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REPORT TO IGC Powered By Docstoc

The most recently published research shows a positive trend in the
participation of students with disabilities in third level education in Ireland
though rates remain low at just 0.9% of the total undergraduate population
(Hoey, 2000). Anecdotal evidence suggests that this trend continues in an
upward direction though it is unlikely to match the more than 4% attending
Universities in England and Scotland and the more than 5.5% in non-
university HEIs in England and Scotland (Riddel, Tinklin and Wilson 2002).
If getting to college is an issue for students with disabilities how do they fare
once they have accepted a place? The general issue of student retention at
third level is one that has been the subject of much debate and indeed
research in recent years.
A study of first year students in three institutes of technology (Healy,
Carpenter, Lynch, 1999) found that non-completion is associated with “low
grades in the Leaving Certificate examination, unclear career aspirations, lack
of information and guidance on course and career options, unsuitable course
choices, difficulties with some or all of the subjects taken and financial and
work-related problems”.
A national average of course non-completion by third level students of 16.8%
(Morgan, Flanagan and Kellaghan 2001) and an attrition rate among the
undergraduate population of anywhere from 26% (Report of the commission
on the Points System, 1998) to 37% (Healy, Carpenter and Lynch, 1999)
represents a loss on a number of levels. To the student it is a negative
experience, which may affect self-esteem. Financially it is a loss to
individuals, families and the exchequer. In general terms it is a loss to society
in the missed potential of the student exiting and the lost place in terms of
another individual.
All entrants to third level education need support and help through what is an
important transition in their lives. For disabled students this is of greater
significance due to the construction of the learning environment for able-
bodied students and the shortfall in the education provision system to meet
their individual needs.

Very little research has been carried out into retention issues for students with
disabilities. This project was instigated with funding from the HEA Targeted
Initiatives fund in order to improve the integration of students with disabilities
into higher education. It was agreed that it would be a partnership project
between the University of Dublin Trinity College and the Institute of
Technology Tallaght (located in West Dublin) within a framework where good
practice in both institutions could be shared. The project is career focused
rather than disability focused and to this end is located within the Careers
Service of each institution.
As well as consulting with staff in each Institution it was an opportunity to
compare the experiences of students in a University setting with those in an
Institute of Technology. The third level experience however cannot be viewed
in isolation, as highlighted in recommendations following the Hoey study, so
an emphasis was also placed on the prior preparation of students for college.
Three distinct groups were identified as key informants to the project
       Students
       Second level guidance counsellors
       Staff in each of the partner colleges
Surveys were carried out with each group to document their experiences and
allow them to highlight the relevant issues from their respective positions.
This report (prepared for IGC) gives a short overview of the project, discusses
definitions of disability and presents in summary form the findings from the
first two groups.

A website has been set up at which
gives information on the project and all reports will be available there by mid-


Students with disabilities are not a homogeneous group any more than any
cross-section of society. They present with a variety of disability types and
within many of these disability types there is a continuum of the degree of
need. They are more than their disability and have many abilities. It is
therefore important to respond to their needs in an educational context on a
student centered, individual basis.
Most people have a mental image when they hear the phrase ‘person with a
disability’. Usually that image reflects the disability rather than the person.
But what has informed the construction of that image in the first instance?


In an effort to ‘understand’ a disability we try to inform ourselves – we make
enquiries, we seek data - perhaps an assessment. We want to ascertain what
is wrong, what is missing, what the problem is. This is indeed commendable if
it wasn’t for the fact that when such understanding is achieved it quite often
serves to exclude and limit a student’s opportunities rather than seek ways to
accommodate and make learning accessible. It also prompts many to think, “if
I know what is wrong with the individual then I can do something to make
him/her normal so she/he will fit in”. This is generally described as the ‘deficit
model’ because it highlights what a student can’t do. This is, historically, a
consequence of disability being seen as a medical issue and looking at the
person in terms of just one dimension (Barnes, Mercer and Shakespeare,


