Empowering Journeys:

Including Students with Special Needs
in Study Abroad Programs

A comprehensive guide for educators on understanding the spectrum of students with special needs and how to create inclusive and empowering study abroad experiences for them.

Imagine a world where every student, regardless of their unique abilities or challenges, has the opportunity to explore new cultures, learn in diverse environments, and grow beyond their comfort zones. Today, the commitment to including students with special needs in study abroad programs is not just a requirement but a powerful catalyst for change. As educators, we have the power and responsibility to make study abroad programs not just accessible but also empowering for students with special needs. In this article, we will explore how we can transform these opportunities into inclusive experiences that celebrate diversity and foster academic and personal growth.

Understanding the Spectrum of Special Needs

Including students with special needs in study abroad programs requires a deep understanding of the diverse range of abilities and challenges these students may have. This spectrum encompasses students with physical disabilities, such as mobility issues, visual or hearing impairments, as well as those with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders. Each student’s needs are unique and require tailored approaches to ensure their study abroad experience is enriching and barrier-free.

As per the ADA, “disability” includes “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment” (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, As Amended).

We also need to consider that lots of disabilities aren’t visible! You wouldn’t know the disability was there unless you were directly told. Furthermore, many international students may have gone undiagnosed (Supporting International Students with Disabilities).

Best Practices for Inclusive Study Abroad Programs

This segment includes actionable strategies and thoughtful approaches that can be designed to ensure that study abroad experiences are not just feasible but also enriching and transformative for students with special needs.

1. Creating an Interest Form

Study abroad offices could create a form to help better match students with programs that may be of interest to them. This may allow study abroad advisors to get the “initial” meeting details out of the way before a student comes in. This may be especially helpful for students who are uncomfortable disclosing their disability (Lexus Bivins, 2021).

2. Providing Program-specific Resources

Offering a brief overview by program location could help students further identify how their disability will affect their time in any given location abroad. While suggestions of specific programs based on ability are great, it is important to not assume which activities students can or cannot participate in (Lexus Bivins, 2021).

3. Developing Comprehensive Pre-Departure Orientation

Each orientation session should be customized to address the specific needs of students with special needs. This might involve smaller group settings or one-on-one sessions to focus on individual concerns. Discussions should cover specific challenges students may face, such as navigating new environments with mobility aids, managing medication schedules across time zones, or accessing learning support in a foreign academic setting.

Detailed information about the accessibility features of the host country and specific locations (like accommodation and public transport) should be provided. This can include maps highlighting accessible routes, contacts for local disability services, and information on how to access these services.

4. Collaboration with Local Program Providers

Your program provider in the host country plays a crucial role in ensuring the necessary accommodations and support systems are in place for students with special needs. Encourage these local partners to establish and maintain clear policies on inclusion and accessibility. Such policies should not only address the physical accessibility of facilities but also include provisions for academic and social inclusion. This approach ensures that the responsibility for accommodating students with special needs is shared and effectively managed, leading to a more enriching and accessible educational journey for all participants.

5. Accessible Learning Materials

For accessible learning materials, it’s important to make sure that all course content is available in formats that cater to diverse needs. This includes using technology like speech-to-text software or audiobooks to facilitate learning for all students and ensuring that educational resources are inclusive and supportive of various learning styles and requirements.

6. Emergency Preparedness

To enhance emergency preparedness, it’s crucial to develop targeted emergency response plans that specifically cater to the needs of students with disabilities. This includes designing evacuation procedures, medical response strategies, and crisis management protocols with their unique requirements in mind. Additionally, conducting specialized training sessions for faculty, staff, and students on effectively and sensitively handling emergencies for those with disabilities is imperative. Such focused efforts ensure a well-prepared and inclusive environment, significantly enhancing safety and responsiveness for all students.

Moving forward with Inclusive Study Abroad

Integrating students with special needs into study abroad programs transcends merely eliminating barriers; it’s fundamentally about forging pathways for success and fostering a deeper understanding of diverse needs. Implementing these best practices is a crucial step towards ensuring that every student, regardless of their challenges, has the chance to flourish in a global learning context. It’s a collective effort to transform study abroad into an experience of inclusion, discovery, and empowerment for all students, enriching not just their academic journey but also their personal growth and global perspectives.


  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, As Amended. (n.d.). Retrieved from ADA.gov: https://www.ada.gov/law-and-regs/ada/

  • Lexus Bivins, T. G. (2021). Reaching and Supporting Students with Disabilities in Study Abroad: An Analysis of Marketing Strategies to Institutional Barriers. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 17. Retrieved from https://frontiersjournal.org/index.php/Frontiers/article/view/506/473

  • Supporting International Students with Disabilities . (n.d.). Retrieved from The Global Access Files: https://theglobalaccessfiles.wordpress.com/2022/10/27/supporting-international-students-with-disabilities/

If you’d like more information about our study-abroad programs or have any questions, we welcome you to connect with us.