On January 22, 2021, The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris TD, announced a number of new measures to “help make our higher education institutions more accessible for students with disabilities”.
The initiative is reported to cost €5.4 million and include twenty-three Higher Education Institutes. The measures include the establishment of autism-friendly rooms in nine campuses across the country, an app to help students with visual or hearing impairments move through the campus, and the development of assistive technology. Provision has also been made for staff training and development. According to the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, the initiatives “are broad and are aimed at improving access to higher education for people with a disability, to improving college campuses”.
In a statement released by the Department, Minister Harris said: "College can be an overwhelming experience but for people with disabilities, it can be extremely daunting.These projects will make a transformational difference to people’s lives. For people with autism, there are autism-friendly rooms being established in nine colleges for when things get overwhelming. We are funding projects to make our colleges more accessible.
"We will also fund tactile wayfinding maps, loop systems for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Education is for everyone and people with disabilities need to be supported by their third level institutions. Importantly, we will use some of the funding for training staff and hiring new ones to help students with additional needs".
Speaking to The University Observer, UCDSU Welfare Officer Ruiarí Power said: “UCD Students’ Union welcomes this allocation of funds from the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Skills. We look forward to seeing the detail of this provision of additional resources for students with disabilities. Moving towards Universal Design and access for all students is essential to ensure equal access to higher education”.
The Fund for Students with Disabilities (FSD) aims “to assist further and higher education institutions in ensuring students with disabilities have the necessary assistance and equipment to enable them access, fully participate in and successfully complete their chosen course of study”. According to Department, the FSD in 1999 helped 300 students. In the 2018/2019 academic year the FSD assisted 13,000 students, with “a range of conditions and disabilities including sensory and physical disabilities, specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, autism, mental health conditions and significant ongoing illness”.
Dr Alan Wall, Chief Executive of the HEA, praised the work of the FSD and welcomed the introduction of measures that should make campuses more accessible places for all:"For many years now the FSD has been a key enabler in ensuring that students with disabilities can participate in higher education on an equal basis with their peers.
“It already provides funding that allow HEIs provide essential supports to students. The announcement today not only gives HEIs the opportunity to further develop and enhance these supports but also allows them to focus on the strategic development of disability supports and services. This is critical when we bear in mind the particular impact COVID-19 has had on vulnerable and disadvantaged learners and as we move to the development of next National Access Plan."