2001 Conference Proceedings

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Providing Access for Irish Students with Disabilities: The UCC Experience of Technology, Support and Guidance

Alan Bruce, Mary O' Grady & Elizabeth Ahern

Introduction:

The social and economic framework of disability in Ireland in recent times has shown some, at first sight, very positive developments. These developments are based around legislation, politics, economics and a growing general awareness of the need to address exclusion and marginalization throughout Irish society. In a society such as Ireland’s, with such recent memories of underdevelopment, poverty and colonialism, there exists an openness towards and identification with "social exclusion". In a society experiencing such profound rates of change, however, many challenges and lessons remain.

Equality Legislation is now in place. The first part of the Equality Act was signed by the president and commenced operation on 18 October 1999. Disability is now one of nine identified categories against which it is illegal to discriminate. These categories include race, language, ethnic origin, marital status, sexual orientation, nomadic status as well as disability. This identity is very important. It locates "disability" politically and morally in the context of "rights" and routes of redress for a whole range of social groups historically discriminated against. And in that context of combating discrimination, disability is now increasingly regarded within a civil rights context. This goes a long way towards challenging traditional concepts of charity and institutionalization.

At a National level, there is a new impetus around the re-structuring of services for people with disabilities. This is meant to alter the focus towards mainstreaming and devolution of functions within the relevant Government Departments and statutory bodies. Mainstreaming raises many issues and concerns, which may not have been adequately addressed, despite worthy intentions. These relate primarily to inclusion and the need to understand how the "mainstream" itself is changed by the process of inclusion. Central to all this is the concept and practice of equality.

The emergence of a strong and vociferous independent living movement since the early 1990s has played an important part in addressing these serious issues. A national network of some 30 Centres of Independent Living has been developed and through this network a new agenda has also been established around access (transport, housing, training, jobs, media), equality (legislation and practice) and rights (education, development and professionalism).

At a time of profound social and economic change, it would be inconceivable that universities themselves are not affected. There is no longer any space in European countries for universities, which isolate themselves from the experiences and communities all around them. Learning itself has altered from being the preserve of the elite into the birthright of every educated and informed citizen. "Knowledge is power" - and that maxim applies centrally to the emerging role of universities in our societies.

The growing access to third level education by groups traditionally excluded (women, working class people, senior citizens, racial minorities, disabled people) has had a profound effect. In addition, universities have had to become more sensitive to the need to be economically realistic and capable of some form of income generation. They have also had to face, for the first time, new forms of "competition" from open access education programs, distance learning, alternative colleges and the technological revolution in information and communication technologies. Increasingly, our "information society" is laying the foundations of a "knowledge society" where lifelong learning and open access will be come the norm.

Changing universities for changing communities means that new forms of pedagogy, research and application will have to be addressed. This offers significant new opportunities for collaboration between universities and community groups, employers, social movements and hitherto marginalized groups. Not least among these are those with disabilities.

University College Cork

University College Cork is the principal university in the province of Munster, and the largest outside Dublin. UCC is also a constituent University of the National University of Ireland. The present college was founded in 1845, but there has been an educational establishment in Cork for over 1,200 years. Today, UCC has over 12,000 students and an academic staff of over 1,700. Degrees are granted in all disciplines and there is a strong emphasis on research and close connections with industry and with the local community.

Since 1987 The Disability Support Service in U.C.C. has instituted pioneering developments in addressing the educational exclusion of people with disabilities. These developments have achieved national and international recognition, where today, the Disability Support Service is recognized as a leader in its field. It has built on those needs first identified by the individual experiments of including students with disabilities in the 1970s and early 1980s. It has grasped the possibilities offered by the new technologies. It has worked with groups of people with disabilities in the local and regional community to identify what the key needs are and to find ways of meeting them. It has networked with other educational, training and development authorities to identify models of best practice.

The Disability Support Service endeavors to be a "one stop shop" for all students’ information needs not just their academic needs. At the service we have a staff of five each taking responsibility for different areas but working as a multi-skilled integrated team serving the needs of the individual through a collaborative team approach.

Assistive technology plays a vital role in modern society and alleviates the problems of older people and people with disabilities. Education contributes to the empowerment of the individual but AT is needed to realize their potential and achieve this empowerment. AT has more than proved itself as an equalizer in educational and vocational endeavors. According to the Department of Education and science’ s report Schools IT 2000, A policy Framework for the New Millennium "one of the barriers to AT devices among many is no staff available in the field or inadequate training of professional staff". Lack of training for a student in the use of AT can lead to insurmountable problems and ultimately abandonment of the AT.

Development of Assistive technology in UCC

The role played by technology has become increasingly important in the rapidly evolving world of disability and related service provision. Adaptive devices, communication technologies and software have made advances possible in educational access and progression to economic and social independence for those with disabilities that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

Students with disabilities have very specific I.T. needs. According to the Department of Education and Science’s Report ‘Schools IT 2000, A policy Framework for the New Millennium’ "One of the barriers to Assistive Technology devices among many is no staff available in the field or inadequate training of professional staff". Thus, it is vital that the provision of technology should be linked to the appropriate professional training and support in A.T. for students with disabilities pursuing third level education.

In the E.U. Employment Horizon project "Building on SUCCESS" the Disability Support Service appointed an assistive technology trainer to assess and train students with disabilities in the use of specific hardware and software to suit their needs. This was a very important component of the project and U.C.C. was the first Irish University to appoint a designated person.

Last year funding was sought to continue the core work which was piloted under the Horizon Initiative and to develop this at a broader level.

Outcomes (Within UCC):

presentations on Assistive Technology were made to various groups:

Collaboration at national level with organizations, trainers and employers

The Assistive technology programme at the Disability Support Service is a role model for FAS. Trainers avail of training in all aspects of Assistive Technology to facilitate people with disabilities who are undergoing mainstream training.

Transnational European Networks: The Assistive Technology programme at the Disability Support Service in UCC is held in high esteem in Europe.

Conclusion

The UCC experience of assistive technology in enabling students with disabilities achieve their educational and vocational goals has been a major success. As a result the assertive technology programme has developed many collaborative ventures with mainstream trainers, employers and organizations representing people with disabilities at national and transnational level.


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