Better options for students with disabilities.

On the 22nd November post-primary students with disabilities and specific learning difficulties in Ireland are invited to the annual Better Options event.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to attend this event whether you are in 5th or 6th year.  Researching supports in further and higher education is a key part of  making decisions about transition pathways that suit your profile of strengths and interests.

This is your opportunity to meet the people who will be supporting you in college, and to ask questions relevant to your individual support needs, for example:

  • what type of academic and personal support will I receive?
  • can I request exam accommodations?
  • do you provide assistive technology?
  • is there a respite or sensory rest room?
  • do you have accessible lockers?

The list of exhibitors for this year includes:

Association for Higher Education Access and Disability
Assistive Technology Demo Stand
Blackrock College of Further Education
Blanchardstown IT
Carlow College
Cavan Institiute
Dublin Business School
Dublin City University
Dublin Institute of Technology
Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology
Dun Laoghaire Institute of Further Education
Dundalk IT
Dyslexia Association
HADD Ireland
Harper Adams University (UK)
Killester College of Further Education
Marino Institute of Education
Maynooth University
National College of Art & Design
National College of Ireland
National Learning Network
Open University
Roslyn Park
Tallaght IT
Trinity College Dublin
University College Dublin

Better Options also provide seminars for parents and students on the following topics:

DARE – How to Apply
Into Nursing
Into Teaching
Into Clubs & Societies
Into Technology
Into Freshers Year – and how to survive it
Into College with an Intellectual Disability

No need to book, just turn up 🙂
November 22nd (10:00-13:00) in the Auditorium, Block A, DCU St Patrick’s Campus

This year’s Better Options college fair for students with disabilities and specific learning difficulties will take place in the Auditorium, Block A, DCU St Patrick’s Campus on Nov 22nd 2017.


Getting the most out of exam revision

Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations are about to start so here are a few ideas for making the revision process a little less tedious.


Our current exam system places a significant emphasis on retention and recall of information, a significant problem for young people with memory difficulties.  Working memory is responsible for storing and processing information, and research tells us that people with poor working memory have limited resources for maintaining attention on relevant information.  This is a critical part of revising for examinations, so sitting with a text book for 1 – 2 hours is probably not going to result in well learned material.  The Pomodoro technique is a useful way of organising revision time, by switching learning activities and methods.


You can build this method into a personalised revision timetable using Excel, which incorporates multi-media and traditional study materials.  I have created these for Junior, Leaving Certificate, and college students.  There are some really excellent web tools available, for example, ready made online flashcards from Quizlet which will also generate multiple choice quizzes.

Revision timetable for Leaving Cert

Some students really benefit from having a daily schedule, and this can be extracted from your three week master revision schedule.  For example, here is a daily schedule for first year undergraduate Psychology.   Revsion schedule 8th May

If you have notes and handouts in Word format, you can also take the work out of exam revision by hearing these read aloud using the Speak Selected Text function.

Making it personal.

I wrote about the structure and purpose of the DARE scheme in Who DARES, wins  and have received many queries from students and parents about the personal statement element of the application process.  Every year this task causes feelings of apprehension and anxiety for many applicants, so I am sharing here some general advice about how to approach this, bearing in mind the completion deadline of 1st March.


The personal statement is Question 5 of the online application DARE form, that students complete within their CAO account.  As stated on page 15 of the DARE Application Guide, it provides students with an opportunity to describe in more detail, the impact of disability in the classroom, the school environment, and in completion of academic tasks. It is an important piece of supplementary information for Disability Services (DS) in colleges, universities, and Institutes of Technology.  After accepting a CAO offer, the DS contacts the student to organise a Needs Assessment meeting, at which both parties discuss and agree upon the most appropriate supports and reasonable accommodations.  As the number of students with a disability registering in college may be as many as 200 (depending upon the size of the institution), it is extremely useful for DS staff to have prior knowledge about the strengths, challenges and needs of each student.

