Getting a degree abroad not only helps further your education in the subject you choose to study, but a lifetime of experiences that you would not receive in your home country. Students with disabilities in college, who have a unique view of the world because their body works differently, will be able to gain insights on how schools run differently abroad and how students with disabilities live in other countries.
I know this because I have Usher Syndrome, a condition whereby individuals are born deaf and gradually lose vision. I have cochlear implants, which are technologies that allow people who are deaf to hear. I was born and raised in the United States, and attended Savannah College of Art and Design for my undergraduate studies, where I received bachelor of arts in visual communications with a concentration in photography. I then went to graduate school at University College London in London, United Kingdom, where I received a masters of arts in material and visual culture.
Since I’ve been there, done that, here are a few of my best tips for college students with disabilities applying to, and attending, school abroad:
The Application Process for Students with Disabilities
Applying to universities abroad does not vary too greatly from country to country. They typically have a standard form and require at least one written essay, which would typically be a statement of purpose, in addition to your transcripts and letters of recommendation. Some schools may require certain test scores while some others may not. As an American applying to graduate schools in the United Kingdom, I was required to fill out an application form, submit my undergraduate transcript, letter of recommendations, and write a statement of purpose.
When writing your statement of purpose, it is often a good idea to include little information about your disability and goals for disability travel. When sharing your disability, you want to focus on how your disability has made you a better student and shaped your life positively. When schools review applications and decide whom to accept, they look for students with unique stories, as the schools want to see diversity on campuses. They also often like hearing stories about people who overcame obstacles because it means that they can handle challenges they may face during their studies.
When I wrote my statement of purposes for grad schools in the United Kingdom, for example, I shared briefly about how has my disabilities led me to pursue studies in anthropology.
Necessary Accommodations for Students with Disabilities
Once you’ve been accepted and you’ve made a decision on which school to attend, there is some extra prep before making the big move abroad! The first and foremost task you should do is check to see if the school has a disability office. If the school has a disability office, contact them and ask them what kind of accommodations are available to you. The availability of accommodations can vary from country to country as it depends on what kind of resources are available.
You should know and understand that many countries do not have disability laws like the U.S. where we have the Americans with Disabilities Act. The United Kingdom has the Disability Discrimination Act and Canada has the Canadian Human Rights Act and Equality Rights Section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and many other countries have similar laws, while others don’t have any. In countries that do not have any kind of disability laws, or do have the laws but they are not enforced, you may find that there may be no disability office at the school, so you may have to find and fund the resources yourself if you need any kind of accommodations.
If there is no disability department at the school where you’re attending, contact the head of the department of the subject you’re studying. When contacting the head of the department, introduce yourself and share your story. Inform them what kind of accommodations you would like to have and ask what the school can provide. If the school mentions any accommodations they cannot provide, look for alternative solutions.
If you need accommodations for the dorms, reach out to the residence hall director. Just like you need to do when contacting the head of the department, introduce yourself, share your story, and inform them what kind of accommodations you need. It’s important to note that your choice of dorms may be limited because not all dorms may have the accommodations you need. For example, those in a wheelchair may not be able to live in dorms that have no accessible ramps or elevators or if there is more than one floor.
Sample E-mail that Students with Disabilities Should Send To Foreign Professors
Dear Dr. ——————,
I’m looking forward to being in your [insert course title] course this semester on [days of the week] at [time of course]. I was born profoundly deaf, but I hear with an extraordinary technology, cochlear implants, and I hear like an almost normal hearing person. Because my hearing is still not perfect, I will have a few accommodations, which include an assistive listening device. I will have a device attached to my hearing device and you will need to wear a microphone so that I can hear you well. I would like to meet you at least 15 minutes before class starts this Monday so that I can give you my accommodation memo and show you how to use the assistive listening device. Please let me know if this will work; otherwise we can certainly arrange a different time.
Thank you in advance,
Of course you should fill in the specifics of your disability and any accommodations you might need, but this is a great template email to follow.
Educate Others About Your Disability
Always be open about sharing your disability with other students, professors, and locals in your community. Sharing information about your disability will help them better understand how they should interact with you. When they ask you about your disability, they have no intention of being rude or ignorant. They are simply curious and want to be educated. You also never know that your conversations with other people about your disability may inspire some of them to pursue interests in working with other college students with disabilities!
When I met students abroad, I often informed them of my hearing loss right away and I’ll give a little debrief on how the cochlear implant works. I enjoy sharing information about cochlear implants because so many people have never heard of the technology and it's an opportunity to create awareness.
You can do it!
You may find yourself facing some adjustments when first arriving in a new country because the accommodations may be different from what you have at home, but you will find yourself to be very adaptable and flexible because you have been in situations where you have to do certain tasks differently already.
No matter how many accommodations you as a student with disabilities may need, your disability should never stop you from pursuing your degree abroad. You should never underestimate your own abilities. In fact, when living abroad, you will realize that you can push yourself much further than you imagined!
This article was originally published in Meaningful Travel Tips and Tales: Traveling with a Disability. Download the full ebook to read more expert advice and stories from travelers with disabilities.