The world we all function in has been physically and socially constructed for
the so-called ‘normal’ people. Our method of teaching is still talk and chalk or
a variation on the theme. Access to learning is restrictive by the nature of the
tools and strategies used. Assessment of learning is assumed to be best done
by means of timed, written exercises. And the preferred means of physical
access to a classroom or exam hall is still likely to be steps. This is viewing
disability from a social perspective and is referred to as the ‘social model’. It

challenges us to be creative, to think laterally, in order to achieve universal
access. In the context of education this means making the system accessible
to all students so as to facilitate learning and progression through that system
(Oliver 1990).
Many definitions of disability have been formulated but the one most pertinent
to both the context and the philosophy of this project is:

       “A student is disabled if he/she requires a facility which is outside of the mainstream
       provision of the college in order to participate fully in higher education and without
       which the student would be educationally disadvantaged in comparison with their

                 Report of the Review Group on Access to Third Level Education (2001 p.63)

While students with disabilities are the targeted cohort this project has a very
strong careers focus as the issue of progression through the education
system is viewed in terms of career rather than disability.
Second level Guidance Counsellors were seen as having a key role to play in
the preparation of students prior to college. They were identified therefore as
significant informants in the data gathering process in relation to students with
Guidance Counsellors were surveyed in order to:
      Seek more specific information in relation to the second level
       experience of students with disabilities - with particular emphasis on
       career guidance.
      Gather data on how course information and/or career guidance is
       delivered to students with disabilities at second level - with particular
       emphasis on progression to third level.
      Determine if improvements were needed to the service provided.
      Ascertain what actions were needed to implement improvements.

A qualitative approach to data collection was adopted in order to capture rich
data and facilitate respondents in expressing their point of view. It was

envisaged that the outcomes of this research would inform future phases of
the project.
Contact was made with Guidance Counsellors at a number of levels in order
to inform them of the project.
       Direct contact with their professional body the Institute of Guidance
        Counsellors (IGC) and publication of an article in their newsletter
       Attendance at local area cluster meetings.
       Presentation and information distribution at college Open Days.
       Display at the IGC Annual Conference.
A questionnaire was drafted and distributed at the above venues and in
response to enquiries from publicity.

In all 110 questionnaires were distributed and 23 valid responses received.
While a response rate of 20% was disappointing there was a high degree of
saturation i.e. recurrence of the same issues in the data and the qualitative
nature of the study facilitated common themes to emerge.


This study was on a small scale with respondents mainly, but not exclusively,
working in feeder schools of the partner Institutions. In many ways Guidance
Counsellors as a group have a difficult brief. Their work is not as clearly
defined, as perhaps a subject teacher and they cannot point to exam results
as evidence of their effectiveness. As counsellors they are often cast in the
role of problem solver or ‘fixer’ of difficulties with students. Their appointment
is based on a mathematical calculation rather than on the basis of student
needs and many are under resourced. They do nevertheless have a key role
to play in guiding young people towards a career path. With the increased
emphasis in recent years on formal education as the means to a successful
career that role has become more focussed on information regarding third
level. Add to this an increased incidence of students with disabilities in

mainstream education and a new dimension appears in terms of advice and


   A. The second level sector seems poorly prepared to cater to the needs
      of students with disabilities. This is a multifaceted problem ranging from
      lack of awareness among staff in general to absence of a positive
      school policy toward disability. Accessing assessments for students
      appears to be a constant source of frustration. Allocation of resource
      staff seems fragmented and securing supports and accommodations
      for students is pursued by a variety of individuals.

   B. Guidance counsellors feel limited in the service they can provide in
      relation to career guidance for students with disabilities. They have not
      been prepared in their professional training to understand or
      accommodate the needs of students with disabilities. They are
      hampered in their work by time constraints and unsuitable materials.
      Many are frustrated by the lack of comprehensive information on
      disabilities/abilities, methods of working and available opportunities in
      education and work.

   C. The third level sector has made significant advances in encouraging
      and accommodating students with disabilities. A contributory factor has
      been the appointment of Access and Disability Officers with
      responsibility in this area. There is a need for closer links between
      these individuals and guidance counsellors in order to share
      knowledge and expertise. These links are also vital to inform guidance
      counsellors about opportunities for students and what services are

   D. Education and training is critical if those who play such a key role in
      the lives of young people are to be equipped to facilitate informed
      choices. Many of the issues being raised may seem trivial in terms of

       needs but if they constitute an additional barrier for a student then
       informing and up-skilling must be done.


