Breaking barriers: Supporting students with disabilities to progress to university

Third level is expanding - but the proportion of those with sensory disabilities is not growing at the same rate

Education can be rigid. People with disabilities often miss out on learning and employment opportunities – not because they lack any ability but because an ableist system doesn’t give them the tools they need.

But, more and more, the system is bending to meet the needs of learners. One game-changer for students with print disabilities – including blindness, visual impairment or dyslexia affecting their ability to read – is the National Council for the Blind of Ireland's, which provides an extensive catalogue of academic books in alternative formats including braille, large print, audio and digital.

Aoife Price is in the second year of a three-year funded PhD at NUI Galway, looking at alliances between social justice movements, with a focus on disability and women's rights organisations. She was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was around seven years old.

“I received good grades in both Junior and Leaving Cert, and got reasonable accommodations such as a spelling and grammar waiver,” she says.


“My parents recited books onto tapes for me; they had so much belief in me. Otherwise, there wasn’t much technology or supportive equipment for people with dyslexia until third-level.

“While Bookshare was originally intended for people with visual impairment, it’s opened up so many books for me and other students with dyslexia. There are so many supports for students with dyslexia in third-level and I think it’s important they know about these.”

Aoife Tierney is a second year English and politics student at Dundalk IT. When she was ten, doctors diagnosed her as blind in her left eye.

“My right eye has 20-20 vision, but growing up it was always harder to see the blackboard unless I had the right seat,” she says.

“If I was on the right side of the room, I’d have to tilt my head. There were lots of supports in school including printouts, and one teacher handed out notes and always made sure I could see them.” emerged from a growing awareness that too many students were being left behind and workplaces were missing out on much-needed diversity

Books and text size have long since been the one of the greatest educational obstacles for students with print disabilities, with a 2019 NCBI study finding that lack of access to curriculum and learning materials was one of the main preventing students with visual impairments from reaching their potential.

Access to books, particularly for students with disabilities, emerged as one of the education issues in the early days of the pandemic.

The NCBI saw demand for surge as students with print disabilities, including visual impairment and dyslexia lined up (virtually) to be verified.

The Department of Education provided the NCBI with a one-off grant of €150,000 and today, with most learning still taking place off-campus, over 600 students are using Ireland’s largest accessible digital library.

“Since discovering Bookshare, I can access books with text I can read,” says Tierney.

“I can zoom in and, if I don’t want to read, get the audio instead. Anyone with a print disability can access the books in any format they wish. There’s no journal articles as of yet but most of the books I need for my course are on it.” emerged from a growing awareness that too many students were being left behind and workplaces were missing out on much-needed diversity.

Twelve per cent of students in higher education disclosed a disability in a survey, but we believe the true figure may be as high as 15-20 per cent

"As a child who is blind or visually impaired, you don't have the same opportunity to learn through observation," says Aaron Mullaniff, Assistant Chief Services Officer with the NCBI, which has a dedicated team who work with blind or visually impaired people to help people live independently and retain their employment.

“Assistive technology is the greatest equaliser for any child with a visual impairment. There are a range of tools that can enhance communication, access and learning, including screen readers, magnification software, touch typing, optical character recognition (OCR) scanners, and even relatively low-tech innovations on smartphones.”

The 2016 census identified a 20 per cent increase in the number of children with a visual impairment while, overall, 54,810 people (1.15 per cent) of the population have a visual impairment.

"Dare (the disability access route to education) has made a big difference in higher education, and we've seen a trebling of the numbers of students with disabilities," says Dara Ryder, CEO of Ahead, which helps create inclusive environments in education and employment for people with disabilities.

“Twelve per cent of students in higher education disclosed a disability in a survey, but we believe the true figure may be as high as 15-20 per cent.”

While the number of students with disabilities in third-level is growing, the numbers with sensory disabilities – visual or hearing impairment or severe speech impairment – is not growing at the same rate.

Ryder says that this is due to how the education system treats visual or hearing impaired pupils at primary and secondary level and, in particular, a lack of universal design in teaching.

The staff in college disability support services are doing amazing work, but the best colleges are those where disability is not in a silo...

For students with sensory disabilities who do make it to third-level, increased college participation is not adequately translating to employment, he says.

“We know that studying abroad is correlated with positive graduate outcomes. We know that students with disabilities are less likely to be involved in college life, and employers look out for that extracurricular involvement on CVs. They also have less opportunity to participate in work to fund their studies which impacts on the ability to gain employment after work.”

The NCBI and Ahead are among the organisations working with students unions and college officials to improve inclusivity and outcomes for students with sensory disabilities. In particular, Ahead’s Wam (Willing Able Mentoring) programme has placed over 500 graduates with disabilities in roles with major employers since 2005.

“We’re also involved in a project to support inclusive mobility for students to move into the workplace,” says Ryder. “The staff in college disability support services are doing amazing work, but the best colleges are those where disability is not in a silo but considered in how teaching, learning and student life are designed.”

Breaking barriers: How to make a "university for all"
Students who apply to college through Dare are eligible for entry with a lower level of CAO points, but all students with disabilities will find more supports than ever before.

Dr Anna Kelly is director of access and lifelong learning at UCD, which has taken a "university for all" approach to disability.

Kelly and her colleague, Dr Lisa Padden, have written a Toolkit for Inclusive Higher Education Institutions, supporting them to be as inclusive as possible.

“Students with disabilities face significant challenges in accessing third-level,” she says.

“At UCD, a senior academic in each programme has responsibility for the university for all initiative. What it means is that there is support for students in all facets of college life including teaching and learning, the built environment, technical supports, student life and graduate opportunities.”

In this context, working collaboratively with students’ unions to improve inclusivity is important, as is building better pathways from college to work.

“It also means working with lecturers so that they don’t assume one way of teaching,” says Kelly. “It goes right down to ensuring that students who may live a distance from the college or have issues getting to lecturers – perhaps for parenting reasons or perhaps because of a disability or medical commitments - don’t miss out.”

For more information on the Dare initiative, see or talk to your school guidance counsellor