Sean talks about his journey through access programmes to first year undergraduate

autism, college, disability, exclusion

My name is Seán Maguire and I am currently a student at Trinity College Dublin studying applied Biomedical Science in the field of Human Health and Disease, and I have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

I graduated from the University College Dublin through an access programme offered by the university for a level 6 Diploma Continuing Education which involved Science, Engineering, Agriculture and Medicine (SEAM). I never had a proper education beforehand since I dropped out of secondary level school when I was fourteen and had to be homeschooled. This gave me a lack of academic and social skills I could have learned if I stayed in second-level education, however, due to my disability at such a young age I couldn’t handle the number of people and social interaction. When I reached the age of eighteen, I realised that I needed to do something proper with my life and so I embarked and registered on a course with the Open College which is an online college who gives out educational packages for minor QQI certificates.  For my first cert, I was awarded a 94% Distinction in Anatomy and Physiology, and after successfully completing and being awarded that cert I felt some confidence within me that I never felt before in my life.  So after I completed the course I went ahead and registered with Geopace Allied Healthcare since I felt like I would be better suited in the field of the healthcare industry since I liked the idea of helping people. I studied Introduction to Phlebotomy which was a level 3 OCN Certificate and then furthered onto studying Advanced Phlebotomy and Cannulation.  After completing this I felt that since these are adult qualifications and also professional healthcare qualifications, I might just have the confidence to pursue a course in access to science. I never knew there was an access course until my sister showed me and that I did research on my own to know what exactly it was.

Going through everything and looking back at my accomplishments I applied for the access program then I was offered an interview later on which terrified me, but I built up the courage to attend the interview since I didn’t want to back down from my future. The access course was for one year part-time and had three lab sessions: one for Biology, Chemistry and Physics which was a lot of fun to attend.  The entire core of the course involved also Mathematics I & II, study skills, scientific enquiry and work experience which I was lucky enough to have complete in the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital. After I finished my access course, I was then offered to attend a graduation ceremony and when I got on stage and shook the hand of the president of the university and received my Diploma, it was a very momentous and proud feeling. I fully felt I could achieve third-level education.

When it came to deciding what course I wanted to choose in third-level education of course I decided I wanted to do Medicine and become a medical practitioner since I had an interest in the idea of being a leading role and strategist in the healthcare field as a professional. I felt as though I might not have been ready for Medicine in the beginning, I felt I should apply for a course in the biomedical field of science which I did but I also came across a course called Human Health and Disease. When I was interviewed for the course it was very intimidating but very worthwhile attending, there were eight doctors interviewing me and the head associate professor. And throughout the interview, they asked me several questions relating to past work experience, education, disability since I started it on my CAO which is very important, and I’d recommend any student to state it on the application.

This was just the beginning of a whole new world of transitioning.

I went to the orientation day just to make sure that I wasn’t lost in anything such as buildings, timetables etc, then we had a great speech by the Senior Tutor. But during my time there I felt really out of place, it seemed like everyone else knew each other from their previous second-level schools and there were a few mature students studying other courses, I was the only mature student in my first year of Applied Biomedical Science from what I found out when I met other students within the class. They were very friendly and nice, and many were international students, so it was interesting to know their backstory. But throughout the time they mainly stuck together in their own group, so I was on my own.

It was kind of difficult to acquire support at times due to my social anxiety and time restrictions of appointments because they would get booked up so quick. So I tried to roll with it without the support and it was the biggest mistake of my academic life. Studying in Trinity was hard at the beginning since I lacked any sort of study skills and plus it was hard for me to listen and understand due to my intellectual disability so I primarily re-read the slides and tried to memorise everything including tutorial sheet answers and questions. I think the most really depressing part of the course is when during labs my lab partner dropped out and I had no one to replace her with and I was left on my own to do both the practical and analytical writing which put so much stress and pressure on me.  and it ended up with me getting low grades.

I only lasted until February that is when I had enough and needed a break. Then I had a mental breakdown towards academic support which they referred me to the senior occupational therapist who then helped guide me through this ordeal where I met with him on several occasions and over the phone.  In the end, I told my therapist that I didn’t want to give up and so I went ahead with the medical repeat where I had my therapist speak on behalf to both the coordinator and head Professor of Human Health and Disease and to my assigned tutor. The main thing is now I feel I have a better chance and advantage over the new first-year since now I know how the university works now and what to prepare for and now since I’ve been coping well with my disability I’m able to enter into libraries without social fear and do side research on their computers but by august, I will have my own preparations I’ll have a new laptop and college equipment.

