Caring for those in Need

International Travel Offers Great Opportunities for Youth with Disabilities to Develop Personally and Professionally

In this increasingly globalized world, greater cultural awareness is valuable for anyone, with or without a disability. Parents can support their child‘s development of global competence through purposeful travel and international tourism.

BY Justin Harford | June 2023 | Category: Summer Fun, Travel

International Travel Offers Great Opportunities for Youth with Disabilities to Develop Personally and Professionally

I caught the travel bug young when I was in high school. My parents took my brother and me on a business trip with them to Santiago, Chile. We spent about 10 days there, and the experience for me was fascinating. Everyone around us spoke a different language. We visited farms, went to restaurants, and even traveled to Easter Island, while my mom negotiated our way with her limited Spanish. Later, I took advantage of other opportunities for international travel, which included a choir trip to China with my sister, and a tour of Spain with my Spanish class. 

Intrigued by these early international experiences, I was eager to explore the world more, but how was that going to work for me as someone who had been blind since I was very young? I was not going to be able to point and gesture the way my relatives could. That galvanized me to study Spanish which led to the discovery of my aptitude for languages.

I studied abroad, without my parents, for a year in Santiago Chile. I backpacked solo around the Southern Cone, noting phone numbers and addresses in a braille notebook bought from an arts and crafts store. I recruited sighted people to read class and archival materials to me, promising English lessons to the Chileans, and Spanish support to the Americans, in return for their help. I wrote my history thesis on a topic that had never been explored before, and I made friends that I continue to speak with today.

All of this happened because of my early childhood experiences traveling internationally with my parents or with the support of my parents. 

Seek Out Purposeful International Travel with Your Kids

There are many programs that offer youth the opportunity to study or volunteer abroad. Websites like or highlight a variety of options across the globe.

Some young people with disabilities are ready and eager to join a program on their own. Sara Giraldo, a visually impaired woman from Colombia, traveled to the United States as a volunteer with the Youth Ambassadors Program, at the age of 18. She had been enamored with American culture, ever since she was a 14 year-old, studying English at a local community center. She learned about the Youth Ambassadors Program, submitted her application, and was accepted, with her parents only finding out after. Her mother, Isabel, mostly worried about whether her daughter was adequately prepared at such a young age, to go abroad on her own, but after participating in program orientations for parents and learning about the emergency response plans in place, she felt better about it.

Others may benefit from being accompanied by a friend or a family member, especially if they are minors who have had limited experience living on their own. Sara Hamilton went with her 14-year-old daughter Jane, to Poland, to teach English to children with a program called Global Volunteers.

One aspect that influenced their decision to go with Global Volunteers had to do with Jane’s sensitivity to sensory input, like certain noises and foods, and the occasional need to decompress, resulting from her neurological challenges due to Tourette, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Global Volunteers staff was very professional and gracious, allowing them flexibility when Jane needed to step out. The program staff made sure plain, familiar food such as, bread and butter were available in addition to many unfamiliar foods.

In addition to being a meaningful bonding experience for mother and daughter, and an excellent opportunity to build teaching skills, while working with enthusiastic communities of children, they were able to prepare Jane to leave her parents behind, to study abroad with Youth for Understanding, in Japan the following summer.

As Sara explained, “it was extremely rewarding to be able to create authentic human connections with all of the children, the staff, and the other volunteers, and feel like we were spending time doing something that would make a difference in so many people’s lives.” 

Support Your Children to Study Abroad

The US State Department recognizes the value of international exchange for youth, and offers a variety of opportunities, many of which come with funding. High School students can study a critical language with the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). Others can go to high school in another country. The Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program offers funded opportunities to go to high school in Eastern Europe, for a year, while the Youth Exchange and Study Abroad (YES) Program offers similar opportunities in Africa and the Middle East. For a Western/European experience, the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) offers the chance to spend a year at a high school in Germany. All of these programs include generous funding, and the only language prerequisite is a desire to learn the language.

Colton Treadwell, an individual with physical disabilities, had a strong interest in learning Russian. He was accepted to participate in a Russian immersion program through the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Because his father was in the service, Colton had grown up traveling and moving around all of his life. He was a fulltime power chair user, who, while growing up, had required a lot of support from his father with activities of daily living. Now, he aspired to study abroad in a country with minimal wheelchair access, and took the lead in setting up a support plan during his program. Colton’s experience in Georgia forced him to be more resourceful and gain useful skills, particularly around traveling to locations that required multiple connecting flights. As Colton’s father, James Treadwell, noted, “It doesn’t feel as though I get as many off-schedule requests to come see him, as I did before he went abroad. So, I would see that as a gain.” Through international travel, Colton found opportunities to feel like he was contributing to society and being more independent. 

Ask the Right Questions

Many programs are capable of supporting student participants with all sorts of disabilities. At the same time, adolescents may not always ask the right questions to determine whether a program can provide the support they need. That's where parents can be especially helpful. “At orientations, kids are mostly thinking about what they are going to eat, and where they are going to visit”, reflects Sara. “Parents are concerned about where their children are going to get their medications.”

During the planning for his experience in Georgia, Colton asked his father to share his concerns, which then helped guide his preparation for his exchange program. He invited his father to meetings with program staff and with an access advisor with the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, where they discussed the details of how his power wheelchair would get transported to the host country, and what it would look like for him getting from one place to another, once on the ground. James recalled that when he realized Colton’s trip to Georgia might actually happen, he began to pay closer attention and really think about what he would absolutely have to have in place, in order to survive on his own, without James two hours away.

Parents can also support their children in more basic ways. Although Isabel was not able to directly support in the planning calls for Sara's program, due to limited English, she and her husband were available to support their daughter with putting together application materials.


Whether volunteering or studying abroad, international education can be a great way for young people with and without disabilities to develop personally and professionally. It can also be an activity that kids and parents can experience together. To learn more about how to study or volunteer abroad with a disability, visit or write us at  

The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange is a project of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, designed to increase the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange, between the United States and other countries, and is supported in its implementation by Mobility International USA. Resources and services are free of charge. 


Justin Harford (he/him/his) is a Program Coordinator with the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, working to increase the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange by providing information and resources to both individuals with disabilities and higher education professionals. Previously, Justin worked for two years in disability community organizing and policy in the foothills of Northern California. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Latin American History and Spanish Literature from University of California, Berkeley. He studied abroad at the Pontifical Catholic University in Santiago Chile, where he researched and wrote a thesis on the history of the blind in Chilean society. In 2008, he spent 10 weeks immersing himself in the culture and language of Michoacan, Mexico. 

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