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‘There’s huge anger’: Disabled students feel they are slipping through the cracks

Pandemic era was life-changing for vulnerable learners who were able to access online lectures and alternative assessment - but many say they feel excluded once again

Mick Finnegan is relatively well-known for his work to expose the sexual abuse he and other boys experienced as children while volunteering with St John Ambulance. His campaign to expose these crimes ultimately led to an independent investigation by child law expert Dr Geoffrey Shannon, which was published earlier this year.

Finnegan’s experience of being raped as a child – violence that has left him disabled and with lifelong physical conditions – inspired him to become a social worker. He was accepted into Trinity College Dublin’s access programme and, later, into Trinity’s Bachelor in Social Studies course.

Shortly after being accepted, Finnegan was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a chronic condition that has led to him being hospitalised on several occasions. This caused him to miss classes and brought him into conflict with some of his lecturers. He was also late with a number of assignments, which he got extensions for.

Over Christmas 2021, Finnegan was hospitalised due to his illness.


Within a month, expressing concern over his missed classes, Finnegan was subject to a fitness-to-study inquiry by the school. This was happening at the same time as Finnegan was co-operating with Dr Shannon’s inquiry.

During this inquiry, one of Finnegan’s lecturers wrote: “Through conversations with the student, it has been made very clear that he is currently involved in a series of ongoing legal and personal processes as a means of seeking restitution and recognition with respect to deeply traumatic life events. The student has been very open about this and has given detailed accounts to his year head.

“Given the nature of the student’s chosen course of study (social work), along with the personal commitment that the student has described needing to give to these matters, this raises serious concerns about the student’s fitness to study at the current time.”

Documents seen by The Irish Times show Finnegan did miss classes because of the assistance he was providing to the Shannon review, and because of his physical health and hospitalisations. Some of his lecturers said that these absences were “a pattern of concern”.

Attendance at lectures is a course requirement to meet the accreditation requirements of Coru, the social work regulator. Coru has confirmed, however, that there is no requirement for classes to be delivered in person.

With the support and backing of a Trinity College disability officer, Finnegan asked for non-standard reasonable accommodations from the university so he could sit his exams – these were refused.

Some colleges won’t even provide access to recorded lectures as a reasonable accommodation. They claim that it’s not reasonable, which seems incredible given that they did it for two years

—  Dara Ryder, Ahead

Finnegan says his experience raises questions about the flexibility of educators who are training social workers when it comes to accommodating disability.

But Finnegan is not the only disabled student who has found college life difficult in recent years.

Dara Ryder, chief executive of Ahead, an organisation working to create inclusive environments in education for people with disabilities, says while disability offices are supportive, there can be wider institutional challenges.

In particular, he says the move to remote learning during Covid-19, although difficult for some students, was a revelation for others, particularly students with disabilities. It meant they did not have to stress about physically attending lectures, particularly when they were ill.

“There’s a huge amount of anger among the cohort that did find it life-changing. Now that they’ve returned, they can no longer access learning online,” Ryder says.

“My experience is that the vast majority of programmes have returned to largely in-person only delivery. Some colleges won’t even provide access to recorded lectures as a reasonable accommodation. They claim that it’s not reasonable, which seems incredible given that they did it for two years.”

Research and surveys carried out by Ahead have found that recording of live lectures is a high priority for all students, but especially those with disabilities.

“Even for those who actively prefer being on campus, it’s been such a powerful study tool for [students] with information processing or short-term memory difficulties,” says Ryder. “And for many people with disabilities, they remain medically vulnerable, and Covid is still a risk.”

Ryder says this will be one of the battlegrounds of the next few years, and many of Finnegan’s concerns are more widely echoed.

“Covid changed a lot, including assessment. There was a move from in-person exams to open books and alternative forms of assessment. One student we are in contact with has short-term memory issues, and they were failing or scraping passes until open-book exams and alternative assessments.”

Ahead’s research with disability support services, which tracks engagement, field of study and exam accommodations, indicates that there can be communication problems between the disability offices and academic staff, leading to disabled students not having their needs met.

Finnegan and Ryder’s concerns echo those of many disabled students who contributed anonymously to this article.

Due to personal circumstances, including the toll of the Shannon review, Finnegan temporarily withdrew from the course last year. He was not readmitted in time for the 2023/2024 academic year, missing a significant amount of lectures as a result. Emails from the university say they did not receive his application for readmission in time or through the correct channels, although Finnegan said he believed his application was received.

A working-class and disabled survivor of sexual abuse would be an asset to the social work profession

—  Mick Finnegan, campaigner against sexual abuse

Finnegan says he had to battle to get the truth from St John’s Ambulance and that being a disabled student at Trinity College was like another battle.

“My pursuit of justice and my mental health were used against me in the fitness-to-study committee,” Finnegan says.

“A working-class and disabled survivor of sexual abuse would be an asset to the social work profession. If you are doing an arts degree and are sick, you can get reasonable accommodations. But on professional services courses like social work, the lack of flexibility is excluding disabled people. Do we see doctors or social workers in wheelchairs, for instance? We don’t, because we don’t make accommodations.”

Documents show dozens of emails were written by some of Finnegan’s lecturers to support him, and they did provide several extensions.

The problem may be wider, however: Finnegan says disabled people are welcomed on to courses where flexibility is easier, but that there are more barriers where the course has professional requirements, and this leads to disabled people being excluded from opportunity.

“I had worked in England’s NHS as a peer support worker and a national adviser to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, where my lived experience of abuse and homelessness was seen as a benefit, not a barrier, because they wanted me there to help influence policies and procedures.

We take pride in being a leading institution for supporting students with disabilities [and] we ensure that all disabled students are reasonably accommodated

—  Trinity College Dublin spokesperson

“I have now been accepted into the University of Kent’s Master’s in Advanced Child Protection at the Centre for Child Protection Studies – showing that I have the skills and experience to help protect children at a high level.

“There were so many people in Trinity who helped me, including the disability office and many of my tutors and lectures. While I’m grateful for the support of my tutor and disability officer, more institutional work needs to be done to disabled support students with complex needs,” he says.

A spokesperson for Trinity College said that, in professional courses such as social work and medicine, the university strives to balance the essential requirements of each course with the need for flexibility and specific accommodations due to disability.

They added that the university has explored various methods to enhance course access, and that the ability to offer online delivery depends on course requirements.

“We take pride in being a leading institution for supporting students with disabilities [and] we ensure that all disabled students are reasonably accommodated, working diligently to uphold the expectation that they will meet the competencies of their chosen professional courses.

“In exceptional cases, where necessary, we guide students to consider taking breaks from their studies to focus on recovery or other personal circumstances, ensuring they have the support needed to continue their education successfully.”