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


AHEAD Conference 2022 - Call for Submissions

The AHEAD annual international conference will run online from Monday March 21st-Friday March 25th 2022. We are pleased to invite submissions for live online lightning talks and digital posters to be presented at the conference.  

Conference Title: Safe Haven or Stormy Port? Exploring how tertiary education design impacts our health

Conference Dates: Monday March 21st-Friday March 25th 2022, will be held online/virtually.

Conference Sub-themes: 

  1. Safe Boarding for All: The Role of Digital and Physical Accessibility 
  2. Navigating Beyond the Horizon: International Mobility, Work Based Learning and Social Engagement  
  3. Bending with the Breeze: Flexible Approaches to Teaching and Learning
  4. Testing the Waters: Innovative Student-Centred Assessment Design 
  5. The Winds of Change: Agile Student Support  

Submissions Close:  Extended - 5pm Wednesday November 3rd 2021

Completed submission forms must be returned to events@ahead.ie by the extended deadline of 5.00 pm on Wednesday 3rd November. The form can be downloaded at the bottom of this webpage.

All questions or queries should be directed to events@ahead.ie.

About the Conference


Remote learning experiences during Covid-19 have compounded difficulties for some learners and eased them for others, underlining the important role that learning design has on the student learning experience (AHEAD 2020).

Pre-pandemic research in Ireland demonstrates that many higher education students experience extreme levels of anxiety (38.4%), depression (29.9%) and stress (17.3%). Furthermore, students with disabilities are significantly more likely to experience extreme anxiety (58.7%) than their peers (Price, Smith, & Kavalidou, 2019). While student physical and mental wellbeing is of course influenced and impacted by a wide range of personal factors (Price, Smith, & Kavalidou, 2019), it is also influenced by the learning environment that students must navigate (Dooley, O Connor, Fitzgerald & O’ Reilly 2019). This includes all elements of the education experience, from sense of belonging within the learning community, (Rath 2020) to the academic pressures students face both within and beyond the classroom. 

The Safe Haven or Stormy Port conference seeks to explore the link between education design and student wellbeing. To date, welcome health and wellbeing initiatives have mainly focussed on how to support students to better manage the anxiety, stress and poor physical health they may experience while participating in further and higher education.

The AHEAD 2022 conference shifts this focus to explore how the very design of learning environments can impact student wellbeing, raising a number of significant questions:

  • How can education design positively impact student well-being?
  • Can we work together across our colleges and centres to reduce any harmful impact on learners without reducing standards?
  • Can a combination of universal design of the physical/digital environment, universal design for learning (UDL) in the classroom, and high-quality targeted student supports, create educational experiences wherein all students do not simply survive but have the space and opportunity to thrive?
  • How can learners themselves be engaged in these processes of educational design? And how can inclusion and belonging be fostered across the full higher and further education experience?  

In exploring the link between tertiary education design and physical/mental wellbeing, the Safe Haven or Stormy Port conference will showcase good practice in proactively and intentionally designing positive, inclusive tertiary education experiences for all, and efforts that include students as partners when doing so.  


  • AHEAD (2020). Learning from Home During Covid-19: A Survey of Irish FET and HE Students with Disabilities. Blackrock, Dublin.
  • Dooley, B., O Connor, C., Fitzgerald, A. & O’ Reilly, A. (2019). My World Survey 2: The National Study of Youth Mental Health in Ireland. Dublin: UCD.
  • Price, A., Smith,H.A., & Kavalidou, K. (2019). USI National Report on Student Mental Health in Third Level Education, Dublin: Union of Students in Ireland.
  • Rath, V. (2020) Social engagement experiences of disabled students in higher education in Ireland. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Trinity College Dublin.


 Conference Themes - Information & Context


The conference will focus on a number of key themes and areas highlighting the variety of elements involved in creating a positive and student centric tertiary education experience for all students. These themes have been influenced by outcomes of the ongoing work and discussions of the AHEAD/USI Students with Disabilities Advisory Group 2020/21. Group members have frequently cited over-assessment, assessment bunching, the lack of flexibility afforded to them and inaccessibility of learning materials/practices as significant causes of anxiety and stress.  

Submissions on all aspects of creating a positive and inclusive learning environment that focus on the conference themes below and, in particular those that focus on learners with disabilities, will be considered. Submissions with a research focus are welcome across all themes, as are submissions from students and those that focus on students as partners in the design of inclusive and positive learning environments.  The 5 conference themes are listed in the dropdown menus below:

 Theme 1: Safe Boarding For All: The Role of Digital and Physical Accessibility


Student Quote –  Upcoming AHEAD Learning from Home Research Participant (soon to be released): “A disability awareness handbook should be produced by any IT department on how to ensure that recordings have subtitles and how to activate and upload these videos onto both Moodle and Microsoft Teams.”

