AHEAD: Association for Higher Education Access & Disability
Creating inclusive environments in education & employment for people with disabilities.


Past Student Experience

It’s always good to learn from the experience of others so we’ve gathered the experiences of 4 students with disabilities who undertook study abroad in countries across the world, from France to Australia.

Click on the student below to have more info about their time abroad and the challenges they faced drop down.

Student with a Mobility Impairment, the Netherlands

Name: Louise Milicevic
Disability: Physical Impairment.
Home institution: University College Dublin, Ireland.
Host Country: The Netherlands.

What were you studying at home and how did you become interested in international exchange?

I attended University College Dublin from 1993 to 1998, graduating with a BA in English and Greek and Roman Civilization in 1996 and an MA in Classics in 1998. Like any other student, I embraced all that college and campus life had to offer from attending lectures to joining a multitude of clubs and societies and of course doing my fair share of socializing.

However from early in my college career I was very interested in the possibility of studying abroad on an Erasmus Programme. I lived in the residences on the Belfield Campus and many of my flat mates were foreign students from a variety of different countries including Portugal, Spain Germany and the USA and meeting them accentuated my burgeoning interest in studying abroad. I approached the Access Service in UCD in early 1995 and broached the possibility of studying abroad on an Erasmus Programme. Unfortunately, at that time students were not encouraged to go on an Erasmus Programme as it could not be guaranteed that the supports required by a student with disabilities could be provided.

Then in 1996 while I was doing an MA in Classics, the college Access Officer told me about an upcoming EU funded Horizon Project aimed at encouraging students with disabilities to study abroad. Needles to say it didn’t take much convincing.

Where did you decide to study?

I decided to study at the University of Amsterdam, a strange choice admittedly as I was completing an MA in Classics and was writing my thesis on Roman Slavery. But I felt that accessibility would be better in Amsterdam than Rome. The University also had a renowned Classics Department

What disability related support did you require?

The Access Office in UCD liaised with the Disability Support Office in the University of Amsterdam to ensure that I was reasonably accommodated. I needed an accessible apartment in a central location not too far from the University. I also requested that any buildings I needed to access were accessible and had an accessible WC. I also felt that I would need the support of a PA as I had never travelled for a prolonged period on my own before so a PA from Ireland came with me. The funding covered her salary and our accommodation and living expenses

What was your experience of living and studying in the host country?

I spent three months from July to October 1997 at the University. Unfortunately, it was out of term and very quiet. Consequently, I found it difficult to immerse myself fully in college life and meet new people. I also found that Access Service in the University unsupportive and apart from an initial meeting when I first arrived I had little or no interaction with them. In hindsight I should have attended the university either in the first or second semester to maximize the experience of being in a foreign university.

Also, my accommodation while close to the college was not part of the University’s residences, which also hampered me from meeting other students. Overall, I did enjoy the experience of living in a new city and got a real opportunity to explore the sights and sounds of Amsterdam although I was surprised by how inaccessible it actually was. Fifteen years on, I still have fantastic memories of my summer in Amsterdam and am delighted that I was given the opportunity to study abroad. I only wish I could do it all again!

What advice would you offer anyone considering a study programme abroad?

I would highly recommend going on Erasmus to students with disabilities. It definitely broadens your college and life experience, however I would strongly advise students considering studying abroad to do plenty of research when selecting your university, ensure that the university has a good Disability Support Service and above all choose an appropriate time of year to go, so that you fully enjoy and experience all that a foreign university has to offer.

Blind Student, Portugal

Name: Tina Lowe
Disability: Blind
Home: Dublin, Ireland
Host Country: Portugal

Describe the international exchange programme you attended?

I was studying Spanish and Portuguese in University College Dublin and when I was in my final year in college I won a scholarship to study Portuguese in the University of Aveiro in Lisbon for a month.

Did you have any concerns before you travelled?

