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.