- 30 Jan 24
In the not too distant past, little or no attempt was being made to accommodate people with disabilities in third-level education in Ireland. The formation of the AHEAD organisation has changed all of that – and the results are there to show that it works.
In 1988, Gerry Ellis approached then UCD registrar John Kelly, telling him of the difficulties he faced as a blind student. Having previously been unaware just how severe these barriers were, Kelly took their conversation on board. The partnership with students and John Kelly lead to the formation of UCD's disability services and AHEAD.
The conversation between Ellis and Kelly and the wider disabled students community created a catalyst for change. In addition to vital improvements in UCD, it spurred the creation of AHEAD, an organisation which has since gone on to become one of Ireland’s leading advocates for disabled students, conducting research and providing vital information and support to the 10,588 learners in further education and 18,097 students with disabilities in higher education.
It has to be acknowledged that many – from a demographic which represents 6.9% of the total student population – are still being deprived of quintessential college experiences. That, according the AHEAD, is something that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency .
Leesa Flynn recently qualified as a primary school teacher, becoming the first wheelchair-user from Maynooth University to achieve that distinction.
“In my course there’s a huge emphasis on placements in the Gaeltacht,” Leesa explains. “There was a discussion on how I was going to get there, if the host family’s house would be accessible, if I would have a PA on hand if I needed anything. No one really had any answers for me. I felt like I was being left behind.
“I had to do it on Zoom, which was a relief at the time,” she adds. “Reflecting back though, it’s an example of the disabled person having to take a consolation prize.”
Leesa is now chairperson of AHEAD’s student advisory group, whose mission includes helping students with disabilities to connect with one another, thereby providing a safe space where they can share their stories and concerns.
“While my non-disabled peers would sympathise, they can’t really empathise,” Leesa reflects, “because they don’t have first-person experience. It’s amazing to have a place where people really do understand what I’m going through.”
The group is led by AHEAD Student Engagement Officer, Caoimhe Cronin. The overall ambition is to drive change in the way third-level institutions approach disability.
In her role, Caoimhe gathers up-to-date accounts of lived experiences, helping to focus the research carried out by the organisation.
“I first heard about the role when I was working in the Students’ Union,” Caoimhe says. “When I got diagnosed with a disability, I went to AHEAD – and was blown away by all the resources available.”
Part of the Advisory Group’s function involves organising events which empower students by making them more aware of the range of supports available.
“The Power of Disability Conference runs on the 7th and 8th of February this year,” Caoimhe explains. “It’s an online event where we have discussions about your rights – and how students with disabilities can advocate for themselves at third level.
“We’ll also have a panel, talking about the work our group does and how it feeds into the research and policy formation at AHEAD.”
The Power of Disabilities Conference is run in cooperation with the Union of Students Ireland (USI), who take on the responsibility of informing Student Unions across Ireland on how they can make the college experience more accessible.
Alexa – a member of the Advisory Group – is planning to launch The Neurogender Podcast shortly.
“Not everyone has the time or resources to keep up with research for neurodivergent women,” she says. “I was in my late thirties when I realised I am autistic. If I’d known in my first university course, or even as a child, I could have done a totally different degree and asked for supports and enjoyed my time. Being in the group is so empowering. There are many of us with invisible disabilities, but we can share experiences and resources, and help improve the lives of other people like us.”
While AHEAD does fantastic work with those currently attending college, they also assist secondary-school students who are planning to go on to third-level education.
Their annual Better Options event runs every November and takes students with disabilities through an A to Z of making themselves college-ready.
AHEAD provide advice on things like notetaking, CAO applications and how to avail of services like the DARE scheme, which aims to mitigate the difficulties faced by Leaving Cert students with disabilities.
AHEAD also highlights the different avenues of education that are available, including apprenticeships and further education.
Luna Fleming is currently studying at Level 5 in software development, in Cork College of Further Education.
“People push the notion that if you don’t go down the normal route, you’re a failure and there’s no other options,” Luna says. “Because I’m autistic, mainstream school didn’t really work for me. In my experience, further education is a really good option for a lot of disabled people. Classes are smaller and you get to try different things out. It’s great because I have the option of doing a degree without going down the usual route.”
While strides have been made in education, more could be done beyond college, says Advisory group member Stephen Bradley.
“My dissertation looks at the challenges between third level and the job market, " he says. “Research proves employers aren’t aware of access needs like software. It's important to provide students with the assistive technologies nessecary to present their case effectively during the application process.”
One of the key messages from AHEAD is that there is no "one size fits all” solution to the educational needs of people who are disabled. The important thing is that there is now a dedicated body working on behalf of those people, enabling them to better realise their unique individual potential. And that is an enormous step in the right direction for Ireland.
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