MATT VANDERZALM, MANAGING EDITOR
Cage diving with Great White Sharks off the Neptune Islands in South Australia.
Photos courtesy Rob Kozarek
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 SAO Coordinator of International Programs Steven Dale, the two were able to locate a suitable flat near the university.
Read the entire article about Rob’s experiences abroad as a wheel-chair user in the Illinois International Review
Or watch his video here: Rob Kozarek in Australia