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


AHEAD is delighted to release 'Changing Landscapes: Examining the experiences of tertiary education students with disabilities returning to post-lockdown learning' - a report gathering the findings of a mixed-method project including a survey of learners with disabilities and semi-structured interviews.

Changing Landscapes is the culmination of three research projects conducted by AHEAD on the experiences of students with disabilities in tertiary education during and directly following the enforced move to online learning caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The third and final instalment gives us a unique picture of how the experiences and preferences of students with disabilities shifted over the period, and how their views and preferences evolved as they emerged into the post-lockdown landscape.

We hope that this research will significantly add to the knowledge base which drives our collective work, and that as a sector we don't lose the lessons learnt from this difficult period and ensure we continue to use them to improve the student experience.

How was the data collected?: 169 students with disabilities responded to the survey with represented respondents from all categories of disability, living in 23 out of 26 Counties in the Republic of Ireland, and participating in both FET and HE programmes. Using a mixed-method approach, the survey data was examined in conjunction with 7 semi-structured interviews of students with disabilities. The survey was carried out between April 13th to May 25th, 2022.

Access Changing Landscapes report


Some of the people I know had to fight for their safety on campus, because no one would wear masks, and they were expected to attend on campus anyways. And that put them in a vulnerable situation where they had to consider their education or their health - Tara

Findings at a glance:

  • Rapid shift towards preferences for blended learning, but most courses are fully back on campus (53%).
  • Students coping better, with some reporting building valuable self-regulation skills  during the period.
  • Blended learning considered most accessible mode of study (51%), and 56% indicated they now prefer “to engage in courses/ programmes delivered through a mix of in-person and online learning activities”.
  • Data suggests students with disabilities less likely than the general student population to have quality interactions with their peers (benchmarked against the Irish Survey of Student Engagement National Report 2022).
  • 19% of survey respondents refrained from disclosing their disability as they did not “want their peers to find out and... were afraid they would”, which points to the student culture regarding disability that appears to be prevalent within colleges and centres.
  • Majority had positive experiences of support services, but one quarter reported recommended supports were not fully implemented.
  • Recorded lectures and increased choice are strongly desired, but show little sign of materialising.
  • While the use of assistive technologies continues to rise, only 37% of participants alluded to receiving training in the use of AT, while a significant minority of 33%, one in three students, stipulated to having issues with their use.
  • There are signs that the increased application of UDL during lockdown is possibly losing momentum. Students frequently discussed a lack of choice in their interactions with educators that would arguably be consistent with the principals of UDL.
  • Overall, there are indications that tertiary education is slowly creeping back to pre-covid norms which don't necessarily benefit students with disabilities. 


I am meant to get lecture slides prior to lectures but most lecturers don’t send them. One lecturer even told me it was “inappropriate”, even though I have this provision through the disability services. - Student from Survey

 Policy Implications / Recommendations 

  • Embedding Greater Flexibility and Choice: AHEAD recommend that choice and flexibility should be embedded into the delivery of education for all students. This should include, where possible, greater choice in how students engage with learning and where they choose to access education from. Blended learning has the potential to enable disabled students, working students, caregivers, mature students and parents to access HE and FE courses and programmes.
  • Disclosure and the Provision of Supports: While disclosure rates of survey participants were reported to be high (89%), likely due to the survey distribution channels used to recruit participants, some of the qualitative interview data suggests that the communication between academic and disability support staff concerning the implementation of disability supports was frequently poor. A number of interviewees and survey participants also discussed having to disclose repeatedly to lecturers despite being granted accommodations by support services outlined in their Needs Assessments Report (or LENS reports). AHEAD recommend that the communication channels between disability support services and educators regarding implementation of accommodations are evaluated and improved in many colleges and centres.
  • Student Partnership and Voice: While AHEAD research findings echoes research from The findings that emerged from this research have demonstrated that a number of significant findings from Irish Universities Association and Higher Education Authority research showing that students want greater choice/variety in assessment and recorded lectures, neither appear to have translated into real change in teaching practice. The student voice should be afforded meaningful expression by key actors and stakeholders in policy design and implementation in further and higher education. Key research findings should be considered and translated into student centred teaching practices to further develop the partnership approach that is mandated as the core objective of the National Student Engagement Programme (NStEP).
  • Peer to Peer Interaction: The interaction and engagement between disabled students and the broader student body should be explored by the relevant stakeholders to promote a culture of inclusivity and equality amongst the student body in institutions. A key finding that emanated from this research was that much smaller percentage of disabled students highly rated their engagement and interaction with other students, in comparison to the general student population. While this finding is likely not related specifically to lockdown learning, AHEAD maintain that the lower quality of social engagement of students with disabilities with other students requires urgent examination. .
  • Further Exploration of Coping: Coping, self-motivation and structure were examined in this and our prior research. While all have demonstrated welcome and incremental year-on-year increases in students responding positively to questions pertaining to these issues, the percentage of those who responded in a negative manner warrants oversight and further analysis. The percentages of students responding negatively to how they cope, structure their day and self-motivate were significantly high to warrant concern. 
  • Support Efficient AT Usage: The continued increase in the use of Assistive Technology (AT) suggests that digitalisation has or is becoming normalised in tertiary education in Ireland. AHEAD maintain that this welcome rise must be accompanied by the necessary and relevant training in its use, for both students and academic staff. Only 37% of participants alluded to receiving training in the use of AT, while a significant minority of 33%, one in three students, stipulated to having issues with their use. AHEAD recommend that institutions make a strategic commitment to implement the relevant training, bespoke if necessary, to students who are using AT.

 Access Changing Landscapes report


The core funding received by AHEAD for its higher education activities is provided by the Higher Education Authority.

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Creating Inclusive Environments in Education and Employment for People with Disabilities

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