Getting yourself ready physically and practically for third-level life
So you’re off to college and you have a disability or specific learning difficulty; here’s how to get off to a good start
If you are a wheelchair user, college orientation days will give you a chance to anticipate and address any access issues you may have before you start your course.
All the hard work has paid off: you have survived the Leaving Cert and you’re off to college. However, this transition can be both an exciting and a daunting prospect. It is important to know what is expected and to familiarise yourself with the different services available to you so that you can get the most out of your college experience.
Firstly, make sure you read any literature sent to you by the college and fulfil all the registration requirements. Check start dates and gather any writing materials, textbooks or equipment you will need. If you are in receipt of a social welfare payment, you must inform the Department of Social Protection and provide documentation from the college confirming registration.
Then get yourself orientated. Orientation week allows you the time to familiarise yourself with the campus, meet some fellow students and lecturing staff, and check out the facilities and services available.
In some colleges, attendance during induction or orientation days is compulsory. If you have a physical or sensory disability, you can ask for individual orientation before the start of term, enabling you to become familiar with routes to and from lectures, the canteen and other eateries, the library, the students union etc.
If you are a wheelchair user, this gives you a chance to anticipate and address any access issues you may have before you start your course.
Remember to contact and register with the disability support service (sometimes called the access office) as soon as you are registered with the college. If you received disability-related supports in school then you’ll need them in third level, too.
Disability support serviceFor those of you who have already disclosed your disability on the CAO supplementary information form, the disability support service will already have your contact information. It will get in touch with you and arrange to meet, but it’s up to you to be proactive. If you don’t link in with the service, it won’t keep chasing you; it will be assumed that you don’t want to avail of its services.
If you are attending a VEC, you need to contact the designated disability support person or the school principal. You may not be aware of what is available, so go and talk to them and find out.
Things such as assisted technology, note-taking services, learning supports and transport funding all come through the disability support service or access office. It offers a discreet support service dedicated to ensuring that your disability does not put you at an academic disadvantage. It does this by carrying out what’s called a needs assessment. This is a conversation with you to find out what disability-related supports you need, such as technology or support in your examinations.
Another thing you might need to consider is how you are going to get to college. Can you access public transport or will you need to organise an alternative, for example Vantastic (a subsidised door-to-door wheelchair-accessible transport service). It is worth noting that there is a huge demand for these services so you will need to contact them well in advance of the start of term.
If your chosen college is far from home and daily travel is a problem, then you need to organise accommodation as soon as you receive an offer of a college place.
Larger campuses with onsite accommodation usually have a number of accessible rooms specifically for students with mobility issues. Accommodation in or near universities, however, is notoriously difficult to find once college starts and extensive searching may be required.
Sort out billsAsk friends or family to help you with this and always visit before signing a lease or agreeing to rent a room or house. Sort out bills, agree tenant and landlord responsibilities, ask for a rent book and organise a direct payment method through a local bank.
The next thing might sound silly – but prepare yourself for study. College is a very different environment from school. You are now in charge of your own learning; if you don’t turn up for lectures or hand in assignments, no one will come looking. It really is up to you. Many courses are now modularised, which means you are continuously assessed and may have exams every term.
This means there is an added pressure on you to perform from day one, which is why I would advise you to link in with the disability support service at the start of the year as it can help you keep on track and not feel overwhelmed. The Association for Higher Education Access and Disability(Ahead) has published a really useful guide to writing academic assignments, which you can purchase from its website ahead.ie/shop.
Finally, college life is not just about being knee deep in assignments; it is also about having fun and making new friends. This might seem like a daunting task but remember the majority of first years don’t know anyone else either; you’re all in the same boat, so join in.
Take part in freshers’ week and visit the students union office, where you can check out the events calendar. Most colleges have a range of student societies and clubs and joining one of these is a great way to meet people and make new friends.
For further information about supports for students with disabilities in third level, contact Lorraine Gallagher, Ahead’s information and training officer, at lorraine. firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 01-7164396. You can visit the Ahead website at ahead.ie
The final College Choice column will be published in The Irish Times on Friday, August 29th, following the second round of CAO offers