Extra Time Could Make Huge Difference For Students With Disabilities:

Third-level students with certain disabilities say they should not have to suffer financial penalties if they need extra time to complete a college course, and have called on the Government to facilitate them.

Currently students who do not complete 60 credits each year are deemed part-time and lose the SUSI grant covering the €3,000 annual registration fee and other maintenance.

Students who use wheelchairs or have visual or hearing impairments have to balance their academic work with a range of additional challenges.

Vicky Matthew has been a wheelchair user for 12 years.

But her disability is not stopping her from pursuing a degree in sport and business at IT Sligo.

Vicky lives in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, and travels to Sligo each day. She gets up at 6am and takes a wheelchair accessible bus, which she campaigned for, to college.

Vicky spends much of her day at the gym, learning to teach both able-bodied and disabled students.

But the two-hour round trip to college and the challenges of campus life make her days longer and more tiring than for other students. 

A personal assistant helps Vicky on days when she has swimming instruction or field trips.

But taking ramps and lifts dozens of times a day slows her down and she said students with disabilities need more time.

“It takes you longer to get from one lecture room to another. If you have to do a serpent of a slope it takes longer than just running down a few steps.

“When you press the button on the lift, it’s not automatically waiting for you. You might have a wait a few minutes.”

Vicky also encounters a road block on the way to the gym. Her sports chair does not fit through the door and has to be dismantled and reassembled.

Another stumbling block to attending college, she said is a broken wheelchair, which can take weeks or months to fix.

“When you break a piece in the chair you have to call your occupation therapist who sends an engineer out to you, who then has to submit a letter saying she needs new tyres or new brakes. That has to be approved and then it goes back to the engineer.”

Vicky is one of hundreds of students who could benefit from being able complete their degree over a longer period.

Dr Patrick McGarty of the School of Health and Social Sciences at Tralee IT said this could be easily fixed.

“We are talking about a relatively small cohort of students, less than 1,000,” he said.

Dr McGarty points to the societal cost of not acting. “People with disabilities have a harder time trying to access the employment market.”

The exception sought would cover wheelchair users as well as hearing and visually impaired students.

Sara McFadden from Castlebar, Co Mayo, is also studying sport and business in Sligo and is determined not let her visual impairment hinder her in college or in motor sport. 

She is Ireland’s first visually-impaired rally navigator. “I’ve been competing over the last year-and-a-half. We finished up this season with four out of four championship podiums.”

Sara hopes to get her degree on time, but said the option to delay modules would make college life more attractive to disabled leaving cert students thinking about third level.

“In IT Sligo there are great facilities. They offer assistive technology which helps me greatly and all the lectures will email notes. But come Friday you’d be very tired. We are doing five modules, whereas if we were doing three or four and over a longer time it would make it a lot more manageable with probably better results in the long term.”

So why hasn’t the change the students are asking for been made?

Minister with Responsibility for Disabilities Finian McGrath said he is in favour of the change.

“I’ve got to convince the Higher Education Authority, and the Department of Education,” he told RTÉ’s This Week.

Two years ago Ireland signed the UN convention for people with disabilities. Yet the number of students in third level education remains as low as 6%.

“Physical disability and deaf students have reached 10%, and also blind students are 10%. But the figure is low, absolutely. 8% is the target but at the moment its 6%,” Mr McGrath said.

Vicky Matthew is as much a campaigner as a student, and as I leave Sligo her day is only half done.

“On my long days in college when lectures don’t finish until 6pm, I don’t get home until 7.30pm,” she said.


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