Special Mobility Series: Study Abroad Work Begins Even Before the First Plane Ride

Arden Lee is a Chemistry and Creative Writing student at Susquehanna University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia in 2015. Arden is a Special Correspondent for Unpacked, writing a series on mobility and study abroad.

One might imagine that you have less work cut out for you on a well-established study abroad program like IFSA-Butler than if you were planning it all on your own. And that’s probably true for most students—but I wasn’t expecting the challenges I encountered before even leaving American soil in my wheelchair. From classes to visas to just plain logistical issues pertaining to my mobility, I dealt with a fair share.

I had actually chosen to study at Murdoch because of their chemistry program. It was only after I was approved to go (and had filled out numerous forms…) that I realized the class I was hoping to take wasn’t offered that semester. But, I had already put in so much work for my applications, housing, and getting courses approved that I couldn’t back out now. And I didn’t want to—instead, I was able to register for other classes that would fulfill general requirements at my home university.

This was just the beginning of me accepting things that go wrong and learning from them.

First Hurdle: The Visa

Perhaps I was as naïve as Johnny Depp when I filled out my visa application, not thinking twice when they required a medical examination.

Australia has very strict rules when it comes to entering the country. My flight there was only a few months after the publicized debacle of Johnny Depp’s dogs being either forced to leave or be euthanized because Depp refused to keep them in quarantine. Perhaps I was as naïve as Johnny Depp when I filled out my visa application, not thinking twice when they required a medical examination. I thought that because I was applying for a student visa, I would just need a physical, like I did before I entered college.

Boy, was I wrong. All because I checked the box saying I had a preexisting condition. And after seeing a doctor, he recommended to the Australian government that they not allow me into the country; he was worried I would abuse their free healthcare all because I was in a wheelchair. I had to provide multiple sources of documentation proving that I had health insurance, that I had enough money to pay my medical bills if my insurance ran out, and that I was perfectly healthy and probably wouldn’t even need any medical support.

The Blue Mountains near Katoomba, New South Wales. I never believed I, someone in a wheelchair, could hike around a mountain and wander a rainforest, much less do both in the same day on a completely new continent.
The Blue Mountains near Katoomba, New South Wales. I never believed I, someone in a wheelchair, could hike around a mountain and wander a rainforest, much less do both in the same day on a completely new continent.

Making Mobility

I had to think about the obvious things, like budgeting and shopping, packing, and safety concerns, and my home university held workshops in dealing with these exact worries. I gave myself a budget of $150 for groceries every week between both myself and my caregiver. Fortunately, my parents already had an account with a bank found in Australia, so I never had to worry about foreign transaction fees. On the other hand, though, because I used their account the entire time, I had to write a fairly large check to pay them back when I came home (but it was so worth it). I also decided early on to bring as little as possible, buy things like bedding and kitchenware there, and donate them before I left. This really worked in getting my suitcases back home without any extra fees.

My IFSA-Butler program advisor immediately got in contact with the disabilities coordinator at Murdoch and got information about what they do and if it matched with our expectations.

But there were other logistics that the other students simply didn’t have to work through. In addition to classes and my visa, I also had to consider the logistics of traveling and living abroad while in a wheelchair. Before applying to this program, my parents and I researched extensively about accessibility. My IFSA-Butler program advisor immediately got in contact with the disabilities coordinator at Murdoch and got information about what they do and if it matched with our expectations.

Create an accessible
On the plane on the way to Sydney. I remember thinking “This is real and this is really happening” as we landed.

I sent the same accommodations plan I gave Susquehanna that included my specific needs, which, most importantly, allowed my caregiver to be with me at all times. It also included that I would be provided with a desk that my chair could fit under. I researched how to bring a powered wheelchair onto both American and Australian planes, and we figured out what accommodations and public transportation were accessible.

Integrated and Accessible

Similarly, IFSA-Butler made sure that my caregiver was included as a participant in all of the excursions we had in Sydney, and I never had to worry what I’d do without her. And after getting accepted, we worked closely with IFSA-Butler to have wheelchair accessible accommodations both during the orientation in Sydney and while I lived at Murdoch.

The housing staff at Murdoch made sure I would have an accessible flat with just two rooms, so that my caregiver and I would be in close proximity at all times. They also made sure my wheelchair could clear all the doors and hallways in the building. These seemingly minor logistical challenges piled up quickly in the months leading up to my departure, but it would’ve definitely been more difficult if I’d decided to figure it out once I got to Australia.

In the end, the planning paid off. The hostel we stayed at in Sydney, the walking tour of the city, and even the hike around the Blue Mountains were completely accessible.

While some things had to be arranged a little differently, IFSA-Butler took care of it seamlessly. Having a physical disability isn’t synonymous with “not doing things.” It might require some extra work and planning, but there’s an endless amount of possibilities out there. Obviously, I would not be skydiving, but I would have never imagined I’d be able to go whale watching, or even travel to Australia in the first place. Some expectations are meant to be broken.

This is part 1 of Exploring the World From a Seated Position: Studying Abroad with a Physical Disability. For more insights into the study abroad experience for students with disabilities, read Part 2 and Part 3.

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