Program helps disabled students find accessible study-abroad options

Elena Rozwadowski

When it comes to getting around the University campus in her wheelchair, political science and French junior Rachel Garaghty doesn’t have much to worry about.

“The United States is really ahead of the curve in respecting the rights of disabled people,” she said.

When it comes to traveling abroad, however, access can become a problem.

Since last spring, Garaghty has been working with the Learning Abroad Center and Disability Services to find a wheelchair-accessible study-abroad program through Access Abroad, an initiative that helps students find disability accommodations in study-abroad programs around the world.

Access Abroad started as a grant in 2001 that was meant to help students with disabilities to make special need-based arrangements within their study-abroad program of choice, said Barbara Blacklock, an education specialist with Disability Services.

“(Students) were afraid that if they told the learning abroad that they had some condition, someone would say ‘Oh no, you can’t go,’ ” she said. “That’s a myth. They’ll say, ‘Tell us what your circumstances are so we can help you make an informed decision.’ “

The first step in the Access Abroad process is a visit to Disability Services, where students fill out a checklist of all accommodations they would need, including everything from wheelchair access to alternative test-taking arrangements.

The list is then sent out to several programs so a dialogue can begin between the universities, Blacklock said.

One of the largest obstacles, she said, is many countries’ lack of legislation comparable to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that buildings and community programs are accessible to people with disabilities.

“The response from some programs can sometimes be a little harsh, based on the differences in that culture,” she said.

For example, Blacklock said she went to Venezuela to check out a program for a student in a wheelchair, and there were 18-inch curbs without ramp access.

Public transportation would be a problem, she said, because there were no buses or cabs with wheelchair access, meaning the student would have needed to be lifted in and out of taxis by the driver or someone else.

Some things are beginning to change. Countries in the United Kingdom, for example, have passed legislation to recognize attention deficit disorder as a disability, something Blacklock said was a challenge to work around before.

“Previously, students with ADD might have had difficulty getting accommodations that they’re used to getting very matter-of-factly here,” she said. “That isn’t an issue anymore.”

The Access Abroad initiative has been a success mostly because it started a dialogue students were afraid to initiate, said Heidi Soneson, Learning Abroad Center program director.

“We are visible now,” Soneson said. “Students know we have a process in place so they feel confident in discussing their disability when they apply (to study abroad).”

The most important thing to remember, she said, is to start early.

“Every student’s needs are different, so there isn’t really a standard program anywhere,” Soneson said. “Advanced planning is key to identifying places with accommodations.”

Although she was not sure exactly how many students have gone through the Access Abroad process, Soneson said more students come forward every semester.

Garaghty said she would like to try a program in France or Belgium, but is also looking into opportunities in Canada, which is more likely to have the access she needs.

“If you think about France or Belgium, they have a lot of programs at old institutions that probably aren’t modernized,” Garaghty said.

Even if she doesn’t find an existing University program that fits, she said she will continue to look at programs through other universities and organizations.

“You need to put everything on the table and consider yourself in the worst possible scenario,” she said. “You can’t be embarrassed about your needs.”