The main reason I wanted to attend a third level college is not because of some degree or getting a job after, it was to prove to others who have a disability that it is possible to achieve a higher education even for us who are disadvantaged and there is no way I’m giving up on obtaining that since I’m strong and I like a challenge even if obstacles get in the way. I know this year in 2020 I’ll have all the support I need and, in the end, when I reach that goal of graduating, I’m not going to stop I’m going to continue with my education and hopefully end up getting into graduate Medicine.

The Google Student with Disabilities Scholarship -Daniel Kelly

autism, college, disability

Hello, my name is Daniel and last year I finished my Bachelors Degree in Computer Engineering from TCD and this year I will be starting my Masters Degree in Information Security at UCL this September.

The Google SwD Scholarship is a scholarship for 10 university students with a disability who are awarded a lump sum of €7000 towards their tuition and / or educational equipment who –

  • Have achieved excellent academic results
  • Have a passion for Computer Science
  • Have leadership skills
  • Are studying a Computer Science Degree in a European University.

How did you come across the Google Scholarship?
I came across the Google Scholarship by my membership of EmployAbility, an excellent service which assists university students with disabilities in gaining internships, scholarships and employment.

Overall, how did you find the experience of working on the application for the scholarship?
My experience of the application process for the Google Scholarship was that it was extremely efficient. Once I sent in my application they contacted me 3 times, to check I was eligible, to say I had progressed to the final round and then to say I had been awarded the Google Scholarship.

Did you face any challenges during the application process? If so, how did you overcome these challenges?
The greatest challenge I faced with my application for the Google Scholarship was twofold. First, it was the size of the application with it requiring me to submit my Resume, Academic Transcript, two references and my answers to a series of essay questions posed by Google.

Secondly, I wasn’t sure if I met the requirement of achieving excellent academic results due to my previous poor health affecting my results. This was resolved with my tutor who was one of my references clearly explaining the effect my ill health had had on my academic results.

What do you feel you took away from the experience of applying for the scholarship?
The experience I took from in applying and winning the SwD Scholarship was in learning what makes a winning SwD Scholarship application by –

  • Reading the Terms & Conditions, while this may seem boring it actually clearly stated the criteria candidates would be judged by with this allowing me to plan my application around it.
  • Making their job easy by clearly presenting the relevant information in which they judge applications. They will likely be dealing with many applications you want to make their life as simple as possible given they decide who gets the Scholarship.
  • If you require references, use references like mine who knew me very well and could speak confidently about me.
  • Use precise, clear wording, e.g. “I achieved X by doing Y as measured by Z” is what Google advises when writing an application. Also constantly refer to the criteria you are being judged for when giving examples.
  • Not submitting in haste, I spent weeks perfecting my application.

In hindsight, is there anything you feel you would’ve done differently having completed the scholarship?
If I were to apply for the Scholarship again, what I would do differently is that at the very last moment one of my references wasn’t able to provide me with one. This triggered a huge panic in me which is entirely my fault as I had completely forgotten to check if he was still able to be my reference.

However, I was, fortunately, able to find another who was available. From this experience, my advice is to check, double-check and then triple check to see that everything is in order.

Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for students who would be looking to do such a scholarship like the one with Google?
I would definitely encourage every university student with a disability studying Computer Science to apply. It’s free to apply with you potentially winning €7,000.

However, I would only encourage those students who can point to concrete examples that they meet the Scholarship criteria to apply. For example, in demonstrating my leadership skills I was able to talk about my membership of the Trinity Hiking committee and the TCD Disability Ambassador Programme.

As a recent graduate of Trinity, is there anything you would have liked to have seen from such a group as the Trinity Ability Co_op during your time in college (e.g. events throughout the year, blogs, articles, projects, etc.)?
With no disrespect meant towards the TCD Careers Service, I have found their Resume advice not helpful and incorrect. Indeed I actually devoted the 2019 Summer in learning about the different Resume formats, styles and types out there. Why I did this is that I believe both then and now that a well written & laid out Resume & Application is the difference between success and failure with my winning the Google SwD Scholarship I believe direct proof of that. The Ability co_op collaborating with the TCD Careers Service in creating effective resume workshops would be a great project.

The First Year Experience – Ben Rowsome

autism, college, disability

At the beginning of First Year, college is a new place with new people, new sounds, new smells, new surroundings, a new way of learning – in short, it’s a new way of living, and it can often be hard for students to adjust. Navigating your way around – everything from your timetable and where your lecture halls are, to where you should go to eat in the afternoon – can take a while to adjust to, and can be very disorientating in the beginning. As a person with autism, it can be particularly disorientating, and I felt it was important to have a plan in place going into the new academic year. 

