The Ahead Journal


A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

Overview of AHEAD Research and Policy 2023

Dr Richard Healy

Research and Policy Officer, AHEAD


About the Author


2023 was an extremely productive year for AHEAD’s Research and Policy team. Alongside 2023’s iteration of our annual research reports pertaining to the number of disabled students participating in higher education, members of the team helped contribute fifteen submissions in response to policy consultation calls, contributed a book chapter and began a scoping document on reasonable accommodations in Further Education and Training (FET) and published two separate research reports that explored:

  •  an in-depth, mix-method informed report that explored post-lockdown learning in HE and FE and
  •  the dissemination of the much-anticipated RAPP (Reasonable Accommodations and Professional Placements) Report, (Waters & Rath, 2022).

The Research and Policy Team strive to produce regular, meaningful, solution focussed research of high quality, that seeks to influence the policy landscape through detailed and relevant submissions, research recommendations and ongoing engagement and collaboration with other groups, sub-committees, steering groups and other research orientated collectives. This article gives an overview of our activities in 2023, and some of the aspirations we have for the coming year.

2023 Synopsis of our work

Since 2008, AHEAD has published annual Participation Rate Reports that record the number of disabled students engaged with Higher Education every year. These Reports enable us to make informed and evidence-based inferences regarding the sustainability of exam accommodations, the under and over representation of disabled students in the various fields of study and a number of other findings that underpin our recommendations that aim to foster inclusive environments for students with disabilities as they engage with their studies. Continuous (annual) research facilitates comparison, including increases and decreases elicited from recurring questions. This helps advance a credible and reliable evidence base which enables us to competently inform policy at a national and institutional level, while also allowing us to identify key issues for further advocacy and representative work.

Participation Rates Report 2021/22

Our annual Participation Rate Research Reports are the medically verified numbers by the medical condition of disabled students engaged with Higher Education (HE) in Ireland. Unlike the HEA’s statistics on disability in HE, the data we gather is collected directly from Disability Support Staff (DSS). The Participation Rate Reports are arguably a foundation for much of our annual research output, as the findings frequently inform other research projects, submissions and our engagement with other groups. These Reports record findings (primarily quantitative) that are frequently used in academic literature and reports from the disability sector, highlighting the esteem in which our research is held by others from the sector.

The current iteration of the Participation Report for the academic year 2021/22 was published in December 2023 by the research and policy team, (AHEAD, 2023b). This report is informed by a more accurate methodology that includes the collation of disability data that encapsulates additional disabilities. Previous Reports employed ‘Primary Disability’ as the sole identifier of students registered with support services, thus losing or overlooking crucial data. The research methodology was re-assessed following nuanced discussion with participating DSS in order to produce a more accurate disability breakdown of students registered with support services in their institution. A brief synopsis of our main findings includes the following:

  • There are now 18,097 students with disabilities registered for disability support services in higher education in Ireland, representing almost 6.9% of the total student population. 
  • A 273% rise in the number of students with disabilities registering for support in the last 13 years.
  • The postgraduate participation rate is rising steadily (from 2.8% to 3%), but students with disabilities remain significantly underrepresented in postgraduate study.
  • The report illustrated a significant increase in part-time study for disabled students.
  • More than 1 in 10 students registered with services were not eligible for the Fund for Students with Disabilities (FSD).
  • The ratios of students to support staff remain stable year on year, following a long-term rising trend in ratios recording in earlier Reports.

The RAPP Report

The dissemination of the findings of the RAPP Report was a key activity for the Research and Policy team for the 2023 period. The central objective of the Report was to unpack the experiences of disabled students as they undertook work placements as part of their studies, many of which were and are mandatory. This analysis was then used to inform best practice for the varying stakeholders involved in introducing students to their workplace placement. These include professionals including managers with responsibility for diversity and inclusion, quality improvement or course development and delivery; Deans of schools/faculties; course leaders; preceptors; placement co-ordinators in both Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and placement locations; disability service staff; and student union officers.

The provision of reasonable accommodations for this cohort is often a barrier for students with disabilities when placements form part of their course. While the report itself was published as a collaboration with DAWN (Disability Advisors Working Network) in late 2022, the dissemination of the findings was a major part of the team’s work in 2023.