The purpose of this study was to obtain the views and experiences of
guidance counsellors in relation to their work with students with disabilities in
the area of career guidance and to inform the work of the project and possible
future actions. The findings of the study highlight a number of issues that
need to be addressed.

   1. Disability awareness. There seems to be a lack of understanding and
       empathy within the second level sector about the needs of students
       with disabilities. This may be discouraging a student with a disability
       from seeking support. All appropriate communication media e.g.
       newsletters, booklets, prospectuses, web etc. and channels of
       communication e.g. professional bodies, seminars/conferences, E-mail
       groups etc. should be explored in order to disseminate information. An
       emphasis on ability should be to the fore.

   2. Collation of information on good practice in disability and careers
       education here in Ireland and elsewhere. Publication of such
       information either in print form or electronically on the web.

   3. Dissemination of information on a range of topics.
          -   Teaching learning/strategies that might be adopted with an
              emphasis on Career Guidance.
          -   Supports and accommodations available at second level and
              how to access them.
          -   College entry policies and procedures.
          -   Implications of course choice for students with disabilities.
          -   Career paths and outcomes of graduates with disabilities.

4. Establishment of links.
      -   Establishment of closer contacts between second and third level
          to facilitate the sharing of information regarding opportunities
          and supports.
      -   Highlighting    of   the   issues    raised   to   AHEAD       with   a
          recommendation       for   improved    communication/liaison      with
          second level.
      -   Investigation of possibilities for focussed visits to colleges with
          the involvement of students or graduates with disabilities.
      -   Explore the setting up of a database of students and graduates
          with disabilities to act as role models for prospective students.

5. Drafting of guidelines for publication of prospectuses and other
   means of communication to reduce jargon and improve information
   given on courses, career opportunities and supports available. Also to
   include recommendations for more explicit publicity on the involvement
   of students with disabilities in college.

6. Investigation of the availability of Aptitude tests, Interest
   inventories and Vocational guidance software for use with students
   with disabilities in second level.

7. Research present guidance counsellors education and training
   courses for content in relation to disability with a view to making
   recommendations for inclusion.


Students were obvious stakeholders as consumers in the educational system.
Students were surveyed in order to:
      Seek more specific information in relation to the second level
       experience of students with disabilities - with particular emphasis on
       career guidance.
      Gather data on how course choice and/or career guidance is delivered
       by guidance counsellors to students with disabilities at second level -
       with particular emphasis on progression to third level.
      Ascertain what actions were needed to improve the situation.

Because the outcomes of this research would inform future phases of the
project there was an emphasis on qualitative data collection.
All students registered with a disability in each institution were informed about
the project and issued with an invitation to respond in confidence. This
allowed students to self-select for participation. All documentation was
designed and drafted in consultation with relevant staff in each institution to
achieve an accessible format using non-jargon language. Questions were
drafted in light of issues raised in previous research, by identification of the
broad issues, through discussion with students and through consultation with
members of the steering committee.
It was then distributed in hard copy or electronically as appropriate via the
disability service and the access office in each institution respectively. The
option of a focus group was offered to students and was taken up by a small
group in IT Tallaght.

This varied greatly between the two institutions. The response rate from IT
Tallaght was 50% while at Trinity College it was a disappointing 7% despite
the offer of an incentive and reminders being issued in both instances. In
discussion at the Steering Committee some possible explanations were

      The IT Tallaght campus in general is far more intimate and personal
       because of its size. With just 18 students with disabilities registered at
       the time of the survey accessing them was easier on a personal level
       through the relevant staff member. This contrasts with the physical
       size and the dispersed nature of the student cohort at Trinity College
       together with the number of students with disabilities (258) registered
       at the time of the survey. The most convenient, but in hindsight not the
       most fruitful, means of accessing these students was by E-mail, which
       is impersonal and easy to ignore.

      Research within IT Tallaght leans more toward the ‘hard’ sciences
       rather than the human sciences or sociology. Students therefore are
       not generally the focus of research initiatives. This group of students
       would not be generally sought after for their views and may therefore
       have been more eager to participate. The survey at Trinity College was
       one of a number being conducted with the cohort of students with
       disabilities at the time. It is very possible that they were suffering from
       ‘survey fatigue’ and a desire to be left alone and allowed to get on with
       their studies. They may have resisted this as one more intrusion into
       their lives.

