How to Design Accessible Exchange Programs

“We’re sorry, but we can’t guarantee that the program in Toulouse will be able to accommodate your needs. Would you consider a summer internship in the States, instead?”

As I sat in my wheelchair in my college’s study abroad office, I realized that I was not going to share this experience with my classmates. I wasn’t going to study abroad as a junior, as was strongly encouraged by the academic program.

At the time, we were not aware of the resources and grants for students with disabilities seeking to study abroad. The following summer, I did participate in an excellent internship program in Washington, D.C. But, I always wondered what I missed by not immersing myself in French culture and language for a semester.

Chieko Utsumi, Japanese disability rights advocate who helped to start the Center for Independent Living in Kodaira, Tokyo, looks up at the U.S. Capitol. Chieko was in the United States this April through the International Visitor Program.

The Disabled: A Neglected Community Within Human Rights

There are think tanks, academic institutions, and NGOs that claim to embrace inclusive professional programming as part of their overall commitment to human rights. In practice, they entirely neglect this valuable cross-section of society: the disabled community.

Many organizations see disability as a personal or medical issue, rather than a political and social issue that brings a unique perspective to the table. As a result, the disability focus is not part of globally-focused organizations strategic goals.

Disability is not just a personal medical issue. It’s a political and social issue.

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International development often focuses on mobilizing youth, women leaders, ethnic or religious minorities. We should also examine the disability community. It is the source of a strong group of leaders who should contribute to discussions on conflict resolution, entrepreneurship, crisis management, transitioning democracies, expanding education, and more.

Why Disability Inclusion in International Exchange is Important

Stella Young, the late disability activist from Australia, uses a public bus ramp in Washington, D.C. on her IVLP project. Stella was famous for advocating that disabled persons are “not your inspiration” and should be treated normally.

Exchange organizations should prioritize inclusion and accessibility. Ensuring inclusive and accessible exchange:

Accessible Exchange: Expanding, but Room for Growth

For these reasons, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) has been increasing the number of exchange programs that bring disabled visitors to the United States. This is through the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, an initiative led by Mobility International USA (MIUSA).

Although ECA has made great strides in this area, I’ve noticed that most U.S.-bound disabled visitors arrive on programs specifically for disability rights and inclusion. Disabled people in different fields rarely join non-disability focused programs.

Most Cultural Vistas’ International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) projects with disabled persons were focused on disability rights. Ideally, one would see more disabled individuals throughout all kinds of exchange programs.

Sarah Amin (right) with an IVLP project on Japanese Inclusive Education, pictured with Michael Murray of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

The barrier is often logistics. But with a few minor changes, an exchange program could be accessible for anyone.

It would be dishonest to suggest that our organization is doing everything perfectly. However, I believe that small victories can lead to a shift in perspective and more inclusive programming.

Challenges: Accessibility from Start to Finish

Many applicants are hesitant to disclose their disabilities, fearing discrimination. It’s essential to have inviting platforms for applicants from the beginning. Applicants with disabilities should be assured that programs are willing to support reasonable accommodations.

Many international exchange professionals are not equipped to accommodate the needs of disabled participants. Until recently, the disability community had been excluded from most opportunities with extensive travel. It’s important to develop strong partnerships with companies, vendors, and campuses that embrace accessibility.

Best Practices: Basic Checklist for Accessible Exchange

  1. Get disability sensitivity training. Disability sensitivity “starts at home,” right in the organization. Understanding current disability etiquette is an asset for any customer service employee. Familiarize yourself with potential needs associated with different disabilities. Recognize that even those who have similar disabilities are limited in varying degrees. They will have a wide range of accommodation preferences. Consider the full spectrum of disabilities: mobilityvisual impairments, or deaf/hard of hearing. In particular, cognitive, developmental, intellectual, or other systemic health conditions may not be immediately clear.
  2. Make the application process accessible. A crucial oversight is during the application phase. We should follow ADA accessibility guidelines and ensure that all our web pages are accessible. If hard copies of application materials are needed, have them designed in large print formats and in braille. Bonus points if your organization is able to order business cards with braille.
  3. Gather as much information as possible. The timely collection of information from participants about their accommodations needs is key. MIUSA, a pioneer in developing tools for accessible exchange, has developed a set of comprehensive questionnaires to prepare us to best assist our participants. MIUSA is an excellent portal for other resources across the board, including helping disabled participants find placements and funding for airfare and health insurance.
  4. Create partnerships with hosts to make sure accessible=actually accessible. Host companies and destinations must understand their responsibilities towards visitors’ accommodation needs, and must be able to accommodate. As facilitators, we must be diligent and keep in mind that the word “accessible” often only refers to mobility impairments.
  5. Know your planes, trains, and automobiles. Get to know airline and public transportation policies for disabled travelers. Remember to consider transportation from start to finish, including taxis, ground transportation, air travel, trains, and private cultural tours. In many cases, such as air travel, you will need to submit documentation when ticketing or before, to request special accommodations. Every major U.S. airline has a web page that details its accommodations, including airport accessibility and in-flight assistance.
  6. Make medical support info available. It is generally a good practice to provide visitors with a list of medical emergency resources in their host cities. It’s particularly important for disabled visitors to have ready access to a clinic or hospital that will support their needs. If the visitor is not completely fluent in English, consider including a list of bilingual physicians who speak his or her language.
  7. Don’t be a stranger. It’s important to develop accessible platforms to receive feedback. This could mean ensuring web accessibility, or developing submission forms in braille or in large print.
Checklist: How to Make Each #IntlEd Accessible

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There are many reasons why a disabled person would not participate in an exchange program. Participants could be discouraged from the beginning, as in my case. Or, they could be entirely excluded. There are many barriers along the way.

But if we can make these small changes to our programs, we can foster a culture of inclusion. Then one day, we can open our existing programs to disabled participants of all interests and backgrounds.


The Japanese disability rights activists on an IVLP project visit the Capitol, in the spirit of the 1990 “Capitol Crawl” protest.

Have you organized an accessible exchange program with disabled participants?

Let us know in the comments.