Preparing to Study Abroad: Learning How to Navigate Academic Accommodations


A resource based on the Collegial Conversation held on November 10, 2016

While students may have established academic accommodations at their U.S. institutions, when they choose to study abroad they also choose to accept the challenge of studying in a new educational system that may or may not offer the same accommodations.

The panelists for this Collegial Conversation were Renee Lopez from the Institute for Study Abroad, Butler University, Jan Gardiner from University of Edinburgh, and Michele Scheib from Mobility International USA.  

Major Topics of Discussion

For the majority of students with disabilities or chronic health conditions, a letter from the doctor or other relevant medical professional (usually dated within the last six months) is all that is needed provided it notes how any symptoms affect the student. For learning difficulties such as dyslexia or ADD, a post-16 years diagnostic report from a clinical or education psychologist is often required. Unfortunately, a list of accommodations from the home institution is not acceptable. Some host universities request students to provide both a letter from their home;school listing their current accommodations as well as testing that is no older than three years from an educational psychologist.

Navigation of on-site accommodations
When accommodations aren't met upon arrival, students are encouraged to go to the university's disability office for clarification. Students should also consider working directly with the professional to see if additional accommodations could be provided. Some foreign universities offer additional academic check-ins and support tutoring services to help supplement shortages in accommodations. Residents staff at center based programs may get in touch with students who are struggling to determine what additional support could be helpful such as tutoring or encouraging meeting with the professor or teaching assistants, as well as offering counseling services in case it's related to anxiety. If the need for accommodation is not disclosed until after the student is abroad, often these accommodations are still possible to make and effort should be made to assist the student.

US program providers are bound by US ADA laws for physical space accommodations if they own the space where programs are being held overseas. They are not bound to ADA laws in terms of making sure students have the same accommodations at host universities.

Student resources
There may be student communities/networks for students with learning disabilities studying abroad to access while abroad. A place to start searching for these groups is through disability organizations in the country or the disability office on campus (if there is one). There are resources available to help students understand cultural attitudes and perspectives regarding disability in other countries; firsthand stories may be really helpful for students to read. Mobility International has some stories on their website and additional stories can be obtained by contacting them.

Some universities will employ staff as Mental Health Mentors who work with students who have chronic, long-term mental health conditions, which impact on their studies. Mentors provide study skills support to students to help them to develop the skills, strategies and techniques to minimize the impact of their depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder etc. on their studies.

Recruiting/promotion for students with learning disabilities
An equal percentage of students with learning disabilities are already going abroad when compared to the non-disabled student population (thogh the numbers are smaller). Inviting a student with LD or AD/HD to talk in detail with you about their experiences after they return can be very informative, and it can be a useful strategy to include quotes from them in recruitment materials.

Advising on Academic Accommodations
Supporting the student in researching what support is available in their potential study abroad locations is a good starting point. Knowing that the host university has a disability/wellbeing service of some kind is extremely reassuring, and having initial contact with them is often helpful and individual accommodations can be discussed in advance of arrival. In addition, with the technology we all have access to, information is so much more accessible wherever you are in the world. While international exchange staff may know more about the programmatic details and international contexts, disability-related staff may have more ideas about alternative accommodation possibilities that could add insight to the discussion.

Disclosure of one’s disability is a personal choice that arises at many junctures throughout the process of applying to, preparing for and participating in international exchange programs. Some students with non-apparent disabilities may feel that they do not need to share their disability status, opting to handle any necessary overseas adaptations or accommodations on their own. This can prove to be successful, but students should be aware that accommodations may not be easily or quickly arranged without advanced time for preparations.

The sooner students start working to set up accommodations, the better. Obviously, if a student is going to require a lot of adjustments, particularly if they entail changes to the physical estate, that may require contact of several weeks in advance, which may not always be possible. In general, as soon as students know where they are going to be studying, they should get in touch so that staff can start talking about support. The staff will gather as much information as possible. Resident staff reach out to and try to maintain relationships with host institution disability offices so they have a good understand of what is currently required.

In situations where a student has disclosed a need for accommodation but have been informed that their chosen program cannot provide that accommodation, the best way forward is to discuss potential alternative forms of support with both the student and the program organizer/relevant academic colleague. It can often entail thinking "out of the box" to try and find more original ways to minimize the impact of the student's disability on their studies. However, we've also had situations where we have simply had to go back to academic colleagues and emphasize that the reasons given for not implementing an accommodation that has been recommended are not acceptable.

In terms of who should liaise with the partner institution, sometimes it is easier for the advisor to liaise with the partner institution, and sometimes it’s better for the student to do that directly. It can depend on the institution and their process. Many times, it's helpful to have the advisor liaise as much as possible to help clarify any documentation needs or processes to the student.

There may also be differences in working with disabled students on short-term programs vs longer programs. The planning may be the same but the features of the program different. Aspects advisors may want to discuss with the student could include: navigating a new city, learning new currencies, keeping on schedules, adhering to certain codes of conduct, and understanding new cultures. Sometimes this type of experiential learning is what attracts students to study abroad and they excel in it.

Country/Cultural differences
While we shouldn’t limit students to specific countries, there has been great success with finding similar accommodations with programs in: Argentina, Australia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ireland, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Spain, and the U.K. It can be more challenging in China, India, and Cuba, but not impossible, especially if it's a center-based program.

It has been helpful for most students, but especially the students with learning disabilities, to get an overview before they leave and during orientation of the differences in the U.S. academic system vs. their host country so they know what to expect. Invariably, they still have some culture shock and adjustment issues, but then when you remind them of previous discussions on the differences in the systems, they aren't as blind-sided. In pre-departure advising, it's great to give an overview of critical thinking styles in the host country, the independence of the academic system as compared to the U.S., how to identify and define questions and key concepts. Also, review of essay writing skills, active reading, how to navigate a reading list effectively, note-taking, writing styles, time management, editing, referencing and plagiarism. Finally, it's good to point out differences in liberal arts and STEM subjects from a U.S. and host country perspective.

Accessible media accommodations (i.e. text to speech software) have been available mostly in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia. It's not as common in Latin American countries thus far, but that's not to say it wouldn't be possible to find that service.

There have also been issues with a partner institution not recognizing a learning disability because it's not considered a diagnosis in the host country, specifically in China and India, but resident staff at center based programs have been able to offer additional accommodations like tutoring to help support students.In Chile and Argentina, when accommodations aren't available, resident staff have offered to liaise directly with professors and students to see if additional accommodations can be agreed upon.

Prescription/medication concerns
The countries that we have the most challenges with, in terms of students bringing ADD/ADHD medications or getting them abroad, are New Zealand and the UK. It typically requires students to bring as much as they can with them, or be prepared to try alternative medications if their medication isn't available.

Availability of drugs in different countries is hugely variable, as the same medications are often not licensed to be used in another country. Therefore, if possible to send the student the medicines they need, that is often advisable as you can ensure they'll be continuing to receive the same treatment even if that drug isn't licensed for use in the location they're studying.


The University of Edinburgh Student Disability Service

European Dyslexia Association

The Impact of Short-Term Study Abroad on the Identity Development of College Students with Learning Disabilities and/or AD/HD

Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad

Mobility International USA

Autism Basics for Exchange Professionals

Cultural Differences and Disability

What Happens After Someone Discloses?

Getting the Conversation Started: Learning Disabilities

Costs & Legal Obligations