For learners, particularly those with disabilities, accessibility to learning environments and learning materials is central to their empowerment and their ability to engage in the learning process and reach their full potential. Failure to provide this accessibility creates barriers to inclusion, with consequences not only on the ability to learn but also on learners’ physical and mental wellbeing. Additionally, the Web Accessibility Directive (click for info) now places more legal responsibility on further and higher education providers to embed digital accessibility in their platforms and practices.

This conference theme explores research, initiatives and approaches to ensuring equal access for all students to learning opportunities and that contribute to a healthy, positive and fully rounded tertiary education experience for all learners. 

Submissions under this theme might include, but are not limited to:  

  • College wide approaches to digital/physical accessibility;  
  • The design of virtual and/or physical learning spaces for all; 
  • Universal Design enhancing the student experience;  
  • Students as partners in institutional accessibility projects; 

Theme 2: Navigating Beyond the Horizon: International Mobility, Work-Based Learning and Social Engagement


Student Quote – Upcoming AHEAD Learning from Home Research Participant : “Careers advice needs to be inclusive as well as further opportunities for relevant placements suitable for those with disabilities.”

A positive and successful tertiary education experience is not solely the result of in classroom education design. For learners to feel a sense of belonging and feel connected to the full educational experience, all learners must have equal access to learning opportunities beyond the classroom. This includes, for example, access to work-based learning and work placements, participation in study abroad programmes and clear avenues for social engagement to foster a sense of belonging among students, an important element in student success and retention.

Students with disabilities for example, continue to face barriers in all of these areas. This hinders their ability to benefit from the variety of educational opportunities that exist within tertiary education. 

This conference theme explores the importance of the availability of opportunities beyond the classroom for all learners, identifying and highlighting work being done to enhance inclusive practices in this area.  


Submissions under this theme might include, but are not limited to:  

  • Inclusive mobility and inclusion in work-based learning; 
  • Opportunities for students with disabilities in leadership and decision-making;  
  • Inclusive student mentoring programmes; 
  • Accessible student unions; 
  • Development of inclusive student union policies;

Theme 3: Bending with the Breeze: Flexible Approaches to Teaching and Learning

Student Quote – Upcoming AHEAD Learning from Home Research Participant : “I feel the lectures that I can go back and play again (not a speedy note taker) because they are videos has been such a massive improvement for my learning. I don't know what I would do without them.”

The experience of moving to remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the possibilities that exist to offer more flexible modes of learning and the benefits of these modes and practices for a variety of learners. With remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic compounding difficulties for some learners and easing them for others (AHEAD 2020), it is clear that education design and approaches to teaching and learning have a significant effect on the student learning experience. By considering and implementing approaches that take the variability of the student body into account when designing programmes of study, teaching staff and programme coordinators can play a vital role in affording students a positive learning environment with flexibility built in from the outset, providing students with the opportunity to learn in a way that suits them. 

This is not simply a case of offering a blended learning approach, but rather ensuring that flexibility, accessibility and learner voice and choice are built into all approaches to teaching and learning. For example, the USI national survey (2020 p.11) found that Irish students ‘with disabilities including mental health issues and students with poor internet connections were amongst the most adversely impacted by the move to online learning', and this needs to be taken into account for any future delivery of remote learning and assessment in order to improve accessibility for students with disabilities.'

Murphy (2021) suggests that as we move out of the restrictions imposed throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and a period of ‘emergency remote teaching...we must not lose sight of a vision for accessible and inclusive education...we have an opportunity to strike a better balance between on and off-line teaching and learning.’ She further argues that ‘taking a universal design approach to remote learning ensuring accessible content, teaching practices and asynchronous delivery would enable a wide range of students with different life commitments, IT and internet access, and a range of learning styles, to participate fully in their studies.’

Submissions under this theme might include, but are not limited to: 

  • Modular study;  
  • Hybrid learning options;  
  • UDL in the classroom – physical and virtual;  
  • Students as partners in design.  

Student Quote – Upcoming AHEAD Learning from Home Research Participant : “Ensuring all lectures are recorded. This... please... not allowing recording to be available is leaving students who genuinely can't get to campus due to serious medical issues at a disadvantage. The amount of extra emotional and physical harm I've put myself through forcing myself to get to class because I was already behind and the only person missing out.... I don't want anyone else to go through this.” 