The University in Aveiro had been informed of my disability before I travelled and I had studied Spanish in Santander in Spain the previous year, which had gone really well so I assumed that it would be a similar experience in Lisbon. I’d also had Portuguese tutors on my course in Dublin who were really very well informed as to how to teach a blind student and I had won a scholarship and I had arranged to bring a Personal Assistant with me so I had no reason to think that the teachers and staff in the Portuguese university would be different in their approach. However, we arrived in Aveiro, it was late in the evening and we unfortunately got lost. When we finally arrived at the university I was met by the Director who informed me that the University had never had a blind student before despite the fact that the teacher in UCD had informed the University before my arrival. It turned out that they had never had a blind student in the college either from Portugal itself or from an international University, and so had no teaching practices in place to accommodate me in the class.

How did the college support your learning needs?

Unfortunately they didn’t provide me with any material in accessible format or any notes; I think this was because they had no experience of my disability. From that point of view it was a disaster as I was expecting a certain level of support. I couldn’t follow print so I just had to listen and record what went on in class. As a result of the difficulty of not being able to carry out tasks in class, contribute properly, follow the coursework and carry out assignments I believe my experience was severely hindered in this University and that because of the lack of preparation by the staff in the class and the lack of awareness I became very frustrated and bored and so decided not to waste the entire opportunity and so I decided that I could learn just as much outside the class situations and I actually learnt more from going to the local shops and restaurants; having to talk to people. Despite being thrown in at the deep end I learnt a huge amount from the experience. I think part of the problem was that I didn’t have a local contact because I didn’t go through the international office. I also believe that the inexperience of the University meant that they had no formal structures for students with specific learning needs in place, that they had not been properly guided and that it was very ad hoc.

What advice would you give anyone considering studying abroad?

Do your research! It’s not just about study. Consider exactly how you are going to manage; negotiate getting around. Where do I eat? Can I get mobility instruction to the equivalent of the National Council for the Blind Ireland? Do I have a mobility issue or an ongoing illness, where can I get medical support if I need it?

If you use a Personal Assistant at home then you’ll need a personal assistant while you’re away. Even if you’re quite independent at home living in another country might put extra demands on you. Don’t put yourself in the position where you’re depending on your classmates to help you as you might end up finding yourself in trouble. If you’re blind in Ireland, you’re blind abroad. You need the same things you have at home, or you might need more. The HEA provide extra funding for students with mobility and sensory impairments who need PA support while studying abroad.

If you use a Guide or Service Dog and you want to bring them with you, you’ll need to get a pet passport. Your vet or the National Council for the Blind can advise you in the matter. You’ll also need to inform the airline well in advance of your trip that you intend to bring your guide or service dog with you. You should also contact the college and the place where you intend to live to ensure that it is dog friendly i.e. that he can live with you, has a place to play and can do his ‘business’.

Also, what is very important is that the University that you intend to go to study in must be disability friendly. You need to establish that there are student supports for their own students in place with disabilities. You need to ensure that teaching staff are aware as to how to teach a person with a disability, there has to be an educational structure in place, there has to be supports available, there has to be informed staff, student advisors or disability student advisors. There must be accessible accommodation on campus or wherever you are going live. All of the support structures need to be very well researched before you consider going. If they are not researched then it can be a very negative experience.

Student with a Mobility Impairment, Australia

Name: Michelle Scanlan
Disability: Physical Impairment
Home Institution: Dublin City University - BA in Journalism
Host Country: Australia

Describe the international exchange programme you attended:

I studied for a BA in Journalism at Dublin City University (DCU) and as part of my final year I spent a semester studying at the University of Technology in Sydney Australia (UTS). I know, not your average study abroad location! I chose to go to Australia because it was literally a once in a lifetime opportunity and also because I hadn’t had the J1 American experience like most of my classmates, I wanted an opportunity to explore a part of the world that had always interested and excited me.

What disability related support did you require?

