Top 5 Tips for Students with Physical Disabilities Studying Abroad

by Elizabeth Standaert

Studying abroad can be both exhilarating and overwhelming. When you have a physical disability, these emotions can sometimes be amplified. When preparing for study abroad, it can be difficult to find information about specifically going abroad when you have a physical disability (or any other disability, for that matter). To fill the immense information void and give more students the resources they need to study abroad, I’ve outlined below five tips for students with physical disabilities who are studying abroad; these are all tips I wish I had been given before my first experience abroad, which I thankfully gathered throughout my travels.

Children outside a school in rural Tanzania

Visiting a rural primary school in Tanzania

1. Think about your adaptive equipment and bring compact versions when possible.

It is important to consider what equipment you will need to bring in order to be successful during your time abroad, because you may need to consider alternatives based on the local environment. For example, if you normally use a power wheelchair, you may consider using a manual wheelchair during your study abroad program. Another piece of equipment to consider is a shower chair. I bought a camping chair at a camping supply store before one of my experiences abroad and it has been one of my favorite purchases ever!

Consider equipment that is lightweight and can be put together easily with few (or no) tools necessary.

2. Keep in mind that different cultures have different interpretations of the term “accessible”.

Unlike American culture, many cultures will say that something is “accessible” if it is accessible with help. Unfortunately, there is far less expectation abroad that people with physical disabilities will be accessing the world around them on their own. In my travels, I have found many ramps to be inaccessible, because it seemed the local interpretation was to put in a ramp with the same slope as the stairs. In other words, they were too steep for me to get up by myself. That being said, in many countries, people are happy to help you, and will sometimes do so before you even ask.

In other countries, you may find that there is a stigma about disabilities, which leads to people with disabilities not disclosing their disability for fear of discrimination; this leads to people with disabilities not being properly accommodated. The typical accommodations you are used to having at home may be costly or otherwise unavailable in certain countries, or even, in the case of certain medications, illegal. Determining what accommodations are absolutely essential and which are more of a convenience is an important thing to do before studying abroad. Sticking to the essential pieces of equipment can make traveling a lot easier and be more efficient in your life abroad.

Be prepared to figure out alternative accommodations and strategies if your preferred accommodations and strategies are not available abroad.

3. Talk with your program staff ahead of your arrival about your anticipated needs, and how they can be met.

It is your choice whether you disclose or have an in-depth conversation about your disability-related needs; but, take it from someone who has studied and traveled abroad several times, it is something worth doing ahead of time! Speaking up early and often can help improve your experience studying abroad, so I encourage you to have “the conversation”.

Student with a volunteer at a school for children with disabilities in Tanzania

Visiting a school for children with disabilities in northern Tanzania

I did not intentionally sit down with my professors ahead of my study abroad experiences, and in hindsight, I wish I had, because there was a lot I already knew about travelling with a disability that I could have shared with them in order to help them understand my needs.

It can be beneficial to explain some of the “ins and outs” of daily life that will pose potential barriers for you while travelling, so that your program staff can be prepared and on the same page as you before you even arrive. For example, I knew at the airport on departure that I needed to go to the gate to get a gate check ticket so that my wheelchair would meet me at the other end. However, since I didn't say anything to the professor traveling with me, he was surprised and concerned something was wrong when he saw me in line waiting. A simple conversation, explaining that this was something that typically happens when I travel abroad would have smoothed his concerns out.

Sometimes you may be in a position where you are dealing with a difficult situation that doesn't have a great immediate outcome for you. However, speaking up about the issue can have a positive impact on future students with physical disabilities in your program, because program staff will be more aware of issues that they previously were unaware of.

4. Research your destination to learn more about how the local environment may impact your needs.

There are people with disabilities in every corner of the world; this means that there really is no such thing as an area being completely off limits because of a physical disability. However, the degree to which people with disabilities participate in society varies widely from country to country. Ultimately, disability considerations are only one aspect of the study abroad decision-making process. Knowing a little about how the country you are planning to study abroad in views disabilities is very helpful in terms of deciding what you will need in order to be successful while studying abroad. Gathering as much information as you can about the physical accessibility of sites and areas you may visit is also a good idea.

Lastly, look into any local disability organizations, which can be awesome resources about local accessibility for you, both before your arrival and during your study abroad program. Through these organizations, you may also be able to find someone who has traveled to the country and can share their experience. A great start to your research would be Mobility International, which has loads of personal stories about people with a wide range of disabilities traveling in many countries.

Being able to email or call people who have been where you are going is always a great idea!

5. Have a plan for when equipment breaks!

A new environment can be rough on adaptive equipment. It's important to know what to do in the event your equipment breaks. For starters, it's a good idea to bring equipment like a wheelchair or scooter in for a maintenance check before you leave. You may also want to travel with a repair kit for emergency situations. This might include lubricant, bolts, allen wrenches, replacement cane tips, extra tubes, and duct tape. Also, remember to bring an outlet adapter in order to charge electrically powered equipment. You might also want to identify a local bicycle repair shop, in case of emergencies, since bicycle repairs shops can often do repairs at a low cost.

Your experiences studying abroad will introduce you to challenges you never imagined, but the entire experience will open your eyes to new possibilities. Plan for what you can and realize that you will probably need to make adjustments along the way. You have so much to gain by taking this step, so what are you waiting for? 

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