With finances stretched to breaking point and service cutbacks unavoidable, Aoife Valentine examines where this leaves students with disabilities on campus
Regardless of the small moves UCD makes up and down the world university rankings from year to year, in recent times it has consistently found itself polling relatively high. Such rankings are compiled based not only on academic reputation, graduate prospects or the strength or impact of research conducted at any institution, but also on the quality of the university’s facilities, and the level of expenditure per student that is spent on facilities for both students and staff of the institution.
At a time when most Irish universities have unprecedented levels of debt against the backdrop of a seemingly merciless economic crisis, many severe and often unforgiving cuts have become necessary. As is frequently the case in such drastic situations, facilities and services perceived to be the least essential are targeted, something which can often lead to the importance of services essential only to a minority becoming lost amid frantic bids to set everything back on track.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) Equality Officer, Gerard Gallagher, who focuses largely on equality for students with disabilities, is a former UCD student who suffers from cerebral palsy and dyslexia and is all too aware of the reality of the impact our current financial situation has on those students with disabilities. “With the recession there is a tendency for an awful lot of organisations to turn around and say there’s no money. There’s a need, first and foremost, for students’ needs to be met under reasonable accommodations regardless of cost, and there’s probably a need for everybody to work together to come up with cost-effective solutions. There can be a cop-out where there’s no money available rather than trying to look for a solution.”
Fiona Sweeney, manager of the Access Centre, which provides pre- and post-entry supports for students with disabilities, broaches the topic with a more resigned tone. “There was a cut in the fund for students with a disability, but everything’s been cut I suppose. It’s a tightening of resources, and certainly things like technology to help students be more independent themselves and also to not have to rely on having a person [disability support assistant]; they’re much more expensive.”
The Access Centre, formerly the Disability Support Service (DSS), has undergone restructuring over the last number of years in order to cater for a more diverse range of people and problems. It now includes outreach programmes such as the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) and the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) schemes, which both aim to offer a wider scope of access to university for students with disabilities and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Additionally, the centre offers academic assistance such as exam supports within the alternative exam centre, classroom supports involving informing lecturers of students’ specific needs, providing equipment, personal assistants and personal supports, in so far as is possible, to any students who register with the Centre.
Brian O’Brien, Auditor of the Inclusion Participation Awareness Society (IPA), a society established mainly to lobby for disability rights within UCD and to encourage the participation of students with a disability in UCD, believes that while the supports provided are “adequate”, they are still not the best they could be. “Sometimes they don’t get where students with disabilities are coming from. Sometimes assignments can be challenging and you’ve got to negotiate with the staff, and lecture slides can be a bit of a challenge. There are some things that just aren’t right and they just haven’t gotten their finger on the button yet.”
One of O’Brien’s main difficulties with the supports provided to him by the Access Centre lies in the alternative exam centre. Though many students with disabilities require different facilities during exam periods, which would not be catered for in the RDS, he feels the segregation is thoroughly off-putting. “The one thing I really, really do not like is the Newman Exam Centre because when I was in school, I was in a different exam centre but I was close. I was in a different wing in the school so I’d have the exam craic, the fun, you see the friends, you’re talking about the exam in a very lighthearted manner, whereas in the alternative exam centre, you’re on your own and you’re isolated. I have contemplated going into the RDS because of that but I need the supports in Newman, but it’s a horrible experience in my eyes.”
Gallagher too, had some difficulties even with gaining access to the supports he needed before he graduated last year. “Certainly when I was there it was a challenge to get the appropriate supports, but the person who shouts the loudest gets their voice heard and that’s what I did. That’s how I managed to get my degree but I’d say there are a number of students that have suffered dramatically as a result of their disability and as a result of not having the appropriate supports.”
