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The Ahead Journal

#AHEADjournal

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

Student Voice at all Levels of Engagement AHEAD USI Students with Disabilities Advisory Group

Hannah Kelly

Student and Graduate Engagement Officer, AHEAD

About the Author

Introduction

AHEAD is always looking for ways to bring the student voice right into the centre of the work we do. We first sought this out by bringing in Courtney McGrath in 2019 as our first Student Representative on the AHEAD Board and at the 2020 AHEAD conference when a specific student stream was available where students could submit pieces to present. This year, AHEAD also saw the development of the Student and Graduate Engagement Officer role – within this role the aims are to ensure the student voice is at the centre of all projects of AHEAD.

This article will look at one initiative which was formulated in 2020 and the impact that has had on the organisation. The Students with Disabilities Advisory Group is a co-chaired partnership between AHEAD and USI with the aim of including the voice of students with disabilities in all levels of our respective work.

Principles and starting up

In October 2020, AHEAD and USI launched a call for applications for a new co-chaired student advisory group. Since then there have been two successful iterations of the group. Each year, the group meets 4-5 times throughout the academic calendar to discuss the work of both AHEAD and USI and give feedback, advice or thoughts from a student perspective, as well as feed-in any current issues or areas of concern on the ground. The co-chairs also provide feedback from those discussions to the organisations, at both strategic and operational levels.

Applications to the group are accepted from students with disabilities from both Further Education and Training (FET) and Higher Education (HE) sectors. The aim each year is to have a diverse group of engaged students who reflect the diversity within the education system. Applicants are asked to illustrate their interest in advocating for a more inclusive education system for people with disabilities, and/or the work they have done or been involved in, for example, advocacy, student politics or disabled student societies. 

Each year, the group makeup consists of 8 places through open nominations, as well as a nomination each from USI, AHEAD and National Student Engagement Programme (NStEP).

First Meeting

The first iteration of the group met for the first time on the 1st November 2020 for a two-hour meeting. The first item on the agenda was to choose a name for the group, and after an interesting conversation about person first, identity first and the use of language on this topic the group landed on a name, Students with Disabilities Advisory Group. The same conversation opened the group this year and students decided to keep this name. Each year this will be the first item on the agenda to continue to give ownership to members on how they are identified.

At the first meeting of each group, members will also hear from USI and AHEAD about their joint conference for students with disabilities, Power of Disability which takes place in January annually.

At every meeting of the advisory group, a portion of the time is allotted for issues on the ground. Here members can share issues they are currently finding within their own experience, or within their own networks of students with disabilities. Some of the themes that arose included, reasonable accommodations, the online college experience and learning in a hybrid environment, lack of uniformity in support provision, and lack of awareness of disability and related supports amongst teaching staff. 

Power of Disability 2022

This year, the Power of Disability conference is a great example of how vital and impactful the work of the advisory group is. The Power of Disability is an annual student-led conference facilitated by AHEAD and USI.

At the very first meeting of the 2021/22 cohort in late October, plans for the virtual Power of Disability event were shared with the group and content from the previous year’s conference was discussed. Members then got the opportunity to share what they liked from the line-up in previous years and what they felt was important to add or contribute.

This feedback ended up entirely shifting the focus of day two, which was entirely student-led with all speakers being current students themselves. 7 advisory group members were involved with either presenting or contributing to the panel discussion as part of this day.

Day 2 of the conference had interactive sessions on getting involved in Student Unions and activism, self-advocacy and an introduction to the advisory group and their work. There was also a powerful and engaging panel discussion with members of the group who spoke about their hopes and needs, post-lockdown. You can find a full schedule of the conference here.

The conference was a huge success with over 400 students registered and a highly engaged and collaborative atmosphere created. To finish the conference AHEAD and USI conducted a feedback session, where students could give their feedback on what they took from the conference, and also what issues they wanted to raise as concerns.

Feedback included:

It’s reassuring to know the support systems are there. It also shows me that we aren’t alone - there are many like me dealing with struggles

Work together to advocate for what you need

Validation - my life is full of people who minimise my struggles, so it’s  reassuring that other people are going through the same thing

Great community, I particularly enjoyed the sessions on rights and self-advocacy - really concrete and specific

The students completed a Mentimeter question about what they would take away to help them with the barriers they were facing. The issues raised included:

Recording issues - I need to record but am not always allowed by lecturers

More confidence

Empowerment to self-advocate

Activism and disrupt the norm - be seen

Not to be afraid to look for supports

These issues will help to formulate talking points for the advisory group in following meetings.

Research/Submissions and the Advisory Group

One of the objectives of the Advisory Group is to enable us at AHEAD to get a better understanding of the experiences of students with disabilities in Higher and Further Education. Through their discussions, we collect an overview of good and bad practices pertaining to things like supports, accommodations, accessibility and needs assessments.

At AHEAD, we endeavour to always make our research meaningful and evidence-based. We take our role as representing students and graduates with disabilities seriously and always make a concerted effort to influence the policy landscape with evidence-driven research. The Student Advisory Group allows us to do this. It is their voice that we aim to magnify and in the process ensure that our research, policy submissions and work with national projects are evidence-based. In the past year, this is a synopsis of some of our work that emerged from the Advisory Group:

  • Learning from Home 1
  • Learning from Home 2.
  • QQI Focus Groups into “Rethinking Assessment”.
  • Submissions regarding Equality Legislation.
  • Reasonable Accommodation Fund.
  • National Access Plan.
  • HEA Bill 2022
  • Welfare and Tax
  • Student Success

There have been many more!  Currently, we are in the process of continuing this work with our Learn In Limbo research, which was ‘born’ so to speak, at a Student Advisory group meeting. This research aims to explore post lock-down learning for students with disabilities and many of our early questions and topics emanated from the group. As an advocacy and representative group, the work of AHEAD would be impossible without the input of the many students who give up their time to help us explore the student narrative and identify the systemic and structural barriers that often preclude equality in the lives of students with disabilities. 

Smiley faces from the advisory Group members at their last meeting of the year on Zoom

Image of the Advisory Group 

Next Steps

The next iteration of the Students with Disabilities Advisory group will open for applications in late September/early October. Once the group is formed members will receive some informal training on participating and getting the most from the group. This work will continue to impact the work of AHEAD at all levels and help to influence future policy and research work as well as impact the strategy of engagement with students with disabilities throughout all of AHEAD’s work.

For any questions or for more information about the Students with Disabilities Advisory Group – please feel free to contact me at hannah.kelly@ahead.ie

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This article appeared in the AHEAD Journal. Visit www.ahead.ie/journal for more information