How to make the most of college if you have a diagnosed disability or learning difficulty?

One of the great success stories of the Irish third-level education system has been the supports developed for students with a wide range of disabilities and learning difficulties

There are many supports for students with disabilities.

One of the great success stories of the Irish third-level education system has been the supports developed over the past 25 years by Ahead for students with a wide range of disabilities and learning difficulties.

Established by Prof John Kelly during his term as registrar of UCD, Ahead has played a huge part in making it possible for students with a disability to reach their full potential in our third-level system.

In the past few years this support structure has been enhanced with the development of the Dare system, by which students with an appropriately diagnosed disability can secure one of a number of reserved places, up to a maximum of 5 per cent, within every course in the participating colleges.

All students who secure a place still have to meet the minimum entry requirements for the course, and the point's reduction for successful applicants tends to be in the region of 10 per cent.

Weeks ahead
As a result of this initiative many students with disabilities will be registering in colleges up and down the country in the weeks ahead.


But what is next if you have a disability or learning difficulty?

Do you tell the college if you have not secured your place through Dare?

What supports are you entitled to?

It is vital that you now set about putting in place a plan to maximise your potential participation in every aspect of your college’s academic, cultural and social life.

If you have a disability or a learning difficulty it is important you think about the supports available in your college, and which of them will be most useful to you.

Do you tell the college about your condition?

Honestly, you may prefer to keep this private, you may want to be as normal as possible, but there are significant benefits to registering with disability support services (DSS) or the access office.

For a start colleges welcome students with a disability or learning difficulty, and will deal with you confidentially.

Most colleges have a study support or technology room dedicated to the use of students registered with their disability support services. This gives you much greater access to computers, software, printers and other technology without having to queue up. It is also a quieter place to study.

Notes on-line
Lecturers will provide you with notes on-line and many colleges provide students with disability with photocopying facilities and extra time to withdraw library books. All of these will definitely help you.

Are you anxious that telling the college will go against you? Don’t be. The college cannot and will not discriminate against you on the basis of disability.

But be aware that not disclosing could end up being very stressful if later on you encounter difficulties on the course. So give this matter a lot of thought. For further information go to

Do your research in advance. Use your time now to gather information on the supports available on the college website and look up disability support services.

You know more about your disability/learning difficulty than anyone else, and your input will be important in getting the supports right.

Inform yourself about your chosen course and get an idea of what it will involve, how much reading, note-taking, practicals, work placements, etc.

Support needs
Register straight away with the disability support service/ access office as soon as you are registered with the college. They will talk to you about your support needs and arrange things like assistive technology, training, note-taking services, learning supports.

Students attending a VEC/PLC need to contact the designated disability support person or the school principal. Go talk to them and find out what is available.

Do not forget that supports are provided to eligible students with disability or learning difficulty to compensate for the significant impact of their condition.

Legally you are entitled to reasonable accommodations, so find out what evidence you need for additional supports.

The HEA fund for students with disabilities is arranged through the disability support service in the college. For details go to

Be certain to go to the college orientation sessions. Many colleges offer orientation before the start of the term for students registered with the disability support office.

If you have mobility or sensory impairment issues attend these sessions as colleges can be extremely busy and crowded places. This orientation process will enable you to become familiar with where everything is, the lectures, the canteen, the library, the students’ union offices, etc.

Get involved!

Don't be shy; college life is not just about academia, it's also about making new friends.

Freshers' week
It can feel daunting to have lunch on your own, etc. The majority of first years don't know anyone else either, you're all in the same boat, so go to freshers' week and join in.

For further information about entitlements to supports for students with disabilities in third-level contact Ahead: telephone : 01 716 4396.

Series concluded

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times