As a student with a disability, I had my reserves about studying abroad. Firstly, was it an option for me and secondly what would happen if I was unwell?
Is it an option?
For any student with a disability, long-term health condition or requiring additional support, don’t let your condition prevent you from partaking in international opportunities. I have epilepsy and I spent last semester over in Australia studying law at ANU. There is no denying that my condition made the application process a little more complex, with having to explore health insurance and my options in regards to prescription medication, but ultimately I feel better prepared for future travel. I know for many, the thought of declaring that they may need additional support can be a daunting prospect and may raise questions about whether such a declaration would affect their chances of studying abroad, but hopefully my experience will give you an insight into the reality of being a disabled student applying for study abroad.
I declared my condition at the earliest opportunity and subsequently found I was better supported through the application process. My condition didn’t affect my ability to study abroad, but it did affect where I could apply. Some countries are not able to offer the same level of support for students with disabilities and others pose challenges in accessing medication, but ultimately, by declaring my condition, I was able to ensure that if successful, I would only be placed in a country that was able to offer me the support I need and that worked for me. At no point did I ever feel disadvantaged due to my condition, if anything it made my application stronger, as I was more able to outline my motivations for studying abroad whilst at university.
What happens if you are unwell?
Of course, this very much depends on the nature of your condition, for me, being unwell could range from migraines to seizures and so it was important I considered what I would do if anything was to occur. This was perhaps the trickiest part for me, but also the most useful because its applicable to most situations.
Firstly, it is really important to prepare for the worst case scenario, so if you are faced with it, it is not quite so frightening and you know how to respond. Make sure that if you are registered with DASS, that you inform the university, to ensure you are supported whilst overseas. It is far easier to set up this support before you need it than to wait until it is too late! For me, ANU wasn’t able to offer an exact copy of my support plan, however, my main piece of advice here is to be prepared to fight your case. Whilst I was initially told that rest breaks at ANU were capped, I highlighted the issue of migraines and that a 10-minute break would not be a long enough period for medication to take effect and thus I would be disadvantaged in comparison to my peers. After discussing this issue with access and inclusion, I was allowed to have longer rest breaks, so that I could take medication. Not all universities will be able to accommodate specific requests, but in my experience, it is better to put forward what you want and push for this- the worst that can happen is that nothing changes.
I am usually quite a private person when it comes to my condition, mainly because I don’t want it to be a barrier, or shape the way people think about me or treat me and I want to have the same opportunities as those around me. Having epilepsy has shaped who I am as a person, but it need not define me. Despite my attitude to my condition, I made sure that my college at ANU was aware of my condition, in addition to telling a couple of my friends in college and a couple of other exchange students from Manchester, just in case anything happened. I would definitely recommend doing this, even if it is just for peace of mind.
It is important for any exchange student to keep in regular contact with their exchange advisors, but even more so for those requiring additional support. Whenever I was unwell, even with unrelated conditions such as tonsillitis, I made sure Manchester was aware of this, so they could continually review the support I was given and so it was all documented when it came to the grade conversion.
I would also recommend keeping a diary or journal, making note of any difficulties you faced as a result of you condition and/or any times you were unwell, so that you have this information collated for when you return to Manchester.
My thoughts on disabilities and studying abroad
I honestly don’t see a disability or health condition as being a barrier to going abroad. It may influence when you go, but it doesn’t render you incapable of partaking in international opportunities. Whilst there are additional challenges that you may face, you will do so in a safe environment where both universities owe you a duty of care and the sense of accomplishment afterwards, cannot be described. For anyone thinking about study abroad, I would really recommend it, but I would also encourage you to be transparent about your condition and your needs, in order to gain the best support possible whilst you are away.