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Special needs no problem for UI Study Abroad

BY NICOLE KARLIS | DECEMBER 18, 2009 7:30 AM

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Close your left eye, and squint your right eye. That’s how UI senior Abigail Burkle sees the world.

But her vision impairment hasn’t stopped her from participating in typical college activities, including studying abroad. The 22-year-old recently returned from Chiba, Japan, where she spent 10 months.

“Vision has never stopped me,” she said.

Though only a small number of students who go abroad have disabilities, officials in the UI Office of Study Abroad hope to encourage more of them to go overseas by launching a diversity page on the office’s website, said Study Abroad adviser Autumn Tallman.

The Open Doors Survey, put on by the International Education Exchange — which surveyed more than 150 institutions — showed 3 percent of students who studied abroad in 2007 had disabilities.

Nearly half of those students had a learning disorder, and almost 30 percent had a mental disability.

In 2008, the most recent year with data available, 642 students were registered with UIStudent Disability Services.

While the UI has always asked students on the initial forms if they have any special needs, Study Abroad officials are making more efforts this year to reach out to students with disabilities.

Starting this semester, Tallman is in charge of a project to encourage traditionally underrepresented students to explore international opportunities. The office’s website will include information for disabled students along with open letters from past participants.

“Hearing from students about how they surmounted obstacles in order to go abroad will hopefully inspire others to follow in their footsteps,” Tallman wrote in an e-mail.

In addition, the UI has launched a $500 Diversity Ambassador Scholarship for students underrepresented in study-abroad programs.

UI Study Abroad advisers address special needs before students depart, Tallman said, but the majority of the conversations takes place with the sponsoring program.

Officials work with people on a case-by-case basis, sometimes involving UI Student Disability Services.

Burkle said she was required to fill out forms about her vision so her host university could accommodate her. She said one of her biggest challenges abroad was proving to the teachers in Japan that she didn’t need special attention. Many went out of their way to help her adjust, but after having such limited vision her whole life, she said, she is able to manage on her own.

In fact, people seemed so worried she wanted to show them she was all right. After Burkle rode a bike to class one rainy day while holding an umbrella in her hand, some people felt reassured, she said.

At the end of her 10 months, she felt that she proved she could do well in the classroom, Burkle said.

Burkle, a Japanese and communications major, said she hopes to return to Japan one day but would first like to work with students like her to motivate them to study abroad.


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