Student illustration

Studying abroad with disabilities

A guide for UK exchange students

Many British students describe their time abroad as the most inspirational experience along their educational path. A foreign exchange can become the cherry on top of a perfect resume. But is it equally available for everyone?
In 2021, over 15% of UK students declared a disability, which makes them a group that needs to be reckoned with and taken into consideration. Research shows that young people with health conditions are increasingly more aware of their rights and empowered to execute them. They want to get the most out of their studies and keep up with their peers. As a result, for many students with disabilities going abroad is an important step toward more independence and self-reliance.

Students, who have studied abroad with disabilities, say…

…it has pushed me to fend for myself, stay motivated and toughen up – I think these skills will really help me out when I start working.

…honestly, if I hadn’t gone abroad, I wouldn’t have realised just how many fantastic opportunities await me out there.

…I returned with a newfound self-assurance and a bunch of leadership skills. Studying abroad helps students recognise that they don’t have to let their difficulties define them.

it’s really reassuring to travel to parts of the world where people are willing to help out, or they’re just as friendly as they are here. It’s a perspective that truly broadens my horizons and reminds me that I’m not restricted to just where I was born.

How many UK students with disabilities go abroad?

Currently, there are no exact figures on how many students with disabilities go abroad. No new statistics have been published since before the pandemic and over the past couple of years, it has been particularly challenging to gather reliable data. Nevertheless, there are indications suggesting that the situation is more optimistic than it may appear:

  • The number of students with disabilities is on the rise. According to the 2022 Equality in Higher Education Report by Advanced HE, disability disclosure rates have nearly doubled since 2010/11, growing from 8% to 15.2%. The most significant increase was observed among the students reporting a mental health condition.
  • Pre-pandemic data showed positive trends in promoting inclusive international mobility. For instance, during the 2015/16 academic year, 1.5% of students with disabilities participated in outward mobility programmes, marking an increase compared to previous years.
  • Widening access remains a key objective for all higher education institutions in the UK. As a case in point, the newly started Turing Programme places a strong emphasis on supporting students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups. In 2021-22, 47.6% of participants were eligible for extra funding.
  • Recent statistics show a gradual return to international mobility patterns seen before the pandemic. UUKI’s International Facts and Figures show a slow, but steady recovery from the long-term effects of the pandemic and the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. In 2021/22, there were 24,410 instances of outward mobility, representing an almost 89% increase from 2020, although still just over half of the 2019/20 figures.

Students who disclosed as disabled since 2010/2011

A chart showing an upward trend of students disclosing their disabilities at UK universities in 2010-21
Source: Advanced HE (2022) Equality in higher education statistical reports

Summing up, increased awareness and a reduced stigma surrounding health conditions have led to a positive trend in disability disclosure. Greater disclosure leads to more tailored support and empowers young people to pursue international experiences.

As most exchange schemes and programmes prioritise inclusivity, it is easier than ever to find a suitable placement and secure funding. Consequently, the number of students with disabilities going abroad will soon match or even surpass pre-pandemic levels.

How to choose a destination?

In 2022 UK students have visited 170 countries around the world, including the USA, Canada and China. However, European destinations continue to be the most popular, hosting more than half of all outward mobility.

That’s why, in our guide, we focus on European countries and their inclusive higher education policies. Thanks to the common EU framework they are transparent and easy to follow. Below you’ll find an overview of the 10 most popular European destinations chosen by UK students in recent years. Maybe one of them will soon become your host country!

European destinations by instances of incoming mobilities from the UK

A bar chart presenting the 10 most popular European destinations and the number of incoming mobilities they hosted
Source: UUKI’s International Facts and Figures 2023
Study abroad for disabled students: photo of a group of students.

Finding a programme and funding

Start planning your international study experience with an overview of the most popular programmes: newly launched Turing Scheme, Taith Scheme and Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters. In addition, learn more about several less known exchange possibilities, which provide financial assistance for students with physical, sensory or learning disabilities, e.g., Google Europe Scholarship for Students with Disabilities, DAAD’s Mobility with Disability or travel bursaries funded by British Universities. Apart from a list of opportunities, we provide some specific tips on how to successfully apply for funds.

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Outward mobility: a young man in a wheelchair is waiting at the airport.

Before you go

When it comes to accessible travel, preparation is the key! And like it or not, your to-do list is probably going to have a couple of extra boxes to tick. But don’t let this hold you back! You find here practical pre-arrival tips on e.g.: post-Brexit visa requirements, booking means of transport, packing, organising health care as well as dealing with unfamiliar cultural attitudes. On top of that, we help you navigate through some necessary paperwork and advise which medical documentation you should take along.

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10 young-happy-entrepreneur-wheelchair-reading-message-smart-phone-while-working-home

Support systems in the EU

You’re wondering if the EU is a welcoming destination for studying with disabilities? The answer is yes! For the last decade, almost all European countries have been working hard to improve their key inclusion framework. Universities and colleges comply with the European Pillar of Social Rights, which grants all persons with disabilities equal rights to lifelong education. Therefore, you can expect a standard support system in place, wherever you go. This article provides information on academic counselling services, alternative assessment methods, assistive technology libraries, study skill tutors, note-takers, sign language interpreters and other relevant topics. Additionally, it lists country-specific student unions and disability support groups, which can provide further assistance.

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European City: photo of a cane along a tactile yellow line

Top destinations for students with disabilities

The last article gives students a tour of Luxembourg, Helsinki and Barcelona – the three winners of the 2022 Access City Award granted by the European Commission. The distinction has been created to reward efforts made by local authorities to make urban life easier for people with disabilities. We start by having a look at each city’s renowned universities and checking their inclusion strategies. After that, you get a little taste of what to expect while using public transport, going to a park, visiting a museum or running an errand at the local town hall.

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