Realising the dream, with a bit of support

As recently as the 1980s, the idea of assistance for a student with a disability was unheard of. Now support is the norm, and 8,000 students with disabilities are in higher education

Painting herself out of a corner: artist  Mary Duffy by the beach at  at Newcastle, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Eric Luke

Painting herself out of a corner: artist Mary Duffy by the beach at at Newcastle, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Eric Luke


Disability is a double-edged sword. There has been a huge change in attitudes to and support for students with diagnosed disabilities at all levels of our education system, which I have witnessed over 37 years as a teacher, lecturer and guidance counsellor.

Supports have been developed by the Department of Education and Skills at first and second level, and by higher-education providers at third level, for many students who would previously have failed to reach their potential. This support has transformed the lives of students with disabilities in terms of career choice. Among them are graduates such as Mary Duffy, Patricia McCarthy, Sean Herlihy and James Northridge, whose stories feature in Journeys of Students with Disabilities from Ahead’s 25-year History .

Ahead – the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability – was set up in 1988 by UCD registrar Prof John Kelly and students with disabilities to change attitudes in higher education. More than 8,000 students with disabilities and specific learning difficulties are now in higher education, graduating in all professions, including science, teaching, accounting and computing.

As increasing numbers of second-level students with disabilities expect to go on to further education, the challenge is to maintain support. Government funding has been static, leaving a shrinking pot for each student. The story of Ahead is of those who have succeeded in higher education over the past 25 years. These four stories show the changing face of supports for them in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and now.

Mary Duffy

“When I was studying for my diploma in art and visual education in the 1980s

the staff were very proud to tell me that even though I had no arms they expected the same of me as everybody else and were not going to make any accommodation for my impairment. This was a really difficult experience and it left a scar that endures. The idea of assistance for a student with a disability was unheard of. Now it is the norm, and I think that is wonderful.

“I tried to keep up with everyone else, but towards the end of my course I asked for help to prepare my diploma show. It was not forthcoming. This was the real sting in the tail for me. I don’t ask for much help with my disability. Once I ask, I like to get it. I found it a crushing experience that rendered me speechless and powerless. I had to stand on a chair, on one leg, in the darkroom to access facilities. There was no disability officer, no support staff, and I had to battle for basic needs to be met. In spite of it I graduated top of my class.

“By contrast, in 1991, when I was doing a master’s degree in equality studies at UCD things had already moved on. I was invited to meet the course director to discuss my needs. No one had ever offered me such support before. Carpenters made me a little desk – it reminded me of my first day of school when I was four years old. I also had a separate room for exams. However, I still found it really difficult to write for hours with my head between my knees. The invigilator offered to be my note-taker, which made a huge difference.

“I am now an artist, having travelled full circle. I’ve worked as a researcher for the Arts Council, a freelance journalist, a radio producer with RTÉ, and an art teacher with the VEC and the prison services. With the support I received to overcome my disability, I have had many dream jobs in the past 30 years.”

Patricia McCarthy

“In 1999 I enrolled in UCD to study for a degree in social science

in sociology and social policy. As a blind and visually impaired person my education had been in the special-education system, which was the norm in the 1970s and 1980s. The reading required was challenging but I found academia stimulating and exciting and over time found an environment in which I could excel.

“It was not all plain sailing. I hit a wall in first year when I failed sociology and considered dropping out. Encouragement from friends and family gave me confidence to keep going. I arranged to meet lecturers to discuss my exam paper and identify where I could make improvements. This support and their reassurance gave me the impetus to pass.

“The use of a laptop with screen-reading software and the support of a librarian who helped me access reading material enabled me to maximise my potential. The college’s disability support services encouraged me to approach lecturers for their PowerPoint presentations before lectures. With this support, I achieved a first in sociology, was invited to undertake a master’s in sociology and am now working on my PhD.

