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Studying abroad not only bridges cultural gaps but also expands personal horizons by boosting confidence, improving problem-solving skills, shedding shyness, and more. These changes can be especially meaningful for those with even bigger challenges in life—students who have disabilities.

All Aboard

Elaine Vitone

Brennan Rhodes (right) with a study abroad friend. (Courtesy Brennan Rhodes.)

As a Pitt freshman, the enthusiastic young woman was ready to tackle her studies in premedicine. She had excelled in high school and was eager to begin learning the essentials that would enable her, in four years, to enter medical school. Then she took her first exam in Chemistry 1. As the rest of her classmates finished the test and, one by one, filtered out of the lecture hall, she realized she was running out of time. When she was the only student left in the room, she still wasn’t close to finishing the test. Her only recourse was to ask the professor for more time. That’s when Brennan Rhodes had to confront the fact that she was different.

When she was a youngster, her teachers knew her as the kid who always “asked questions about the questions,” ensuring she understood classroom instructions. She remembers her mother helping her with spelling, making up songs about words, and using crayons to write words on the bathtub wall. With homework, she recalls writing lists of spelling words over and over, the same list in different-colored inks. Throughout her school years, most of her teachers were supportive and encouraging. Oh, that’s just Brennan, they would say when she asked for more time on a task or when taking a test. They helped, and she thrived.

But in her first semester of university life, reality set in. I have dyslexia, she told her Pitt chemistry professor. Rhodes had been diagnosed with dyslexia in the third grade but had managed just fine with hard work and the support of her parents and school communities. When her Pitt chemistry professor referred her to the University’s Office of Disability Resources and Services (DRS), testing confirmed she had both a cognitive disorder and a reading disorder. For the first time as an adult, the freshman heard that she was, in fact, different.

“I started crying,” recalls Rhodes. “I thought, ‘I have a disorder’? I was so upset. I’ve always just said that I’m dyslexic. No big deal.” She had become so adept in using strategies to manage her “difference” that it was hard for her to accept she had a disability.

Before long, though, another experience during her Pitt years would also be life changing in ways that would alter her future for the better—studying abroad in spite of a disability. And she wasn’t alone.

For the past several years, Carol Larson, assistant director of Pitt’s Study Abroad Office (SAO), and several Pitt colleagues have been immersed in a project to make international education more accessible to students from all situations and backgrounds, including those who happen to have physical or mental impairments. “Our motto is that study abroad is for everyone,” says Larson.

One prominent result of this effort is a 30-minute DVD documentary called Making It Happen: Study Abroad for Students with Disabilities, which was completed this spring. The film shows how viable—and valuable—it is for students with disabilities to study abroad. The DVD has already become a sought-after training tool with study-abroad offices and disability organizations nationwide.

The idea for Making It Happen began more than two years ago when a student with a disability came to Larson expressing interest in studying abroad. Unsure of how to proceed, Larson went to see Lynnett Van Slyke, director of Pitt’s DRS, for guidance.

“It was a deer-in-the-headlights kind of approach,” says Van Slyke. “Carol didn’t know a lot about the disability aspect, and I didn’t know any details about what study-abroad programs could and couldn’t accommodate. We thought, My gosh. What are we gonna do to make this work?”

Over the next several months, Larson and Van Slyke began crafting a collaborative case-management process, involving close communications between the student, the disability specialist, and the study-abroad advisor. After successfully sending several students abroad, they recognized they’d developed something truly unique—something worth sharing with other universities and disabilities-services providers. The idea for Making It Happen was born.

“It’s one thing to look at a brochure,” says Larson, “but it’s another thing altogether to actually see an international student with a disability talking about her university’s accommodations, or to hear from Pitt students with disabilities about going overseas and connecting with the staff of other universities who are working diligently to accommodate them.”

The film gives viewers a glimpse of disability resources at several
foreign institutions. In a segment on Ireland’s University College Cork, for instance, students with limited mobility talk about the ease of getting around campus. A staff member describes a range of services: sign-language interpreters, portable note-taking devices with braille keyboard entry, digital dictaphones and text readers, and a braille-writing printer, to name a few. The documentary also includes interviews with study-abroad students who have a range of apparent and non-apparent disabilities, including mobility impairment; chronic medical conditions like diabetes; mental illness; and learning disabilities, among others.

Rhodes is featured in Making It Happen and is a champion for the study-abroad experience. With help from Pitt’s DRS and SAO, she spent a semester in Barcelona, Spain, studying art and improving her Spanish language skills. “There’s nothing like stepping into another country,” she says. “It opens up your mind to so much. Studying abroad will change you for the rest of your life.”