Changing Landscapes

Another key report that emanated from 2023 was our analysis of the experiences of disabled students and learners from Further and Higher Education upon their return to on-campus learning following the societal restrictions that were implemented during Covid. As a follow-up project to our Learning from Home 2020 (AHEAD, 2020) and 2021 (AHEAD, 2021) research projects, Changing Landscapes (AHEAD, 2023a) explored the narratives of these students as they returned to their courses and programmes following lockdown: a period in time in which uncertainty played a major part in the everyday experience for students with disabilities. Some of the key findings of this Report included:

  • A rapid shift towards preferences for blended learning (56%) was recorded, but most courses returned to on-campus delivery of classes/lectures fully back on campus (53%).
  • Students were now coping better when compared with the preceding Learning from Home Reports, with some students alluding to the reporting building of valuable self-regulation skills during the period.
  • Blended learning is now considered the most accessible mode of study (51%), and 56% of participants indicated that they now prefer ‘to engage in courses/ programmes delivered through a mix of in-person and online learning activities’.
  • Our data indicates that students with disabilities are less likely than the general student population to have quality interactions with their peers.

Further Research

While this article is not an exhaustive list of all of our research activities, other publications of note include a 5,000-word chapter for an international academic book titled the International Handbook on Higher Education and Disability, published by well-regarded publishing house Elgar Publishing in 2023. Our chapter was titled ‘Universal Design for Learning Policy in Tertiary Education in Ireland: Are we Ready to Commit?’ and focused on the huge strides made in advancing the UDL conversation in further and higher education in Ireland. The Research and Policy Team worked in collaboration with Trinity College Dublin’s Dr Joanne Banks on this project. AHEAD’s research and policy team were approached in June 2023, and invited to submit articles for the Education Matters Yearbook, an influential magazine aimed at policymakers and senior leaders in the education space in Ireland. Our two articles were accepted in November 2023, with both being published in January 2024.

Publishing peer-reviewed academic literature is a relatively new venture for the team, and as part of a greater emphasis on impact and dissemination, journal articles and further book chapters have been discussed as part of a tangible effort to increase the impact of our research output. In 2023, research unpacking the provision of reasonable accommodations in FET commenced, alongside the Altitude Charter, a UDL Charter for tertiary education as part of the HEA PATH 4 funding stream.


As a relatively small (in number!) NGO, the entire AHEAD team have always produced large quantities of high-quality work. However, in the case of Research and Policy, this has been discussed within the team as a potential barrier to achieving the objectives to which the AHEAD strategy aspires to meet. In short, it has been agreed by the team that dissemination, either through conference presentations, webinars or peer-reviewed academic articles, needs to be a focal point of our work. One could argue that in our haste to produce evidence-informed research, high standard output is regularly published but with limited impact, as we quickly move to our next project. This renewed outlook will underpin the strategy of the research and policy team for 2024.

Looking AHEAD to 2024

As 2024 beckons, the team has already continued in the same manner as last year. We have contributed one crucial submission to the public consultation for the National Disability and Inclusion Strategy and are currently preparing our submission for the restructuring of Disability Allowance. The Altitude Charter is a research activity that is consistent with the AHEAD strategy regarding our advocacy and support for the implementation of UDL in tertiary education, thus enabling disabled students to make more informed decisions about where they want to study according to their needs. While many of our activities for the forthcoming annual period will most likely be similar to preceding years in several ways, for example, the publication of Participation Rate Research will again underpin much of our work, as will the three-way partnership approach with students (through our Advisory Group) and stakeholders (through continuous engagement), the pivot to an emphasis on impact and dissemination will hopefully engender a greater element of tangible change, through our work translating as real and attainable entitlements in the lives of disabled students and graduates through the realisation of rights for those we represent.


AHEAD. (2020). Learning from Home During Covid-19: A Survey of Irish FET and HE Students with Disabilities. AHEAD Educational Press: Dublin.

AHEAD. (2021). Learning from Home During Covid-19 2020/21: A Survey of Irish FET and HE Students with Disabilities. AHEAD Educational Press.

AHEAD. (2023a). Changing Landscapes. AHEAD.

AHEAD. (2023b). Students with Disabilities Engaged with Support Services in Higher Education in Ireland 2021/22. AHEAD Educational Press.

Waters, B., & Rath, V. (2022). Students with Disabilities on Placement Guidance on the Provision of Reasonable Accommodations on Practice-based Placements In Professionally Accredited Programmes. AHEAD Educational Press.

For more information about the ALTITUDE Charter, please visit  

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