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Transitional and support services for international students with disabilities

According to the United Nations, around 15% of the global population, or roughly 1 billion people, live with disabilities, making them the world’s largest minority – a minority that of course includes many students. In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, the number of students with disabilities in higher education is low in proportion to their numbers in the overall population – but trending upward. According to the European Association for International Education (EAIE), such students can be reluctant to study abroad, worried that their particular support needs won’t be met at a host institution. There are, however, transitional and support services that can help students with disabilities succeed abroad. To learn more, we caught up with Rob Crawford, the CEO of the Life Development Institute (LDI), and are pleased to present excerpts from our discussion in the videos below. Offering internationally recognised and fully accredited high school, college, and career-focused programming in a residential setting, the LDI serves young adults with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, Autism spectrum disorders, and similar conditions. The author of numerous books and articles, Mr Crawford has previously written for ICEF Monitor about working with students with disabilities.

The impact of national laws and acts

As Mr Crawford notes in our first interview segment below, colleges and universities in the United States are required by law to guarantee equal access and reasonable provisions for all attending students, including those with disabilities. In fact, an institution must provide disability student services and offices in order to access financial aid. Equal access laws also exist in other destination countries that are popular with international students, such as the UK. British universities must comply with the Equality Act, which requires all institutions to have experts specialised in providing support to disabled students. As helpful as such laws can be, it is still important for students, their families, and agents to research and confirm precisely what access provisions are available at a given institution. As Mr Crawford notes, the support offered through a university’s disability office may provide assistance with a specific area of coursework, but it’s not “a blanket measure of assistance.” Beyond the learning environment, some students with disabilities may need assistance with settling into a new country, requesting and receiving appropriate services, and day-to-day living.

Advice for agents

What advice does Mr Crawford have for agents working with students with disabilities? First, he recommends having an open mind and adopting a “strength-based model” that looks at what this underserved market of students can do, as opposed to what they cannot. Mr Crawford additionally suggests that agents can better serve students with disabilities – particularly those destined for the US – as follows:

  • Familiarise yourself with existing policy documents (e.g., UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; the European Disability Strategy) to understand the issues associated with disability and how they are influencing the education sector.
  • Learn about and be attuned to some of the characteristics exhibited by people with disabilities. For example, a person with Asperger’s syndrome may not make eye contact during a conversation and seem aloof.
  • Spend significant time prepping the prospective candidate for the immigration interview. Agents or schools may also want to write a letter to the appropriate embassy office that describes how the student will likely present during an interview, particularly if he or she demonstrates atypical behavior on account of a disability.
  • Try to find a collaborating partner in the host country that understands the range of available services.

Resources such as the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) can also be a valuable source of information. The NCDE offers free advice and support to individual students and their families, as well as professionals who are working with students with disabilities, and referrals for more specialised information. In particular, it offers online resources for students coming to the US, as well as tips for Americans going abroad. Organisations like this exist in many countries around the world; two more examples include:

  • SPELD NZ, a not for profit organisation in New Zealand that provides information, assessment and tuition to families, whanau, schools, businesses and individuals living with Dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities.
  • In the Philippines, the National Council on Disability Affairs (NCDA) is the national government agency mandated to formulate policies and coordinate the activities of all public and  private agencies concerning disability issues. There is also the Philippine Association for Citizens with Developmental and Learning Disabilities, Inc. (PACDLD), which provides support and information for parents and families of children with different disabilities or medical conditions.

Regardless of where a student is headed, advance preparation is key. As Lorraine Gallagher of the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD), Ireland, recently noted in a blog post for the EAIE:

“Students with disabilities need to know before they travel what’s available for them in both the host institution and the local community where they’ll be living… There might be a local disability organisation that can provide you and the student with specific information about things like accessible transport, health services, accommodation or wheelchair-friendly restaurants.”

What kinds of schools are most attractive for students with disabilities?

Like any international student, the “right” school for a student with a disability often depends on his or her academic and career goals. But a student with a disability must also consider the type of support that he or she will require, which can vary according to their particular disability. In an interview with The Guardian, Rachel Challinor, the student life support manager at the University of Salford, said that it is important for students to assess whether or not the campus facilities can accommodate their needs:

“Is the library service accessible? Can you get e-books? Check out the student union: is there a disabled students group? What emotional support is on offer?”

For some students, the kinds of support offered through a university’s disability office – such as note-taking services or extra time allocations on exams – can be sufficient, says Mr Crawford. Others, however, may need more comprehensive programmes that also provide counselling support, an apartment to live in, life skills training, and a social network. Furthermore, community colleges – which often work with underrepresented and underserved groups of students – can also be a good transitional option, according to Mr Crawford. Upon first fulfilling some general education and elective requirements at a community college, a student may then be able to transfer to university. He or she can also pursue certification for employment programmes, making a community college an ideal “testing ground” for students with a disability. Importantly, students who have diagnosed disabilities often have a different full-time course load than students who do not. “Sometimes it can be as few as two classes,” says Mr Crawford, making it possible for certain students to pursue a course load that is appropriate for their disability, while also meeting funding or visa requirements tied to full-time enrolment.

Recent developments and debates in the field

Deciding how best to accommodate a student’s disability isn’t always easy, say some of the experts who attended the recent International Summit on Accessibility. Dr Manju Banerjee, Vice President and Director of Landmark College - a Vermont-based institution focused on students with learning disabilities - has suggested a need for serious thought to be given to assessing what special accommodations a disabled student may require. As reported in University Affairs:

“Dr Banerjee believes some students labelled disabled do not always need to be assigned classroom note-takers or given extra time to complete assignments; they simply have not been taught properly how to take notes or how to develop good study habits.”

Elsewhere in the world, debate is focused on adequate funding for students with disabilities. In the UK, for example, it has been estimated that the total budget of the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) will be cut by almost 70% in September 2015, a move that has prompted some to suggest that the studies of disabled students will be put at risk. Currently, Disabled Student Allowances pay for assistive technologies, non-medical assistance, and other costs for 53,000 disabled students. In Australia, the federal government is conducting a review of its Disability Support Program, which covers under half the support costs that universities must deal with in serving disabled students. The programme budget has remained constant at AUS$7 million annually despite the number of disabled students entering postsecondary education in Australia continuing to rise. Since 2008, the number of commencing students with a disability has nearly doubled to 18,212 in 2013. Overall, there are now more than 50,000 disabled students studying at Australian universities. Apart from funding, policy-makers in some countries are working on integrating disabled children at the primary and secondary school levels. In India, where less than 1% of children with disabilities are enrolled in schools, interventions include early identification and assessment through camps, providing aids and learning equipment, and teacher training. Meanwhile, in Bahrain, a new curriculum for students with disabilities and special needs will be implemented in September of this year. And in Qatar, more than half of the schools there are equipped to meet the needs of students with physical disabilities, and the Supreme Educational Council is committed to ensuring that all schools in Qatar have an accessible learning infrastructure that is supported by trained educators.

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