Section B Educational Impact Form must be completed by the school, and on page 2, the student must respond to the following question:“Please ask the applicant: Has your educational experience been affected by your disability/condition in any of the following ways? Record their response to each of the following:

  1. I needed and received supports in school or exam accommodations.
  2. My school or class attendance has been disrupted.
  3. It has impacted on my overall experience of school.
  4. It has impacted on my school exam results and learning.
  5. I have experienced other educational impact not listed above.
  6. I have a Specific Learning Difficulty and my literacy and/or numeracy abilities have been impacted on.”

It is very important for students to think about and discuss their response to this question with parents, guardians or carers, before they meet with a member of school staff to complete the form. To meet DARE eligibility requirements, students with a Specific Learning Difficulty must meet Indicator 6 plus one other indicator. All other applicants must meet any combination of two indicators from Indicators 1 to 5.

Therefore, the personal statement should match the factors that the student indicated as having had an impact on their education. Students can include comments about any aspect of school that they have found challenging, difficult, or obstructive.  This might include their performance in tests and exams, access to books and other materials or resources, access to teaching and instruction, issues with memory or concentration, the effect of any mental health condition, problems with time management and organisation, difficulties with attending school, supports received such as resource hours, technology, or help from an SNA.

It is not necessary to provide an essay type statement, it is acceptable to write in bullet points; the important thing is to communicate exactly how disability has impacted on the experience of secondary education. So a personal statement based on Impact Indicators might look something like the following example.

Patrick is a young person with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Dyspraxia, and depression.  Patrick has used a laptop in the classroom since 2nd year, and uses a computer in examinations (Impact Indicator 1).  Patrick has regular outpatient appointments for support with social skills, and feelings of social isolation (Impact Indicator 2). Patrick also has Sensory Processing Disorder which means that he finds the physical environment very challenging, being particularly sensitive to auditory stimuli (Impact Indicator 3).

ASD has had an impact on my education, in very particular ways.  Because my handwriting is both slow and at times illegible, this affected my school exam results and has also meant that I struggled to take notes in class.  I was able to use a computer in the Junior and Leaving Cert which helped me to get down everything that I needed to say in a way that teachers and the examiner could understand. My school attendance has not been great as I had to attend appointments with my psychiatrist during school hours, and there have been times when depression prevented me from leaving the house.  I think it has impacted on my overall experience of school, because I find social situations extremely challenging, making it difficult to fit in and to make friends, and this has made me feel very unhappy at times.  Some smells and sounds cause me distress, and this is a problem if there are large numbers of people.  This can affect my concentration in lessons.  I become overwhelmed and get very tired, meaning that sometimes homework is impossible to complete at the end of the school day.

Barbara was diagnosed with a Specific Learning Difficulty (Dyslexia) in primary school, affecting spelling and written expression to a significant degree (Impact Indicator 6).  Barbara’s psycho-educational assessment also indicates that her overall ability lies within the above average range, but this not reflected in her school results (Impact Indicator 4).  She has received regular learning support in post-primary school, for help with essay writing and study skills (Impact Indicator 1).

  1. I have always had help in school from the resource teacher to help me with organising information, and writing essays.  She taught me how to use mind maps to learn and remember material.

  2. My Dyslexia report says that I have a slow processing speed and working memory.  It takes me a long time to get my thoughts down in writing.  I just cannot keep up with taking notes in class, I just don’t write fast enough.

  3. In general, I don’t think that my performance in exams reflects my ability.  I know I’m not stupid but I just don’t get the marks.

  4. It takes my brain a long time to retrieve information, so I end up writing far less than everyone else, and running out of time before I have answered all of the questions.

  5. Having to study for so many subjects is hard for me, it takes such a long time to do homework.

Other examples are provided on page 14 of the DARE 2015 Application Guide.

These examples should help students to understand how the personal statement connects to communicating educational disadvantage.  It is so important that students take this opportunity to tell their story.


Getting started on transition planning 2: Secondary school to college or employment

After leaving school, young people need to discover and navigate new environments, and become familiar with a different set of social and institutional rules.  They also need to know how to disclose a difficulty or disability, manage daily living activities independently, and be confident in their social and self-advocacy skills, organization, and time management.  If these skills have not been acquired during the senior school years, personal circumstances can change from managing, to not managing, very quickly.  Students can become lost in the college or university system, or become anxious and lose confidence in an overwhelming work environment.