Not long after taking that first chemistry exam at Pitt, Rhodes decided to change her course of study. She didn’t want to harm someone as a future doctor by, say, mixing up important numbers on a medical chart or prescription due to dyslexia. Instead, she focused on her interest in Spanish and added a major in psychology. With the assistance of DRS, she continued to develop strategies to cope with her disability at the university level, including the option of getting 50 percent more time to take tests and using special equipment to help her focus on text and reading passages. These same techniques were made available to her at the Universitat de Barcelona, thanks to a partnership among International Studies Abroad and Pitt’s DRS and SAO.

“Whatever your disability—no, let me rephrase that—whatever your difference is, it doesn’t matter,” says Rhodes in the film. “We’re all unique. Everyone has the ability to go abroad.”

Because the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act generally cannot be imposed on organizations and institutions not owned or operated by Americans, planning for specifics while traveling abroad is essential. “There can be a whole other layer of management for a student with a disability to go abroad,” says Van Slyke. One key recommendation is that students disclose disabilities early in the process. Embarrassment and a sense of shame, while unwarranted, prevent some students with nonapparent disabilities from revealing or discussing physical or mental impairments. Yet, a complete understanding of the nature and extent of a disability is critical in planning for reasonable accommodations while a student is abroad. Disclosure and open communication are vital to a successful study-abroad experience.

Pitt’s DRS and SAO have learned that students typically need to begin planning six to 12 months before going abroad, depending on the type and severity of disability. Students with limited mobility need to consider everything from the hills or cobblestones along the way to each of their classes, to whether or not their housing arrangements have a wheelchair-accessible shower. Students who need medications might have to arrange for the shipment of prescription refills overseas, because there are international travel restrictions on certain medications. These situations—and many others—require planning,
consistent communications, and good coordination with partner sites abroad.

Some programs simply won’t be able to accommodate students’ needs. “It’s much better to put that out there in the very early stages, before the student has planned on a specific program,” says Larson. However, she says, SAO and DRS are committed to working with each student to find a good fit. And, as students return from their host countries, SAO and DRS continuously gather feedback and learn new ways to improve the study-abroad experience.

Rhodes, for instance, lived with a host family and spent much of her time conversing solely in Spanish. Hearing the language every day helped her overcome the challenges of dyslexia in a nonnative language. “Hands-on learning is the best way for me,” she says. “Looking at a book and reading it over and over again—that may sink in, but the best thing for me was to speak it with people. Spain was the best learning tool I had.”

When she finished her semester abroad, she was nearly fluent, in love with Barcelona, and eager to share her experiences with other students. In Making It Happen, Rhodes and other students who have disabilities are reaching a far wider audience than they initially imagined.

Since the DVD was released, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The film won an award from Mobility International USA. Larson and Van Slyke were invited to make a July presentation at the national conference of the Association on Higher Education and Disability in Charlotte, N.C. More invitations have followed.

Making It Happen and its accompanying Web site and handbook were funded by a grant from the IFSA Foundation, with additional contributions from a number of other program providers. Universities across the globe cooperated to help make the documentary a reality, including Universitat de Barcelona, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, University College Cork, University of Limerick, Queen Mary/University of London, University of Sussex, University of East Anglia, University of Westminster, and University of Minnesota. Not surprisingly, these also happen to be universities that are partnering with Pitt to enhance the study-abroad experience for those with disabilities.

Perhaps the most encouraging feedback has come from students themselves. “They say it was a wonderful experience, best thing they ever did—very typical responses no different from any other student studying abroad,” says Van Slyke.

Today, Rhodes (A&S ’06) works at a social-service agency in New Orleans, helping homeless Hispanic workers to find food and shelter. This summer she was featured on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360º for her part in helping repair the devastation caused in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

She says that her study-abroad experience made her work in New Orleans possible. “I speak Spanish on a regular basis down here, because I’m working with a Hispanic population. My Spanish never would have been as good as it is now if I hadn’t gone to Spain.”

In fall 2008, she’ll use everything she has learned so far when she enters a master’s program in public health and health promotion at Columbia University in New York City. She never expected to be applying to an Ivy League school, much less attending one. But her experience as a Pitt student—and her semester abroad—changed all that.

“I just want people to know there are so many things you can do, regardless of a disability,” says Rhodes. “If you have a uniqueness, it is scary sometimes to try something so different, but it’s worth it. I haven’t heard of anyone who studied abroad and wasn’t completely wowed by it.”

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