To help with the First-Year Experience, and make it less stressful for students coming in, I have provided some useful tips under the following three categories:

  1. Freshers’ Week
  2. The First Semester
  3. College Exams

I will also provide perspective on other aspects of college life, such as travel, self-esteem, what to do in the event of change, etc. 

i. Freshers’ Week

This might only be one week in the academic year, but it’s the very first week of the year, and there’s a lot of very important stuff happening. What with the various orientations you have to attend, all the stands for the plethora of societies within the college, and lots of other generic events going on – all of this can be especially hard to navigate, considering that it’s all happening in the one week. But it can also be a very exciting week of the year too, and a lot can certainly be taken away from it.   

If there’s any advice I can give you during this week, it’s that you should definitely plan your Freshers’ Week. What does that mean? Well, let’s take as an example the orientations you’ll have to attend, of which there are guaranteed to be a good few. It will be very helpful to highlight only the orientations that are relevant to you on the timetable that you’ll be provided, and also to find out exactly where and when they’ll be happening before Freshers’ Week begins. This will certainly alleviate a lot of the initial stress first-year students will no doubt be feeling in the run-up to Freshers’ Week, and so that they won’t be scrambling to find out where they’re supposed to be at any given time during the week itself. Say for me who is studying Physics, I had a Physical Sciences orientation, a Mathematics orientation, a General Science orientation and a General 1st year orientation, as well as other bits and bobs here and there, so you can imagine planning one’s Freshers’ Week would serve someone very well here. 

When you get to the society stands at front square, there are a lot of stands (obviously), but also a lot of people and a lot of noise, so there’s never any harm in having a plan here too. You’re going to have fliers thrust into your hand, and students begging you to sign up for whatever society they’re trying to promote. In theory, you can sign up to as many societies as you like, and you’ll always be encouraged by the college to try something new … but if you know deep in your heart that you’re not going to be taking up knitting anytime soon, then pay no heed to that stand when you’re passing it, and keep looking for whatever societies concern your true interests. In my case, I kept a sharp lookout for the Chess Society, in which I would become heavily involved during the First Semester. But again, have a plan here, so that you can use your time amongst the stands productively because they’ll all be gone from front square once the first week of lectures begins. 

It’s worth noting that Freshers’ Week serves another extremely useful purpose – this is an opportunity for first-year students to become as familiar with the college campus as possible before the first week of lectures begins. Use that time.  Find out where all your lecture halls are situated, know some of the routes you can take from one building to another, locate some of the libraries and course offices to may need to avail of throughout the year, suss out some of the good places to eat (I always enjoyed the Buttery as an example), especially those near your lecture halls in the event that you have only a limited amount of time to eat before your next lecture … all these things should be considered, just so one is not too flustered going into the first week. A little bit of anxiety is inevitable of course, but that’s simply because you’re starting a new phase in your own life.

So then, lectures start …

ii. The First Semester

Of course, the first few weeks can be quite difficult. As a student who suffers from a lot of anxiety, I certainly found those first few weeks incredibly challenging. But as I said before, it’s a new way of living, and there will be a lot of stuff still left to encounter throughout the first semester that some may find disorientating or stressful; meeting your lecturers for the first time, handing in assignments, understanding the different ways in which your lecturers approach their respective fields, knowing when each piece of work is due, getting used to Blackboard and other platforms … there’s a lot to take in, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It’s a gradual process, that can be assisted by the plan you create for yourself so that you make the most of your time in college.

The first thing that should be addressed is the fact that everybody is either now living away from home or now have a significant distance to travel from their homes (since most people don’t live smack bang in the middle of town). This can be stressful in and of itself, so it can be very helpful to plan your commute in advance. So, in other words, if you know that the DART gets you to the college in better time than say the bus or the LUAS (or that one mode of transport is simply more accessible than the other), then stick to that, and don’t go making unnecessary stress by trying another unfamiliar commute. This will always stand to people who like routine, like me – half-hour walk down to Bray DART Station, a 40-minute DART journey to Pearse Station, and then at the end of the day, a 90-minute bus journey from Nassau St. to my front door practically. To know that that was my plan every day was simply one less thing to worry about, which did indeed stand to me throughout the 1st semester. 

Once you’re going about your day in college, going from lecture to lecture, you may find that one day you have a lecture at say 9 a.m., and then not have another lecture until 5 p.m. Not knowing what to do during that big gap can also be another cause for stress, so it’s often no harm having a timetable of sorts here too. For instance, I might study in one of the libraries that morning, and then go to the Buttery at 12.30 for lunch, then go down for another session of study before meeting a friend say at 3.30. Of course, this is a particularly large gap, but it’s more to emphasise how useful it can be to plan your whole day, as opposed to just when you have lectures or labs (in the case of a science degree).  

