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Facing Disabilities Abroad: A Few Steps

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In high school, I decided that I was going to study abroad. Besides Canada, I had never traveled outside of the United States, so I was determined to make it happen in college. I picked a college that prided itself on their study abroad experience and organized my graduation and major requirements to work with a semester abroad. It genuinely never occurred to me that the arthritis I was diagnosed with at 12 would have anything to do with anything.
Freshman year passed without troubling my plans, and my friends and I settled on the places and semesters we would study. It was not until deep into sophomore year that other realities came creeping into the study abroad dream for us: financial and organizational barriers cropped up all over, but most unsettling to me was seeing two of my closest friends ultimately decide not to study abroad because of health. I recognize this is a personal choice, and I’m happy to see both of them feeling better back home, but I was deeply saddened to see them miss out and uncomfortably confronted with what could be my own health reality abroad.
Study abroad has been good to me, and although I understand the limitations of a disability or a mental illness, I am determined to let mine direct my life as little as possible. For those who have also chosen to study abroad regardless of a disability, I would like to offer a few tips about how I made it work for me.

No one is thriving — yet.

The most important thing I learned to do while abroad is embrace chaos. By embrace chaos, I mean that I still cannot and will not embrace chaos but I have become a little bit more flexible and gracious with myself, the people, and the systems around me when things don’t work exactly how I was told they would (which happens at least once every day). Everyone is overwhelmed, everyone is homesick and everyone, at least sometimes, is having a bad time. It is never helpful to tell someone to ‘have perspective’ but I am going to do it anyway: try to ‘have perspective’ and recognize that while you are suffering from a particular additional obstacle, everyone is experiencing some degree of suffering in the isolation, frustration, and disorganization of study abroad. This is not to diminish your pain but to reassure you that you are not alone in it, and that this additional obstacle can be added to your significant list of obstacles and therefore lose some of its clout.

Communicate clearly with IFSA long before departure.

Many students on IFSA programs suffer from mental illnesses, physical disabilities, and other conditions and personal struggles. To understand what coping and managing your condition will entail abroad, be extremely transparent with IFSA about what kind of care or accommodations you are expecting or hoping for long before you leave the country. For example, my arthritis keeps me up at night through intense joint pain and so I was hoping to get a squishy mattress like the memory foam one I use at home to relieve pressure and help me sleep. In Buenos Aires, memory foam mattresses are not common and mattress toppers are prohibitively expensive. My program coordinator did her best to find a solution and ultimately we came to the conclusion that there was nothing we could do, but I was able to come to Argentina with clear expectations of what would and wouldn’t be available and prepare accordingly (I brought a ton of Melatonin instead). Often, they will be able to provide accommodations — if you communicate clearly ahead of time.

Start fighting with health insurance now.

Health insurance providers are a bureaucratic nightmare, and most of them balk at the request for 4 months’ worth of medication in one dispensation. My mom and I spent about 10 hours on the phone through a series of phone calls starting in March and ending right before my departure at the end of July, and some of those hours were full of intense anxiety because the customer service representative was claiming that ‘it simply isn’t done’ after we had received verbal confirmation from a different representative that the insurance company would approve the four months’ worth of medication the week before. In fact, it IS done, and you should be able to get your medicine, but you need to be prepared to fight for it.


I highly recommend establishing a self-care routine almost immediately because there are few constants in the study abroad experience but one of them needs to be your health. I bought a gym membership and started going every day and insisted on getting around 7-8 hours of sleep each night. These two activities can barely be called a ‘routine’ but they were two definitive ways I could exert control over my life and my health, and as a result I feel better about myself and my bones feel better too. The routine can look like whatever you want it to, but the day-to-day consistency is what makes it work.

Go to the doctor.

If you get sick and it doesn’t go away within a week or two, go to the doctor. Study abroad is not about being sick and you will be exposed to new germs and allergens which your body may not effectively fight off. It’s more of an ordeal to go to the doctor abroad but IFSA will coordinate it so it’s easy and efficient for you and your insurance will reimburse you for most expenses. Taking care of a mild ear infection (one went around the IFSA students here) instead of suffering through will free you up to manage everything else.
Study abroad is allowed to be hard, and you are allowed to struggle with your disability while having the time of your life abroad. These things have been important to me making the most of my experience, and I send all my warmest congratulations and wishes with them to everyone with a disability who chooses to throw themselves into the study abroad experience, regardless of the health barriers that stand in their way.
Bethany Catlin is an English and International Studies major at Macalester College and studied abroad through the IFSA-Butler Argentine Universities Program, Buenos Aires in 2017. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.