I Wanted to Study Abroad, They Couldn’t Accommodate My Disability

When I got accepted into a study abroad program last year, I was excited to leave the United States. In this program, I would spend a full academic year overseas with an internship in between semesters. I didn’t realize at the time that leaving Oberlin College also meant leaving behind the Disability Resources at the Center for Student Success. The country I was planning to spend a year in had no equivalent legislation to the Americans with Disabilities Act. After many emails, I found that when it comes to looking for academic accommodations abroad, there is little obligation and even less commitment to helping disabled students.

First, I want to explain why I’ve chosen not to name the abroad program, the host school, or even the country I was set to go to. Looking back at our six-month-long email correspondence, I can’t help but feel that the abroad program, although clearly inexperienced with disability accommodation, did act in good faith to try and accommodate me, with the limited knowledge and influence that they had. While they did feel dismissive at times, it was also because they didn’t want to promise me anything that the host college wouldn’t deliver on.

In order to explain the situation, I do need to speak briefly about my disability. Long story short, I cannot handwrite. Typing is the only way I can produce intelligent and legible written work. I am fortunate in that my disability can be very easily accommodated. Many learning disabilities require multiple accommodations, and different institutions have different opinions on what is a suitable accommodation for a disability. My accommodations are relatively simple — as long as I am allowed to type, I can write. But even that straightforward accommodation acts as a barrier of entry for me. The one small silver lining of the COVID-19 semesters was that my disability became irrelevant, as every college student across the country was required to type up and digitally submit all of their written work.

I also want to make the limits of my knowledge clear — I never spoke at length with anyone at the host college I was going to attend. Almost all of my communication was with the stateside office for the abroad program, and they would relay information and questions from me to the host college. Because I had only this one point of contact, I cannot tell how much of the mishandling of my disability can be attributed to the stateside offices of the program or the host college itself. I am going to refer to them as one entity since I am not entirely sure where one stopped and the other began.

When going abroad and asking about disability accommodations, the phrase you get back frequently is that students should “make adjustments.” This line may have worked on other students who applied to this same program, or it might have turned some away. In my case, if I don’t receive my typing accommodation, I have no hope of passing any assignment. I was clearly the first person who couldn’t just “make adjustments,” so when I insisted on my accommodations, I watched as the people I was communicating with changed their policies and procedures in real time. They even reworded some of the languages on certain health forms to include requests for disability accommodation. They stopped telling me to “make adjustments” and started telling me that I would have to “risk” not being accommodated. But for me, taking on this “risk” would be rolling the dice with my GPA. With the persistent repetition of phrases like “making adjustments” and “risk,” I’m not sure if it ever got through how much of a necessity typing is for me. I don’t think it was intentional, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were just waiting for me to admit that I didn’t actually need my disability accommodation and could just do without it. 

The “risk” I was frequently warned about essentially boiled down to this: professors at the host college held the right to not accommodate me in their class if they did not wish to. I asked if I could register early or have an extended add/drop period, which would give me time to switch out of a class that would not let me type and find a replacement. I was told both of those options were not possible. The best option was to have me overload courses as much as possible, speak with all of the professors on this overstuffed schedule on the first day of class, and hope that I could cobble together a full course load of typing-friendly professors by the end of the host college’s one-day add/drop period. To be honest, the extra hassle due to my disability is something I am used to. What bothered me was that this plan was still a far cry from a guaranteed accommodation. Around this time, they also discussed barring me from foreign language courses because they were especially skeptical of typing being allowed in those courses. This is when my tolerance for being pushed around started to fail. The primary reason I wanted to go abroad was to improve my foreign language skills, and now I was being told I couldn’t pursue that just because I needed a word processor in class.

Of course, I don’t know how any of this would have actually panned out. We made some tentative plans to email professors in relevant departments and make a list of typing-friendly instructors to inform my course registration. But the pandemic hit right around that time, so all those plans swiftly became inconsequential. Back when we thought the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be over in less than a year, I got an email about doing a shortened version of the program in early 2021. This came with the caveat that the little accommodation help they were initially offering would be reduced to an unspecified extent. I declined attending due to this, among many other reasons, and my correspondence with the program finally came to a sputtering conclusion.

If I have any takeaways from this experience, it’s a newfound appreciation for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Growing up, I had plenty of teachers try to blow off my accommodations, but the ADA, at the very least, gave me the expectation that they couldn’t. Without the ADA, the obligation to accommodate disabled people in education goes from “we will accommodate you” to “we will do what we can.”