You’re going to learn very quickly that Blackboard is your best friend – this is where most of your lecture notes will be and where some of your assignments will show up for you to complete. It will be a formidable tool for you to use throughout your college years, not just first year, and it’s encouraged that you make good use of it. In the event that you miss a lecture, chances are that this is where your notes will be. If it happens that you forget when a particular assignment is due, or how an assignment is supposed to be submitted, Blackboard is usually a good first place to check. It can also be very useful as a way to communicate with other students and your lecturers, so suffice it to say that Blackboard is an arena for higher learning in itself!

It’s not unusual that a lecture will be moved to a different hall or a different time at the last minute. This can always be disconcerting, especially if it hasn’t been made clear what the new location or time is. And for a person with autism like me, it can be an utter nightmare! But these kinds of situations can always be dealt with – there are always people available to consult in the event of change. You can ask someone within the course, or consult the Science Course Office (say if you’re doing a Science course). I myself found the Disability Services particularly helpful in situations like this, who have their drop-in office in the Arts Building. Of course, if you’re completely confused as to what to do or where to go, the chances are that a lot of other people will be too. And it’s not the end of the world if you miss a lecture as a result of this. There will always be another way to get the notes, whether it be through Blackboard, or through a helpful student. Change might be inevitable, but remember there’s always a way around the situation

Getting used to your lecturers is another big step for any college student, as they’ll all be very different in their approach to their subject, and certainly very different from any of your secondary school teachers. This takes adjusting to just like anything else. So by all means, take the time to understand your lecturer; the way in which they present work, their terminology, what’s he/she expects of you throughout the lecture, what platforms they prefer for notes and assignments (although chances are it’ll be Blackboard), etc. This way, you’ll be able to get the most out of each lecture, and it’ll make it easier to study for exams … which brings us to our last topic. 

iii. College Exams

Exams – the no. 1 stress generator of our time. That’s why it’s especially important to have a plan when it comes to exams. As an academic, this will always stand to you, regardless of what you’re studying, or what stage of your education you’re at. First and foremost, once you’ve gotten your timetable, suss out where each exam is due to take place, when the exam will happen, the duration of the exam, the necessary requirements, etc. Again, only highlight the stuff that’s relevant to you, so that’s it’s not all one big stream of words that are only causing you unnecessary stress leading up to the exams themselves.

Have a study plan!!! Now, this obviously sounds intuitive to any academic, but it should be never underestimated, and there are often potholes that people can fall into when making a study plan – some of which I have even fallen into during my own studies, which is why I feel it’s worth addressing. For instance, when you’re planning a particular day, never bombard a day with studying. Schedule regular breaks and know when you’re going to study a particular topic – which raises another valid point. Perhaps don’t schedule all the easy topics first just for a confidence boost or as a way to convince yourself that you knew everything all along. But this, of course, will depend on the way each person studies and in this respect should only be taken with a pinch of salt.

Make sure all your assignments are complete before the end of the First Semester. As a student in Science, I had a lot of assignments due at this time, and all in various places, including Physics, Mathematics and Geology, so it can certainly somewhat of a labyrinth to track every assignment down and ensure that it’s done. But it’s still a very important task to undertake since it would be an awful shame to have lost some of the marks before going into the exams simply because you had misread the deadline or you forgot about the assignment altogether. So, double-check that you have everything complete before exam time, as this will alleviate a lot of stress during the study week.  As someone who stresses about exams, in any case, I felt empowered knowing I had banked a good few of the marks before-hand.

Believe in yourself. It sounds so simple, but it’s what will stand to you the most throughout your time in college, not just in the first year. There will be days when the work is hard – or the day will have just been tough in itself – and you’ll try and convince yourself that you just can’t do it. But you can. There’s a reason you’re in Trinity, to begin with, and that can’t be taken away from you. 

During the summer of 2019, I had unfortunately suffered quite a tragic bereavement, to the point where a lot of the confidence I had, had been knocked out of me come the new academic year. And I have to be honest when I say that I was tempted many times to throw in the towel at various points throughout the first semester especially … but every time I reminded myself I was a Junior Freshman, studying Physics at Trinity College Dublin no less, something was restored. Something reminding me that this was my place and that I truly deserve to be here, I deserve to embrace everything that’s great about Trinity – the camaraderie, the societies, the events, the sigh of relief you can take after a long night of study in the library … You deserve to be here, and you can battle the first-year experience. 

