MORE THAN 30 YEARS ago, a group of students met on a bench in the Newman Building to discuss how to make the University accessible to all. Now, decades later, not far from that spot in the heart of the campus is UCD Access & Lifelong Learning (ALL), home to UCD’s comprehensive service for students with disabilities. The service has grown exponentially over the years, from supporting just 100 students in 1994, to supporting more than 2,000 today.
“In the past, students with disabilities had to negotiate access and bespoke solutions were generated for their individual needs,” says Disability Officer Julie Tonge. “UCD has a radically different approach now. UCD’s University for All initiative ensures that access and inclusion issues are addressed in an integrated and coherent way that meets the needs and expectations of all students. Where additional specialist supports are needed, we work with individual students to ensure equity of participation for such students.” Tonge explains that UCD aims to bring together the entire University community to become a fully inclusive, diverse institution. “We recognise, promote and value diversity, we foster the spirit of inclusion. We appreciate the breadth of talent, experience and contribution of all students, and strive to remove the barriers to access, participation and success.”
One student with a disability commented in a recent survey, “The support I received from UCD ALL was far beyond anything I expected. The UCD ALL team members were so welcoming, supportive and non-judgemental that it made the entire process so much easier for me.”
As the move to online learning accelerated over the past 18 months, UCD ALL worked closely with colleagues in UCD IT services to incorporate new technologies to improve the accessibility of the online learning environment for everyone. With the introduction of Ally for Brightspace, students can download course materials in whatever format meets their needs – such as audio format or Braille – thus reducing the need for students with disabilities to have their course materials converted. According to one user: “This is a gamechanger. It is simple to use and works every time.” Students who learn better by listening or who would like to learn while commuting to college, can download audio files and listen to course materials on the go. Ally also provides essential feedback and guidance to staff on the accessibility of their course content and how to improve it, making life easier for staff and students alike.
Registrar and Deputy President of UCD, Professor Mark Rogers, says that “UCD aims to tailor what we do to really meet the full range of requirements for students without labelling them.” To this end, UCD is committed to Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an effective framework to improve the learning experience for all students within the higher education teaching environment. It is a set of principles for curriculum development that gives all students, including those with disabilities, equal opportunities to learn. UCD ALL, in collaboration with UCD Teaching & Learning and UCD Equality, Diversity & Inclusion, recently appointed 17 University for All Faculty partners from across the University. These partners will qualify as UDL facilitators to accelerate the implementation of UDL throughout the University, and will become role models to influence others as to the merits of inclusion for all students. UDL considers the needs of all students and reduces the need for students with disabilities to contact specialist services for extra support. Tonge notes that “this Universal Design approach ensures that access and inclusion is now everyone’s business.”
For students with mobility issues, the physical accessibility of the campus is a priority. UCD’s new buildings are fully wheelchair accessible, with push pads, automatic doors and disabled toilets and UCD Estate Services and UCD ALL have audited all older campus buildings, adapting and retrofitting on a phased basis. The central spine or mall has been smoothed out with gentle slopes and ramps replacing steps. “Accessibility is the norm, not just meeting standards but exceeding them. This work will continue as the campus develops with accessibility key to all new developments from conception,” says Tonge.
The demand for disability supports in the area of mental health has seen a dramatic increase, according to Tonge. “We have observed a huge increase in the need for accommodations for those suffering from mental health difficulties.” Accommodations might include being able to sit exams in a classroom environment rather than in large exam halls, or perhaps being granted additional time for exams. “It is vital we try and ensure that students with mental health difficulties maintain their studies and can take their exams.” Communication of the issues around disability to staff is of huge importance, Tonge continues, “To those in teaching roles, we offer disability workshops and disability awareness training so that we promote a supportive culture in every classroom as well as all around campus.”