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The ultimate guide to studying abroad with a disability

Studying abroad is a fantastic opportunity with countless benefits. You’ll learn more about your subject area, travel the world, and make lifelong friends.

The idea of studying abroad should fill you with feelings of anticipation, joy and enthusiasm. But if you’re a student with a disability, this excitement can be dampened by worries about how you’ll manage day-to-day life in entirely new surroundings.

It’s often hard to know where to start when it comes to organizing international study, but we’re here to help. This guide will give you all of the information that you need to enjoy your international adventure.

Can you study abroad as a student with a disability?

The answer is yes. There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t study abroad if you have a disability. In fact, the number of international students with disabilities is rising each year thanks to improvements in support and accessibility.

In some cases, studying abroad with a disability might actually be easier than studying in your home country because you may have better rights, provisions and facilities.

Every student faces challenges when they decide to live and study abroad, but that doesn’t stop them from using the resources around them to find solutions. Inevitably, you’ll need to do more research, make extra arrangements, and take additional precautions, but as long as you’re proactive and motivated, the world is your oyster.

How to study abroad as a student with a disability

Preparing to study abroad as a student with a disability can be a daunting task, so we’ve broken down the process into four easy stages.

Research

Like all students looking to study abroad, you’ll need to spend some time researching countries, cities, institutions, and programs.

You can now study loads of programs worldwide, but it’s important to remember that the exact content and structure of the program will depend on the institution and its location. It’s a good idea to look at:

  • The modules you’ll be studying
  • How you’ll be taught and assessed
  • Typical graduate careers

To help narrow down your search, look at the disability services webpages of the universities that interest you. Institutions with detailed disability pages are likely to have measures in place to support all students that enroll, no matter their needs.

It’s also important to research the attitudes of cultures and countries towards individuals with disabilities so that you’re prepared for any cultural differences you might encounter. Other places might use terms of address that you’re not used to and have varying standpoints on how much help you can and should receive.

Spend some time reading about any disability-friendly infrastructure, resources and organizations that the location has. Reviews of the city and university from students with disabilities can help shine a light on what you might encounter while abroad.

Euan’s Guide provides useful access reviews about universities and public facilities in the UK and beyond. You could also try contacting any student-led disability organizations at the university, their contact details can usually be found on the university website.

Application

Once you’ve found a university in a location tailored to your interests and needs, it’s time to apply.

In most university applications, you’ll have the choice to declare any conditions, impairments and disabilities. By being transparent about your needs at the earliest opportunity, you’ll give the institution plenty of time to make any necessary changes or adjustments for you.

Remember that your personal information will be treated in the strictest confidence and will not be used to decide on whether you’re offered a place or not.

Acceptance

As soon as you accept a university place, communication is key. Make contact with the university’s disability services, introduce yourself, provide a brief overview of your condition, fill out any forms they send you, and detail any support you’ll need.

You might need to provide medical proof of your disability, so speak with your doctor about getting a note at the earliest opportunity.

Once you’ve chosen your first set of program modules, consider making direct contact with your lecturers. Teaching staff can then make sure that your learning needs are met so that you aren’t disadvantaged academically.

You won’t be given the assistance you need unless you communicate with the right people. You’ll have enough to do when settling into a new country, so try and do as much as you can from the comfort of your home.

Arrival

After arriving, you may feel pressure to dive headfirst into making new friends, joining societies and finding local tourist hotspots. Remember you’re in no rush. Take things at your own pace; it’s perfectly normal for it to take a while to adjust to your new surroundings.

When you feel ready, talk to other students with disabilities about how they navigate student life abroad. They’re a great source of information and support.

Where can you study as a student with a disability?

There are plenty of destinations to choose from when it comes to studying abroad with a disability, but the support on offer to you will vary considerably. Here are some of the most supportive countries for international students with disabilities:

  • The UK: Universities are legally required to make campuses inclusive and accessible for all. This includes changing rules or practices, altering or removing physical barriers, and providing support services or devices.
  • The USA: The Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 means that universities and colleges must make reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities. This is one of the reasons why the US is the most popular study abroad country.
  • Australia and New Zealand: These progressive countries have legislation in place to ensure that all individuals are protected from discrimination, and have worked hard to make public amenities and facilities accessible to everyone.
  • Germany: Germany is making great strides towards becoming one of the most accessible countries in the world. The country’s capital, Berlin, was the 2013 winner of the Access City Award which celebrates a city’s attempts to make public spaces, infrastructure and transportation more accessible.
  • Scandinavia: Norway, Denmark and Sweden have also been recognized for their efforts to improve the accessibility of their cities for individuals with disabilities.
  • Ecuador: This is a great study abroad choice for students with disabilities. The country’s former Vice President had a disability and was committed to improving the country’s provisions for those facing similar difficulties.

Most countries are taking steps to improve provisions for individuals with disabilities, but the rate of this progress is occurring at different paces. While some locations may be trailing behind others, this doesn’t mean that you should discount them completely.

After all, you need to follow your heart and choose the location that feels right for you. As long as you’re prepared, the options are endless.

How to find accommodation

The key to finding appropriate accommodation is to start researching as soon as you know where you’re going to be studying. Most universities will have a housing and accommodation office that works closely with the disability services.

