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Disability - Third Level Supports

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Third Level Supports

Every year increasing numbers of students with disabilities in Ireland are going on to Third Level Education. AHEAD reports that there are now over 9,000 students with disabilities in Higher Education, representing 4.6% of the total student population. This figure is up from 4% in the previous report, the biggest rise since AHEAD began recording this data annually in 2008/9 (Source'Numbers of Students with Disabilities Studying in Higher Education in Ireland 2012/13', AHEAD). 

View the latest statistics from AHEAD on numbers of students with disabilities participating in Higher Education in Ireland from the AHEAD Participation Rates Data Centre.

All school leavers, including those with disabilities, have expectations of taking part in every aspect of college life, as well as of gaining qualifications and mapping out their career paths in the world of work.

Video: Better Options - College Fair for Students with Disabilities & SLDs ~ AHEAD

Supports for students with disabilities at third level have improved significantly, particularly with the introduction of DARE (Disability Access Route to Education), although there remains a long way to go before the number of students with disabilities going to college proportionately reflects the numbers in the general population.

Nonetheless, access to third level education has widened, and teaching and learning provision, and supports for students with disabilities have improved.

In this section, we map out the range of provisions available, drawing on the extensive information provided by AHEAD (The Association for Higher Education Access & Disability) and other relevant resources.

Defining Disability 

AHEAD use the following social definition with regard to disability and third level education:

“A student is disabled if he/she requires a facility which is outside of the mainstream provision of the college in order to participate fully in higher education and without which the student would be educationally disadvantaged in comparison with their peers.”

A student with a disability has all the same needs as every other student, but may need certain additional supports, ranging from financial supports to educational supports and facilities. 

Many colleges now employ 'Access Officers' whose role is to identify the support needs of students with special educational needs and to attempt to meet those needs so that the student may experience success at third level.

About Third Level

Third-level education divides into two main sections – Further Education and Training; Higher Education and Training.

Further education and training takes place after secondary school and before university e.g. PLC courses and courses provided in Colleges of Further Education.

Higher education and training is mainly provided in Universities and Institutes of Technology (ITs) or equivalent bodies around the country.

It is worth keeping in mind that it is possible to take up a place on a Further education or PLC course and work your way in to the Institutes of Technology and Universities. Many students, including students with disabilities, opt for this approach.

Information on the full range of courses in Ireland can be found here.

DARE - Disabilty Access Route to Education

DARE is a college and university admissions scheme which offers places on a reduced points basis to school leavers (under 23 years old) with disabilities, who have completed an Irish Leaving Certificate.

DARE has been set up by a number of colleges and universities as evidence shows that disability can have a negative effect on how well a student does at school and whether they go on to college.

To find out more about DARE click here

Video: A short story of the transition from school to college as told through narrative from a school leaver who has a disability. See also Disability Learning & Support Service (DCU)

It is important to note that you do not have to be eligible for DARE to get support in college!

All students with a verified disability, regardless of whether they come through DARE or not, can avail of a variety of academic, personal and social supports while studying at third level. 


The nature and type of support needed will vary according to individual student requirements, but the following supports are available in most colleges:

Access to Support Providers: e.g. A scribe (note-taker), a library assistant, a proof-reader, a personal assistant

Assistance with applications for funded supports via the ESF fund for students with disabilities

Liaising with a number of departments across HEIs such as examinations offices, admissions offices, libraries, IT services etc., to ensure that specific support needs are met.

Video: This short animation brought to you by AHEAD, the Association for Higher Education Access & Disability (Ireland) gives five top tips for new college students who have a disability.

Reasonable accommodations

These are actions that can be taken to help alleviate a significant disadvantage. Examples include:

  • Special exam arrangements - e.g Provision of materials in large print
  • Special assessment arrangements - e.g modifying the assessment process
  • Physical environment - making alterations to the environment to facilitate access
  • Access to equipment -  IT supports and assistive technology
  • Supports within lectures and tutorials; with lab work; in the library or canteen facilities

The full range of reasonable accommodations are outlined later in this section.

Most third-level institutions have Disability Liaison Officers or Access Officers. Some colleges reserve a number of student accommodation places for students with disabilities.

Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (e.g. Dyslexia).

Students with SLDs, who require specific supports, must provide documentation regarding their disability. Students who do not have supporting documentation, should have an assessment before commencing third level education. A qualified psychologist will be able to carry out a full psycho-educational assessment and prepare the necessary report for the college authorities.

Examption from Third Language Requirement

Most colleges will consider applications from students with dyslexia seeking an exemption on a third language requirement. The NUI has a stated policy that it is prepared to consider applications, for an exemption from the third language requirement from students who are certified by a qualified professional as having a serious dyslexic condition. Such applications are considered on an individual basis and may be presented to the University at any stage following completion of the Junior Certificate. Applications must be accompanied by a School Record Form completed by the Head of the School attended and professional certification of the condition. Application forms are available from the National University of Ireland.Examption from Third Language Requirement

Educational supports and facilities generally available

If the student with a specific learning difficulty is already in third level but does not have documentation to support her/his disability, s/he should seek advice from the Disability/Access Officer or the college counsellor/psychologist. Students should bear in mind that to avail themselves of any of the supports listed below, they will have to negotiate for them with the Disability/Access Officer and/or lecturers and tutors.

Common educational supports for students with specific learning difficulties include:

Priority registration: students with disabilities may be allowed to register at an earlier time to general registration each academic year.

Reader service: some colleges provide a reader service. The required texts are read and recorded onto tape either by volunteers or paid staff.

