Finding out about the options for third-level study can be a hugely interesting, stimulating and even enjoyable experience for most secondary-school students. But for those with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds, it can be a much more daunting prospect, driven by a range of anxieties, including whether they can even gain entry in the first place or get the appropriate supports they need to complete a course successfully.
The good news is that the Irish third-level sector has long acknowledged these concerns and works hard to give these students every opportunity to pursue an ambition to go to college.
In fact, these efforts provided a lifeline to me as far back as 1991. When I applied to the CAO early that year, I was invited by my first choice college, DCU, to take an interview and aptitude test as part of a direct-admission scheme it offered to students with disabilities and mature students.
Following disappointing A-level results later that summer, which I was certain would rule me out of admission to the college’s communications studies course (not to mention most of my other choices), I was shocked and delighted to receive a letter offering me a place on the back of that direct-admission scheme.
That was my ticket to three fantastic years at DCU, shared with what turned out to be a highly diverse student body, which included several people from the nearby Ballymun area as well as a number of other students with disabilities.
Perhaps some might regard the admission processes available to students like me 25 years ago as a little arbitrary or unsystematic, but the reality today is that these processes are much more formal and standardised across most of the third-level sector.
Information is also a bit easier to come by. For example, one unmissable event is the Better Options fair at the National College of Ireland campus on November 24th.
Run by the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (Ahead), it aims to provide a one-stop shop, supplying all the information a would-be student with a disability needs to navigate a path to the college of their choice.
"It's a really good forum for parents and guidance counsellors and students to come up and just get their questions answered," says Ahead's executive director, Ann Heelan.
In some ways it’s an alternative to attending a larger event, such as Higher Options at the RDS, which may be “too crowded for someone with a disability”, she adds. “It’s to give students and their parents information about how accessible the colleges are for disabilities, for supports they can get if they go, and the fact that all of the student disciplines and courses are open to them.
“It’s really there to reassure people if they’ve any fears or doubts, to say, ‘No, it’ll be good, it’ll be fine’, and to raise expectations.”
There will also be information on accessible campus accommodation for those with physical disabilities. “It’s very reassuring for parents sending their young children with a disability away from home, while students have come back to us and they’ve said to us, ‘I actually made a decision on that day to go to college’. Maybe they weren’t sure before,” Heelan says.
The website of Ahead also has a lot of useful general information about what types of supports are available, and staff are on hand to answer any specific questions. It doesn’t have data that enables people to compare colleges in terms of the supports they can provide, which means that contacting disability support officers is an important step in the information-gathering process.
Hear and Dare
All the main colleges and universities will have stands at Better Options, run by their disability support staff, along with those who administer the Disability Access Route to Education (Dare) scheme. This scheme, along with the Higher Education Access Route (Hear), allows colleges to add additional CAO points to an applicant’s Leaving Cert as long as they meet the criteria for being classified as either economically disadvantaged (Hear) or having a diagnosed disability (Dare).
Both schemes have been operating in some form for a while, but are now a formal part of the CAO process, which kicks in once you tick the box on the CAO application form to say you have a disability or are from a disadvantaged background.
The Dare scheme, in particular, can trace its roots back to supplementary admission schemes such as those run by DCU 25 years ago. Dare has also been influenced by the work of Ahead, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.
Over time, changes have been made to the Dare criteria, to make them more transparent as the number of students applying to the scheme continues to rise (there were 9,000 applications to Dare last year), but this has reportedly led to some problems.
Ahead’s Ann Heelan believes the Dare process has become too “medicalised”. “The way they run it at the moment, they actually specify how disabled you have to be,” she says. “For example, how deaf you have to be, in decibels, or if you have dyslexia. They say you have to be under the 10th percentile in two areas, which could be reading or writing, but that does not make sense to me, because the student’s experience of education in school could be completely different.”
As a result, Heelan believes that the Dare process can be a very negative experience for some students and that there are few avenues for information or appeal. “We get a lot of phone calls here every year from parents or students who have been deemed ineligible, and they don’t know why and it’s very unfair to them.”
The Irish Times Leaving Cert Results Helpdesk also received a number of queries last August from parents and students concerned about how the Dare criteria were being applied.
“I’ve heard reports of somebody who was deaf in one ear but not the other ear, who struggled in school, and it had an impact, but wasn’t eligible for Dare,” says Heelan.
