The 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) civil rights regulations offers an opportunity to celebrate our efforts to provide greater inclusivity and emphasizes our shared future in a diverse world. So many individuals and organizations have helped create today’s more inclusive perspective. Mobility International USA (MIUSA), early initiatives such as the federally funded Access Abroad project (spearheaded by the University of Minnesota, in partnership with a number of U.S. institutions and study abroad providers), the University of Pittsburgh’s 2007 video Making it Happen, and the long-standing work of AHEAD: Association on Higher Education and Disability have created new support processes and access for a wider student audience. Diversity Abroad, NAFSA, and Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, to name a few resources, also help institutions and providers foster intentional inclusive programming for a wider student audience.

In this blog post, we reflect on key moments that capture the changing landscape.

Heidi: I recall early discussions at the 1995 AHEAD conference in Innsbruck, Austria—my first AHEAD conference—on ways education abroad and disability services professionals could collaborate more intentionally to create a seamless advising process for students with disabilities and foster education abroad. These discussions directly resulted in the Access Abroad grant initiative. At that time, students with disabilities would ask if there would be a possibility to study abroad. Students with disabilities now ask questions about their specific interests (such as location, academic area, and duration) with the understanding that access is possible and supported. Education abroad advisers have modified their approach to focus on “universal design principles,” which refers to the ability to identify options for all students and their unique requirements. This holistic approach has helped education abroad become embedded in the fabric of higher education at the student advising and curricular levels.

Sue: As I reflect on the ADA and its impact on education abroad, what comes to mind is the increased support for international students with disabilities by disability resource professionals on U.S. campuses. In the early and mid-1990s, disability service professionals primarily focused on serving domestic students with disabilities. The service delivery model was rigid and rooted in a deficit ideology of disability. Today, U.S. colleges and universities include students with disabilities in their international student recruitment initiatives—recognizing disability as an important aspect of human diversity. Education abroad and disability resource professionals collaborate with each other to optimize participation and equitable opportunities for students with disabilities, and the service model has largely shifted to apply a social justice and diversity paradigm. The question often asked previously—“How is this student going to overcome their disability enough to participate?”—has been replaced with collaborative problem-solving to determine accommodations. The focus now is on how the environment can be changed or modified to provide better access so that students with disabilities can participate in programs and activities using their strengths.

Achieving inclusivity is a continual work in progress, and the number of students who seek and need services continues to grow. This leaves plenty of room for continued innovation, caring, and collaboration. Thanks to the guidance of the ADA 30 years ago, and our continued collaboration in the field, we see a bright future for greater inclusivity in international education.


Sue Jin Hee Minder, MS, and Heidi M. Soneson, PhD, are the authors of NAFSA’s digital download Education Abroad Advising to Students with Disabilities.