It’s a pleasure and privilege to be here today to talk about disabled students’ opportunities in the area of international mobility in higher education. My name is Freyja Haraldsdóttir and I’m an adjunct in the Department of Education in the University of Iceland, a PhD student and a feminist disability activist. Today I want to share my experience as a disabled student studying abroad, discuss some recommendations for change and finally stress why access to international mobility in higher education is essential for disabled students.
The year 2015 I went, together with my friend Embla, who is also disabled, as an exchange student for 7 months to Manchester Metropolitan University in England while working on my MA degree in gender studies. Overall, my experience was positive, and with support from the international office at the University of Iceland, and Erasmus+ and Manchester Metropolitan University, most of the barriers were sorted out. I got additional funding through Erasmus+ that was absolutely necessary to make this happen. But. There’s always the but.
First of all it is important to address my privilege. I’m one of the very few disabled persons in Iceland whom receives individual budgets for personal assistance services but I need 24h assistance. Without that kind of services I would not have been able to go – I think I can state that. Also, I have been able work alongside my studies so financially I was more stable then many disabled people who have to rely on the benefit system in Iceland. I was also able to have support from my family to some extent. In addition to this Embla and I, whom had support from each other in this process, are both experienced travellers, speak fluent English and are very much used to dealing with complicated systems of oppression and ‘computer says no’ scenarios. Also, we have network of friends in Manchester that was very welcoming and supportive. This is not something that we can be sure of in disabled students lives.
What I found personally to be lacking was someone, one person, who could follow me through this process en hold on to all the loose ends, instead of me needing to run between different offices and people to keep things a flout. I did not get any formal support in finding accessible accommodations, which I think was one of the biggest stressful parts. Embla and I found an apartment for rent three days before we left Manchester and we were not 100% sure it would be accessible. It turned out to be ok-ish but for 7 months I had to walk to university a few times a week to take a shower. I did it, and it was worth it, but it is a ridiculous situation to be in.
Access to international mobility in higher education for disabled people
I believe, as with anything else, disabled students access to international mobility in higher education, needs to be approached and thought about, in context with other areas of our lives. First of all, disabled students need to know that they can study abroad and that they will be supported in their process, both financially and practically. Also, disabled students who have studied abroad need to be representing student mobility programs and recruited for work in this area. This is important so disabled students have role models and can seek advice and guidance from someone who has similar experiences and therefore different insight and knowledge than nondisabled people. I was 18 years old when I first heard of a disabled person studying abroad and it was the first time I thought about being able to do that to. We may never forget that disabled people have been taught to settle for less and are not often trusted to make their decisions. To resist that is hard and we are all responsible in doing so.
I do believe that the cornerstones of disabled people’s independent living philosophy can be beneficial in mapping some of the issues that need to be addressed. I have mentioned the peer support, then there personal assistance and support if needed. Do the students have access to that in the first plays? Can they keep their support while studying in other countries? If not, how do we secure the support needed? Then we have housing. Disabled students need to have access to housing that meets their needs and is situated in places that are reachable and possibly located centrally. The housing often needs space for personal assistance. We also need to think of public transport and access to transport services. In Iceland I use my own car because both transport services and public transport is inaccessible. I was not able to take my car so accessible public transport was essential. The cost of transferring mobility aid (e.g. wheelchairs, beds) from one country to another or renting mobility aid needs to be covered. Also, in addition to this, I think it is of utter importance that student mobility programs make sure that disabled students have the opportunity to have a contact person, staff or student (or both), both in the university at home and in the new country, to hinder complications and isolation. Finally, in relation to health care, disabled students need to be supported in making connections, e.g. doctors and physiotherapists, if needed in the new country. People with long term illness and/or disabilities often have long and complicated stories and are afraid of using the health care system, even in their own country.
In more general terms student mobility programs need to be flexible and offer various ways of studying abroad, short or long term. We need to be mindful of the history of oppression in disabled people’s lives and the cost of it for our empowerment and wellbeing. I believe we also need to acknowledge intersectional structures of oppression and be aware that disability is not a single issue struggle. Disability does not exist in a vacuum but is interrelated to gender, class, sexuality, gender identity and expression, race and other identities that can in one way or another influence the opportunities of disabled people to study abroad. Disability is not a one size fits all category and there are also disability related hierarchies. People with visible and invisible impairment will not in all aspects experience barriers and prejudice the same way. The same goes for people with different impairments or multiple impairments. We need to think about the diversity of the group and be aware that certain groups, e.g. people with learning disabilities, will most likely be subjected to higher degrees of oppression and discrimination in higher education, than people with physical impairments. While advocating for international student mobility this is something we may never forget.
The feeling of control and empowerment
We know from research and history that disabled people have not had equal opportunities when it comes to education and the labor market. The CRPD therefore stresses the importance of securing the right to education on all levels, as well as access to participation on the open labor market. Being able to study abroad is hence an important investment in the process of disability justice. Moving to another country and experiencing new academic environment widens people’s horizon, disabled or not, and offers greater opportunities for growth. It can also be beneficial for further studies and job opportunities. It’s also a time where we often expend our social networks and build new relationships.
Finally, on a more personal note. Studying abroad for me was one of the most important thing I have ever done. The planning and organising was challenging but it was worth every second. The seven months I spent in England were liberating because I had space and time to just think about my own work and take care of myself which is not an easy task for a disability activist. It was also extremely empowering because a few years earlier, due to internalised ableism, I had not believed I could do this, and also because stepping outside your comfort zone, if that even exists for disabled people, fuels your self confidence, gives you a feeling of control over your own life and a sense of self worth and autonomy.