I will always remember my four years as a student of Trinity College with fondness. But I must admit, there were times when I felt like a giant imposter. I was studying with some of the most intelligent minds in the country, and I remember sitting in the tutorial groups, listening to my peers talking, thinking, ‘Wow, I have not got a clue what these people mean by “post-modern” and “post-colonialism”. I wonder if my parents would be mad if I just left and became this “madwoman in the attic” I’ve just read about’.
Part of the reason I felt like an imposter was that I had asked for special consideration for the English Studies course on my CAO Form. Applying for a course via the CAO is a daunting experience for any student, but when disability or a Specific Learning Difficulty puts you at an academic disadvantage, it can mean putting more time and effort into your studies. On the face of it, I was a straight-A student, but only because I spent eight hours a day studying for the points. Honestly. Ask my husband or my dad (I would say ask my friends but I don’t have any because I spent eight hours a day, i.e. 4pm-12am, studying for two years). Even this wasn’t enough to secure me the 525 points I needed to study in Trinity; I only got 475.
Thank goodness for DARE.
DARE, which stands for Disability Access Route to Education, is a supplementary application process which complements the traditional CAO application process, allowing the candidate with a disability to compete for their course of choice, even if they do not meet the points requirement for the course. Availing of DARE also allows the candidate to inform chosen colleges of any difficulties or obstacles he/she may have faced during secondary school. In addition, it alerts the college to a student’s existence and to be prepared to offer any academic supports, including note takers, assistive technology and library assistants.
Applying for college via DARE was hard work. As part of the supplementary application process, applicants are obliged to include evidence of disability from an appropriately qualified psychiatrist, psychologist, neurologist or paediatrician. These reports must be less than three years old. You may also have to complete a personal statement, outlining the challenges you faced throughout your educational journey and the impact your disability had on your academic life.
I remember when I applied for DARE, I did not really understand how the process worked. When I got my Leaving Cert results, I was convinced that I would be offered my third choice (Maynooth) instead of Trinity, which were my first two choices. I don’t think my mother was prepared for my moving to Dublin; she certainly wasn’t as ecstatic about the prospect as I was (yay! freeedom in Dublin City Centre!)
As time passed by, I gained more self-confidence and really started to enjoy College. I lived on Campus in Botany Bay and every morning I woke to the gentle poc-poc of tennis balls outside and the not-so-subtle gonging of the clock in Front Square. I would meander aimlessly around Front Square for hours, looking a little lost and demented, taking it all in while my wheelchair shook my bones going over the cobbles. I was a bit of a loner, I didn’t join any clubs or societies, I’m not really a big drinker, but I used to frequent many a coffee shop between lectures (nobody told me that you are supposed to be in the library reading when not at one of your twelve one-hour lectures, but when it mattered. I figured it out).
Trinity was one of the best experiences of my life. I studied literature under some of the finest writers and literary critics of our time, but more significantly, the sense of belonging and community was so strong that I never felt like a ‘student with a disability’. Yes, I felt intimidated at first by how much my peers seemed to know about literature, but once I gained confidence, I too found the courage to ramble on about the portrayal of women/feminism/use of language or ‘rhetoric’. Once I stopped perceiving myself as different, I suddenly wasn’t.
And yet, the Student Disability Services, and in particular Orlaith O’Brien, Amy O’Shea (both have left), Trish Ferguson, Declan Treanor and Declan Reilly were always so supportive. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the support offered by these people (as well as many others) was second to none, and I was always listened to and treated with the utmost respect. There is no doubt that the provision of notetakers and library assistance enabled me to achieve an honours degree in English Studies.
If you are eligible for DARE, please answer ‘Yes’ to the relevant question on the CAO form. After 1 February, you will receive supplementary forms from colleges who are accepting DARE applications.
DARE is holding a number of application advice clinics in venues nationwide on Saturday 10th January 2015 from 10am-1pm, to allow students to ask questions and find out more about the scheme. Further information is available on www.accesscollege.ie.