I have a mobility impairment and use a walking aid to help me to get around. I emailed the student Disability Support Service before I travelled to let them know that I would be enrolling for a semester, just in case I needed any additional supports once I was in Australia. I met with the Disability Officer after arriving in Sydney and she talked me through the supports on offer to students. As I was only there for a semester I actually didn’t need much support at all and for me it was more about making a connection and knowing that there was a service there if I needed it at any stage during my stay.

What were your living arrangements?

I registered with the student housing service which was a great help as it meant that I got a place in a shared student apartment that was about a 15 minute walk from college. The apartment was accessible and also I got to share with five other students who were all from different places in Australia. This was important to me as I got a real sense of Australian life; the kind of issues that young Australians had to deal with and I felt more immersed in Australian culture than if I had been sharing with other overseas students.

What was your experience of studying and living in the host country?

I absolutely loved going to college at UTS. I got the opportunity to study a wide variety of subjects including psychology, online journalism and Aboriginal history. I think it is important to take the opportunity to study subjects that are not open to you at home, for example having studied online journalism stood to me later on in my career. Having the focus of going to lectures and completing assignments was a great help in combating homesickness. I was too busy trying to pack as much into my semester there as I could to allow thoughts of home to distract me too much!

What advice would you offer anyone considering a study programme abroad?

The one piece of advice I would offer to any student with a disability who is thinking of studying abroad is to use the educational opportunities offered to you to open doors for you. Backpacking around Europe, working in a bar or waiting tables were not an option for me due to my disability, but going to college in another country was. Of course it was a little daunting to head off to the other side of the world for six months but it’s an opportunity I have never regretted taking and an experience I have never forgotten!

Student with a Physical Disability, France

Name: Jessica Gough
Disability: Physical Impairment.
Home Institution: University of Limerick Ireland - BA in Applied Languages.
Host Country: France

Describe the international exchange programme you attended?

I am a double beneficiary of the EU LLP programme as I also undertook a Comenius work placement as part of my degree programme. This involved working as a language assistant in a primary school in Poulx (near Nîmes) in the South of France. Based on my placement performance and the experience I gained, the school encouraged me to return to work in Nîmes again this year following graduation. I made friends for life in Poulx and in the Nîmes area and have returned several times to visit. I am also very much enjoying working there as an English language assistant again this year.

Living Abroad: Life with a host family

In terms of the host family in France, I found them through the school that I worked in. I asked the teachers to send a letter to parents to let them know that I would be teaching in Poulx for 6 months and that I was looking for a host family. I decided that I wanted a host family mainly because I wanted a well rounded experience of everyday life in France, an experience that I wouldn’t necessarily get if I was living in an apartment on my own. Staying with a family allowed me to not only improve my French by speaking it 24/7, but also to experience the French way of life first hand (long family dinners and gatherings with friends, weekend excursions etc.) I felt at ease with the family, colleagues and local community in general that I consider it a home away from home. That is why I returned to France after I finished my degree. It is really hard to put into words, what the experience means to me, but I do know that it changed my life and marked the start of my international experience in general. I loved my time in France so much that I seemed to experience a post-France depression! I missed the people, language, culture and the way of life in general and I couldn’t wait to get back.

What disability related support did you require?

In terms of assistance, I had a local nurse come to assistant me in the mornings and evenings with showering and dressing, while the family provided me with meals etc. I formed a very special bond with the family and the nurse. To this day, I consider them to be my family and I don’t think that will ever change. My parents even talk about my “French parents” or “families”. I see them regularly now that I am in back in the area (Nîmes) and when I saw my nurse again this week, it was like meeting my mother again. She really was more than just a nurse. She was like a mother to me for 6 months and still is today, just like my host mother.

What, if any problems or challenges did you encounter?

Mine is perhaps a unique story of a person who has overcome otherwise insurmountable odds thanks to the Erasmus programme. As with every adventure, the first few weeks were the most challenging. I employed my personal assistant, arranged my accommodation, got to grips with the local transport system and other daily takes. In time, like any other student, I selected appropriate modules, warmed to the radically different academic environment and teaching methods and got stuck into the business of learning Catalan.

