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International Exchange: A valuable steps towards employability.

Jessica Lorenz, a 21-year-old San Francisco State University student, was one of 13 participants in the Mobility International USA (MIUSA) 3-week International Exchange Program to Costa Rica during the summer of 1999. During her last days in Costa Rica, Jessica wrote an article about her first international experience. She shared the following with her fellow participants, with and without disabilities (Lorenz, 1999):

"The MIUSA motto is an appropriate way to sum up the trip--'Challenge Yourself and Change the World." [TM] We pushed the envelope, as they say, and I don't know about anyone else, but I learned that my maximum capacity is a lot greater than I ever knew. We learned so much and were positively changed. I know none of us will ever be the same."

Ms. Lorenz is blind and is enrolled in California's vocational rehabilitation (VR) program working towards getting a multi-subject teaching credential with the goal of becoming an adapted physical education teacher. (1) In California, getting hired as a teacher often requires Spanish language skills, so Ms. Lorenz is also working towards a minor in Spanish. When she suggested the international exchange program as part of her vocational training, her VR counselor agreed that it would be an added asset to her education endeavors by increasing her Spanish skills and disability knowledge, both of which would ultimately make her more employable as a teacher. She was fortunate to have a VR counselor who understood the connection between this international experience and her future employability.

International exchange participation often leads to an advantage in seeking employment whether you have a disability or not. That is why Lynnae Ruttledge, assistant administrator for planning and policy with the Oregon Vocational Rehabilitation Division, feels it is vital for young adults with disabilities to include international experience as part of their preparations to enter the increasingly global U.S. job market. "Even with the ADA, people with disabilities in this country still are not always considered equally for positions of employment. A job applicant with a disability who has international experience brings that much more to the table to support his or her qualifications for the job." When an employer may be concerned whether an applicant with a disability can meet the demands of the job but then learns that the individual successfully studied in Brazil for a year, those worries may just disappear. The ability to be successful in an academic or structured international program implies that the person has a certain ability to be flexible, culturally aware, creative, and motivated, to say the least; and, if individuals have high employment expectations for themselves, an international experience may be just what is needed to lift them to the next level closer to reaching that goal. Lynnae Ruttledge and many other successful individuals with disabilities employed in influential positions have had international experience. A few of them are: Judith Heumann, former Assistant Secretary for the Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services; journalist John Hockenberry; Heather Harker, a Kellogg fellow and a graduate student in the public administration program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; Rich Spittler, director of the Bay Area Outdoor Recreation Program; and Jan Garret, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living.

Based on 20 years of international and disability experience, Mobility International USA has compiled the following list of benefits of participating in an international program-such as studying, volunteering, researching, working, or interning abroad-all of which add to an individual's employability. These benefits include:

* A more open and accepting attitude towards cultural and diversity issues;

* The experience of learning how to function in a new environment;

* The opportunity to develop or improve second language skills;

* An increased interest in local and global community involvement;

* Leadership skills;

* Self-confidence;

* Independent-thinking skills;

* Increased self-awareness and self-direction;

* Improved general job skills (i.e., interpersonal skills, flexibility, and adaptability);

* The opportunity to learn other cultural and world view perspectives; and

* The opportunity to achieve a goal and experience a sense of accomplishment.

Funding Options

If a person with a disability is pursuing a career in which international experience is vital, there are some options to consider for funding. An excellent source for up-to-date, free information is the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (see Resources at the end of this article).

Vocational Rehabilitation Funding

"There is no federal regulation that prohibits the funding of an international program as part of an individual's vocational rehabilitation plan," according to Mary Davis, rehabilitation program specialist at the U.S. Department of Education's Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), the federal agency that oversees the state-federal vocational rehabilitation (VR) program. "Each state has flexibility in the nature and scope of what activities they cover, but cost alone can never be the only reason to deny a particular program." She adds, however, "There does need to be a clear link between the international activity and the individual's vocational objective." It also should be clear that the experience is not available through participation in a domestic program. If a VR counselor agrees that the experience would be valuable and the VR department is supportive, it should be written into the vocational plan. Also, if VR has approved funding for adaptive equipment or an assistant such as a note-taker to meet the vocational goal, it may be possible to use those funds to provide the same service while abroad. Ms. Davis recommends that individuals should discuss international program participation with their VR counselors if they feel it would increase their employability because some states may have state level VR policies that apply.

Jessica worked closely with her VR counselor to get approval to use VR funds to participate in an international exchange program. "When my VR counselor and I wrote up my educational/ vocational plan in February 1999, I was in the process of applying for the MIUSA exchange program. I told her that I was planning to apply and asked if that would be something that the department would support. My counselor said yes, and it was written into my plan. She and I kept in phone contact while all of the funding issues were being resolved. She never stopped encouraging me the entire time. When I was contacted by MIUSA about my selection for the program, my VR counselor said that the department would sponsor me, and she faxed confirmation of such to MIUSA."

