Third-level improvements for students with disabilities

Colleges and universities provide broad range of support services for people who need them

Every third-level institution is required to provide a Disability Service or Access Programme for students with disabilities and each has facilities and philosophies centred on student needs. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images

Every third-level institution is required to provide a Disability Service or Access Programme for students with disabilities and each has facilities and philosophies centred on student needs. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images


The late disability campaigner Martin Naughton told a story of arriving in his wheelchair at Dublin’s Mater Hospital in the 1970s and being faced with a vertiginous flight of steps at its entrance. With no other options, some kindly volunteers hoisted him to the front door.

This ignominious scenario, recounted as it was with the characteristic cheer of a man who spent his life fighting to change attitudes, was a metaphor for the many obstacles faced by those with disabilities.

However, there has been an increasing effort to make things easier. Services, and access have followed, and in third-level education, this can be seen to be especially the case. Today, colleges, universities and other institutions are obliged to provide support services but, more than that, there is an enthusiasm behind them.

“Things have definitely changed and definitely improved,” says Lorraine Gallagher, an information and training officer at Ahead, the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability.

“The reason the numbers [of third-level admissions] are going up every year is because nowadays in Ireland it’s government policy that children with disabilities are mainstreamed – there is a mixed bag of children in schools.

“[Disability] has in a sense been normalised because it’s in the room. You grow up with it, people get diagnosed. If you had dyslexia years ago, you were told you were stupid.”

Attitudes now need to spread more readily from education into employment, the next frontier of change, but education is shoring up its transformation.

Ahead is itself the product of this changing third-level environment. One of its founders, visually impaired, was at university in the 1980s when things were much different.

“He was having a great time and meeting new people,” explains Gallagher. “But he had one major problem: he couldn’t access the books.”

The issue was eventually resolved but not before he and several others decided to form a group championing the cause of educational equality.

Decades later, third-level institutions provide a broad range of support services for people who need them – the number of people, the types of conditions and the nature of supports has continued to grow.

Attitudes towards environmental approaches are now changing as much as those toward disability did. Ireland, for instance, is now embracing the American concept of “universal design for learning” which, basically speaking, adapts the educational model to embrace as many people as possible so that dedicated funding streams for specific groups are not as necessary.

This jars with past approaches. For example, when those with dyslexia would be given dedicated “note-takers”, people to sit in lectures and write down what was being said. Today, technology such as smart pens that record classes fill this void.

“[The old approach] is not sustainable,” says Gallagher. “And it’s not employment friendly because you can’t go to an employer and say, well I have never written anything.

“By trying to make your learning environment more universal you are bringing along more people.”

Disability in Irish third-level education is painted in numbers. There are 11,244 students with disabilities still in education past the Leaving Certificate cycle – representing 5.2 per cent of the overall third-level student population, with a 4 per cent annual rise.

Disabilities are spread across a number of categories – physical, mental health and specific learning difficulties.

They include those with visual or hearing conditions; with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia; with ADHD or Asperger’s Syndrome. They are people with physical and mobility issues, impairments to speech; ongoing health problems such as epilepsy and for those with mental health difficulties.

When prospective students fill out their CAO forms they can signal a disability and this will alert an institution’s disability support service. Engagement here is essential, particularly as late-comers could encounter funding issues if they don’t.

Support teams will meet students and discuss what specific services they may require. These cover a wide area, including accommodation needs, transport or mobility assistance and learning supports.

Technology is, as in other walks of life, coming to dominate this area and various software programmes have been made available to help those with specific disabilities navigate their new environments.

The University of Limerick, for example, has recently opened a state-of-the-art Educational Assistive Technology Centre (EATC) to train students and teachers on a range of assistive technology software and hardware options.

This year, together with the National Council for the Blind in Ireland (NCBI), it has held training schools for 40 visually impaired potential third-level students from across Ireland.

Other aids offered at third level include specific exam accommodation, library supports, occupational therapy, and tailored orientation programmes for students and their families. There are ambassador programmes led by existing students with disabilities. In short, campuses are striving to make the transition as easy as possible.

But, stresses Gallagher: “We really advise students to go in there as early as possible. There is funding but it is not infinite.”

And, as goes the adage about college being the best years of one’s life, she says it is about much more than learning and support staff; it is about the college environment embracing disability at all levels.

“Obviously things have improved but it’s not just about academic [work]. It’s also about going and getting access to the other things in college life; the social life, making friends. It’s everybody’s responsibility to make sure that people are included in all facets of life.”

Colleges Every third

-level institution is required to provide a Disability Service or Access Programme for students with disabilities and each has facilities and philosophies centred on student needs.

Trinity College Dublin explains that its confidential service is “committed to empower students with disabilities achieve their academic and vocational goals, as well as access all aspects of college life”.

TCD currently supports 1,400 students with disabilities, the highest of all third-level institutions and about 12.5 per cent of the country’s total student body.

Supports include assistive technology, academic support, exam accommodations, library supports and occupational therapy.

Its Students with Disabilities Ambassador Programme allows students with disabilities showcase the college to prospective students by sharing their stories and experiences.

UCD’s is committed to “becoming a pre-eminent diverse and inclusive scholarly community” with a focus on equality of access. Students with disabilities constitute 10 per cent of its undergraduate body.

Its Dare (disability access route) programme is a targeted entry route for secondary school students with disabilities.

The university’s Access & Lifelong Learning Centre has a team of expert staff including a dedicated disability officer, and a needs assessment process ensures students receive reasonable accommodations.

Among its many approaches to disability, DCU is aiming to become Ireland’s first autism-friendly campus, undertaking a programme to create a learning environment that allows students with autism and Asperger’s to take part fully in college life and to gain employment.

At its Glasnevin campus, students with autism have conducted a sensory audit on the campus, assessing the physical environment such as buildings, visuals, sights, noise and smells.

“[This] will give ideas on the way that DCU might be altered if students experience sensory processing difficulties and find it anxiety-provoking to tolerate certain sensations,” the university said.

Assistive Technology is becoming a central aspect of disability services. The University of Limerick – which has 800 students with disabilities – this has become a focal point. It recently installed a purpose built state-of-the-art Educational Assistive Technology Centre (EATC) equipped with the most up-to-date hardware and software. This centre will train students, teachers and other educational professionals in a range of AT approaches.

UL is also delivering a Transition to University Summer School programme addressing challenges experienced by students with disability.

In September 2016, 121 students began at NUI Maynooth through its Dare programme and 712 students registered with its disability service this year – about 6 per cent of the undergraduate population.

Its Launchpad scheme is designed to ease the transition to third level and assists new students to get to know each other. Maynooth’s Student Central initiative is an academic support programme for those with Asperger’s, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or a mental-health condition involving learning needs.

University College Cork (UCC) has more than 1,300 students with disabilities.

“Students registered with the service include students with physical and sensory disabilities; students with specific learning difficulties including those on the autism spectrum; students who experience significant ongoing illnesses and students with mental health difficulties,” it said.

As with all third-level institutions, Queen’s University Belfast is committed to equality of access but stresses an important attitude towards it.

It “endorses the social model of disability, thereby not focusing on the individual’s disability or long-term condition, but instead identifying the structural, organisational, physical and attitudinal barriers that prohibit students with a disability or long-term condition from achieving equality of opportunity,” it says.

“Where possible, reasonable adjustments are made to any aspect of teaching or assessment that would substantially disadvantage a student in relation to their peers.”