Overcoming disability as a barrier to college education

University may be daunting if you have a disability but there are plenty of services there to support you

If you have a disability and want to pursue third-level education, it’s widely acknowledged there are fewer barriers in your way than there would have been 10 or 20 years ago.

College choices for would-be students with disabilities today are much wider, as more institutions acknowledge they deserve the same opportunities as their peers.

Universities and colleges have been developing disability support services to cater for a wide range of special needs, and there are also schemes to make it easier for disabled students to get to third-level in the first place.

One obvious measure of that progress has been the rise in participation rates. According to the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (Ahead), students with disabilities make up more than 5 per cent of the total student population in Ireland across 27 institutions, a far cry from 20 years ago, when the figure was less than 1 per cent.

However, the organisation, which surveys participation rates annually, says that while the overall picture is positive, there are a “number of persistent trends and barriers which raise questions for the education sector”.

In a nutshell, the main concerns are that students with disabilities are more likely to study humanities and arts subjects than other students, that they are very under-represented on part-time courses, and that they are not progressing onto postgraduate study at the same rate as non-disabled graduates.

“Unfortunately, there is still a trend to steer people with disabilities towards the more generic degrees like arts and general business,” says Lorraine Gallagher of Ahead. “It’s changing, but rather slowly.”

Career guidance

Not surprisingly, the organisation believes there are some issues with the career guidance that students with disabilities receive, particularly with what looks like a failure to inform and encourage them to look at industries and occupational areas where the employment opportunities may be greater, such as Stem, ICT, financial services, manufacturing and leisure industries.

However, Gallagher says Ahead is working with such bodies as the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, Engineers Ireland, healthcare sciences and the Teaching Council of Ireland to try and redress this.

Naturally, many will start their college choice research online, and Ahead’s website (https://www.ahead.ie/) is one of the first ones to visit. This highly accessible multimedia portal is filled with independent information and advice on all aspects of college, including accessing college.

Naturally, your college choices are likely to be influenced primarily by subject choice and location (including whether or not you will living at home), but if you reach a stage where other factors become more significant, like the quality of an institution’s disability support services, the accessibility of its campus or the availability of accessible on-campus accommodation, then you’ll need to take your research a step further.

There’s a lot of information online, but there’s no substitute for visiting a campus to get a proper sense of a college and its atmosphere and ethos, not to mention the opportunity to talk to relevant staff face-to-face. Of course, all prospective students will be keen to do exactly that, but those with disabilities may need to ask more questions.

TCD’s Disability Service website (https://www.tcd.ie/disability/) contains information not just about the number of staff and the types of support services it offers, it also details a five-year strategic plan for 2015-2020 to help achieve its “ambition of being the number one choice for disabled students in Ireland”.

Such a statement certainly hints at a strong culture of inclusion and access, although it may well reflect another dimension to the growing competition among the top institutions for a cohort of students who, after all, make up more than 5 per cent of the student population.

“The impetus behind the five-year plan was to create a more student-centred and student-focused service where the student is encouraged to take an active role in their own journey through college,” says Declan Treanor, director of TCD’s Disability Service.

One of the planks of this student-centred plan is the ‘Ambassador Programme’, which was launched in 2015. Under this programme, students with disabilities at Trinity volunteer to represent and showcase the college’s disability service by giving talks or presentations or making themselves available to chat about their experiences of college life.

‘Positive role models’

“The ambassadors act as positive role models for incoming students whilst also honing their own communication, presentation, and leadership skills through involvement in the programme,” says Treanor.

Cork Institute of Technology also puts many of its students with disabilities in contact with prospective students, according to its disability support officer Laura O’Rourke.

“We also ask student speakers to be present at most outreach and pre-entry events that we have, as well as post-entry events and this gives prospective students a real insight into college life and they have opportunities to engage with these speakers over the course of the events. We strongly believe that the student voice is the one that resonates most when it comes to hosting events for prospective students.”

The college recently published a 35-page publication entitled Access -– The Student Voice, featuring 12 feature-length case studies of CIT students with disabilities.

In visiting campuses and speaking to current students, you should also be able to see better the spirit of the social as well as academic inclusion at any one institution.

“One of the resources we offer is the ‘Thursday Club’ – aimed at students who are on the autism spectrum, students with mental-health conditions, and of course any other student who wishes to attend,” says Bob O Mhurcu, head of DIT’s Disability Support Service.

“It’s a weekly club for students who find social interaction challenging, and its goal is to help students to interact, work together and improve their social skills with their peers. As part of the club, we offer workshops in areas such as teamwork and idea-sharing, and also in things like reading body language, telling jokes and so on. Our students have found the club very useful as a resource.”

However, Vivian Rath – who is doing a PhD in Trinity on the social and sense-of-belonging experiences of students with disabilities at third level – says that while he has seen a “huge improvement” generally in disability services across the board since his first days as a student at UCD back in 2003, there is still some way to go.

“There are still a lot of students like myself with significant physical disabilities or those who are deaf or hard or hearing or visually impaired, who are not going to college in the same numbers, so there’s a lot of work to be done.”