Mary Davis of RSA and Jessica's counselor both agree that individuals who feel an international experience is crucial to their future employability but are denied the opportunity to gain that experience as part of their VR plan should use their right to appeal through the Client Assistance Program. If an individual can present a strong case that the experience would make him or her more employable, it should be supported.

Supplemental Security Income Provision

If an individual with a disability receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits and has the opportunity to participate in an international exchange program, that person should apply to have benefits continue while he or she is abroad. There is a little used SSI provision that allows for the continuation of benefits while participating in an overseas educational program. The exact wording from the Social Security Handbook (1999) is:

"A student of any age may be eligible for SSI benefits while temporarily outside the U.S. for the purpose of conducting studies that are not available in the U.S., are sponsored by an educational institution in the U.S., and are designed to enhance the student's ability to engage in gainful employment. Such a student must have been eligible to receive an SSI benefit for the month preceding the first full month outside the U.S."

This is an exception to SSI's more well-known "30-day rule" that does not allow for the continuation of SSI benefits to a person who is outside the United States for more than 30 days. The "30-day rule" was amended through legislation introduced by Congressman Peter Stark of California in 1994 as part of the Social Security Independence and Program Improvements Act, which became effective January 1, 1995, and the provision quoted above was a result. Even though the requirements to qualify are rigid, this provision makes it possible for people with disabilities to gain international experience that will increase their employability and, while abroad, to continue to receive SSI benefits.

Another option available to SSI beneficiaries to proactively plan for international exchange is through the SSI work incentives program. An individual with a disability receiving SSI benefits can work with his or her VR counselor to apply for a Plan for Achieving Self-Support (PASS), through which an individual can set aside income or resources that will be used to achieve a career goal. The income set-aside in a PASS will then not be included in determining the individual's continued eligibility for SSI benefits (The Study Group, Inc., 1998). If international experience is approved by the VR counselor as necessary to meet a person's career goal, that individual can set aside income to cover some of the expenses related to participating in the program. For example, Sam has the approved career goal of becoming a German language interpreter. VR may approve the funding to cover his tuition and books to study in Germany for a semester, and a PASS plan would allow him to set aside income from his part-time job to purchase the airline ticket.

Health Insurance

Regarding health insurance, Medicaid and Medicare are not usually transferable overseas. Private health insurance may expect an individual to pay for expenses abroad and then turn in claim forms to be reimbursed when he or she returns to the United States. Individuals should check with their international exchange organization and health insurance provider to find out about coverage abroad and discuss with them carefully any needs for pre-existing conditions coverage.


It is critical that people with disabilities recognize the importance of international experience and, when possible, include it as part of their preparation for employment. Different funding options are available. State-level VR services may provide funding to individuals for whom an international experience is part of their approved vocational plan. The Social Security Administration supports people with disabilities in getting the experience they need to be employed--including international experience if certain requirements are met. However, individuals going abroad may need to make arrangements for their own health insurance as Medicare and Medicaid are not generally transferable to people overseas.

Free information on the numerous international exchange options for people with disabilities is available from Mobility International USA and the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (see Resources at right).


(1.) Adapted Physical Education (APE) is good teaching which adapts (modifies) the curriculum, task and/or environment so that all students can fully participate in physical education. Federal law (PL 94-142, PL 101-476, PL 105-17) mandates that physical education be provided to students with disabilities (from PE Central Website - Website for Health and Physical Edu-cators, http://pe, central, vt. edu)


The Social Security Administration. (1999). The Social Security Handbook. www.

The Study Group, Inc. (1998). Meeting the needs of youth with disabilities: handbook on supplemental security income work incentives and transition students. The National Transition Network, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.

Lorenz, J. (1999). Tribute to MIUSA, Over the Rainbow, Mobility International USA.


Mobility International USA The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange PO Box 10767 Eugene, OR 97440 Voice/TTY: (541) 343-1284 Fax: (541) 343-6812 E-mail: clearin URL: http://www,

Georgia Thrower Social Security Administration 112 Altmeyer Building 6401 Security Boulevard Baltimore, MD 21235 Voice: (410) 965-3987 Fax: (410) 965-9063 E-mail: georgia, thrower@ssa, gov URL: http://www,

Mrs. Higgins is a certified therapeutic recreation specialist working as an independent consultant in Ohio; she is currently working on several international exchange and disability projects for Mobility International USA (MIUSA). She worked for 5 years with MIUSA as an international exchange program coordinator and manager of the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. Over the past 6 years, she has led delegations of individuals with and without disabilities to Russia, Germany, Costa Rica, and Japan and coordinated numerous programs for international delegations in Eugene, Oregon. She has presented sessions on international opportunities for people with disabilities at professional conferences nationally.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Mobility International USA International Exchange Program to Costa Rica
Author:Higgins, Mary Ann C.
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Previous Article:Math, computer and the Internet: better employment opportunities for persons with disabilities.
Next Article:Changing the term "job placement" to reflect choice.

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