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Disability Empowerment

Why You Should Follow Your Dream to Study and Volunteer Abroad

Have you ever thought about studying, volunteering, or interning abroad? What’s stopping you? 

The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) is your passport to the world. The NCDE is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by Mobility International USA (MIUSA) with the mission to ensure more people with disabilities access the same international exchange programs and scholarships available to everyone else. 

The NCDE is a free resource that educates the disability community about international exchange opportunities in the United States and abroad, including scholarships and planning for accommodations abroad. The NCDE also shares best practices with professionals for planning inclusive international exchange programs for participants with a broad range of disabilities. NCDE offers a rich collection of online resources including articles, podcasts, webinars, and publications, including the A World Awaits You (AWAY) journal.

More opportunities

Today, there are more international exchange opportunities than ever before! 

Each year, people with disabilities, like MIUSA’s CEO Susan Sygall, experience destinations in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, bringing their canes, wheelchairs, scooters, and personal attendants along for the ride. They take crash courses in local languages. They raise money using scholarships, grants and crowdfunding campaigns. They pack efficiently, understanding that whatever they bring they must carry. And then they go.

“My studying in Australia can only be described as a magical time,” said Sygall, a paraplegic since 1971. “Suddenly, every single day was absolutely a new experience … food, culture, smells, friends, romances, and perspectives on myself and the world.”

During Susan’s travels, she realized there were two things from her experience that would impact her future career goals. First, she wanted every person with a disability to have the same opportunity to study abroad. 

“My other goal was to ensure that people with all types of disabilities realize that we are all part of the same global family,” she said. “We all face discrimination and we all share common history, experiences, joy, fun, and camaraderie that you just can’t get from nondisabled people.”

Toward these goals, in 1981, Sygall co-founded MIUSA along with her friend, Barbara Williams-Sheng. The organization develops and implements exchanges that focus on disability rights and leadership training. In 1995, MIUSA partnered with the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to create the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE). 

The NCDE explains that international exchange is traveling with a purpose that goes beyond visiting a country, wandering through museums, and enjoying local cuisine. It can involve taking a class, volunteering with a community development project, conducting research, or teaching.

Staying abroad

There are many opportunities to spend a semester or a year studying abroad. You can earn your master’s degree over two years on the Fulbright Student Program, or volunteer with the Peace Corps. Those with limited time or who simply want to get their feet wet before deciding to commit to something longer might spend a few weeks abroad learning about sustainable business, helping to build a school, or immersing themselves in a local language. 

Traveling with a purpose can result in massive gains in confidence, language proficiency, cultural competence, and many other personal and professional benefits. By sharing these benefits and more with people with disabilities, the NCDE also invites people with disabilities to explore career opportunities in the field of international education. 

As someone with a disability, you have unique experiences and perspective that the field needs more now than ever to bring greater diversity and inclusion. People who are disabled and identify with other diverse backgrounds are needed not only as participants in international exchange programs, but also as leaders of the organizations that run the programs.

Launching careers

Johileny Meran, NCDE Program Coordinator, recently launched her career in international education after studying abroad to London. As a Dominican immigrant, wheelchair user, and a person with other identities, Meran faced many unique challenges planning her study abroad program. She learned about the NCDE after her study abroad program and now wants more people with disabilities to know about the NCDE, the impact of studying abroad, and for people with disabilities to access the same opportunities she’s had and more!

If you are a person with a disability, we encourage you to explore the world of opportunities through international exchange. If you know someone with a disability, plant the seed of access to the world through international exchange. Read stories and experiences of others who have paved the way for future participants with disabilities, representing youth, college students, retirees and many others. 

We encourage individuals with all types of disabilities to contact us about questions related to studying, volunteering, or interning abroad. Don’t wait — start your exploration today! Visit NCDE at to learn more.

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