Use of audio-tape to record lectures and tutorials: permission to record lectures and tutorials must be sought from the lecturer and tutor.

Assistive technology: a range of assistive technology packages and devices are available which may be useful to students with specific learning difficulties (e.g. dyslexia). These include:

Quicktionary - a small hand held scanner

Text-HELP a vocabulary support software package which talks, types, checks spellings, corrects mistakes and learns the students style of writing.

Materials in alternative formats: students may be able to access notes on the internet or via e-mail.

Word-processing facilities: most colleges will provide access for students with disabilities to word-processing facilities. Students may receive priority in queuing for use of a word-processor. Some colleges provide word-processing tuition on a one-to-one basis.

Photocopying Facilities: many colleges provide photocopying facilities free of charge or at a reduced rate to students with disabilities.

Copies of lecturer's notes and/or overheads: students may ask lecturers for their lecture notes and overheads. Some students ask for these before the lecture is delivered so that they can follow the lecture more easily. However, it is important to note that some lecturers speak from notes that are meaningless to anyone but themselves, whilst others may not use notes at all. Some may be unwilling for their own reasons, good or otherwise, to let anyone see their notes. Students must be prepared for these situations.

Notetaker: a classmate may be employed to take notes for a student who has difficulty writing, or may offer to make copies of her/his notes for the student with a disability.

Time extension on out-of-lecture assignments: e.g. essays, fieldwork, projects etc.. In obtaining time extensions, students should avoid the accumulation of assignments.

Special Library Arrangements: the college or university library service may offer additional services to students with a disability in response to their individual needs i.e. Loop system for impaired hearing; alternative induction programme; materials in accessible formats; assistive technology services (Quicklink Pen; Special mouse/keyboard; Magnifiers; assistive software) .

Counselling and Medical Services: these are provided for all students in most colleges/universities.

Study skills courses: many institutions provide courses on study skills for students who feel they need extra help in writing and research techniques, spelling and time-management. Students with specific learning difficulties should also consider participating in this very valuable service.

Examination provisions: these are detailed below.


Exams are central to the academic process and students with disabilities are encouraged to request appropriate supports and arrangements for the exams at the beginning of each academic year.

It is the responsibility of candidates with disabilities to apply well in advance to the appropriate college authority (Disability/Access Officer or Examination Office) for provision of facilities which best enable them to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject being examined.

Note: Exam Candidates must have adequate working practice in any facility which they request to use in the examination. This is to safeguard against delays and errors during the examination.

The following examination facilities may be available for candidates with specific learning difficulties:

Extra time to complete each examination paper: the amount of extra time candidates may be allowed will depend on her or his individual disability needs. Extra time is allowed for poor reading and writing speeds and for some editing. The Standard amount of extra time is 10 minutes per hour.

Invigilator/reader: The availability of an invigilator or other suitable person to read the examination paper to the student.

Use of a word processor/typewriter: this must be passed by the Examination Office.

Transcription of examination script by a person with legible handwriting or who can type.

Dictation to an amaunsesis (someone to whom you dictate your examination answers): S/he should have a good working knowledge of the subject matter being examined.

Impact of impairment awareness: the examiner is aware of the educational disadvantages experienced by students with a specific learning disability.

Spelling and grammer allowance: this is given by the examiner to accommodate for the educational disadvantages experienced by students with a specific learning disability resulting in poor grammar and spelling.

Supplementary interview: to allow for clarification of the content of examination manuscripts.

Availability of a nurse/medical aid: generally available at examination centres for all students.

Other Supports: some candidates may have specific requirements that are not known to the college/university authorities, in such instances, it is the responsibility of the student to inform the Disability/Access Officer and/or the Examination Office of these requirements.

Not all colleges provide all of the facilities listed above. However, individual colleges are striving towards best examination practices for candidates with disabilities. Students are advised to check with the Disability/Access Officer and/or the college Examination Office what facilities are provided and to negotiate for appropriate, individual supports.


Students with disabilities are eligible for general third-level grants on the same basis as all other students. There are also some specific grants available for people with disabilities:

ESF Fund for Students with Disabilities  - A special fund to help third-level students with disabilities, administered by the Department of Education and Science. The fund is designed to cover many of the educational support requirements for students with disabilities. Application is made directly to the third-level institution at the beginning of the academic year in Sept/Oct. 

The National University of Ireland (NUI) - has a fund for students with a physical disability taking a primary degree course at an NUI college.

The Student Assistance Fund  - Students with disabilities can apply to the Student Assistance Fund while attending third level education. This fund is administered by the Department of Education and Science under the auspices of the Higher Education Authority.

The studentfinance.ie website gives details of all sources of financial support available for further and higher education, including post-graduate financial supports.


  • Disclose your disability - College applicants are given the opportunity to disclose a disability in the CAO process
  • Provide evidence of your disability - a letter from a consultant for those with a disability/medical condition, an educational psychologist report for those with a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia, or a report from a psychiatrist for those with mental health difficulties will be required.
  • Register with the disability support services in the chosen college
  • Meet with the Disability Services Staff
  • Participate in an assessment of needs - this aims to determine the supports required and will make for more efficient integration.

Further information on the supports available in college can be found at accesscollege.ie or from AHEAD.

Useful Links
Access College 
Official website for detailed information on the DARE and HEAR access routes to college.
Union of Students Ireland (USI) Equality Officer 
The Students Union of Ireland (USI), Equality Officer has the responsibility of initiating campaigns for the defence and promotion of student rights in the areas of equality.
Useful Links:
Disability Access Route to Education
Higher Education Access Route
Student Finance