In an increasingly globalized world, studying abroad is an essential way for students and future leaders to gain historical knowledge and perspective, develop confidence in their personal identity and career goals, and become more culturally aware. In the words of former President Bill Clinton, "No one who has lived through the second half of the 20th century could possibly be blind to the enormous impact of exchange programs on the future of countries..." But from 1996 to 1999, only one documented student with a disability studied abroad through Michigan State University, because concerns about accommodation and accessibility presented too great of challenges. Years ago, Learning Disabilities Specialist Valerie Nilson made it her mission to change that; even though she has since retired, she hasn't put down her torch of global accessibility.
In 2007, Nilson helped facilitate a partnership between the Office of Study Abroad and the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities to allow hundreds of students with disabilities to study abroad in an accommodative environment. The resulting Disability in a Diverse Society program uses a combination of coursework and experiential learning to increase participant understanding of various aspects of disability in the U.S. and abroad. Taking cues from the Dublin program's objectives, Nilson put herself in the shoes of someone with a mobility disability and searched for another accessible program that students with varied academic interests could benefit from. Her quest led her to Dr. Phil Handrick of the Center for Integrative Studies, who facilitates a program led in France and Belgium called "The European Union, Globalization, and Social Change" which considers the post-World War II transformation of Europe from legal, historical, geopolitical, and economic perspectives. Together, they traveled to Brussels and Strasbourg, where they completed a comprehensive review of accessibility, examining items as simple as doorknobs and as complex as access to elevators and public transportation to ensure that students with a variety of mobility disabilities could traverse the cities and live in the residences. Nilson finds Strasbourg's facilities "welcoming" and receptive to accessibility, and is optimistic that the portion of the program in Brussels would also be suitable with a little creative thinking and problem solving. Although European perceptions of disabilities differ, Dr. Handrick is conversant in accommodation expectations from an American perspective.
For an office developed to emphasize ability and opportunity, providing students with disabilities more avenues to become global citizens and understand the world around them is vital, as any student who does not comprehend the impact of globalization is at a disadvantage. If the program can indeed become accessible, Val's hope is that students traveling to France and Belgium can also receive priority consideration for the Quality Funds study abroad scholarship.
[For more information on the France/Belgium program, please visit the Office of Study Abroad website.]
[The Grand Place and Carpet of Flowers of Brussels, Belgium]
[The Strasbourg Cathedral, France]