So there’s actually not a ton of information about studying abroad when you have needs. I remember spending so much time browsing the internet trying to find literally anything regarding disability abroad. So I guess that makes it my job to break the ice.

Safia is in her wheelchair wearing a Dance Marathon T-Shirt. She is sitting in front of a Dance Marathon background photo that is rainbow and says "Let's Celebrate" with a rainbow "FTK" leaning on the wall.

For a little bit of background, I have been chronically ill since birth. I am an ambulatory wheelchair user (part-time), who does have some mobility. And, I deal with a multitude of chronic illnesses that impede my energy levels. But, I really wanted to study abroad. So here we go.


Before I begin, it is VERY important that you do not study abroad if your health does not allow you to. The last thing you want is to have a medical emergency hundreds of thousands of miles away. My journey began by talking to my doctors about the possibility of an academic experience abroad.

A photo of Safia's primary care physician's office. In black text with a white background, it reads "And here we are".
This was one of the MANY visits I had with my doctors. I see several specialists, and I refused to go abroad until we all talked about it and they approved of both the process and the location.

My doctors helped me identify whether I was stable enough to go abroad and the tools I would need to succeed. For instance, they told me I would need a place with easy access to medical care, so one of the programs I was looking at was simply too rural for it to be safe. Also, I would need a place that had paved roads and many flat sidewalks; programs that were in the mountains were not a possibility.

I had to make sure my personal needs were met. I’m obviously a student first– that means I had to find a program that, on top of all my medical needs, would allow me to take the credits I needed to graduate. Being a Computer Science and Creative Writing double major made that surprisingly difficult. Think about it; I would need a STEM and English program abroad.

That’s more difficult than you would think. It’s important to start the process early–even earlier than maybe some of your abled friends would start looking. Personally, I started in November of 2018 for a Fall 2019 semester, and that seemed to work well for me. However, if you happen to be chronically ill and see several specialists, I would even start pushing for a year and a half before going. I managed to have everything I needed just in time for me to go, but there were definitely some loose ends that would’ve been nice to tie up before going. I almost delayed my flight a few days, but thankfully didn’t need to.

Alright, I have my list of programs, now what?

Well, that list of programs needs to get narrowed down. I ended up with two programs that would accommodate all my medical needs and my credits. If you have more options, I’d start narrowing them down by interest, first. Are there some programs that just sound better than the rest? Are some more accommodating than others? Are some in a more ideal location? Don’t be afraid to ask students who have been on the program or even the study abroad office. They will know better than you will, in terms of program details on accommodations, interests, popularity, etc.

Finding a good, personal fit is really important. This will be the place you will be living for an academic semester. If you aren’t feeling confident about the process, the place or your accommodations at any point, DO NOT GO. Trust that gut feeling.

That being said, it’s normal to feel uneasy or nervous about going abroad. I definitely had a few stress breakdowns in the early stages of applying. I was nervous about leaving Hope and my friends, and my comfort zone. Those are normal feelings. But, distinguish them from being unsure of your safety and whether you have the resources to succeed. One set of feelings is totally normal–the other is a red flag.

Don’t be afraid to call the program director. They’re there for you, and they often have a better idea of what’s available at the country/program you’re looking at. If not, they will definitely know who to contact and can get you connected with them. Before choosing this CIEE program, I called the program head, and several of the staff here at the American University of Sharjah to make sure everything I needed would be available. Everyone was super understanding and helpful, and really have been making my transition to campus a lot easier!

Safia is in her wheelchair in front of a building that reads "Arabia's Wildlife Center" in English with the Arabic directly above it. Hugging Safia from behind is a woman wearing sunglasses and a red hijab. They are both smiling
Rawya is one of the study abroad staff here. She works with CIEE and has been helping me get the tools I need to succeed.

As scary as it can be, communicating is VERY key.

Cool, I’ve found a program, applied, and got in! Now what?

Congrats, how exciting! But the work doesn’t stop there. Also, frankly, here comes a ton of paperwork.

If you have any sort of academic accommodations, you will need to talk to disability services to make sure they transfer. In other words, visiting our local disability services.

I had many meetings with them. Not only can they help you potentially pick a program, but they can make sure your accommodations transfer over to your study abroad program. They can also help you find resources in your new home. For instance, Mrs. Dattels showed me a resource called Mobility International USA that has a ton of valuable information on accessibility abroad, something I wouldn’t have necessarily discovered on my own. They can help with the literal mounds of paperwork that has to get done to study abroad. A good amount of it does have to get filled out by your doctors so make sure to keep in contact with them, and visit them several times before finally going abroad.

Right Before You Go

Before you go, make sure you have enough medication to get you through the next few months. Make sure that your medication is legal in the country you’re traveling to.

That’s another thing you should be aware of: some countries have medications that are flat out illegal, but others require some extra paperwork to enter the country. For instance, I learned that one of my migraine medications was a controlled substance here in the UAE. I talked to my doctors and, thankfully, it was a medication that we decided I could function without for a few months. I could have filled out the necessary paperwork to bring it into the country, but it turned out to be too much of a hassle. Make sure you do your research! You can always ask your program director for more information if you’re confused, but Google is usually pretty helpful in that regard.

Be sure to have copies of the prescriptions on you! I had a giant folder with copies of all my medical documentation stowed in my carry-on, including a note from my doctor indicating my disabilities. It ended up being EXTREMELY essential, especially at customs. To be honest, I even wish I had more documentation so just get as much documentation as possible.

Then, when you’re booking the flight, make sure you call the airline. Most airlines will give you a free bag if you need one for your medical supplies, but you often have to fill out extra paperwork. I ended up getting an extra bag for all my medical equipment and was able to check my mobility device for free. That can save you so much money and hassle.

I did one last round of appointments with my doctors before I went, just to make sure I was okay to travel. And now, here I am!

Safia is standing on the steps of the Student Center at the American University os Sharjah. Above her head, a banner reads "Welcome New Students". Safia ia wearing a red shirt with white stripes, jeans, and a black cardigan and is smiling

Traveling with a disability or with extra accommodations can be nerve-wracking. It’s a lot of paperwork. It’s pretty stressful. But it can be done, if you take the necessary precautions and take care of yourself in the process.

I’m super nervous to spend a semester. The nature of chronic illness is that it’s unpredictable. But, I am confident in the accommodations I have in place, and after being here a week, I am thrilled to say I made the right choice. It may be a lot of work, but it is super worth it!

Published by Safia Hattab

Class of 2021 CIEE Sharjah, United Arab Emirates Computer Science, English (Creative Writing Emphasis)

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