Ben’s First Year Experience in Conversation with Niamh.

No one is unworthy of pride and acceptance -Aaron Donnelly

disability, LGBTQ, pride

My disability is not always obvious. From a young age, I have suffered from severe depression, generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder and panic disorder. This seems like an extensive list, but it gives you a little insight into how I navigate my everyday life. It took years to receive diagnoses for all of these, but it put me at ease to have a name for the feelings I was having. It helped me not to feel so ostracised, that I was not simply a moody individual, someone who was perpetually sad, shy and prone to panic attacks. I had a couple of health conditions, disabilities, that I could name, and with assistance and support, do my best to manage every day. 

I am also a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Personally, I do not think it is surprising that a large proportion of the community have disabilities, whether they are hidden like mine, or not. I sometimes wonder whether my sexual orientation is a contributing factor to, or perhaps the source of consistent anxiety in my life. Growing up, I was an outcast, members of my family and kids at school, were always adept at finding a way to inform me that I was different, something not quite normal about me. That difference became a source of ridicule for them and placed an invisible target on my back. It took me until my late teens to figure out what that was. 

When I finished school, and luckily progressed to university, I decided to embrace my difference, experiment and figured out what made me happy. This took time, patience, a fair amount of heartbreak and remarkable tolerance towards those who simply cannot or do not take the time to understand. This was made even more difficult with my disability. My fear of negative evaluation, of standing out for the wrong reasons, can someday, completely inhibit me. Some days are better than others. This combined with the consistent societal pressure to make decisions about yourself and your future, with next to no time to think, is troubling. I have had to decide to ignore that pressure, to take time to think, to heal, and to live my life the way I want to, and at whatever pace I need day-to-day. If there’s one message I can impart, there is no hurry to life, to figure out how to live it, and how you should feel each day, be it physical, emotional or psychological. 

Back to the title I guess, that being pride. Well, associated with the LGBTQ+ community, pride is a gathering, a radical display of uniqueness and diversity. This is something we should absolutely embrace. From my own experience, I have had to adopt a different mentality. Pride is every day. Pride is a promise from myself to love myself unconditionally, to accept that I am not perfect, but I will manage to live and love as authentically as I can. 

Pride can be intimidating. Unfortunately, pride events can be inaccessible to those of us living with a disability. Physical spaces playing host to the events can present difficulties for those with sensory difficulties or those with a physical disability. For myself, the sheer number of people, sensory overload and the pressure to be and express myself in a certain way is terrifying and has quickly brought on a panic attack in the past. 

Sometimes, those of us living with a disability are labelled as being incapable of being anything else other than disabled. I am here to remind you that we are so much more. The meaning behind pride is to embrace your uniqueness, your sexuality, your body and physical appearance. But why should your disability be separate to this feeling of pride? Short answer, it should not. Being LGBTQ+ and having a disability is just as valid and worthy of embrace, as any other identity. 

Our identity is multi-faceted. Being LGBTQ+ and having a disability should not be separate, conflicting entities, they intersect. If our disabilities are ignored, as integral parts of our identity, we are being excluded. No one is unworthy of pride and acceptance, and I hope to remind you of that. Through our pride, we must endeavour to love and recognise all the lives that are part of the LGBTQ+ community. Having a disability is no exception.

Adding Another Label to Myself – Pride

disability, LGBTQ

Some of my earliest memories are of the subtle ways I was made to feel different because of my disability. I felt that receiving any extra help highlighted that there was something about me that made me stand out from my classmates. This resulted in a deep-rooted fear of not fitting in, that still affects me today. One of the ways it does is in being LGBT+. It always bothered me that the first, and sometimes the only thing people knew about me was my disability. I was terrified of adding another label to myself, and in some ways I still am. The prospect of coming out is always daunting, but I don’t think I would have found it as scary if I hadn’t experienced growing up with a disability.

I’ve never considered the connection between my disability and being LGBT+, but I’ve realised it is a huge factor. I often felt like my problems relating to my disability weren’t valid because people had it so much worse. I feel similar things with being LGBT+ because my environment is better than a lot of people who have faced coming out. I have a habit of downplaying the difficulties relating to both things, so even thinking about the way that they are connected is hard for me to do.

I don’t think the connection is exclusively negative. Coming to terms with my disability has had a knock-on effect, and appreciating these similarities makes it easier to deal with being LGBT+. They are both crucial parts of my self-acceptance. Although I have a long way to go, I feel that I now embrace having a disability and being LGBT+ more than I ever had before.