Why are students with disabilities missing out on an international experience?

Why are students with disabilities missing out on an international experience?

Every year thousands of students criss-cross the globe as part of international exchange programmes, but only a tiny percentage of them are students with disabilities. Within the Irish context, less than 1% of students with disabilities engage in student exchange programmes. Why is this? As part of my job at AHEAD, I have engaged with lots of students with disabilities on this issue and the overriding factor is fear, fuelled by a lack of information. “If I study abroad what support will I get? What if things go wrong?”

The reality is, many students with disabilities have additional support needs which they fear won’t be met in the host institution or country, so in the end, the majority are afraid to take the risk to participate in international study programmes. While international officers are open and committed to this cohort of students, a study carried out by Adele Browne, of the EAIE Special Interest Group, Access & Inclusion (ACCESS) indicated that 75% of international officers in the UK had little or no experience of working with students with disabilities. With so few students with disabilities travelling, it stands to reason that people don’t know what to do when it comes to supporting them.

As an international officer, you need to know what’s available in your institution for international students with disabilities but you also need to know what’s available for students from your own institution. Being able to provide students with this information means that the students can make informed choices before they travel, helping to alleviate their fears.

So what’s your first step to encouraging greater engagement?

Do some research! Meet with whoever is responsible for students with disabilities in your institution; in some institutions, disability supports are provided by the counselling services. They’ll be able to tell you how many students with disabilities there are  in your institution and what policies are in place to support them in the learning environment. This will help you to gain an understanding of the impact of different disabilities and therefore the additional support needs required. You can use this knowledge not only to assist international students coming to your institution, but you can also apply it to students with disabilities in your home institution who are thinking about travelling.

But how do you get students with disabilities knocking on your door?

Put up a statement on your institution’s website and prospectus stating that you welcome applications from students with disabilities. Find out if there is any specific funding available for students with disabilities from your jurisdiction; if there is, let students know about it.

Talk to students with disabilities in your institution.

Ask them why they aren’t currently considering an international study programme; what would make them change their mind? Conduct a student survey and from your findings set up a focus group to explore the issues. Students with disabilities need to know before they travel what’s available for them in both the host institution and the local community where they’ll be living. They need to know they’ll be able to manage and if they have any problems that there are people available who can assist them.

Prepare in advance

If you get an application from an international student with a disability, contact the disability support service in the student’s home institution. They will be able to furnish you with information which will help you build a picture of the student, allowing you to determine what his or her support needs are. It is also important to point out that while some students with disabilities will only need support in the learning environment, others will also need help with day-to-day living. Participating in Erasmus is not just about studying in a host institution, it’s also about getting immersed in the culture. There might be a local disability organisation who can provide you and the student with specific information about things like accessible transport, health services, accommodation or wheelchair-friendly restaurants. Remember, good local knowledge will help to make a student’s stay a really worthwhile and an enjoyable experience.

Make agreements

Once the exchange is agreed, then contact the student and agree how to communicate with them before and during the placement, providing them with contact details, emergency numbers etc. By following this advice, you could make a real difference in assisting those students with disabilities at your institution and encourage greater participation in exchange programmes.

By Lorraine Gallagher, Information & Training Officer, Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD), Ireland.