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Managing Disability Abroad

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First thing’s first, I want to say there should be no shame in being disabled! It’s important to realize that being able-bodied can change in an instant, as it did for me to trigger my disability status. I was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition on my 16th birthday, only months after dislocating my spine in an accident. My symptoms include 3-day migraines, vision loss, numbness in my extremities, and trouble moving due to my back – although I’m luckily very stable right now. Post-accident and diagnosis, I spent a considerable amount of time fighting that this was my life now, instead of working on adapting to my new challenges. It took a team of dedicated professionals and friends and family to work with me on transitioning into a new form of life. Now, thanks to my support team, I’m in a place where I’m comfortable with my disability status and healthy enough to go abroad. I’m also incredibly lucky to have found a program like IFSA, which places an emphasis on accessibility for students. Below are some tips I’ve found helpful when managing my disability abroad.

Consult with your doctors ahead of time.

You should come to an informed decision with your whole care team about your ability to go abroad. Managing disability takes a team of dedicated doctors and professionals who all have to be on the same page about major decisions. My team was very supportive, but I know that’s because my health is in a good place right now – they made sure of that by running lots and lots of tests before giving me the all clear. I started a semester ahead of time, but I also had the summer to prep. If you’re going abroad in the fall, the beginning of the previous spring semester is good, and if you’re going in spring, I recommend starting near the end of the previous spring to give yourself ample time. Additionally, it’s important in general to talk to a doctor regardless of your disability status before going abroad. My primary care doctor was very helpful regarding specific information about health abroad, like what shots I needed and what supplemental over-the-counter meds to take.

Make sure to get all your meds for the whole time you’re gone.

I can’t stress this tip enough! If you take meds, you NEED to make sure you’ll be set for your entire time abroad. Make sure to get an early start, because insurance and pharmacies can be finicky about large several month supplies. The first step is to talk to your doctors and get them to prescribe a supply for the number of months you’ll be gone. Then, talk to your insurance. I had to spend some time on the phone bouncing between reps to get my full supply, so insistence and persistence are key! Finally, make sure everything goes smoothly with the pharmacy. It took me a week between the insurance clearing me and finally getting all of my meds, just because the pharmacy needed to order more pills. Stay on top of the exact quantities you have and be persistent.

Be open and clear with staff and teachers about your needs.

Once accepted to your program choice, a critical step is to communicate effectively with program staff about how to make study abroad the best it can be for you. Don’t be ashamed about asking if something is possible for you – it’s always better to know now rather than later if something is going to be inaccessible. I was accepted to several programs that had an intensive field component, and after discussion with their staff, I decided not to pursue those options. Those discussions are important! It might sting to get told you can’t go somewhere, but I’d rather be in a place that will provide the most support for me. Ask for the specific accommodations you need early, to give both you and the program time to prepare. It helps to make a list before talking to your coordinator. Finally, once you get to your university abroad, communicate with your professors about any classroom accommodations you might need. If you have a letter to professors or form that you usually use at your home institution, bring that! Don’t let that form be it though – when you hand it to your professors be sure to have an open conversation about your needs and challenges and what you might need from your professor to make your semester successful.

Trust your fellow students to be supportive.

It can be hard to open up to people you just met about your disability status. Personally, I have to trust that disclosing will make people more sympathetic to my struggles, not less. Once someone understands what you’re going through and why you do certain things, that just opens the door for a more empathetic relationship. Fellow students can be a great source of support! I’ve had an incredible experience so far with my IFSA cohort – they ask how I’m doing, are respectful if I need a break, and I can always find someone to walk slower behind the rest of the pack with me when we go out.
Study abroad can be a scary experience for anyone, but it’s especially daunting facing a whole new set of challenges as a disabled student. To any future study abroad disabled students – you can do it! Just stay calm, communicate effectively, and trust your care team and academic team. Most importantly, trust yourself. Only you know what your body can and can’t do, and only you can make these kinds of important decisions. Have faith that you know the best way to do things your way – to stay safe, to stay healthy, and most importantly to have fun.
Gabriela Rossner is a student at The George Washington University and studied abroad with IFSA at Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica in Heredia, Costa Rica in Fall 2018.