Even despite this, he shared O’Brien’s experiences of isolation, not only at exam time, but also day-to-day, as he attended lectures. “If you look at lecture theatres; if you’re a student with a disability studying, for example, history, you’d be in Theatre L and you have to go into the back of the lecture theatre, to the little boxes. That was probably one of the things that I found most difficult when I was in UCD because you’re automatically segregated from the rest of your class and it was something that I tried to fight for, to ensure something would be done, but unfortunately it’s just to do with the design of the building and fire regulations that these things often take time to come to fruition. Certainly the likes of UCD probably has a fair way to go in that regard.”
These feelings of seclusion extended even further, as far as campus living, for Gallagher. “When I [lived] in Glenomena, there were four accessible studios which are independent apartments. Unfortunately, during my time in UCD they closed off my parking space when they brought in the Residences gates. They used to close the gates at eleven at night and for me that was really the straw that broke the camel’s back, in that I actually moved off campus. When I was coming in from the Student Bar if there was a late bar, I had to phone security and get them to open the gates. I was automatically treated differently by UCD Residences and subsequently by the security who were on duty.”
He continued, “There was no communal area, so that was another issue, in that it was quite segregated. I didn’t get to [go to] campus parties or the general stuff that goes on in campus accommodation. In many ways I missed out on the campus living, while I was living on campus.”
These difficulties with the accessibility of student life, or these social obstacles, are a large part of what the IPA was set up to combat, but O’Brien feels they are very much still a problem today. “I firmly believe they do [exist]. If you add on the stigma as well, if they found it hard in secondary school and they’re coming into college off the back of that, it can be hard. They’re more reluctant to get involved.”
In contrast, Julie Tonge, the Disability Support Student Advisor who works alongside Sweeney in the Access Centre, doesn’t feel that these issues are as prominent now as they have been in years gone by. “Certainly we feel that they face the same obstacles as all students, particularly around transition, and coming from school to somewhere like UCD … Mostly it’s the same kind of social difficulties that any student would be having, maybe they just haven’t met too many people yet or their friends have all gone to Trinity.”
Tonge also downplays the perceived stigma surrounding disabilities in general. “I think there’s not as much stigma. I think there might still be some, I mean students who have a mental health difficulty would be much more conscious of who will know and will their lecturers know and what will they know and that kind of thing, so certainly there would still be a bit.”
O’Brien however, has a different prospective. “There is a stigma attached to it. Students are afraid to hand up their DSS letters to lecturers, I find. I’ve been asked by other students “Oh, can you go up and get the notes for me?” It depends on the subject. When I was in Sociology last year, in Theatre L, there were notes handed out at the end of the class and I remember I used to go up all the time for it, I didn’t mind. If people had an issue with my disability, I didn’t really care, but I definitely noticed other people were more hesitant to go up, there was definitely some stigma there.”
Gallagher shared similar sentiments, but admitted that it is difficult to find a way for everyone to engage with disability without further increasing stigma, although he has found wheelchair basketball to often be a success at UCD. “It’s a fun outlet for people … to get involved in and it’s addressing the issue of disability in a fun manner. People are afraid to address disability and [don’t know] how to talk about it, but when they’re in a chair themselves you naturally become more comfortable.”
Not everything can be solved with a simple game of wheelchair basketball however, as he continued; “Basically as a result of the economic recession, people aren’t as open to disability as they once would have been, which is very worrying and even anecdotally I would see that on nights out where taxi drivers would refuse to take me on more than one occasion because I’ve got the mobility scooter. I suppose that’s a major issue there, and what you’re really looking for is a major societal change and that is not something that’s achieved overnight. The only real way to overcome the challenge of a disability is to continue talking about it.”
By the Access Centre’s own admission, the situation in UCD is far from perfect, although it is improving. Tailored orientation schemes for students with disabilities have led to increased registration with the Access Centre, as there is now a full-time Disability Access Officer who works to ensure that the University is compliant with the Disability Act 2005. This demands that by 2015, UCD must be completely accessible to the point where a mobility-impaired person has the same access to all buildings on campus as any able-bodied person. Along with the vast array of supports provided on campus, it is extremely difficult to say that students with disabilities are under-represented, or treated as an afterthought in UCD. However, it still cannot be denied that there is quite a long way to go before true equality is even within remote reach.