In terms of problems I encountered, a lot of them were every day administrative problems, such as sorting out the paperwork for the nurse etc. French administration is very long and tedious, so you just have to be patient and go with the flow. It might take months to be processed, but that’s just how it is, you can’t change it, so you just have to accept it and realise that it’s the same for everyone, not just you. I will say that having lived in France already and living here today, I truly got to know the meaning of “red-tape”. What can I say, the French really love paperwork.

Other problems that I encountered and still encounter today are little practical things in terms of accessibility. Foothpaths being damaged or broken or very narrow for example, or cars parked awkwardly blocking the footpath, leaving you with no choice but to walk on the road. These are just little things that make every day that little bit more complicated, but they don’t stop me from getting on with it. I often think that people don’t realise that those little things can make life a little more difficult for people with a disability. I think it’s very true that you can’t possibly realise what it’s like until you find yourself faced with that kind of situation yourself. I tend to just get on with things rather than thinking too much about what obstacles I may have to overcome on a particular day. Everyone, with or without a disability has obstacles to overcome. That is just a part of life, that shouldn’t stop you from living. To be honest, I don’t even think about the little things that I have already mentioned. I just accept things the way they are and get on with my life.

What were the benefits of the experience, and how has your international experience informed your future plans?

The decision to partake in the Erasmus experience has changed my life in a number of ways. I have a form of cerebral palsy which affects both my upper and lower limbs, particularly in the areas of mobility and balance. At first glance, I had a raft of reasons for staying put in my home country. At a very simple level for example, I rely on lecturers to provide copies of their lecture notes and in some instances the use of note-takers. My attitude to the challenges of my disability has always been marked by calm determination, diplomacy and flexibility, all of which are underpinned by a can-do attitude. In rising to the challenge of undertaking an Erasmus study placement in semester five of my Applied Languages programme, my attitude was no different. I didn’t think twice about applying. I was aware that the LLP Erasmus programme provided me with the once in a lifetime opportunity to live, and study abroad. I was absolutely determined to make this wonderful opportunity a success and was ready to overcome any obstacle to achieve this goal.

During my Comenius placement in France, I had the opportunity to learn about one of the regional languages of France, Occitan. In fact my exposure to lesser known languages during my Erasmus and Comenius placements was the inspiration for the idea which formed the basis of my Final Year Project at the University of Limerick which focused on the topic of minority language revitalisation and particularly the role of the education system in this regard.

The network of friends, both personal and professional, developed through the experience will sustain me personally, academically and professionally for the rest of my life. The International Office provided invaluable support to me both here and abroad and I hope that this story will give confidence to other students, with or without a disability. I am currently involved in a de facto Erasmus ambassadorial role within the University of Limerick, actively encouraging fellow students to participate in, engage with, benefit from and share the transnational placement experience.

What advice would you offer anyone considering a study programme abroad?

In terms of advice for anyone considering Erasmus, I would definitely encourage them to go for it. They won’t be disappointed. Obstacles to overcome are all part of the experience, for everyone, not just students with a disability. If everything was easy, you wouldn’t learn anything. You need to be faced with obstacles in life to order to be able to learn and grow and deal with anything that life throws at you. I like to think of it as a great adventure that opens your mind, exposes you to other cultures, languages and just another way of life in general. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that will change your life, whether you realise it or not. I know that my experience abroad has helped me grow both academically, personally and professionally. It is an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. I think that the experience really is what you make it. It’s up to you to discover all that the adventure that is Erasmus or time abroad has to offer.

Jessica was recently awarded a Léargas ‘Language Learner of the Year’ award and has also been selected by the European Commission to represent Ireland as the Erasmus Student Ambassador at the 25th anniversary of the Erasmus Programme in 2012. 87 proposals from 33 countries were received by the European Commission from which Jessica was chosen to represent Ireland. UL has been participating in the Erasmus programme since 1988 and is part of an extensive Erasmus network that includes over 240 European university partners.

Creating Inclusive Environments in Education and Employment for People with Disabilities

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