“They don’t seem to understand anything that’s not a physical disability.” Access Centre accused of not providing adequate resources for students

Access & Lifelong Learning (ALL) is a resource offered to UCD students that advertises a range of supports, including financial, academic, and personal. Their aim is to support students by providing them with the necessary tools and services to ensure that third level education is open and accessible to all, including those with disabilities.

However, The University Observer has heard from several students, who have detailed the issues they have faced in dealing with the Access & Lifelong Learning Center, especially surrounding so called “invisible” disabilities, such as autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and anxiety. Speaking to the Observer, John* described problems in dealing with the Access Centre; “they don’t seem to understand anything that’s not a physical disability. They don't understand anxiety or autism or anything.”

A common issue raised by these students is a lack of clarity surrounding what services are available to students with invisible disabilities. Mark* told the University Observer “when you do the disability assessment meeting you aren't actually told what's available to you. I understand that they don't want to be like ‘well this this this and this [is available]’ but it’s often very hard for someone who is newly diagnosed to be like ‘this is what I need’ because you can identify that you are struggling, but I didn’t know why.”

Similar sentiments are held by other students who have shared their experience in dealing with the Access Center. Matthew*, who was automatically registered with the Access Centre as they were a DARE (Disability Access Route to Education) student in secondary school, told the Observer; “I was trying to ask if there was anything else that they could offer but they didn’t seem to want to suggest anything. I didn’t know what I could have.” Matthew felt that “they were a bit dismissive, when I would explain a problem and ask if they had anything they wouldn’t offer anything.”

John also mentioned the difficulties they encountered dealing with lecturers, particularly in obtaining notes for Maths; “He was like, “Oh, I don’t know how to help you, I do it all on the whiteboard, it’s your problem.” The question of who was responsible for solving this problem was then argued over, John said: “Then I went back to the Access Centre, they were like ‘talk to your Student Advisor.’ And the Student Advisor was like, ‘talk to the Access Centre, anything to do with disability doesn’t go through us.’”

When approached for comment, Anna Kelly, Director of the Access Centre, expressed concern that students were having problems. “Students are assured that we have an ‘open door’ policy, and they are strongly encouraged to contact us when they need information, assistance, guidance or supports.”

When the issue of lecturers and academic staff refusing to take into account students disabilities was raised, Kelly responded, saying: “Following the student’s needs assessment, we contact the Module Coordinators each semester, outlining their responsibilities in supporting students with disabilities. Information is also sent regularly to all University staff and faculty, and we also provide ongoing training opportunities.” It was not stated whether these training opportunities were compulsory, nor if staff had come to the Centre looking for specific training. It was also not disclosed what kind of training was offered.

The Access Centre deal with some 2000 students with disabilities, 11.6% of the total amount of students who avail of the services offered by ALL. ALL have 24 full time staff members. Students who spoke to the University Observer felt that the issues they were facing could be due to funding and staffing issues. Mark explained that “when I was on the service before, the standard is that you have an appointment [with an occupational therapist] every week, but at the time I was only having an appointment every two weeks. I was told it was because they didn’t have enough people.”

The University Observer also reached out to the Student’s Union for a response. President Joanna Siewierska said “Since we have began [sic] [working with the Access Centre], we have not have [sic] any student complain about services from the ALL centre.” However, she did concede that students had expressed issues with academic staff. “We have heard from students under the Access umbrella who encountered problems when dealing with members of academic staff.”

Disability Rights Officer, Hannah Bryson, recently tweeted about her interactions with the Access Centre and sharing her difficulties with them and other disability support services within UCD: “I failed a module twice because no one would step in and tell the lecturers to give me notes, spent over a grand in repeat fees due to my dyslexia, banned from extenuating circumstance because one was disability related, Dean told me [to] go to another uni [sic] as not suited for UCD.” When approached for comment, Bryson said “My tweets were out of frustration that the university is not currently matching the needs for myself and other students. My main issue is that in class supports are dependant on [the] communication skills of the student.” She also highlighted the work the Union is hoping to do this year. “We as a Union are currently looking into a peer run self advocacy group to help students, and hoping to engage with [the] ALL centre more to make sure UCD is truly a University for All'.”

*The names of these students have been changed at their own request.