Rocky hiking trail in the German Alps

Accessibility in Education Abroad: Equity Matters

By Sarah Warren, ISA Program Advisor

If you saw me on a normal day, you probably wouldn’t assume that I may require mobile accessibility accommodations in certain situations.

That’s how I prefer it, honestly. I, and many people with different accessibility needs, don’t want to be labeled by what people think we can or can’t do, and we don’t want to be limited by someone else’s perception of our abilities. Whether an accessibility need is hidden, like mine, or outright visible, every student deserves the ability to make a choice to go on the abroad program they dream of.

I’ve been lucky enough to become a part of ISA’s Accessibility Team, advising and assisting students who might need extra preparations to experience their ideal program in the way that another student would. I’m proud of the strides made in giving students like me an equal chance to experience a full program abroad, but as with most things, there are some things we can do to make our time abroad more successful. Highlighting a few important points might help us get there sooner rather than later.

Make or Break: A Chance at an Equal Experience

I loved my study abroad program. I loved getting to experience another culture, taking courses in another language, and immersing myself with locals by living with a host family. For me, the academics were the highlight of my time abroad because I could push myself further to learn the local language than I could in a traditional classroom at my home university. That was exactly what I set out to do.

What I found to be difficult were the built-in excursions in my program. Many of them included hiking, especially in the Alps, which were close to where we were staying. I am not an athletic person in general, but with certain mobility limitations, it can be hard and uncomfortable for me to walk for long distances, much less hike in difficult terrain.

Rocky hiking trail in the German Alps
Rocky hiking trail in the German Alps

At the time, I went through with the hiking excursion because I wasn’t comfortable speaking up for myself  and requesting an alternate way to spend the day in the mountains. Though the views were gorgeous, I look back now and wish I had understood the meaning of equity versus equality. While I had the chance to have the same experience abroad as my peers and was equal to them, it was not an equitable experience because I needed different considerations to enjoy the excursion on the same level.

I ended the hiking trip sore and wishing I’d stood up for myself and my physical abilities. So even though I had an equal opportunity to enjoy the mountains like my peers, I should have communicated my needs and worked for an equitable experience.

Communication is Key

ISA’s Accessibility Team is happy to work with students to find out if certain programs are good fits for them and their personal needs, but we cannot know a student’s needs without them disclosing those needs to us. I fell into that trap when I went abroad and did not speak up about the fact that I would have preferred a less rigorous activity for my physical abilities. I should have spoken up instead of staying quiet about something that ended up hurting me at the end of the day.

We encourage students to communicate their needs so that we may determine which programs are best suited to their situation, but unfortunately ISA cannot create accommodations where they do not already exist. For example, hiking in the Alps was difficult for me, but they could not have created a paved, flat surface for me to hike on. We can work with on-site staff to get an accurate view of what the program will be like given a student’s individual needs, but we cannot alter existing or create entirely new infrastructure. Unfortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t reach to countries abroad, no matter how much we wish it could.

An Uphill Battle

Like I said, I loved my program abroad. I loved being able to immerse myself in the culture, and I even loved getting to see the Alps. I simply look back on it now and wish I’d spoken up about my needs, and I want to implore other students to reach out to do the same. Until we are made aware of accommodations you may need while abroad, we may unfortunately continue to operate in unconscious incompetence: where we do not know or understand how your needs may affect your ability to fully experience and enjoy your program.

 

At the top of the mountain
Climbing a mountain was my own uphill battle, but I finally made it!

The bottom line is – talk to us. My mobility limitations were fairly minor in comparison to my entire program, but they were still enough to affect my ability to enjoy certain parts of being abroad. No matter if your accommodation needs are minor or may require more preparation, ISA has worked with and can work with students like you. Whether your needs are visual, auditory, mobility, learning & spectrum disorders, psychological, or another medical need, ISA’s Accessibility Team is eager to help you find a program where you can thrive.

Everyone deserves the chance to go on the program they desire, and by working together, we can do our best to make it happen for you. Our goal is to make you feel empowered to make the choice to go on the program you’ve dreamed about, and we’ll support you before, during, and after to give you, not only an equal program but also an equitable time abroad with us.


If you have questions and need advising assistance, reach out to the ISA Accessibility Team at accessibilityteam@studiesabroad.com to start a conversation about your needs. We can’t wait to help you go abroad with us!

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