Supporting Global Learning For Students With Disabilities: A Framework For Reviewing Your Practices

Posted: Friday, October 18, 2019 
By: Dr. Thandi Dinani, Director- Office of Study Abroad, Belmont University
Sarah Langston, Senior University Relations Manager, SAI Programs
Michelle Morris, Program Assistant, Howard University
Jenny Sullivan, Director of Education Abroad and International Fellowships, Rochester Institute of Technology

Over the last decade, the field of education abroad has recognized and acknowledged the significant discrepancy in the diversity of study abroad participants studying abroad each year.  The Institute of International Education’s (IIE) Open Doors Report revealed that 8.8% of the 325,339 students who studied abroad in the 2015/16 reported studying abroad with a disability. This percentage was an increase of 3.5% from 2014/15. Even more interesting, the percentage of students studying abroad with reported disabilities has increased from 2.6% (1006 students) in 2006/2007 to 8.8% (5,641) in 2015/2016. Similarly, institutions reporting students with disabilities who are studying abroad has increased from 1006 institutions in 2006/7 to 5,641 institutions in 2015/16.

Consequently, institutions have increased commitment to not only review their respective enrollment, but to implement policies and practices that reflect an institutional commitment to increase the diversity of students who have access to international opportunities. The increase of diversity amongst students with disabilities requires institutions to implement policies and practices that increase recruitment, provide support, and ensure resources are available to students, education abroad offices, and international partner institutions.

In this article, we encourage institutions and education abroad offices to think beyond simply ensuring access and resources to students with disabilities. We introduce the concept of developing “inclusive design.” Consider ways that your services and programs can be inclusive of as many needs and abilities as possible. This concept and practice goes beyond accessibility or making special considerations for people with disabilities. It challenges institutions to fundamentally redesigning policies, processes, communications, programs and resources so that fewer barriers exist from the outset. Where accessibility aims to fill in the gaps left by exclusionary design practices, inclusive design aims to surpass conventional definitions and change standards of practice. For example, making it standard practice to upload transcripts and audio descriptions of lectures is one inclusive strategy that benefits deaf participants, blind participants and everyone else. Considering all students when initially designing materials and processes ensures all students are able to access materials as opposed to providing transcripts for specific students after-the-fact. When advising students with disabilities, try to think beyond how special considerations can be made for them, and how programs can be redesigned to provide a different-but full- experience for all participants of all abilities.

While many institutions have a foundation for supporting students with disabilities who study abroad, it is important to continually refine practices and processes. The essential questions institutions are asking are: How can we provide equal access to all students and encourage all students to participate in high impact opportunities like study abroad? How can we enhance their experience abroad and measure success?  In this article, we hope to present a framework for thinking about how you can intentionally make strides and adopt strategies that will increase the participation and quality of experience for students with disabilities and all students who study abroad.

Supporting students with disabilities to study abroad is a complex topic because every student’s situation is unique. There is no one prescriptive solution for all students. To assist in identifying and developing inclusive practices, we propose the following framework to make progress toward identifying more useful and universal best practices. The framework may also help institutions and offices organize and prioritize initiatives. Making continual efforts, however big or small, in each of these areas will have a cumulative effect on the overall assistance and support provided to students with disabilities who study abroad.

The framework suggests five areas to research and review at your institution: policies, processes, communications, programs, and resources. For each of these areas, we encourage institutions to be intentional and thorough to complete five steps: 1) identify the situation, 2) evaluate possible solutions, 3) strategize ways to proceed, 4) implement your actions, and 5) assess your efforts.

Framework Section One: Policies
Consider whether your current policies are helping or hindering the student experience? What new policies might you need to better support students? We encourage you to evaluate your policies related to:

  • If/how/when a student should self-disclose
  • Role and expectations of interpreters/aides during “off-hours”
  • Office definition of “reasonable accommodations”

Framework Section Two: Processes
Review how processes in your education abroad office and other offices at your institution support students with disabilities? How can you improve or create new supportive processes? Consider examining your processes related to:

  • Accessibility of current advising and presentation materials
  • Evaluation of a location, partner or program for accessibility
  • Accessibility of how and where you meet with students
  • Training for staff and faculty for working with students with disabilities

Framework Section Three: Communications
Next, we encourage you to review your print and online materials. Are students with disabilities represented in your marketing materials? What kind of language are you using in your communications? How do you communicate with students about their experiences abroad? For example, do you:

  • Intentionally market to and recruit students with disabilities
  • Offer advising and pre-departure training that prepares students for experiencing stereotypes or discrimination in another culture
  • Have a plan for communicating with family members who may have different opinions about a student’s needs

Framework Section Four: Programs
Think about the various programs your office manages. Are the programs manageable for a person with disabilities? If not, are there appropriate alternatives you can manage? Consider the following:

  • Utilize partners who are based in-country and have experience with local laws and practices
  • Conduct program run-throughs with attention to accommodations that students may require
  • Survey your partners regarding their accessibility and services
  • Ask your campus disability services office to review the program schedule

Framework Section Five: Resources
Lastly, we encourage offices and institutions to investigate opportunities that may be available through your campus, state, or federal government. Is there a campus funding pool available to support student accommodations abroad?

  • Consider federal sources such as Vocational Rehabilitation funds, and encourage students to apply for scholarships such as the Benjamin A. Gilman Award and Diversity Abroad
  • Explore professional support staff on your campus such as captionists, note takers, interpreters, mobility trainers, personal care assistants, and others who may be able to travel
  • Include a margin in program fees that can be used for accommodations, if needed

As you are reviewing your policies and practices, we encourage you to connect with external resources as well. In addition to the Diversity Abroad network, the following organizations provide helpful information related to working with students with disabilities: Mobility International: National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, Forum on Education Abroad Standards of Good Practice Toolbox, NAFSA’s “Promoting Inclusion in Education Abroad: A Handbook of Research and Practice.”

Increasing the diversity of participants requires continual review of existing practices to ensure that we are providing quality programming for all students. By considering the framework’s practices and ideas, your office can work toward offering more inclusive programming for all students on your campus. By offering services and programs that are inclusive of students with disabilities, we are, in turn, enhancing the experience for all students. Having diverse participants on programs not only provides an opportunity for the individual student, but also brings a new lens to the program, expands perspectives of all participants, and results in a more robust global learning experience.

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