Sensory spaces, quiet zones: how the college campus is changing

Universities are transforming to meet the needs of a growing number of students with disabilities

Sensory spaces, specialist support, quiet zones: the university campus, as we know it, is changing.

The bustling environment of college can pose sensory challenges for the rising number of students with additional needs such as autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, mental health problems and other conditions.

That is why many universities are transforming to better meet the needs of a much more diverse intake of students than ever before.

It comes as the Government prepares to publish a national access strategy aimed at boosting the number of students from underrepresented groups, including those with disabilities. A key focus will be to tackle higher dropout rates among these students and improve their chances of employment post-graduation.

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Trinity College Dublin’s new “disAbility hub and health centre” is the latest example of how colleges are changing.

It is estimated that about 10 per cent of students at Trinity now have a disability. Of those, about three-quarters are “neurodivergent”. It is a rapidly growing category: the number of autistic students seeking support increased by 50 per cent in the 2020-21 academic year.

The soon-to-be completed Printing House Square – the first new public square in Trinity in over a century, which will create an entrance on Pearse Street – includes a prominent place for the new disability centre.

“It’s putting students with disabilities front and centre,” says Dr David McGrath, the university’s head of health services.

There will be drop-in zones for students; meeting rooms named after celebrated past students who have disabilities; an “ability co-op” area run by students themselves; a “meitheal” or large open meeting spaces available only to clubs and societies which demonstrate that they are fully inclusive.

In addition, students with ADHD, for example, will have two dedicated days, twice a year, where they will be able to meet health and disability staff to get prescriptions renewed, review the level of support they receive and help resolve challenges they face.

These kinds of supports are considered crucial for students who have a dropout rate of up to 25 per cent.

Yet, many are high-achievers. A majority of students with disabilities enter with high points and do not come through special access routes, which can provide lower points for those with additional needs.

Declan Treanor, director of Trinity’s disability service, says many of these students simply learn differently and require some extra support.

The ethos of the service is to move from a model where students are passive recipients of support to one where students take an active part in developing essential life skills and plan their education journey.

“Universities can be very transactional,” says Treanor. “We look at students in a transformational way: we try to work with then, get them ready for work.

“We say, whatever you’ve done before, come in here and learn new skills... you will succeed and get the same degree, you just need to be ready for the barrier you may face.”

Separately, a health centre in the new campus will offer female students, in particular, access to a range of important services in areas such as contraception.

The cost of contraceptive implants – typically €350-€400 – has been prohibitive for many students. Under a State-funded initiative, this will be free.

“It will give students ownership of their own contraceptive choices,” he says.

The college’s “sense” project is another initiative aimed at making the campus more inclusive by building sensory awareness areas.

Recent search found that a lack of quiet spaces and difficulties with acoustics in lecture spaces risked overwhelming some students. Scores of sensory areas have since been developed in libraries and student social spaces.