Airport nightmare

Reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities constitute still another set of ethical issues for government personnel serving outside the country and students seeking an international study or work experience. The United States has gone further than any other nation in providing access to transport, accommodations, and attractions for people with disabilities thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet issues of fairness remain. Should special needs students have separate but comparable opportunities or is there a value for people with disabilities and able-bodied people to travel together? Should all trips enjoying official government or university sponsorship be accessible for people with disabilities even if it means that groups cannot go some places or that additional costs would be involved? Should individuals with disabilities be subsidized in order to equalize their opportunities?

Should students with disabilities pay the difference in travel costs for sign language, braille information, wheelchair accessible sites, or personal attendants? Currently there is no clear legal standard for making such decisions. Rather individual universities are making decisions based on their own resources and notion of fairness. Two private universities, for example, responded to this issue in quite different ways. When Kalen Feeney, a deaf student, applied to go to London on one of Willamette University’s study abroad programs, the university paid for an interpreter, even though that meant over $10,000 in additional university costs. The College of St. Scholastica opted not to provide a sign language interpreter for one of its students wanting to go to Ireland.

These and other cases raise several ethical questions of fairness and distributive justice. There is also the question of whether administrators should pursue defensive or proactive strategies with respect to accessibility issues. While U.S. courts have not applied domestic ADA requirements to university study abroad programs, coordinators of the program must still wrestle with their responsibilities to make such experiences available to all students. In other countries, the dialogue about these issues has scarcely begun.