Preparing to Live Abroad
Going to live abroad is a daunting prospect for anyone, but with the right preparation, you can set yourself up to settle in quickly and thrive. There are however extra considerations for students with disabilities.
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- Read as much as possible about the country or community where you will be living.
- Learn as much of the local language as possible before you depart, especially in regard to how to communicate about your disability accommodation needs and following directions.
- Find local doctor or counsellor contact information and locations.
- Contact the country's disability organizations for information about local transportation, support groups, where to buy medicines, equipment rental & transportation, social groups, sports clubs, and local disability rights laws.
- Prepare for people to offer or physically help you without asking you in your host-country as they may have different attitudes about independence and personal space. Keep yourself safe and ask for what you need.
- Communicate with local disability groups about equipment repair locations or other services if needed. Bicycle repair, small engine and other shops may be able to make the repairs you need.
- Have repair tools and extra parts with you to fix adaptive equipment.
- Research the local transportation options and what will work for you.
- Be flexible about your disability accommodations and problem solve with a positive attitude.
- Find out what you need to know to stay healthy. Are there certain foods to avoid? Should you drink bottled water? Are there weather trends that may affect your transportation routes or physical being? Is it safe to be out by yourself near your accommodation or college? Do you know how to use the local telephones for emergencies or do you have a cell-phone that will work in that country? Do you have allergy issues? Do you have enough medication with you? Do you have stress management techniques that you can use?
- Ask yourself, "What do I need to bring with me from home (adaptive equipment, technology, or medications) or what can I use/borrow/rent/buy there?"
- Ask key questions. Does weather have an effect on your disability? If you have for example multiple sclerosis, it might.
- Don't assume accessibility. Doorways, steps, signs - accessible definitions are not universal.
- Be firm but flexible. Ask for what you need.
- Choose the right personal assistant or interpreter. Appropriate physical skills, language skills, and temperament are important
- Know the rules about travelling with a service/guide dog. Research quarantine laws and required documentation.
- Pack carefully. Both day-to-day necessities and extras for unplanned situations are key.
- Be adaptable. Work with your situation, not against it
- Maintain your medication schedule. Regularity is important, even critical.
- Push yourself outside your cultural comfort zone. Be open to new experiences and ideas.
- Host Family? Be careful not to make assumptions about what your host family will help you with. While cooking for you or assisting with laundry may not be a problem, it might be too much to ask that your family help with intimate personal care such as bathing and dressing.
- Halls of Residence/Dormitory? Often, students living in halls of residence or dorms have access to university cafeterias reducing the need to cook or clean up. In some countries, this type of accommodation also comes with housekeeping and laundry services
- Hotel? Though much more expensive, for some people with disabilities planning short-term programs, staying at a nearby hotel might offer close proximity to restaurants, housekeeping and laundry service (for a fee).
- Youth Hostel? While these accommodations are often very affordable, they also are group-oriented with shared sleeping, irregular schedules, and they are sometimes noisy.
- Living on your own? If you choose a program where you will need to find your own housing, carefully consider your abilities, the environment, the location and the culture in which you will be living.
There are many unknowns for a person with a disability when they are preparing for an international exchange experience. How will I get from place to place? What if there are stairs? How will I take care of myself? How accessible is the city where I will be living? Will friends or host family members be available to assist me? When trying to decide how you will meet your needs, consider:
1. Do you use Personal Assistant services at home?
People who are already using these types of services at home through a professional or friend/family member may require the same or additional support while abroad.
2. What is the environment like?
People with disabilities consider the physical environment where they will be traveling. Are the buildings old? Are there a lot of stairs? Are the streets paved, cobblestone, gravel, or dirt? Are the curbs high? Is it noisy, or hyper-stimulating?
3. Will you have the time and energy needed to do everything for yourself?
International experiences are exhilarating, exciting, and exhausting! Many people with disabilities who manage all the activities of daily life at home find that with the changes in environment, schedules, and differences in approaches to disability issues, a personal assistant becomes necessary while living abroad.
Personal assistants can come from a wide variety of sources.
- Your current or a past Personal Assistant
- Independent Personal Assistant
The program or participant may be able to find an independent personal assistant to come along on the program.
Some exchange participants choose to bring along a family member to help them.
- Friends/Other program participants
Sometimes the individual or the program has found a fellow participant willing to be trained in assisting. Another exchange participant may be willing to serve as a note-taker, or assist with transportation in mornings and evenings for either a stipend or work-study. This approach requires making sure that the participant receiving this assistance is comfortable with that arrangement, and that the participant assisting is aware the extent of his/her responsibilities. While fellow participants in general often will offer each other support during the exchanges, it should not be assumed that there would be consistent assistance without a more formal agreement.
Making contacts and feeling connected depend partly upon your ability to communicate with the people around you. That doesn't mean, however, that you have to put off traveling until you become fluent in one or more foreign languages. Many travellers have found language to be less of an obstacle than they anticipated. A common misconception is that a foreign language will be required to participate in study abroad programs.
Individuals, with disabilities that might affect foreign language learning, are often concerned this will limit their opportunities to study abroad. But in reality, not all exchange programs require foreign language skills to qualify or to participate - even those that take place in non-English speaking countries.
The most effective method of ensuring a good overseas experience for the Deaf or Hard of Hearing traveller is flexibility, and this will probably entail using a combination of resources which may or may not include access to sign language interpreters, note-taking, text and instant messaging, and utilizing speech-to-text services, assistive listening systems and remote video interpreting when available. But remember local sign language interpreters will not know Irish Sign Language. It is really important to discuss and sort out any support needs with the Erasmus Office well in advance of travelling.
Students who are planning to study a foreign language abroad may also want to consider arranging supplementary instruction with oral components of a course, pronunciation, and/or homework that is presented in inaccessible formats (such as on CDs). Sometimes tutors may need to meet with Deaf or Hard of Hearing students during office hours to provide supplementary instruction and/or incorporate cooperative learning projects and writing activities into the course. Deaf and Hard of Hearing students may also benefit from tutoring services.
This checklist will help you if you need to arrange emergency medical treatment abroad. You should talk to your doctor, for advice before you go. You can also get information from the tourist office, embassy, high commission or the college you'll be attending about getting medical treatment while you're there.
- Check your insurance policy, so you know what your insurers will pay for should you get ill.
- Give the doctor you visit the generic name - not just the brand name - of any medication you're taking.
- Tell the doctor you visit if you've been to any other countries on this trip.
- Keep the names and addresses of a few friends and relatives with your passport so they can be contacted if necessary.
- Contact Irish Embassy officials if you need to get back to Ireland quickly. They may be able to arrange this for you - but, remember, you will have to pay.
- If you pay for any treatment or drugs and plan to claim on your insurance or get a refund, keep all receipts, special proofs of purchase, price tags and labels
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Things to think about:
- Be prepared for culture shock. Some people feel more culture shock when returning home than they did when arriving to a new country.
- Expect to feel a new sense of independence and confidence.
- Share your experiences with others once you return (write articles, speak at conferences, present slideshows for your funders, serve as a peer and role model for others).
- Maintain contact with the people you met abroad.
- Based on your experience, consider advocating for human/disability rights locally and internationally.
- Consider the international facet of your career intentions now that you have acquired international living and/or language skills.
- Promote your skills and knowledge in job hunting.
- Start planning your next overseas experience!