 Theme 4: Testing the Waters: Innovative Student-Centred Assessment Design

Student Quote – Upcoming AHEAD Learning from Home Research Participant : “This is the one element of college life I'm really not looking forward to - Going back to exams that are purely memory based when I have a neurological condition that clearly impacts my memory, focus and energy levels. It just upsets me knowing that I'm ultimately going to end up with a worse degree than I'm capable of.”

When it comes to delivering assessment, often practicality and tradition trumps good inclusive design within our further and higher education programmes. The fixed time written examination remains the dominant form of assessment and over assessment is prevalent (National Forum, 2016), despite the increasing variability in our learner cohort (AHEAD,2021) and a clear student preference for more continuous and open book assessment (IUA, 2021). Many learners experience significant anxiety caused by over assessment, the bunching of assessment deadlines and a lack of choice in how they demonstrate their learning.

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in new assessment practices with opportunities for increased inclusion for some (e.g. more continuous and open book) and additional barriers for others (e.g. increased use of proctoring). A significant opportunity now exists to share and embed the many valuable insights we’ve learned about how assessment design relates to wellbeing and inclusion as we plan the future of our programmes. 

This conference theme explores ways of and approaches to assessment that give all learners the opportunity to fairly demonstrate their abilities, taking into account the variability of learners and the barriers that they might face. It examines how careful and considerate assessment design across programmes can support wellbeing and lower barriers to student success, without lowering standards. 


Submissions under this theme might include, but are not limited to:

  • Inclusive assessment practices - lowering barriers without lowering standards; 
  • Offering choice of assessment; 
  • Continuous and alternative assessment, capstone approaches, open book exams and more; 
  • Cross programmatic approaches to reducing the assessment burden; 
  • Extra-curricular credits; 
  • Students as partners in assessment design. 


 Theme 5: The Winds of Change: Agile Student Support


Student Quote – Upcoming AHEAD Learning from Home Research Participant: “The read & write software can be a bit confusing at times but I have found (online) info sessions ran by the Access Office very helpful.”

The Covid-19 pandemic saw disability support staff implement a range of new and innovative work practices, in particular utilising the online space and augmenting their engagement with technology. According to AHEAD research (2021), 96% of college disability support staff believe that Covid-19 will significantly change disability support provision in the future.

The Safe Haven or Stormy Port conference asks how these changes and experiences are informing their work as students and staff return to campus, particularly at a time when so many students have not experienced college life before and with disability support staff working with larger numbers of students than ever before.

Student Support Services play a key role in removing barriers to education for students and adapting the learning and assessment environment. This facilitates learners to have a more positive experience at tertiary education; considering this work in the light of educational design is vital when considering the impact on student wellbeing.  


Submissions under this theme might include, but are not limited to:

  • The changing nature of service provision in a more digital world; 
  • Innovative approaches to student support; 
  • Students as partners in support service design and well-being projects; 
  • The promotion of technology.


 Formats for Submission


AHEAD is excited to use the space afforded by the 2022 conference to showcase and highlight the huge number of research projects, initiatives, ideas, resources and approaches to inclusive education design that are taking place across the island of Ireland and internationally. In doing so, conference participants will be exposed to a wealth of innovative and life enhancing work that is taking place in the area of education design.

By exposing participants to this variety of ideas, the hope is that everyone will find something practical to take away and be inspired to consider their own role in creating a positive and inclusive tertiary education experience for all students that includes empowering them to play a key role in navigating and managing their own learning and wider education journey. 

To facilitate this, we are looking for submissions in one of two possible formats: six-minute “Lightning Talks,” and digital poster submissions. In both cases submissions can include links to any additional information and further resources that you might have available.



These six-minute talks, using a maximum of six slides, are a great way to introduce your project, resource or approach to inclusive education design. Use the time to showcase how you have created a positive educational experience, or how you plan to do so. By keeping these presentations short, conference participants will be exposed to a whole host of positive and practical applications of educational design for inclusion and wellbeing, which can be supported with signposts to more detailed information and resources.  



Share the story of your project, resource or approach to inclusive education design visually. These contributions will be displayed as a collection of maximum six rotating gallery images. These displays were very popular at the last AHEAD conference and we will be maximising ways of sharing and viewing these at the 2022 events, again to provide conference participants with the opportunity to learn about and engage with a wide variety of ideas.

 Download Submission Form & Submission Guide

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