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My Experience of Studying Abroad with a Disability

  December 14, 2016   

By Bam Thomas, LLB Law (International and European) at The University of Sheffield

Different countries and different cultures have varying attitudes towards disability. For example, the French word for disability is handicap – a word that is no longer used in the UK which references 16th Century disabled veterans who were forced to beg ‘cap in hand’. Consider also Quasimodo, the main character of Victor Hugo’s the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, whose name translates to ‘half-formed’. This is important to keep in mind when preparing to move abroad; in the UK we benefit from legislation and policies that positively impact the way in which we receive help to manage our disabilities, the same is not necessarily true elsewhere. For example, services at universities dedicated to aiding disabled students in their studies may not exist abroad. In order to effectively manage my disability whilst studying in France, I had to acknowledge the fact that things worked differently in my host country.

I am currently completing my year abroad in Paris, France studying at SciencesPo (a university specialising in Political Science). The 4 months I have spent living abroad thus far have been challenging in many regards, but overall extremely enjoyable and beneficial.

Accessing support

At Sheffield I received excellent support from the Disability and Dyslexia Support Centre, whereas my initial experience at my host university was very different. Before I arrived in France I researched how to go about arranging the support I needed, but most of the information my host university made available on their website was conflicting and unclear. I decided to email the listed contacts and set up an appointment to discuss my disability, however I never received a reply.

When I arrived at the university I struggled to find an office with disability support staff that I could talk to about the adjustments I would need, and my many emails remained unanswered. By the time mid-term exams came around I had no choice but to sit my exams without my usual adjustments.

This initial experience was frustrating and stressful because I felt that I had exhausted all my options, until I spoke to one of my lecturers who was able to refer my situation to the right person. After my lecturer put me in touch with the relevant person who could help me, I found out that adjustments needed to be arranged for each separate exam. Contacting multiple people to arrange adjustments was not something I was used to doing but it was necessary to adjust.

In hindsight, I realise that much of the initial stress I experienced in accessing support could have been avoided if I had spoken to my home university who could have helped liaise with the host university to arrange the adjustments I required. The reality is that when you live abroad the services available may not be as advanced as what you are used to, nevertheless your home university has a duty of care for you for the duration of your time spend abroad and is there to support you in accessing support and adjustments.

The best way to adjust to a new university and system is to be prepared. Although it took some time for me to get in contact with the right people, I was able to move the process along quickly by having all my medical information and reports readily available. As I had significantly less support I had to be very proactive to sort things out for myself.

Gaining confidence in communicating information about my disability

Being confident and comfortable with discussing my disability was also crucial to overcoming the initial challenges I faced. Most UK universities have a dedicated disability service meaning that there is often no need to discuss your disability with lecturers and professors – this was not the case at all in France. Talking about my disability and the adjustments I needed therefore became quite common place. This not only helped me to become more comfortable discussing my condition, it also made me think about what adjustments would benefit me the most and articulate my requirements. I believe this experience will prove useful when it comes to applying for graduate jobs and I need to request adjustments during the recruitment process.

Whilst the process for accessing adjustments abroad may vary, there are often things you can do to help manage your disability which are all part of being independent and proactive. For example, I brought my printer, computer software and accessories that I typically used in Sheffield with me to France. These are things that have a big impact on how I manage my disability and was something that I could take into my own hands quite easily.

A life changing experience

Choosing to study abroad has been one of the best decisions I ever made. It has challenged me to be independent, self-motivated and resilient; all of which I believe will have prepared me well for the world of work. It has also allowed to learn a new language and meet incredible people from all over the world. Moving abroad and leaving behind the comforts and advantages of home poses many challenges – managing your disability is just one of them – however if you are committed to being proactive and determined, this should not be a barrier to you enjoying the advantages of living abroad.

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