Many institutions will guarantee accommodation for your first year of study, and some will have dedicated accessible accommodation. If this is not the case, organize a time to discuss how existing accommodation could be modified to meet your needs.

Accessible accommodation can be very expensive if you choose to live off-campus, but the local knowledge and connections of your university’s accommodation and disability offices can be invaluable when it comes to approaching landlords and agencies.

Some students with disabilities choose to live with a host family. This won’t suit everyone, but it’s definitely worth looking into as it can be significantly cheaper and more welcoming than renting private accommodation.

Study abroad scholarships for students with disabilities

There is a wide range of scholarship programs and financial support schemes designed to cover additional costs incurred because of your disability. The programs available to you will depend on your country of study, but here are some you might be eligible to apply for:

UK US and Canada Europe

Some scholarships are reserved for individuals with very specific disabilities and many institutions will only offer disability scholarships to students from their own country. Nevertheless, it’s always worth researching because a successful application could save you a lot of money.

Who to contact if you need help

Studying abroad is a fantastic way to broaden your social circle and make new connections. There will be people to help you out wherever you go, it’s just a matter of tracking them down. Here are some good places to start:

  • University disability office: It is their job to make your time at university as welcoming, safe, and successful as possible. They should be able to help you with any challenge you’re facing as a result of your disability. If they can’t, they’ll put you in contact with someone who can.
  • Lecturers and program staff: If you’re finding aspects of your course tricky, it’s best to speak directly to teaching staff. Most staff will have dedicated office hours where you can pop in for a chat.
  • Local disability charities and organizations: They’re a great source of local knowledge and support. They’ll probably be able to answer most of your questions about living in the area.
  • National disability organizations: Each country has various organizations that support and raise awareness of different disabilities. They may be able to help you with counseling and mentoring.
  • Fellow students with disabilities: They, perhaps more than anyone else, can understand the challenges that you’re facing. They’re usually willing to lend a listening ear and offer practical advice.
  • Buddy: Some universities offer a buddying system; signing up to this will provide you with additional support if you need it.

It’s important to raise issues as soon as one arises, even if it may not be addressed by the time you finish studying. By speaking up, you could help future students with disabilities to navigate studying abroad more easily.

Think about medical care that you need

If you take prescription medication to manage your disability, it’s a good idea to make sure that this is both available and legal in your host country. Some countries have restrictions on common medications including painkillers, steroids, sedatives and stimulants.

Common medications that are banned/restricted in other countries include:

  • Sudafed
  • Codeine
  • Tramadol
  • Benadryl
  • Ritalin
  • Adderall
  • Diazepam

The easiest way to check that you won’t be traveling with controlled substances is by ringing the embassy of the country you’re traveling to. If your medication is restricted, try finding a legal alternative with the help of your doctor. Make sure you use the new medication for a sufficient period before traveling to test for any side effects.

Checklist for studying abroad with a disability

Studying abroad is a unique opportunity that will help you to grow both professionally and personally. To make sure you have the best possible experience, research and consider the following things:

  • Accessible resources and infrastructure: Make sure the university has the disability-friendly resources and infrastructure that you’ll need, such as wheelchair ramps, elevators and braille textbooks.
  • Existing accommodations: Research how the university currently assists other students with similar disabilities. Try to find any reviews written by former or current students with disabilities.
  • Cultural attitudes: Familiarize yourself with the attitudes of your host country towards disabilities and the terms used to address people with disabilities.
  • Personal equipment: To make traveling easier, it might be worth buying a compact version of your equipment or arranging to hire it abroad. Taking your equipment for a maintenance check and packing a basic repair kit which includes spare parts is essential.
  • Traveling: Make sure you attach handling instructions to any mobility equipment so it doesn’t get damaged. If you’re flying, check the airline operator rules on packing batteries and oxygen cylinders. It’s best to make the airline aware of your needs before you travel so you receive the right support across your journey. Some operators may ask for evidence of your disability so remember to travel with your medical documentation.
  • Disability legislation: Research disability rights and laws in your chosen location. Look into local disability groups and charities who may be able to support you once you arrive.
  • Visas: You’ll need to get a visa to study abroad. Most student visas are granted on the basis that you’ll be in full-time study. If your disability means that you need to take on a reduced course load and study part-time, you may only be granted a visa for 12 months. You can apply for an extension but this process can take a few months to complete.
  • Personal care assistants: If you receive personal care from a family member or friend, they may be eligible to apply for a different visa which would allow them to come with you.
  • Medication: Some common medications are neither accessible or legal in some countries. Check before you leave so you can organize an alternative.
  • Medical insurance: You’ll need medical insurance if you want to study abroad. The cost and coverage of the insurance policy will depend on your disability.
  • Transport: It’s important to make sure that you know how you’re going to get around once you arrive. Researching the kind of public transport available is a good start. If you’re planning on driving, make sure your disability is covered by the insurance policy. Look into getting a disabled parking permit if required.

You’re ready to go

After all the researching and form-filling-in, you’ll be ready for one of the best experiences of your life. Studying abroad is a great way to explore the world while being supported by your university and the new friends you’ll make along the way.

Don’t let your disability hold you back. Being open and honest about your needs will help you to make the most of your adventure.