New study-abroad course focuses on disabilities, only one of its kind

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The College of Education recently announced a new study-abroad course that will take place in Ireland in June 2015. The course, which is titled "Culture and Disability," is unique to the University.

“This four-week course is the only study-abroad program at Penn State that is focused specifically on disability,” said Kathleen McKinnon, associate professor in the College’s educational psychology, counseling and special education (EPCSE) department.

Wendy Coduti, assistant professor in EPCSE, is coordinating the course to Ireland with McKinnon. She said offering a study-abroad experience like this is significant because people with disabilities are considered the largest global minority, making up 15 percent of the world's population.

“Many people with disabilities often face discrimination, stigma, lower socioeconomic status and decreased life expectancy,” said Coduti. “Students in this course will learn about different aspects of culture and disability through meeting with various service agencies in Ireland that provide resources, advocacy and assistance to people with many different types of disabilities.”

According to Coduti, Ireland was chosen because of the ability to connect with these agencies and offer students the opportunities to learn about disability in Ireland, across lifespan and disability type. Throughout the program students will be comparing attitudes and stigma toward people with disabilities as well as policies, services and resources that exist in the U.S. and Ireland.

“This course is open to a broad range of students,” said McKinnon. “Students who plan to work with individuals with disabilities are welcome but so are students who are studying in other programs, such as architecture, pre-med, speech and language, psychology, kinesiology or who are still undecided.”

"We are also encouraging students with disabilities to apply as well,” said Coduti. “According to the U.S. International Council on Disabilities, students with disabilities represent less than four percent of students that choose to travel abroad. We think our program would be a great opportunity for all students, including those with disabilities.”

Coduti said that students are scheduled to spend three weeks in Dublin where they will participate in local club Special Olympics programs, visit community agencies to learn more about services and engage with individuals with disabilities.

“Throughout the weeks, students will engage with various service providing agencies, which may include sensory, intellectual, cognitive and physical disabilities,” said Coduti. “At Trinity College in Dublin, our students will engage with students enrolled in a unique program for individuals with intellectual disabilities, the National Institute of Intellectual Disabilities.”

“This course is open to a broad range of students. Students who plan to work with individuals with disabilities are welcome but so are students who are studying in other programs, such as architecture, pre-med, speech and language, psychology, kinesiology or who are still undecided.”

— Kathleen McKinnon,
associate professor of education

Students will also take part in class time that will help provide background information on disability issues, which is needed for understanding global policy and how to make comparisons.

“The background knowledge is necessary for students to get the most out of the activities in week four,” said McKinnon. “During this time, they will attend a five-day training at the International Disability Summer School at the National University of Ireland, Galway, which has included participants from nearly 40 countries. This will help equip participants with insights and understanding of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

As a part of the study-abroad program, students will be tasked with looking at the entire four-week course through the eyes of a specific disability.

“As they travel, learn and interact, students will have to consider the world that they are encountering through the lens of their assigned disability,” said Coduti.

In addition to gaining a global perspective on disabilities, the group will sightsee in Ireland, including visiting sites in Northern Ireland and along the coast of Belfast.

The course is six credits and provides three credits toward the International Cultures (IL), which, among other things, cultivates a student’s knowledge of the similarities and differences among international cultures.

Coduti said that they will only be accepting 10–12 students for the program, so interested individuals are encouraged to apply early. 

McKinnon and Coduti both recommend that students explore the different scholarship opportunities available for education abroad through their individual majors. Students can also learn more about scholarships on the Global Penn State website.

For more information on the "Culture and Disability" study-abroad program, students can contact Coduti at or McKinnon at or visit the course’s website.

Last Updated October 14, 2014