AHEAD: Association for Higher Education Access & Disability
Creating inclusive environments in education & employment for people with disabilities.


Launch of Students with Disabilities Engaged with Support Services in Higher Education in Ireland 2018/19 Report

AHEAD are delighted to launch our report on  Students with Disabilities Engaged with Support Services in Higher Education in Ireland for the academic period 2018/19. AHEAD has been researching the participation rates of students with disabilities in higher education for the past 26 years.  AHEAD welcomes the steady rise of the number of students with disabilities in higher education identified through this research. In the academic year of 2018/19 students registered with disability support services represented 6.2% (15,696) of the total student population in higher education. Over the last ten years, AHEAD’s research has identified that the number of students in higher education engaging with the disability services has risen by over 200% (4,853 08/09- 15,696 in 18/19).

This research has developed due to the continuous support of The Higher Education Authority over the years, as part of their ongoing efforts to promote equal opportunities in higher education in Ireland.

There were a number of key findings and recommendations which AHEAD identified as part of this year’s report which are summarised below;

Profile of Students registered with the disability support/access services by category of disability in 2018/19

Specific Learning Difficulty, 37.7%, Mental Health Condition 16.1%, Significant Ongoing Illness 11.6%, Asperger’s/Autism category 6.9%DCD - Dyspraxia category 6.5%, Physical Disability 6.3%, ADD/ADHD category 5%, Neurological/Speech & Language category 4.8% Deaf/Hard of Hearing category 2.6%, Blind and Visually Impaired category 1.8%, The Other category 0.7%.










Top 5 largest number of students with disabilities in higher education in Ireland by category in the academic year 2018/19;

  • 37.7%  Specific Learning Difficulty,
  • 16.1% Mental Health Condition
  • 11.6%  Significant Ongoing Illness
  • 6.9% Asperger’s/Autism category
  • 6.5% DCD - Dyspraxia category


Key findings

  • Increase of 220% (10,843) in the number of students with disabilities registering with the support services in higher education in the last 10 years.
  • 86% of Students with Disabilities in 2018/19 receive exam accommodations.
  • In the last 10 years, the number of students with sensory disabilities has grown by less than half the rate of the students with disabilities more generally.
  • A decrease in the number of postgraduate students with disabilities.
  • 37% increase in the number of students per disability support staff member in the last 7 years.

"Working part time is proving to be very difficult … with huge demand on the
service. With increasing numbers of students this is proving to be almost
unmanageable." Disability Support Staff Member

  • Increase of 21% of the number of students with disabilities studying part-time in higher education.
  • The number of new registrations to support services from students not in their first year continues to rise.
  • Increase of 21% in the number of students in the Asperger’s/Autism category in 2018/19.
  • Over two thirds of institute respondents believe they do not have sufficient resources in their (disability/access support services) department to collaborate on inclusive practices across their institutions.

"We strongly believe that each student with a disability should receive a one to-one needs assessment with a member of our team. To do this and also fulfil a wider institutional role is difficult with current resources." Disability Support Staff Member


  • Higher Education Institutions should increase levels of resources to disability support services to ensure quality and support a whole college approach to inclusion.

The opinion and comment collected from disability support staff in the ‘on the ground’ section of this report indicates that most HEIs are supportive of the disability support service collaborating with other services and departments on projects to promote universal design for learning and other inclusive practices, but that disability support services are lacking the resources to deliver on this element of their remit, which is becoming more important as the numbers of students with disabilities increases.

"In order to make myself more available to the wider university I would need someone to take over some of my roles. The service comes first and must, so work around the college cannot be prioritised or engaged - in I just don’t have the time." - Disability Support Staff Member

  • Higher Education Institutions should consider use of a broader suite of assessment instruments and an approach to assessment which builds in flexibility and choice.

This report illustrates the high usage of extra time and alternative venues as exam supports for students with disabilities. With the numbers of
students with disabilities continuing to rise, AHEAD believes that continuing to apply ever-increasing numbers of individual exam accommodations is an unsustainable approach and the high use of these accommodations indicates that more flexible assessment instruments, which build in choice for students in how they demonstrate learning outcomes, are required. AHEAD recommends that HEIs take an institutional strategic approach to the promotion and implementation of universal design for learning which includes reviewing and updating policy and the provision of professional development for teaching staff.

  • Cross sector collaboration on identified potential access barriers to third level for students with sensory disabilities. 

AHEAD’s research on participation has consistently highlighted the low participation rate of students with sensory (visual/auditory) disabilities in
higher education. AHEAD’s understanding from engaging with students and stakeholders is that many of the educational barriers these students experience occur at primary and secondary levels and so AHEAD recommends that the Department of Education and Skills form a cross sector working group featuring stakeholders in the education system and relevant NGOs to collectively identify the key issues and make recommendations.

  • Research required on access barriers for students with disabilities to post-graduate courses and national targets set. 

    The continuing trend of significantly lower participation rates (as % of total undergraduate/postgraduate population) of students with disabilities at postgraduate level than at undergraduate level highlighted in this research, indicates that there are barriers to access for this cohort, which in turn impacts on their opportunities to advance their overall earnings and improvement of living conditions. Further research is needed to identify these barriers.

Download the Summary and Recommendations Document »

Get The Full Report »



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