may have when considering to go abroad. I have to say that before I even started thinking about where I should go for my study abroad experience, the first question on my mind was can I even do it?
If you are also asking yourself this question, I bet this question stems more from the feeling that this is an experience that doesn’t seem as if it was made for us and that there will be so many barriers to face in order to make it happen, and is not a result of a lack of self confidence or capabilities. While this will most likely be a challenging and learning experience, in a way I almost feel like studying abroad was meant for people with disabilities. As disabled people , we are constantly having to adapt to new and unfamiliar environments and educating others about ourselves. However, this is a huge part of embarking on an international education experience regardless of whether you have a disability or not, so you are already way more prepared and possess all the skills and attitude you will need.

What About My Safety?
Having fears and concerns beyond whether or not you can do it is also a huge part of this process. I know that one of my biggest concerns was about my personal safety and if I would be able to travel independently. As a blind woman, I am often fearful of someone possibly taking advantage or hurting me because of my perceived vulnerability regardless of where I am in the world, and I was certainly concerned about this when I was thinking about going abroad.
To help address these fears, the best you can do is to speak to any locals you can get in contact with. Whether this be administrators of the university or program you will be attending, a host family you may be staying with, friends of friends who may live in the country you are visiting, anyone who can give you any insight into what you as a foreigner may be vulnerable to will be a great source of information. I feel that online resources are not always the most reliable and it is locals themselves that can give you the best and most up to date information about what you can expect and how to best keep yourself safe in that country. I also suggest trying to connect with other students or professors who have been at the site where you will be studying as they may know more about potential safety risks for you to consider. Similarly, by speaking with others who have either visited or live in your host country you can get a better idea of what transportation options will be available to you. If public transportation is available, you can inquire about its accessibility or lack there of. The more information you can gather about what traveling within the country is like will help you figure out what strategies, assistive devices, or other resources you will need to navigate this new environment.

Will I Have Access to What I Need?
This was definitely one of the biggest questions I had when thinking of going abroad as a disabled person. I not only wanted to make sure that I would be able to navigate the physical environment in which I would study, but I also wanted to ensure I would have access to all the academic material. To address these concerns, the office for students with disabilities at my university and I video conferenced with the Student Life team at the Buenos Aires academic site. In this meeting, we were able to discuss what my academic accommodations look like in New York and we developed strategies to help implement those accommodations during my time in Argentina. For example, most documents would still be converted into accessible digital formats by the team in New York but the team in Buenos Aires was responsible for gathering any documents and books that I would need from the professors in Argentina, emailing these materials to the New York office for conversion, who would then send those converted materials to me.
Though the process for acquiring your accommodations may not be straight forward, it doesn’t mean it won’t be possible. Work with whatever resources you utilize in the States and find ways to collaborate with staff at the academic site where you will be going. Keep in mind that depending on where you are going people’s understanding of accommodations or what types of accommodations are possible may be limited and you will need to clearly inform them of what you need and how you need it. Sometimes what you will need may not be available and for this reason it is a good idea to make the most use of the resources you have available in the U.S. before you leave. Quick example here, but on the video conference with the team in Buenos Aires I learned that it is very difficult to obtain the type of white cane I use to travel independently, and I was advised to bring a few extra canes in case the one I was using broke. I immediately ordered four canes online and had them ready to go by my departure date, and you may find that you will need to do the same for whatever assistive devices you use or medications you take. In other cases, you may be surprised to find that local institutions will already have access to what you need or may know of where you can find a particular resource. Either way it is best if you can speak to local staff and educators beforehand so that everyone is equally informed about what you’ll need there and what you should bring with you to fully enjoy this international experience.

Welcome to Thinking Disability Overseas!!

My name is Emely Recinos and I’m here to talk to you about studying abroad as a person with a disability. I remember when I first learned about a study abroad opportunity at one of the universities I toured my senior year of high school, it seemed like such a cool opportunity but something that I would most likely not part-take in. It wasn’t for a lack of interest or desire but simply because I didn’t know of anyone blind or visually impaired who had studied abroad. I just figured it didn’t and couldn’t happen. 

This is why as part of my project for the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) “Access to Exchange” Externship, I have decided to create this series of blog posts that I can share in hopes of encouraging, enlightening, or just educating people on how and why people with disabilities should consider and participate in international study experiences. I also find that sometimes it can be hard to find resources and accounts from others who have studied abroad, and hopefully this can provide a source of information for some of those questions or doubts you may be having.

To give you a little background about my study abroad experience, I spent a semester in Argentina during my third year of undergraduate studies at New York University. As an international relations major, I was required to complete a semester abroad in my region of interest, Latin America. Given that NYU has an academic site in Buenos Aires Argentina, I found it fitting to apply to do my time abroad there. This would be my first time living in an unfamiliar country and I  had no idea what to expect. Thus my hope is that I am able to help inform those of you thinking about going abroad as a person with a disability so let’s get started!