The Trinity Ability Co_op has responded to the Higher Education Authority’s (HEA) National Access Plan (NAP) 2022-2026 consultation process, calling for more wide-ranging and ambitious support measures for students with disabilities.
In a submission to the HEA the Trinity Ability Co_op touched on a number of issues pertaining to students with disabilities that it believes have been left unaddressed and called for further actions to be taken to provide support.
Issues discussed in the report include access to higher education, accommodation, funding and the difficulties students with disabilities experience in progressing through higher education.
The Trinity Ability Co_op, which is a collaborative initiative between students and staff to promote accessibility in College, also criticised the HEA for not doing more to include students with disabilities in the consultation process of the NAP – though it did welcome the opportunity to make a submission.
“We are experts by lived experiences and should guide and direct access & disability supports going forward”, the group said in the report.
The insufficiency of DARE in enabling access to higher education for students with disabilities was highlighted by the Trinity Ability Co_op, noting how quotas for the number of students entering courses through DARE undermine the purpose of the initiative which is to alleviate the stresses of the points race for students with disabilities.
This is compounded by the fact that applications for DARE have steadily increased while the number of available places have remained static in 10 years, the Trinity Ability Co_op observed.
The report also outlined the difficulties students with disabilities face with accommodation, especially given that they are often forced to rent on-campus flats, which in Trinity costs around €8,000 per academic year. The report lamented the lack of alternative and affordable options available.
A lack of funding for students with disabilities was also pointed out by the Trinity Ability Co_op, which noted that as the proportion of higher education students with disabilities has increased – it is currently at 12 per cent – the Fund for Students with Disabilities has “proven to be increasingly inadequate”.
The report also mentioned the inadequacy of the SUSI grant scheme for students with disabilities arguing that they do not have the same capacity to work part-time as other students would and this is not currently reflected in the distribution of SUSI grants which falls far below the cost of living for students.
The difficulties faced by certain people with disabilities in advancing through third-level was also brought up in the report. The Trinity Ability Co_op cited that students with physical and sensory impairments, autism and mental health issues are at a disadvantage compared to other students with disabilities.
Students with autism, for example, are 20 per cent more likely to drop out than other students with disabilities, according to the Trinity Ability Co_op.
The group added that such students are often overwhelmed by course workload without the necessary support which can thus lead to them dropping out or failing.
They also experience particular difficulties on placement, the report observed, and suggested solutions such as alternate roles and reduced hours to alleviate the hardships.
Some students with disabilities may not need access to support until later on in their degree when their course workload has exacerbated their disability further at which point, without services readily available to them, it may be too late to help. The Trinity Ability Co_op recommended actively reaching out to these people.
The Trinity Ability Co_op touched on several other issues that have emerged recently amid the coronavirus pandemic that it suggested the HEA implement into the NAP.
The pandemic, the group said, had provided a unique opportunity for improving conditions for students with disabilities, noting how it has made College more accessible and allowed students study at their own pace aligned to their medical needs.
It urged the HEA to ensure that these advances are not withdrawn in the aftermath of the pandemic by implementing a hybrid learning approach going forward.
“The experiences of students with disabilities must be central to all discussions regarding the accessibility of third-level education. For vulnerable students, re-integration into the wider network must be managed carefully and with consideration”, the group added.
Similarly, regarding exams, the Trinity Ability Co_op praised its smooth running since the onset of the pandemic though cited criticisms that some students have raised regarding overlapping exams and arbitrary time lengths for exams.
Furthermore, there were other problems with online exams faced by students with disabilities including the extended period spent writing for those with arthritis and the challenges with communicating to scribes online.
The report also discusses the issues facing students with disabilities entering the job market upon leaving college. The Trinity Ability Co_op suggested that work experience opportunities exclusively for students with disabilities be made available.
Apart from students with disabilities, the NAP also looks to improve access for those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, mature students and students from the Travelling community.