The Irish Universities Association (IUA), which recently took over the running of the Dare scheme (along with Hear), is understood to be reviewing the criteria.
However, Heelan concedes that Dare is better and fairer in a number of ways compared to the old individual supplementary-admission schemes, particularly in light of the high volume of applications it receives.
One of the biggest advantages is that it reduces duplication, as students can apply to many different colleges but only need to go through the Dare process once.
“I can see why they set up Dare. The problem is it’s implemented very rigidly. And I think in any system, if you’re very rigid and you’re not looking at any grey areas, you’re going to exclude certain people,” says Heelan.
While all seven universities and 10 other colleges now use the Dare scheme, some other colleges, such as Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology Tallaght, operate their own supplementary-admission schemes. Their criteria may be different, and possibly more flexible, than for colleges operating Dare, or they may be very similar. The only way to find out is to contact the colleges directly.
Other colleges, including private colleges, may not operate any supplementary admission for students with disabilities, although they would still offer supports to students who gain admission, perhaps with technical assistance and exams.
Useful links: ahead.ie, accesscollege.ie, qualifax.ie
Profile: Maeve Dermody – ‘I found I had a passion for accounting’
Growing up with four older brothers who all went to college, and then seeing them graduate in their robes and caps, was all the motivation Maeve Dermody needed to pursue third-level education.
“I suppose, as well, my parents saying that I would go to college after my Leaving Cert meant that was always going to be the plan anyway,” she says.
Dermody’s initial desire was to be a primary-school teacher but she discovered in her transition year that Irish was compulsory for teacher training college. As she is deaf and went to a deaf school, this wasn’t a realistic goal.
So she explored other options, and went to various college open days, though in the end the biggest influence on her future was a school trip organised by DCU’s disability officer.
“When I was studying for my Leaving Cert, I found I had a passion for accounting, so when I saw DCU had the accounting and finance degree course, I decided to apply for it as my first choice,” she says.
Dermody applied through the Dare scheme in 2008. “I remember the huge amount of writing involved,” she says. “I needed to get an audiogram, which the school principal had to sign. It wasn’t enough for them to say that I attended a deaf school.”
Her results put her 40 points behind the DCU requirement for the accounting course, but through the concessionary points facilitated by the Dare scheme, she was able to get a place.
It wasn’t until after she got her place at DCU that she discovered more about the supports available, after attending a two-day workshop.
“I was so sure that an ISL [Irish Sign Language] interpreter, along with a note-taker, were the best supports for me, and so I told the disability officer at DCU, who then arranged the supports without any problem.”
This set-up was reviewed after some difficulties in her first year, and after further discussions with the disability officer, she decided to change from a note-taker to a stenographer and “never looked back”.
After graduating in 2012, Dermody went on to do an MSc in education and is now a qualified secondary-school teacher, specialising in business studies and accounting. She is also studying for chartered accountancy qualifications.
Profile: Mark Ryan – 'It's that support which makes the difference'
Mark Ryan, a marketing graduate from Cobh, Co Cork, who has dyslexia and dyspraxia, found out too late that he had more options than he thought.
His Leaving Cert points were high enough get him into University College Cork in 2009, but he didn’t apply there because he had been told that, due to his exemption from the Irish exam (because of dyslexia), he couldn’t go to any of the universities.
“What wasn’t mentioned was that if you had an exemption from Irish, like I did, they would actually accept this, and I could have applied. I had ruled out UCC and didn’t put it down on my CAO form.”
However, while he was annoyed at this misinformation, Ryan has no regrets about going to Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) instead. If anything, he is glad it happened, as he “really excelled at college. I loved it there and and I graduated with first-class honours. I would put that down to the fact that CIT has such good supports.”
These included a note-taker, three hours of free grinds per week, and supports for doing exams. Some of these supports were the same as ones he received at school, making the transition from second to third level much easier.
Ryan recommends seeking out information from colleges in advance, particularly from the disability support officers, to “get a feeling for what supports are there”, as some places may be better than others.
“It’s that support which makes the difference between graduating with a first-class honours and just scraping through college,” he says.
Ryan also recommends speaking, where possible, to current and former students, who can often make the information from the disability support officers more three-dimensional. While at CIT, Ryan gave speeches about his experiences at disability support workshops in local schools.