The Ahead figures for 2014/2015 shows the single largest group of students with disabilities is those with specific learning disabilities (46.9 per cent) such as dyslexia, but that the numbers in this group have been falling. Among the factors that may be contributing to this is the mainstreaming of services like learning support and technology, according to Gallagher.

“For example, specialist software available across campus on all college computers, coupled with developments in the actual teaching and learning environment means less of this cohort are relying on the disability services,” she says.

At the same time, last year saw a rise in the numbers of deaf and hard of hearing students, reversing a downward trend from previous years, although it’s too early to say if this indicates a steady upward trend.

Case study: ‘Be your own advocate, take charge of your situation

Vivian Rath, from Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford, first went to UCD in 2003 to start a science degree programme before graduating in pharmacology, and followed that with a masters in business from the Smurfit School. He subsequently worked in a number of roles at UCD before beginning his PhD at Trinity College in 2014, which is about the social and sense-of-belonging experiences of students with disabilities at third level.

When he first applied to the CAO, he had opted to complete a local PLC science course to help decide between studying business or science.

“It gave me a great chance to mature, to become more independent but also, the important thing for me, it gave me the opportunity to look at the options available and to identify what my needs were before I went to college.”

He also attended one of the earliest ‘Better Options’ college fairs organised by Ahead, and recalls how much benefit he got from it. “I even remember attending it, all those years ago. At the time, I was worried about supports and that was discussed at that event, and that would have been one of the events that gave me great relief in the sense that I knew I would be supported when I went to third level.

“I chose UCD because of its academic reputation, social opportunities, and the disability support service, but one of the major factors for me at the time was having access to campus accommodation.”

He also visited a number of campuses, including WIT, CIT and UCD, “but looking back, I’m sorry I didn’t visit more of them and talk to disability support staff”.

“I know from my perspective, having a physical disability, understanding the environment of the college is really important. For instance, if you want to do science in Trinity, UCD or DCU, from my perspective I would want to know where is the science building in relation to the on-campus accommodation, how far will I have to travel, what are the facilities like in terms of disabled toilets, and how do they all relate to the social aspects of college? You’ll only get a really clear insight into that by visiting the college. “

As a disability campaigner, he has seen disability support services develop considerably since his first day as an undergraduate student.

He says prospective students with disabilities today also have a significant advantage in that they have greater opportunities to talk to current students with disabilities.

“There are two ways you can do it,” he adds. “One is to link in with the colleges through their disability support services, talk to students on ambassadorship programmes. They are college students so they will be forthright and honest, and they will give you a real insight into what they experienced there.

“The other way is to talk to ex-students with disabilities who are out and about in the jobs market, so talking to them gives you another dimension to your research.”

All the same, students need to make sure they identify their personal needs and directly ask the college if they can support them. “It’s really important to ask questions, because a lot of people are afraid to ask questions. Everyone’s needs are different. “

He also urges applicants to disclose their disability on the CAO application form, as it won’t prejudice their chances of a place. “It will ensure you receive your supports from day one.

“Be your own advocate, take charge of your situation. This is your choice. Know your rights and don’t be afraid to include your family.”

Above all, he says, don’t put yourself under too much pressure, and be aware there are multiple routes to third-level. “Go easy on yourself. I think it’s important not to be too hard on yourself – it’s a really busy time, and I think just remember to take advice and guidance and ask for help if you need it.”

Funding for students with disabilities

As well as funding schemes that are open to all students at third level, there are a number of sources of funding specifically for students with disabilities.

The main one is the Fund for Students with Disabilities, which provides funding under three categories: assistive technology equipment and software, personal and academic support (sign language interpreter, note-taker, personal assistant), and transport (taxis or mileage allowance). The funding is allocated to the college rather than the student, and is not means-tested.

However, only full-time students are eligible; those on part-time courses cannot apply. This is a bone of contention for disability advocates, including Ahead, and is almost certainly to blame for the very low proportion of students with disabilities studying on a part-time basis.

There are a number of scholarships aimed at students with disabilities, including the CRC Ciaran Barry Graduate Scholarship, the NUI Award Scheme for Students with Disabilities, and the Google Europe Scholarship for Students with Disabilities. DCU also has a scholarship scheme for students with disabilities who wish to combine their academic course with their sporting interests.

Dare scheme

Of all the supports available to prospective students with disabilities, the Dare scheme probably ranks as one of the most significant.

The Disability Access Route to Education (Dare) offers reduced points places to school-leavers whose disabilities are judged to have had a “negative impact” on their second-level education.

While most colleges participate in the Dare scheme, not all do. However, colleges outside of these schemes still offer a wide range of supports, including disability support services.

Whether you get a place through Dare or not, you are still entitled to avail of disability-related supports once you have a verified disability.

The criteria for participation in the Dare scheme used to be exclusively medical, but has since broadened to include educational impact, which involves both an applicant and a school statement.

This article was first published in the Irish Times 

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