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Robert Kozarek’s study abroad trip to Australia almost never happened.
During the summer before his senior year of high school in 2005, Kozarek, driving below the speed limit in a heavy rainstorm, had a devastating car accident. The car he was driving began hydroplaning, flipped over a guardrail, and rolled multiple times before finally coming to rest upside down at the bottom of a small ravine. Kozarek survived, but was left with a broken neck and vertebrae. He was paralyzed from the chest down, and would have to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Jump ahead to 2010. Kozarek, now an Illinois student on his way to earning a degree in English, began revisiting the idea of studying abroad, something he’d considered prior to his accident—and something about a quarter of Illinois undergraduates will do before graduation.
“I have always loved to travel and to experience new and different cultures and people,” said the Madison, Wisconsin native. “I wanted an experience where I could live in a different city, in a different country, and meld into the culture.”
Kozarek wanted to get involved through the campus Study Abroad Office (SAO) exchange program at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. To pursue this passion, there would be obstacles. He was told very few, if any, disabled students had gone abroad and participated in Illinois-led programs. The challenges facing any student with a disability going abroad are numerous, according to Susann Sears, disability specialist with Disability Resources and Educational Services at Illinois.
“One thing we discuss with students is the fact that the federal protections in this country do not follow them to other countries,” Sears said. “Things cannot necessarily be replicated as far as supports go in other countries because of that, and because there are cultural differences in how disability is interpreted.”
Things common at Illinois and in the U.S., such as curb cuts, wheelchair ramps, and automatic doors, are often missing in other countries. Also, many students stay with host families while they are abroad. “The reality is that private homes can be particularly inaccessible,” Sears said.
While Kozarek’s disability did create a number of hurdles other students may not face, the most pressing issue was indeed finding an appropriate place to live. It had to be a place that was wheelchair accessible, yet made him feel like he was, well, in Australia. Eventually, with the help of former SAO Coordinator of International Programs Steven Dale, the two were able to locate a suitable flat near the university.
Once settled Down Under, Kozarek was also able to take brief trips to New Zealand, Hong Kong, China, and Thailand, which created challenges of their own. From a flat tire and doorways too narrow to accommodate his wheelchair in New Zealand, to losing a wheel in Thailand, not to mention the language barrier in China, he was forced into situations that required problem solving. These were just some of the tangible examples of what he and all students can gain from travelling outside their comfort zone in a study abroad experience.
“Sometimes it was as simple as looking up the nearest bike shop, while other times it was as difficult as trying to find a machine shop that would make a new bearing for my wheelchair,” he said. “It made for a pretty interesting experience but I never really realized how adaptable I could be until I was forced into those positions.”
Tackling these challenges head on as a person with a disability also allowed him to gain confidence in himself. “If I can do something as monumental as move to and live in a completely different country there is not a lot else in this world that I can’t do,” he said.
But the opportunity in Australia didn’t quench Kozarek’s thirst for studying abroad or spreading the word of what was indeed possible for disabled students. After returning from Australia, Kozarek began working in the SAO at Illinois, advising students on their upcoming study abroad experiences. His passion did not go unnoticed. After graduation in Spring 2012, the SAO retained him as an outreach assistant.
When it came to students with disabilities from the University of Illinois studying abroad, there wasn’t much precedent. While Kozarek was never told he couldn’t study abroad, the fact that few if any disabled students had gone abroad through SAO programs would make it more difficult. Also, the University had never really targeted disabled students specifically for study abroad experiences, according to Moira Rogers, director of the Study Abroad Office.
“The truth is we hadn’t explicitly encouraged [disabled students to study abroad],” Rogers said. “But many of our programs are accessible. Going forward, we want to be more proactive in helping disabled students with logistics so students won’t have to wonder about accessibility concerns. We want our office to be welcoming to them—to know that we take their needs into consideration.”
Enter an initiative titled “Enabled Abroad.” Spearheaded by Kozarek with the strong support of Rogers, the SAO, and the University, the initiative has aimed to show that study abroad is accessible to everyone, no matter their ability level. “Basically, what we are trying to do is to show students that identify with a disability that they do, in fact, have options to study abroad,” said Kozarek.
Subsequently, an Enabled Abroad Scholarship has been created to encourage undergraduate students with physical or sensory disabilities to study abroad. The non-competitive scholarship, offering between $500-$4000 depending on program duration, comes with the requirement that all recipients carry out a follow-up service project to promote the scholarship and encourage other students with disabilities to pursue their own experience studying abroad.
In addition, the SAO is looking for other financial opportunities. “We are looking into other scholarship opportunities through Mobility International and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) so that we may continue to serve our students,” said Jennifer Ewald, SAO associate director.
The SAO is developing an accessibility chart as part of the initiative to assess the accessibility of sites abroad and create summaries for each, allowing each student to determine if a particular destination is a good fit. The office is also working to improve its marketing of the study abroad experience to students with disabilities. Since the Enabled Abroad Initiative began, several students with disabilities have gone abroad, Ewald said, including a student with hearing impairment, another student in a wheelchair, and a student with muscular dystrophy.
“This program is extremely important for me because I realize how important studying abroad is and how life changing it was for me,” Kozarek said. “This is my way to repay for all that I learned and experienced in the semester I was away. If I can give that gift to other students with disabilities, I feel that I would accomplish something that was not only important but completely necessary, especially with the reputation for innovation that is synonymous with [the University of Illinois].”
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