Jennifer K—University of Minnesota Access Abroad participant
Going abroad is an amazing way to see and experience the culture of another country. This is an opportunity during your educational period that most likely you will never have again. At least, that is the way I felt about going abroad. I had a challenge ahead of me, because I am a physically disabled student. I spent 7 months in Melbourne, Australia studying at Deakin University and held a Marketing internship. It can be scary for any student to go to a new country not knowing what to expect, and even more so when you have to think about how the people will treat you because you have a disability.
Depending on what country you choose to study in, you might have more concerns than other countries because some countries are more accessible than others. Some countries will not always acknowledge people with disabilities, but every day more and more governments are implementing laws to help persons with disabilities. Even if you have a hidden disability the implications exist if you need accommodations to help you perform. People may think it is a hassle because you want more time and a separate room from what everybody else receives for an exam. All I can say is, "It is worth it!" It was worth every challenging experience I thought I might have just to be able to travel the world.
Most students experience culture shock when arriving in a new country. This is one of the most challenging aspects of going abroad. In most cases nothing will be the same as you had at home. Now is the time to turn that culture shock into the experience you have been waiting for. Try new foods, participate in rituals or customs, do as the locals do and enjoy yourself. I know that students with disabilities already have a lot to think about but culture shock is another thing that you might have to add to your enormous platter. It will not be like it is in America, so don't expect anything, just be prepared to react to everything.
Every student, whether challenged in any way or not, should think about questions like:
- "Why am I going?
- "What do I want from this experience?" and
- "How is this international experience going to open my eyes and change my life?"
Students with disabilities also need to consider:
- "What kind of situation am I putting myself into?"
- "How will I respond if I receive negativity towards my disability?"
- "Can I handle having lots of questions being asked about my disability?" and
- "How will my life and disability access be different in the new country?"
These are the things you really need to think about before you go so that when situations are tough in another country, and they will be in the beginning, you remember the motivation that made you determined to go in the first place.
In my opinion, the hardest thing for a disabled person going abroad is the idea of having to give up some of their independence. In the United States we may take for granted things like paved sidewalks, curb cuts, elevators, accommodating professors, sign language interpreters and a resource center like the Disability Resource Center to help us when we are in need. You may have worked very hard to do things on your own such as laundry or cooking and you have just finally figured out how to easily access your home campus. Then, all of a sudden you arrive in another country and there is the possibility that all of these things you worked for will be taken away from you. This can be very discouraging, but don't give up; there is always a way around these kinds of situations if you are open and willing to use other resources.
Not every country has the same laws and regulations about accessibility as the United States. You have to stay open-minded and flexible about this when you arrive in another country. A lot of the buildings that you may visit, for example, may not have an elevator. This does not mean that you can't enjoy the sites, it just means you will have to find another way of access. Most likely it will be that you have to be carried and that is OK. Upon arriving in the new country, you may discover that there are no curb cuts between sidewalks, and you don't know how you are going to travel about in your wheelchair. You might find out that the campus is very hilly with steep ramps. While I was traveling in Australia, many of the shops would have one or many big steps to get into their entrance even though everything else was accessible. What do you do in these types of situations? Well, these are the things you should think about before you even have to face them. If I really wanted in one of these shops I would just have someone help me lift my chair over the step.
Even though you feel like you might be losing some of your independence, you are really just fitting in with the host culture. This is a very good thing, because a native person with a disability would be using the same route for access. You really need to think about all the situations or problems that might arise while you are there, such as inaccessible classrooms, bathrooms, laundry, housing, kitchen facilities or computer labs. Will you have problems scheduling interpreters for classes? If you have a hidden disability, you might ask if your disability is recognized in the host country. Will you need documentation from a specialist? Will they have the means of offering a separate place to take exams? Will there be a heavy course load? These are the things you should be evaluating and finding creative solutions for, even if it means you are going to have to ask for HELP! If you know that these situations might occur and are prepared for them, you will be able to handle them without feeling like all you want to do is give up and get on a plane because it's not like home. Remember that you left home to experience something DIFFERENT!
The most important thing to do when traveling abroad is to PREPARE YOURSELF. I encourage you to really think about some area(s) where you might run into difficulties and then think of positive solutions to help you overcome those difficulties. Talk with your adviser to come up with possible problem scenarios and creative solutions.
Always remember what motivated you to travel in the first place and I bet you can overcome anything!
The information presented here is derived from the reports of students who studied through Access Abroad. Access Abroad does not endorse or verify the accuracy of disability information on specific to culture in the countries named.