The apparent lack of engagement by a majority of students with disabilities
has been identified as a particular loss to the project both in terms of
canvassing a more comprehensive view and tapping into what could be
significant agents for change.


The many issues raised offer a snapshot of the experience of some students
with disabilities in the Irish education system in the 21st century.
It is clear that the aspirations of this group of students are no different to their
‘able-bodied’ peers. They seek opportunities to participate in education in
order to acquire a qualification that will improve their career prospects. They

may differ from a percentage of their ‘able-bodied’ peers in that they are very
focussed in their choice of course and college. Their motivation stems from a
desire to exploit their ability rather than becoming victims of their disability.

Despite mainstreaming in education being official Government policy there is
a significant lack of systemic provision for students with disabilities particularly
in the second level sector. It is not possible within the scope of this report to
look at the causes of this situation but it will be an element of future work of
the project.
A contrast emerges between the students’ experience at second level and at
third level. They portray a second level environment that is not disability
friendly and relies on individuals rather than systemic support to make their
experience more positive. This is reflected in the detail of comment about lack
of knowledge, understanding and empathy among some of the key people in
a young persons life. It is disappointing but not entirely surprising to find that
negative attitudes still prevail in relation to disability itself manifested in low
expectations and a perception of no ability because of a disability.
In relation to the thrust of this project it was disquieting to find dissatisfaction
with the content and quality of career guidance provision at second level.
Students declared a sense of being let down in terms of this service. In spite
of the difficulties they made good decisions and were content with their

As stated there emerges a contrast between the reported second level and
third level experiences. The data indicated a sense of relief for the student       -
being in an environment where disability is accepted (in the main) and where
supports and accommodations are a part of the system. The respondents
were enabled to get on with the real business of learning. They stated that
there was room for improvement and were clear about where such
improvement should take place. These include disability awareness training
for staff, (and peers who hold offices in clubs and societies) more
accommodations by lecturers and universal design of buildings.

While the data show high satisfaction ratings with both the supports on offer
and those individuals who administer them it is in the advice offered to
prospective college students that a real change in outlook becomes evident.
They are positive, enthusiastic and encouraging about college. They
recommend openness in relation to disability and enthusiastic use of the
available supports.
They are also realistic and highlight the fact that resilience and hard work is
required for a student with a disability to get to college and to achieve

What emerges from the findings is an image of determined individuals who
are very focused on their education. Further research may reveal that this
leads to better preparation prior to college, which in turn leads to more
successful outcomes.
Reflecting on the findings and reviewing them against the issue of general
retention two points are raised:

      There is evidence to suggest that perhaps retention at college is not
       the issue for this cohort rather it is ensuring their successful transition
       from second to third level. To maintain retention in the education
       system (at all levels) appropriate supports must be put in place to allow
       opportunity for progression. Further research is being conducted with
       students with disabilities who exited both colleges prior to completion of
       their course of study.

      Perhaps as the Retention Network have suggested, ‘student support’ is
       a more appropriate concept than retention as a means of reducing
       attrition rates. The respondents in this survey have had support in very
       practical ways but no doubt also emotional and psychological support
       in a less explicit way. There is a need for such student support to be in
       place at second level.

An important finding was the key role played by families in guiding, advising
and advocating for these students. This may not be entirely different to other
students but the families of these students seemed to get involved in seeking
to secure provisions that should have been available as a right within the

This study is on a small scale, focusing as it did on just two third level
colleges. It was not intended to be representative of either all students with
disabilities or third level in general. Its aim was to inform the future work of this
project in terms of improving the retention of students with disabilities in third
It is natural that when individuals are asked to comment in relation to service
delivery by an identified group of people the data will reflect the interpersonal
experience of the respondent. This may be complimentary or scathing and
can be coloured by a variety of unknown (possibly irrelevant) factors.
Unfortunately a comment regarding one individual can project a false image of
the group. It is accepted that in all professions there are individuals who do
their job very well, others who do the minimum required and those who do the
job poorly. What is important is to determine what the individual experiences
as a whole tell you about the service or system.

         A. Second level experience for most respondents was less than
           satisfactory. Systemic provision that automatically addressed their
           needs was absent. They relied on various individuals (including
           family) to secure accommodations. Positive experiences were
           attributed to individuals who showed empathy and understanding.
           Increasing numbers of students with disabilities in mainstream
           requires disability awareness training for staff and pupils as well as
           provision of resources.

