Tuesday 23 December 2014

Life after Leaving Cert - with a disability

Starting college with mild cerebral palsy added to Jennifer McShane's fears

Jennifer McShane

Published 18/08/2014 | 15:36

I remember how sick I felt the morning of the CAO results.

College loomed, and aside from being worried about whether or not I would actually be accepted into college at all (I was), I was anxious about the challenge of having to physically go to college, and how I would cope with this.

First of all, I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be a journalist, and I absolutely wanted to go and study this in a college setting, regardless of having mild Cerebral Palsy (CP).

I’ve been dealing with having CP for many years, but nothing prepared me for the initial fear I felt when I discovered college was actually happening. Anyone that has any sort of disability will I’m sure, understand, but I couldn’t find anyone to relate to at the time, so I had no idea what to expect going in.

So, aside from being anxious about all the usual worries that everyone can empathise with before they start; would I like the course? Would I make friends? I was more nervous about other, more practical things due to the disability.

I have to use a walking frame to get around each day for long distance as my energy and stamina wouldn’t be great, so I knew one thing going in – the campus had to be small. So I decided to stay away from the bigger colleges and attended Griffith College Dublin because I liked the smaller campus, classroom sizes and naturally, the course content.

My main advice to anyone with a disability about to attend college is to go and voice all your worries to the staff before you even think of accepting – I realise looking back now, that I didn’t ask enough questions at the start, and found extra challenges when I went in because of this.

For example: there were quite a few awkward doors, some stairs to climb in the older parts of the buildings (though the college did have a lift for some parts), and if I were in my wheelchair (as I sometimes am), this would have made attending some classes near impossible.  It’s all these extra details that have to be looked at in advance – this all sounds so obvious now, but I was so caught up in the mix of excitement and nerves that these details just went out of my head until I was actually there.

In terms of college support, the staff in Griffith was really amazing.  Don’t be afraid to speak out if you’re anxious or worried about any aspect of college - everyone who has a disability will have different needs, and it’s so important that the staff are aware of this. I learnt to speak up early on if I was having difficulties, and they went out of their way to make my life as easy as possible during my four years there.

I don’t recall meeting anyone else that had a disability similar to mine, but despite the challenges I embraced college life head on; I went out, made fantastic friends, and studied too, of course. My college years were some of the best of my life, and I wouldn’t change them for anything. Anyone with a disability can have a hugely enjoyable and fulfilling college experience, so don’t be afraid to go for it, even if it might be more challenging at the start.

Colleges do have support services for those with disabilities; so don’t be shy about taking full advantage of these to help make your student life easier.

And regardless of what college you decided to go for (big or small), all third level campuses should have designated support staff for students with disabilities known as Disability or Access Officers with responsibility for supporting these students through college life.

Many universities also support DARE – the Disability Access Route to Education programme - so make sure you enquire about this if you think you’re eligible. There is also a Fund for Students with Disabilities grant, which you can avail of.

Information on Fund for Students with Disabilities: here

DARE programme: here

Organisations such as AHEAD, (Association for Higher Education Access and Disability), also offer advice and help to those with disabilities starting the transitions to college. 

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