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Learning Disabilities: How to Prepare Students to Succeed Abroad

Friday, October 18, 2019  
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Contributed by the 2017-2018 Task Force on Access for Disabilities Abroad
Randi Butler - Institute of International Education; Laura Kaplan - University of Texas at Austin; Marnie Nelson – Univ of Nebraska; Lauren Schuller - Bentley University; Erika Wise - Texas A&M University

The wellness and success of students who have learning disabilities or neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g. ADHD) should always be a consideration for any professional who works in education abroad. According to the 2015-2016 Open Doors Report conducted by the Institute of International Education, participation in study abroad by students with disabilities has increased by more than 6% in the last decade. Data shows that the majority of students with disabilities who study abroad had either learning (34%) or mental health (27%) disabilities. While physical and mental health disabilities can impact a student’s experience outside the classroom during study abroad, a learning or cognitive disability can impact a student’s academic experience while abroad. Once a student has disclosed their disability, that should trigger a process for the education abroad advisor and student disability service office to begin preparing the student for their international experience. This includes addressing customs barriers a student may face pertaining to medication they take, communicating the student’s disability with the foreign institution or program provider, and determining how accommodations the student typically receives at their home institution may translate to their learning experience abroad.


It is important for education abroad advisors to understand the resources and services offered at their partner institutions for students with disabilities. Being prepared and informed allows advisors to set students’ expectations about the differences they may experience and adjustments that may be necessary. Diversity Abroad Network member institution, Bentley University, recently surveyed all of its international partner universities, and of the 15 responses, 86% of them reported offering accommodations to students with physical and/or cognitive disabilities. While this number is encouraging, each foreign institution is different in terms of the level of support provided and the accommodations that can be offered to students. Many institutions, particularly in Western Europe and Oceania, have an office of Services for Students with Disabilities and information accessible on their websites.

Some examples from foreign institutions of higher education include the following:


 In other regions including Latin America, Asia, Middle East and Africa, access to accommodations will vary depending on the institution. For example, public universities may not offer the same level of student support services as private universities. While in the United States, typically it is the public institutions that provide a more streamlined level of support for students with disabilities.


Advisors should encourage students to disclose any disabilities that may require accommodations, and should consider creating a formal process through which students can discreetly disclose disabilities and request accommodations (see specific examples in Diversity Abroad’s Education Abroad Advisor Manual: Access for Disabilities Abroad). Furthermore, advisors should be prepared to work directly with students and exchange partners to determine which accommodations can be offered. In some cases, affiliate providers may be able to offer additional or work with home institutions to create unique accommodations for students with learning disabilities. For example, at Texas A&M University students are encouraged to disclose their disability multiple times throughout the process of applying to a study abroad program. The opportunity to disclose is presented multiple times throughout the application process (e.g. initial application, health survey, orientation meeting) to ensure that students know they have an obligation to disclose and to encourage students to be open about their accommodation needs.


One specific challenge advisors face in working with students with learning and cognitive disabilities is that students often consider the academic component of study abroad as an afterthought. Much of the culture of study abroad from the student perspective comes from curated social media images and stories of adventure from peers. Academics are often omitted from the story altogether. As a result, some students feel they do not need their medication, academic accommodations, and/or medical care while abroad. This can be a dangerous mindset, and students often find themselves in a panic once they begin classes abroad and realize how heavily they rely on the support measures they were accustomed to back home.


A current study abroad student from a Diversity Abroad member institution found himself in this situation when he arrived at his host university in Europe. He recounts the struggles he faced when he began his classes and reflects on the mistakes he made in preparing to study abroad. He writes,


The primary reason for which I decided against bringing along my medication relates back to the overall reputation on campus of the ‘study abroad experience’ being less than academically rigorous. Many of us have friends who return from their time abroad, recounting wild stories of parties, extensive travel, and extraordinary life experiences. However, almost never did I hear any of my peers talk about their time actually spent in class or even at school in general. This type of conversation on campus lead me to believe there would be a decreased level of academic rigor abroad, and thus I would have no need to bring along my meds. This conclusion, however, I can now say is entirely false.


 The student goes on to say that “upon arrival at the [host] university and after actually obtaining the class outlines for the first time, I realized I had made a grave mistake. By failing to bring along my medication, I was left in a foreign country, with little knowledge of the language, no access to my prescribing doctor, no ADHD medication, and no obvious resources to obtain what I needed.” This student also comments on the difficulty of acquiring an adequate quantity of medication to bring with him abroad. Finding an online, comprehensive list of countries that allow certain ADHD medications is difficult. However, providing students with resources like government websites can be helpful. The CDC website has several articles relating to safety abroad, and the United States Department of State website allows students to search for medical and health-related information specific to the country(ies) they will be visiting. The International Narcotics Control Board website ( provides lists of drug/medicine regulations organized by country.


With all of the competing priorities students have, the strenuous process of obtaining medication to bring abroad can be extremely overwhelming. This, coupled with misconceptions about academic rigor abroad, cause many students to elect to forgo the process altogether and try their luck at a med-free semester abroad. As advisors, we must help students understand that academics will be a significant component of their experience abroad. We must reclaim the narrative and remind students through one-on-one advising, pre-departure orientation and peer-to-peer mentoring that study abroad is an academic experience and that putting their health on the back-burner will only cause them more stress and difficulty in the long run.