CU Boulder Student Finds Studying Abroad, Despite Wheelchair, Delivers Adventure, Friendship and “Non-Stop Fun”
“You Just Have To Throw Yourself In,” says Molly Bloom, Junior Lingustics Major
By Stacey Hartmann
GlobaLinks NewsWire Editor
When 21-year-old Molly Bloom studied abroad last semester in New Zealand, she proved her independence with every new experience.
Like most undergraduates interested in overseas study, Bloom, a junior linguistics major at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wanted to challenge her understanding of the world, travel to culturally different places, and try new things, like scuba diving and traveling with friends to remote islands where roads aren’t paved and fast food comes from a guy who climbs a coconut tree.
But Bloom, who lost her left leg three years ago in a vehicle accident, faced additional layers of consideration in going abroad, most significantly how she would get around in a wheelchair on an unfamiliar campus in a far-away country where she knew no one.
The decision “was huge for me,” says Bloom, who is from Denver. “Because this was my first time living away from home.”
After some research on cities and campuses with good wheelchair accessibility, Bloom settled on Dunedin,
New Zealand, and the University of Otago via the AustraLearn study abroad program.
“I wanted to just have the experience that being abroad can provide,” she says, “expanding your mind in all of these great ways and just having a very fun time.”
Bloom was a bit anxious, however, about meeting people and making new friends.
“I can be kind of shy,” she says. “But I really like to be surrounded by friends. That’s just something that would have been hard for me, even if I wasn’t a student with a disability.”
And then there were her parents, whom she knew would worry about her being so far away.
“Every mom worries about her child,” she said, “but because of my accident, my mom worries about it 10 times more.”
Research Makes Study Abroad Plans Reality
New Zealand appealed to Bloom in part because she knew she could experience a different culture without the added challenge of needing to know another language.
She also knew Dunedin, in addition to being a cool city, was considered fairly inclusive for people who use wheelchairs.
“I did a lot of research before I went,” she said. “The reason why I chose Dunedin was because I saw on a web site for students with disabilities that the campus is very accessible.”
She made contact by email with the university’s disability services department and the people there to be experienced and able to anticipate all of her questions.
Those questions included finding out whether her classes were in wheelchair-accessible buildings and whether she could get into student housing close to campus that included a roll-in shower.
“They were very responsive,” she says. “I just sent them questions when I had them. They were proactive about finding housing for me.”
AustraLearn assisted in making sure the details of Bloom’s travel, program orientation and campus accommodations were well planned and communicated clearly.
“AustraLearn also was incredibly receptive and proactive about making sure all of my needs were met before I went,” she says.
Good Communication, Planning Important For Successful Experiences
AustraLearn is prepared to assist students with disabilities or special needs by providing information, guidance and support in conjunction with the host university programs, says Kathryn Olinger, Director of AustraLearn Programs.
When students with physical or other challenges are interested in studying abroad, they are typically proactive in contacting AustraLearn by phone or email to ask questions programs and accessibility, Olinger says.
“When we find out there’s a special need, we ask the student to provide some documentation so we’re clear on what the need is and what special accommodations are needed so they can be most successful while abroad,” she says.
Good communication is key in successfully getting students with special needs abroad, Olinger says, as well as attention to detail in each phase of a student’s stay, from departure to returning home.
“We play a role as a middleman in making sure everyone has gotten their Is dotted and their Ts crossed,” she says.
It’s important that a student and their overseas university are on the same page in terms of meeting special needs. These might include making sure a classroom is accessible by wheelchair, getting better handles put on doors so a student with limited arm function can open them, or arranging extra time for test taking for a student with a learning disability.
“In the context of Australia and New Zealand, accessibility and accommodation of students with disabilities is quite good,” Olinger says. “We haven’t been limited in allowing the students who come to us with disabilities to go.”
Not all countries and universities, however, are as far along in meeting the needs of diverse populations, Olinger says, so it’s important students research their options.
Disabled Students Studying Abroad
One important resource for students and international education organizations is Mobility International USA, a leading advocacy group working to increase the number of people with disabilities who participate in international education, among other goals.
Founded in 1981 by Susan Sygall and Barbara Williams, the non-profit organization serves people with cognitive, hearing, learning, mental, health-related, physical, systemic, vision and other disabilities.
As part of its efforts, the group administers the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE), which provides free information and one-on-one consulting for individuals with disabilities, exchange coordinators, disability organizations and other professionals.
There are indications more U.S. students with disabilities are studying abroad, but solid trends aren’t apparent because of a lack of data reporting.
In terms of international education, more than 1,400 U.S. students with disabilities studied abroad in 2007-2008, according to most recent data from the Institute of International Education (IIE)’s annual “Open Doors“ report.
That number represents just 3% of the total number who studied abroad that year but can’t be interpreted as a national-level finding because not enough institutions contributed data to the report.
Those numbers will need to rise to reflect the 11% of U.S. college students with disabilities, as reported in a federal study.
Of that population, students with physical disabilities including orthopedic and mobility impairment, represented 15%, according to an October 2009 report on higher education and disability by the Government Accountability Office.
The largest portion of those disabled students – 24% – reported having mental, emotional or psychiatric conditions, or depression. Attention deficit disorder (ADD) was the next most common type of disability reported at 19%. Sensory disabilities accounted for 9 %, and 24% cited other disabilities.
Rough Adjustment, Then Non-Stop Fun
Bloom departed In July 1, 2009, for New Zealand and arrived without any major travel hiccups.
The first few weeks at school, however, were difficult as she dealt with the stress of not knowing anyone and learning how to get around in an unfamiliar place.
Her comfort level began to rise, however, as she adjusted to her surroundings and began making friends.
“It took me about a month, and I felt pretty secure that I knew people,” she says, “and I was happy with the friends I made and wasn’t so much feeling the stress.”
One significant moment came when Bloom, who plays on a women’s wheelchair basketball team in Colorado, joined a co-ed wheelchair basketball team in Dunedin.
“That’s one of the things I missed most from home,” she says. “When I found that, it was huge.”
More broadly, Bloom felt like people in New Zealand were generally more open toward people with disabilities.
“It’s not really something out of the ordinary,” she says, “and they just treat you like any other person and that is what I hope for. I think it’s better there than in the U.S.”
When Bloom wasn’t involved in her classes, which included study of the Maori language, she went with friends on a variety of excursions and adventures.
One trip included two days of skiing at the Cardrona Alpine Resort, where she was able to rent equipment from the resort’s ski program for people with disabilities.
“It was great,” she says.
In December, she concluded her semester abroad with a trip to the Pacific Island nation of Tonga, an ancient Kingdom where roads aren’t necessarily paved, sidewalks aren’t in the best shape and buildings aren’t accessible by wheelchair.
She relied on her crutches a lot, but in a place so different, she says, “you have to just throw yourself in.”
In doing so, she got to experience the unique island culture, lounge on the beach, eat traditional island food, including local seafood and milk from a freshly picked coconut, and go scuba diving with a friend.
“It was a really incredible experience,” Bloom says.
So much so, she’s already planned for more and will depart this month for yet another semester abroad, this time in Sweden, where she’ll study Swedish and Swedish films toward her Nordic studies minor.
Then, it’s back to the United States for her last year of school. Between now and then, Bloom will figure out her career aims, which at times have pointed toward adaptive sports. At this point, however, she’s just not sure.
“New Zealand has triggered a phase for me where my mind is just expanding,” she says. “I’m just getting very interested in a lot of sciences and art.”
“It’s made me much more independent and confidant,” she says.