“Working on my PhD in a different university gives me an insight into how support systems for disabled students have improved, but it is also apparent that there are still significant barriers. My dream is to remain in academia as a researcher and lecturer or tutor and to mentor students. My advice to students with disabilities considering third level: follow your dreams, believe in your abilities, get the supports and resources available, and get involved in societies and extracurricular activities. But most importantly, enjoy your studies.”

Seán Herlihy 

“I was born into an Irish-speaking family in a small rural Gaeltacht

area in west Cork in the 1980s. I have three sisters and the two eldest are deaf. I started in a primary school for the deaf in Douglas, and went to St Joseph’s School for the Deaf in Dublin, although I really wanted to go to a local school that was close to home, my friends and my GAA club.

“I had no deaf-teacher role model in either school. If you had some level of hearing you were taught through speech with some sign, if the teacher had any. Lip-reading is not an exact science and neither was the fluency of the majority of my teachers. Misunderstandings led to frustration and impatience and low self-esteem. Lack of explanation to reinforce students’ understanding created an ethos of ‘cannot’ among pupils, which also led to low confidence. It is not surprising that very few deaf people attend third level. Many leave school with very low literacy, finding jobs in lower blue-collar echelons.

“On the positive side, some teachers did provide information in sign and when they did, we really sat up and took notice. It was in those moments that we really learnt.

“I knew that as a deaf adult, I could make a difference in the deaf child’s learning process, which is why I wanted to become a teacher. The education at St Joseph’s enabled me to go to DIT to study a construction economics and management degree course for four years.

“It would have been much more difficult for me to thrive in that environment if it had not been for the life experience and social skills I had acquired during those crucial, formative years at St Joseph’s. I was advised against my ambition to become a teacher and often felt alone in my determination. Deaf people did not become teachers. Following my higher diploma in education in TCD I realised my dream in 2005. I got a job in St Joseph’s school teaching Leaving Certificate mathematics.

“Since then I have completed further studies at the University of Birmingham, where I qualified as teacher of the deaf. Changing times and attitudes mean more deaf people are becoming educators and applying their newfound confidence and empathy in their teaching methodologies. I am confident that I am one of those motivated teachers in the making.”

James Northridge

“In school, I struggled with my writing, spelling and generally trying to get what was in my head down on paper, especially in English and Irish. On occasions, I was told

I was slow or stupid but this drove me on more. I got grinds and felt I had a point to prove. It was the grinds tutor that pushed me to get diagnosed. At the time there was very little knowledge of specific learning difficulties (SLD) or dyslexia, so my parents or teachers never picked up on it. I was diagnosed with dyslexia only after I completed my Leaving Certificate.

“I initially started a course in civil engineering, thinking I would make my millions in construction. But I did dreadfully, and dropped out. Working in car sales, I would misspell people’s names and addresses and it was very embarrassing.

“The next time I considered college, I approached the disability support service in UCC to clarify what I needed to do to get into the bachelor of business information systems course. Having failed first time, I was determined to succeed. I didn’t want special treatment, just recognition that I do certain things a little differently.

“The essential thing about any support service is the people you deal with on an ongoing basis. The equipment, the resources and the IT setup are important, but support and efficiency of staff is vital. I ensured my lecturers knew I had dyslexia and also that they knew who I was. This is key to having a good working relationship.

“My IT setup was a laptop, text-to-speech and mind-mapping software and I had a dyslexia tutor for four hours a week. Assistive technology is a great equaliser for students with disabilities. We need to embrace it and make it open to all. The disability support service staff were always on hand to help, advise or just listen to me give out. Without this super service, I certainly would not have got my first-class honours degree in UCC.

“I now work as an IT consultant for UCD on a number of large projects and deal with several Government organisations.

“I am running my own business,, to provide assistive technology products and training to educators, parents and people with disabilities.

“We need an attitudinal change when it comes to services for people with disabilities. It is not students’ impairments that disable them but the people they deal with and the environment around them.”

Ahead’s conference, Building the Future, on May 17th, involves simulated work activities, with 40 employers exchanging expertise with graduates with disabilities;, 01-7168844

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