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Being a Disabled Student in a Non-Disabled World     

Aimage of Leesa Flynn with long blonde hair, a purple jumper, black skirt sitting in a black wheelchairre you a Leaving Cert student who happens to also be disabled and are wondering if college is for you? Are you currently an undergrad student with a disability wondering if you can make it out in the working world, or even wondering if you’ll be able to do a postgrad? I have been you, and I am you and I completely understand the struggles you may be currently facing, both emotionally and physically.

My name is Leesa Flynn and I am a student from Maynooth University. I am also a wheelchair user. I completed my undergrad in Bachelor of Arts from 2016-2019. I was lucky in the fact that I lived on campus throughout my undergrad and my chosen subjects of English and History meant that my hours were 100% on campus, which was ideal as Maynooth campus is generally extremely accessible. However, once I became a postgrad student, a lot of factors became very uncertain. I am a Professional Masters of Education (Primary Teaching) student, the first of which to complete the course as a wheelchair user. While this is an achievement that I am extremely proud of, it hasn’t come without its hurdles.

Firstly, there is the obvious fear and anxiety about placement. The PME is placement heavy, and I was terrified as to what that would look for me and my lifestyle as a disabled student. There was a certain amount of comfort from having been on campus for my first three years in Maynooth and even at the start of my PME journey, everything was on Zoom so there were a lot of unforeseen hoops to jump through once the world went back to ‘normal’. However, I like to keep things solution-focused, so if you are in the same boat as me, here are a few tips that I have picked up along my postgrad journey that you may find useful too!

 1- Get in touch with with your institution’s Access/Disability Office

I am not exaggerating when I say that if I hadn’t linked up with my Access Officer in Maynooth, there are many times that I may have dropped out of university. Getting registered with your Access Office as early on as you can on your college journey is crucial in getting the supports you need implemented. Generally, you are given a specific point of contact called an advisor, who can support you in whatever you need to give you a college experience that is equal to that of your non-disabled peers.

 2 - Make a list of accommodations you need

Whether this is for Exams, placement or just every day college life, if there are extra supports you need such as a personal assistant, extra time in an exam, a scribe, or other environmental factors that you need to be taken into consideration – make a list. This will help you so much in disclosing your needs to others (and honestly, you may have to repeat these a few times depending on your situation!). Doing this as early as possible will also increase your institution’s capabilities to provide you with what you need, at the earliest stage.

3 - Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need in external environments, i.e., when going out on placement

I know for myself, as I am the first wheelchair user to complete my course, that external factors such as school placements and the Gaeltacht stay, have been greatly overlooked in the past in terms of accessibility. It was so important for me to speak directly with authority figures such as school principals and the head of the Gaeltacht I was hoping to attend, in order to suss out how accessible those environments were for me. Additionally, if it is feasible for you, I would recommend physically visiting this environment prior to beginning placement, as you can only learn so much about an environment over the phone. Depending on who you get speaking to, the person in authority may not yet be well-versed on what makes an accessible workplace, so as well as you benefiting from viewing your workplace before beginning placement, the people you work with will also benefit, as they will actually learn what is truly accessible, from a lived experience perspective.

 4 - Be yourself and embrace the experience for what it is! 

I know oftentimes, even once all the practicalities are figured out and you know where you are going for placement, it can often be the little voice in our heads that is the hardest to switch off. “Will I be taken seriously in this job?”, “Will they be able to see past my disability?”, “Will my opinion be respected?”, “Will I get the same opportunities as my non-disabled colleagues?” – the lists of fears and anxieties that we internalise are endless. However, the most important thing to remember is that whether you are in college, on placement or wherever your course takes you, you are there to learn just like every other student. You have earned your place just like your peers have, and oftentimes if you are a disabled student on the course, you may have even had to work harder to get where you. Be proud of that and know that you deserve to be there just as much as everyone else. Be yourself, work hard and enjoy every minute of the experience.

I hope these tips have been of some use. The most important piece of information I can tell you is, no matter what course you’re in, the college experience as a whole flies by in the blink of an eye, so enjoy it for everything that it is. You got this!


Guest Blog Author: Leesa Flynn Graduate and Activist 

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Creating Inclusive Environments in Education and Employment for People with Disabilities

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