Being Disabled Abroad: Helpful Tips And Essentials
After being diagnosed with an intense autoimmune disease at the age of fourteen, I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to navigate this world while being disabled. Traveling and moving abroad is stressful and difficult enough for the able-bodied, but for those of us who have finicky medications, special needs, or legal concerns, it can turn a park into an obstacle course.
I almost didn’t study abroad because of the medication I take and how it needs to be refrigerated constantly. There were plenty of issues that came up while I was studying abroad, and while I did everything I could think of to prepare, there were some things that I wish I would have known before venturing out on my own. Here are a few things to consider if you are disabled and planning on traveling long-term or studying abroad in a different country.
Legal Rights and Accommodations
Know what the country you are moving to or traveling in considers to be disabled and what your rights are abroad. The United States has this lovely law called the American Disability Act, which has helped me in my university career and other circumstances in the last few years. It’s what requires universities to accommodate students who have medical or health issues, for example providing me a fridge to store my medication in a room that would otherwise be fridge-less. It’s also what makes buildings have wheelchair access indoors and disabled parking outside. What I didn’t know when I moved to the United Kingdom is that their version of this law is not as comprehensive and does not mandate businesses or universities to accommodate those with special needs.
The Disability Services office at my Scottish university were the people who were able to help me with my issues. Make sure to try and find out if your host university has a similar office on campus and register with them or reach out to them BEFORE you arrive. It will make everything go much smoother, even if you won’t think you need their help (*cough* me *cough*). If you are traveling abroad for long periods of time, know your rights in the places where you are traveling. Find out if there are places you can go if you need any assistance other than hospitals or emergency services.
Transportation and Adventures
Okay, something that was not fun for me when I was studying and traveling abroad was transportation. Even though I am able-bodied enough to walk, climb stairs, and sit for long periods of time, this is not the case for every disabled person. Most transportation that I experienced in Europe was not fitted for wheelchair users or those with walking aids. Sadly, the requirements for wheelchair access and disabled people are not the same as in the United States as they are in Europe or other places in the world. I went to over a dozen castles in the United Kingdom and only one of them was fitted with an elevator and other disabled access aids. Consider what you may or may not need from transportation or the places you are exploring. While this may be second nature to you, know that your expectations for what is provided most definitely will not be the same.
Health Insurance and Your Doctor
Talk to your health insurance company and your doctors before you leave the country. Come up with a plan for your medication, routine, and communication back home before you leave. Your health insurance company might be difficult when it comes to providing enough medication for several months in advance. Mine definitely was. Make sure to get an official letter from your primary or specialist doctor describing your diagnosis and what medications you need before you leave. This can be helpful in customs and for your university.
If your health insurance does not cover any issues that you might have abroad, get travelers insurance. And get the best one you can find. Even if you never use it, you’ll regret not having it if you do need it. While other countries in the world have great “free” health care, it is usually limited to normal emergency procedures and care. For example, if you were to dislocate your shoulder or have a stomach problem, that is a relatively easy-to-treat issue. However, if you have a specific diagnosis and have a serious issue, being in a different country with a foreign language and no way of communicating your problem to your doctors is scary. In my personal experience, most primary care and emergency care doctors have never heard of my diagnosis. I can’t imagine trying to translate that into a different language. Come up with a way to handle this before you leave, and your best option is to discuss this with your doctor.
In the same vein as the last section, create an emergency plan for any plausible issues that might occur when you’re abroad. In my case, I had to create a feasible plan if something happened to my medication and I was left without a way of using it for up to four months. I also talked to my doctor about any issues that I should describe or detail to emergency services doctors in the United Kingdom if I needed to go to the emergency room. For me, I haven’t had to go to the emergency room for my health condition, but for many disabled people that is not the case.
Remember: you know your body and your health condition. Think about what you will need, even if you don’t want to imagine the worst-case scenario.
Lastly, don’t let this post scare you into staying home. While the issues I had with my diagnosed autoimmune disease and medication when planning to study abroad and during my travels were some of the most stressful situations I’ve ever been in, I wouldn’t trade it for all of the amazing adventures I had and lifelong friendships I made. It was a risk I was willing to take and I don’t regret it. Your best bet is to plan ahead and know that you need to do what is right for you to have the fantastic adventure you deserve.