Changing Perceptions: Making Study Abroad an Accessible Dream for All Students

Young woman in a wheelchair atop a mountain with more mountains in the background

Insight Into Diversity recently published an article on studying abroad for people with disabilities.  You can read it at the Insight Into Diversity website, or the transcription below.

Nonprofit organizations are working together to make study abroad more accessible for underrepresented students and students with disabilities

There is often a misconception — compounded by pamphlets and travel brochures bearing images of young, white female college students — that students with disabilities and those from underrepresented groups are excluded from studying abroad. Organizations like Mobility International USA (MIUSA) and the Institute of International Education (IIE) are working to change this assumption and increase the number of these students in international exchange programs.

Access for Students with Disabilities

“By and large, people with disabilities who have gone abroad have been successful, but there’s still a stigma that it’s too difficult,” says Cerise Roth-Vinson, chief operating officer at MIUSA. “Until you go, you don’t know what’s possible or what your limits are.”  Students with disabilities comprised only 5.1 percent of all students who went abroad during the 2012-2013 academic year, according to IIE’s 2014 Open Doors Report. Roth-Vinson says this low percentage can partly be attributed to students’ worry over how they will be received in foreign countries.

“There is no [Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)] abroad, but many countries and the European Union have ratified the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which is leapfrog legislation guaranteeing rights for people with disabilities,” she says. “I think globalization has helped put the focus on human rights issues and diversity as a shared goal, [in addition to] the tireless efforts of people [advocating for their own rights].”  In her role at MIUSA, Roth-Vinson helps students thinking about going abroad realize that there are people with disabilities all over the world living perfectly normal lives. Therefore, she says, wondering what kind of accommodations will be available in a foreign country should not prevent someone from going abroad.

“You have to suspend your idea of perfect access,” she says. “In Mexico, accessibility might mean a group of strong men hoisting your wheelchair onto the top of a bus [while you sit inside]. Accessibility is going to look different in different places.”  As an international and nonprofit disabled-persons organization, MIUSA focuses on advancing the rights of people with disabilities globally. Founded in 1981 — nearly a decade before the passage of the ADA — the organization also provides free guidance to international offices on U.S. college campuses to prepare students with disabilities to study abroad.  MIUSA is one of many study abroad organizations that has partnered with IIE on its Generation Study Abroad initiative. Through this program, IIE and its partners are working to increase the number of U.S. students going abroad from 295,000 to 600,000 by 2019, as well as to increase the diversity of those students.

“If we’re doubling the number of people going abroad, that number has to include people with disabilities,” says Roth-Vinson.  This year, to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the ADA, MIUSA and the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) announced they will award 25 CIEE/MIUSA Access to the World Scholarships to college students with disabilities to help them finance study abroad.

Generation Study Abroad: Year Two

IIE’s goal to double and diversify students in international programs is an ambitious one, so — now in the initiative’s second year — the organization is trying different tactics and reaching out to new and younger audiences.

“Part of the problem is the way [study abroad] is marketed to students,” says Daniel Obst, deputy vice president of international partnerships at IIE. “We have to start adapting visuals to reflect the diversity of the audiences we want to reach.  We also launched our Generation Study Abroad Teachers Campaign to partner with high school and middle school teachers and secure 1,000 commitments from K-12 teachers to promote overseas study,” says Wagaye Johannes, project director of Generation Study Abroad.  The key goal of this initiative is to reach students earlier and “build an expectation in kids and parents that studying abroad is an integral part of the college experience,” Johannes says. Teachers can fulfill their commitments by hosting guest speakers in class or even leading student trips abroad.

When IIE launched Generation Study Abroad a year ago, it started with 150 partners. That number has since grown to more than 500 and includes colleges, universities, and domestic and international governments.  Each partner pledges to increase the number of students participating in international programs. According to IIE, more than half of all partners have committed to specific actions to increase participation of underrepresented students in study abroad, whether that be by providing special advising resources or scholarships for students with disabilities, minority students, or first-generation students.

IIE also contributes to the initiative’s goal through its Study Abroad Fund, which is supported by donations from private donors and sponsors. This year, $400,000 in IIE Generation Study Abroad Scholarships is being awarded to students from 26 partner schools. The Government of Ireland is funding awards for 10 schools for U.S. students intending to study in Ireland, while STA Travel and IIE are providing funding for the other 16 schools. One hundred and sixty students from a variety of backgrounds are each being awarded $2,500.  IIE’s Open Doors Report, which tracks data on the number and types of students studying abroad, is released a year after students have returned to their home institutions, so the results from Generation Study Abroad’s first year are not yet known. But Obst is optimistic that IIE’s work is already moving the needle.

“The message is really starting to resonate,” he says. “All these colleges, study abroad organizations, the State Department, and the media are really helping get the message out about the importance of study abroad.”  The U.S. Department of State recently made its own commitment to promoting study abroad by launching a study abroad branch within the department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which oversees the Open Doors Report. The new branch will administer government-sponsored scholarships, such as the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program — reserved for low-income and first-generation students — and advocate for greater racial and ethnic diversity of outbound students, as well as diversity in location.

“This new office aims to provide resources that can help interested U.S. students navigate what can be a complex process to study or intern abroad by offering scholarships, recommendations, and guidelines,” says Anthony Koliha, director of the Office of Global Educational Programs at the State Department.

As more organizations begin to offer financial support, making it possible for more underrepresented students and students with disabilities to go abroad, Roth-Vinson emphasizes how important it is to encourage the idea in the first place.  “Whether disabled or not, any one person can be a champion for diversity,” she says. “All it takes is saying to someone, ‘I think you would be great [at studying abroad].’ It only takes one person believing it’s possible.”

Last Updated June 18, 2015