Society involvement is a key component of college life, especially in Trinity. It gives students the opportunity to make connections, learn new skills and build confidence. But what happens when students get locked out of these opportunities because they have a disability?
Speaking with The University Times, Ross Coleman, a Trinity alumnus and wheelchair-user for most of his life, describes the university as “shockingly lacking” in terms of accessibility. Speaking from his own experience of student societies, he said: “While I was aware that Trinity didn’t have the best reputation for accessibility because most of its buildings were old, I would’ve thought that most of the societies were accessible.”
The former Irish and classical civilisation student recalls reading a Trinity prospectus during his time in school that mentioned “a Seomra na Gaeilge where people would just speak Irish every day”. “That made me really excited because I came from an English-speaking school”, he says. “However, the first time I came to campus I was told the Irish room wasn’t accessible. To be honest, that felt like a punch in the gut.”
To attend events in Seomra na Gaeilge, he had to email the Irish Language Officer who would allow him to enter the building through the Senior Common Room, which is usually off-limits to students. This lack of autonomy discouraged him from taking part.
In 2017, an inquiry was carried out into the accessibility of the Irish Language Room. It confirmed that the room is not accessible enough for wheelchair users and people with mobility difficulties, and that the current procedure these students must follow to access the room is not suitable. Cumann Galeach launched a campaign today that calls on College to fix this issue.
Societies need to allow students with disabilities to be as spontaneous as other students can be in college
Coleman also details his “disappointing” experience of Players Theatre. Once, on the Luas on his way to see a play, his friend texted him to say that the lift had broken and that Coleman would no longer be able to attend. “Societies need to allow students with disabilities to be as spontaneous as other students can be in college”, he says.
Coleman stresses the need for a “woke moment” regarding people with disabilities, referring to the way many societies have addressed and pledged to end race and gender discrimination. “I personally think that people with disabilities are still seen as second-class citizens”, he says. “I think it’s because out of all those minority groups, having a disability is the only one that has a medical/functional component to it.” However, he stresses that he does not think disabilities are always medical issues and are often “created by the barriers in society”.
He is clear about his stance on the true barrier to accessibility: “As a general rule of thumb, I think the people themselves within societies are accommodating but the structures and buildings are the problem.” He adds that “everyone involved is trying their best to do their best within the system”.
Jordan Collins is Trinity VDP’s Accessibility Officer – a role that was formally introduced this year to make the society more accessible and welcoming for people with disabilities. Speaking to The University Times, Collins outlines the society’s efforts to remedy some of the issues facing people with disabilities. These included creating accessibility notices for each activity “so people can request any accommodations and get a sense of the demands of the activity”, as well as a new website update that gives users the option of viewing a plain-text site. “This is beneficial for those with low vision or visual impairment who require the use of a screen reader”, he explains.
Collins also emphasises the need for a culture shift to change perceptions of disabilities. “Being inclusive and accessible goes far beyond modifying society events and activities”, he says. “It is about fostering a culture of awareness, reflection, and understanding, and it involves a collaborative effort from all of our members in order to create a sustainable, accepting environment for all.” He added that: “Initiating a conversation on the issue is often the best way to create change and that has certainly been consistent over the last few years within [Trinity VDP].”
I think the people themselves within societies are accommodating but the structures and buildings are the problem
Although the virtual nature of most society events has improved accessibility for many, Zoom panels and online publications bring their own barriers. To overcome these challenges, Collins’ advice to societies is that: “Communicating as clearly as possible is key, and something that involves a lot more than what one initially may think.” He also recommends Trinity Ability Co-op’s “very informative” Instagram series on creating accessible online content, which was released over the summer.
When asked why he believes some societies are slow to tackle these issues, Collins cites a “lack of awareness and insight into accessibility”. “Many people think that accessibility begins and ends with ensuring individuals are able to get in and out of the building, whereas it is a far more complex concept”, he affirms.
Trinity has said that it is actively working towards improving accessibility on campus. In an email statement to The University Times, Catherine O’Mahony, a Trinity media relations officer, said: “The Disability Service and Estates & Facilities are currently embarking on extensive works to improve and/or provide Universal Access to its cohort of disabled students (and staff). This includes improving accessibility in existing buildings, where possible and permitted, but also to ensure that full accessibility is guaranteed in new builds and refurbishments.”
“Funding of €2m has already been secured and ring-fenced to deliver this programme”, O’Mahony added. “These universal accessible projects are critical to ensure Trinity is compliant with national and the EU directives.” The Samuel Beckett Theatre, 1937 Reading Room, House 6, and the Graduates Memorial Building are among the buildings that College has flagged for improvement.
Many people think that accessibility begins and ends with ensuring individuals are able to get in and out of the building, whereas it is a far more complex concept
One student who understands these complexities is Hadi Nazir, a third-year physics student and sitting secretary of Dublin University Science Fiction Society (Sci-Fi Soc). Nazir, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), tells The University Times that he “tried to hide [his] disability” during his introduction to society life. “I like to venture and try new things so I just jumped in”, he says. “Everyone was doing their own thing and I was trying to be independent like them.”
However, the barriers he would face due to his disability quickly became apparent. Players Theatre is known for its fast-paced and vibrant atmosphere, which is an exciting prospect for most creative minds, but for students with disabilities such as ASD, it can be less than ideal.
Describing his first experience of auditions at DU Players, Nazir says: “I felt really anxious at the time because one thing led to the other and I became confused about how everything worked.” Adding to this, he confesses: “I didn’t want to ask people questions because I was scared that if I was spoon-fed a lot, I would seem dumb.”
However, similar to Coleman, Nazir does not wish to condemn DU Players for his negative encounter with the society: “I wouldn’t want to blame Players for it… I was always the type of person who needed a lot of information and a lot of instructions.”
Many freshers – understandably – find society life complicated, political and overwhelming, but for students with ASD and similar disabilities, this feeling is only amplified.
Speaking about his first experience of Sci-Fi Soc, Nazir says he felt “isolated” as almost everyone was older than him and he wasn’t “much of a talker”. “I felt alone because I was experiencing a lot of anxiety, trying to process how college worked”, he said, adding: “I was finding it really difficult to express myself because I was trying to behave like everyone else.”
In his second year, Nazir decided to “get over this limiting mentality”. He explains that he used his “new aura” to become friends with active members of Sci-Fi Soc and eventually ended up running for, and being elected to, a committee position. Ultimately, Nazir feels that those who find social situations easy to navigate “don’t put in enough effort” to include others, who end up going “under the radar”.
Information on how to make online content more accessible is available on Trinity Ability Co-op’s Instagram page (@abilityco_op).