Deafness at Third Level

By Monica Heck

In Ireland, around 17 per cent of the population have some form of hearing loss. Currently only 15 to 20 per cent of deaf students are accessing third-level education here. At a time when education is meant to be accessible to all, how can this be?

Caroline Carswell is a Dublin-based entrepreneur. She worked for 15 years in publishing, journalism and IT marketing, having graduated from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and completed a postgrad in publishing at Oxford Brookes University. Her remarkable CV is made even more compelling by the fact that Ms Carswell has been deaf since she was born.

She founded non-profit social enterprise Irish Deaf Kids (IDK) in 2007 because she felt there was a lack of centralised education and focused information in Ireland for the parents of deaf children, and for deaf people themselves.

According to Ms Carswell, the low percentage of deaf students accessing third-level education is partly due to low expectations from parents and teachers, “Too many parents focus on what jobs are suitable for deaf people, rather than thinking of the possibilities and finding out what supports can be arranged.”

Declan Reilly, Disability Service Officer at TCD, agrees that students who are deaf or hard of hearing are still under represented in third-level education.

“There is a shortage of qualified Irish Sign Language interpreters in Ireland, and teaching methods and environments are not as inclusive as they could be,” he says.

Aisling Fitzgerald, a final year student of Economics, Politics and Law at DCU, suffers from bilateral hearing impairment. She thinks that this may apply to deaf student ratios, but not to those who are hard of hearing, who she feels may have a higher rate of progression to third-level.

“Many deaf students are not educated through mainstream schools, they are therefore not familiar with environments containing mainstream teaching formats such as lectures, without the support of sign language or speed text,” she says. “I believe confidence could play a big part, as moving from a school catered towards deaf students to a mainstream educating environment can be quite daunting.”

Niamh Hayes, Project Co-ordinator at the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD), highlights the mid-term review of the National Plan for Equity of Access (NPEA), which was put in place in 2008 by the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

The plan has specific targets to increase the participation rate of people with disabilities in third-level education in Ireland. The mid-term review at the end of 2010 showed a rise in numbers of students with sensory disabilities at third level, despite the difficult economic circumstances in Ireland.

Preparing for college

Ms Carswell urges older secondary school students to go to career fairs and to make contact with bodies such as AHEAD, the Deaf Support in Third-level project (DS3) and the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE).

DARE was launched in 2009 for school leavers to help eligible students compete for entry into the seven Irish universities, the Dublin Institute of Technology, and a number of other colleges on reduced Leaving Certificate points.

DARE also aims to help students benefit from additional financial and academic help while in college. Figures from the NPEA mid-term review show that in October 2010, 385 students accepted a place via DARE – a 44 per cent increase from 2009.

Ms Fitzgerald says that her mainstream school encouraged her to apply to a course of her choice and helped her when it came to applying for the DARE access programme on the CAO.

Going to college for the first time can be a daunting experience for anyone, but for deaf students, meeting these challenges can be that little bit harder.

“Going from a small classroom of around 30 students to lecture halls where classes can easily reach 75 students was the biggest challenge,” says Ms Fitzgerald. “Trying to make out what a student asks 10 rows behind me was impossible, let alone trying to keep up with the general conversation that followed.”

Both Ms Carswell and Ms Fitzgerald make the point that most deaf and hard of hearing students depend on lip reading, which can make taking notes challenging.

“When you look down to write your notes and look up to begin lip reading the lecturer again, they have moved on to a new topic and I am confused all over again”, says Ms Fitzgerald. “But thankfully the Disability and Learning Support Services really helped me to tackle these issues.”

The overriding message from all sides to third level students who are deaf or hard of hearing seems to be to reach out and request support.

Mr Reilly explains that there is a range of support options available to deaf and hearing impaired students at third-level, which can include a mix of note taking, real time captioning, Irish Sign Language interpreting, subject tuition, exam accommodations and assistive technology such as audio aids, digital recorders and podcasting.

Ms Fitzgerald explains that she has used all the available supports provided by the Disability and Learning Support Service in DCU.

“Anne O’Connor, Ted Harvey, Marian Scullion and of course Henry Langton in IT have been a never ending source of help and advice to me during my four years in DCU,” she says. “Each student has a different preference for supports. Some prefer sign language interpreters, some speed text and I myself prefer stenographing (transcriptions) – they really are the best notes you could ever get.”

Ms Hayes stresses that the experience of each deaf or hard of hearing student is unique.

“There is no single blanket answer. Lots of factors can impact the experience of a student, whether linked to their disability or not,” she says.

The main challenge is to figure out what support works for each person in a two-way process between the student and the college, according to Ms Hayes. She advises students who struggle with their hearing to find out about all support available and to keep re-assessing their support until they find a solution that works for them.

Both Ms Fitzgerald and Ms Carswell encourage all students to join clubs and societies as it helps everyone develop their network and make new friends.  Ms Fitzgerald was involved in the Students’ Union during her first two years at DCU and believes travel is important.

“I have a travelled a lot – a summer in The States, throughout Europe, studied in London, and a year abroad in Sweden – and I believe that the skills I have learned from all these experiences are invaluable,” she says. “There is nothing a deaf or hard of hearing student can’t do.”

However, she recommends travelling with friends who are supportive of the needs of a person with hearing difficulties.

While at TCD, Ms Carswell was involved with the student newspaper and the mountain club, and worked as an administrator in the Students’ Union.  In the summer, she travelled and worked in North America. She has also taught English to Spanish-speaking street children at a refuge in Argentina, and joined a Red Cross humanitarian trip to Georgia. She also recommends travelling.

“Plan your trip to be as safe as you possibly can, listen to your gut feeling. And keep your hearing-devices safe and dry,” she says.

After college, what?

The current economic climate affects all students, deaf or not, according to Mr Reilly.

“Uncertainty about grants, funding and the cost of living affects potential and current students, while those soon to graduate face entry into a very competitive job market,” he says.

Ms Carswell has described how she turned her first entry-level, mailroom post-sorting job into a relevant graduate job in publishing by making herself visible to the editors and challenging their perception of her to avoid being pigeon-holed. Four months later, she had a permanent job in publishing – a notoriously difficult industry to break into. She urges young adults who are deaf or hard of hearing to aim high.

“Trinity College Dublin has a deaf-dentist-in-training, a trainee pharmacologist and a medical-doctor-in-training, while UCD has a first-year veterinary student as of this October,” she says.

Useful links:

Irish Deaf Kids:

“Have hearing aids, will volunteer overseas”:

“Talking your way into a relevant graduate job”:


AHEAD’s Better Options Fair: Dublin, November 30th, 2011 at the National College for Art and Design is relevant to students considering college options for 2012.

Deaf Support in Third Level (DS3), a student network that was formed in 2005 by the Disability Service of Trinity College Dublin to increase the participation of deaf students in third level education in Ireland.

The Irish Deaf Society

HEA National Plan for Equity Access

DCU support for deaf students:


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