B. Disclosure of disability appears to be more of an issue at second
   level than third level. This may well be related to the stage of
   development the individual is at in terms of self-esteem and
   maturity but is no doubt closely linked to the prevalent attitude of
   their environment. This is where the call for awareness raising is
   important. Whether in society at large or in the microcosm of a
   school, education has a key role in dispelling myths and fear of the
   unknown.    Where     proper        integration   takes   place   there   is
   understanding of difference not fear or sympathy. Minorities are
   seen as part of the norm.

C. Career guidance is a key focus of this project. Those with
   responsibility for this area at second level are guidance counsellors.
   It is however just one of many services they deliver to students in a
   brief that is not always clearly defined. They are a group who are
   already under resourced to meet the demands placed on them by
   students and parents. Increased numbers of students with
   disabilities in mainstream is a reality encouraged by Government
   policy and increased identification /diagnosis of disabilities.
   Unfortunately relevant training has not kept pace with these

D. Going to college is a process that can be made easier with access
   to good information. There is room for improvement in the
   communication of relevant information. Students were primarily
   guided by there choice of course (which seemed to have been well
   researched) rather than disability supports. Supports for students
   with disabilities should be a given, the same as a library or a lecture
   hall. Obtaining a qualification in stages was seen as a good option
   to reduce pressure and stress.

E. College life was no different in most respects to any students’
   experience. Personal enrichment, career progression and sense of

          achievement together with stress, coping with course work,
          inadequate facilities and lack of finance made up their experience.
          There was high praise for supports related to their disability but as
          in second level they pointed out the need for greater awareness
          and appreciation of their needs amongst all staff. There also
          emerged an improved level of comfort with their disability which
          seemed related to the new environment but may also have been
          due to their maturity and being in a course of their choice.
          They were encouraging of others to pursue a third level education.


The purpose of this study was to capture student experiences in order to
inform future phases of the project. The findings of the study highlight some
very obvious deficits in relation to students with disabilities having equal
opportunity to third level education. It is therefore important to respond to the
findings with a set of recommendations:

   1. Collation of information sources on good practice in disability and
       education here in Ireland and elsewhere. Publication of such
       information either in print form or electronically (web based).

   2. Disability awareness. The lack of knowledge, understanding and
       empathy among peers and staff puts unnecessary pressure on the
       student with a disability. All appropriate communication media e.g.
       newsletters, booklets, prospectuses, web etc. and channels of
       communication e.g. professional bodies, seminars/conferences, E-mail
       groups etc. should be explored in order to disseminate correct
       information. An emphasis on ability should be to the fore.

   3. Links should be established between second and third level to
       facilitate the sharing of information regarding opportunities and

      supports. This linkage should extend to students and their families
      (and/or other support person) in order to facilitate first hand experience.

   4. Students with disabilities should be engaged in the process of
      education wherever possible. Through their story they can illustrate
      what can be achieved, explain things in non-jargon language and be a
      role model for prospective students.

   5. Review of information sources used by students to choose courses
      and college to ensure accessibility. Guidelines should be drafted if they
      are not available or are not adequate. Content of such information
      sources should include details of disability services in a more explicit

   6. Review provision of disability awareness training for staff in each
      institution with a view to improving provision and increasing knowledge
      and understanding of the issues for students with disability.
      Investigate the extension of disability awareness training to members
      of clubs and societies within college.

   7. Review provision of disability awareness training for staff in each
      institution with a view to improving provision and increasing knowledge
      and understanding of the issues for students with disability.
      Investigate the extension of disability awareness training to members
      of clubs and societies within college.

   8. Investigate suitable Aptitude tests, Interest inventories and
      Vocational guidance software for use with students with disabilities.

Implementation of the proposed actions set out above should have a positive
impact by removing or lessening the barriers to progression with a resultant
increase in students with disabilities progressing to and benefiting from third
level education. People with disabilities as a group within society remain
disadvantaged by a lack of full representation in third level education. While

the major barriers to participation in a particular course are often perceived to
be physical access, access to equipment and personal assistance the social
constructs and lack of awareness surrounding disability are a far more
persistent barrier for individuals to overcome.


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