Moving into third level education

Leaving school means moving from a familiar and highly structured environment. This is difficult for most young people and can be especially difficult for some young people with additional needs, challenges or difficulties.  Being self-aware, discovering options, researching choices, gathering all of the information to make comparisons, and discussing advantages and disadvantages, are essential to enjoying the first year in college and to staying in college. Students need to be confident about strengths and challenges and how these fit with their chosen course.  Identifying support services, arranging for a needs assessment and disclosing special needs or disability is very important. Choosing not to disclose may lead to a delay in receiving human and technological support, and may make the first few weeks very difficult.

There is enormous pressure and significant value placed upon  ‘going to college’ or uni, and rarely is sufficient time or thought given over to the appropriateness of the setting or environment, relevance of the course to future aspirations, and availability of person-centred supports.  These issues can be complex and time consuming, and need to be investigated before the final year in school, which is inevitably taken up with intensive study and examinations.  Chapter 5 Planning Transitions for Young People with Special Needs and Disabilities looks at discovering options and making choices early in the senior cycle of education, and Chapter 8 – Managing the Transition Bridge – contains checklists and forms that can assist with managing the move from school to further / higher education or employment. For example, Transition Tasks for Students and Parents,  and College Offers Checklist.


Moving into employment

The shift from school to the workplace can be confusing and disorientating especially in the first few weeks.  At school everyone is completing the same work at the same time in the same way.  At work everyone has a particular job to do and it isn’t always easy to remember all of the steps and tasks that are assigned to your role.  A short induction or on-the-job teaching might take place, but often there is a lot of information to remember in a short space of time.  Young people need to be confident about asking for information to be provided in a format that they can re-visit and re-check.  Having a part-time job and getting some work experience are really useful actions for preparing for the move from school.  Knowing how and when to disclose a special need or disability is very important and needs to be discussed and practiced before a job interview and / or the first day at work.  Choosing not to disclose may lead to potentially losing a job, creating a lack of trust or uncertainty, or a delay in receiving human and technological supports.  Creating and practicing a disclosure script is incredibly useful, and a template for creating a disclosure script can be downloaded here.


The Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD) has an excellent guide to disclosure which you can download here and which includes a self-assessment of reasonable accommodation requirements.

You can find more job seeking tips from AHEAD at




The National Autistic Society has also published an excellent interactive workbook on finding employment called Finding Work.


10 minutes with …..


…… Cillian Murphy, Educational Psychologist with Student Support and Development in Dublin City University.



What does a Student Learning Officer do?

I work with undergraduate and postgraduate students at third level to help them build effective learning strategies and writing skills.

Why did you choose to work within Disability Services

I trained as an Educational Psychologist but wanted to do work based more on psycho-educational intervention than assessment. I did a placement in a disability service during my training and knew third level was the right setting for me. I began working after graduation in a Disability Service, but in my current role I now provide the same support to the whole student body, as many students have issues with learning effectively at third level, not just those with disabilities.

Where did you train and how long did it take?

I completed a four year Psychology degree in Trinity College Dublin, then worked for three years in the education sector gaining experience, before returning to college for a two year Masters in Educational Psychology in University College Dublin.

What qualities and skills does a Student Learning Officer need?

A Student Learning Officer needs to be empathetic to the difficulties students frequently face in tackling third level, they need to be calm, approachable and good at relating to students. They need to have the skill to pick out exactly where a student is having difficulties in their learning and know a range of tools, strategies and techniques to overcome these issues.

Have you always worked with young people? 

Yes! I’ve been volunteering with children and young people since my own days as a student and my entire career to date has been working with children and young people.

What kind of support do you provide?

I provide many workshops every week in different study and writing skills that students can drop into. The workshops cover areas such as critical writing, time management and effective reading amongst others. I also lead a small group programme called ‘Learning to Learn’, coordinate a Writing Centre for students to avail of writing support, and offer individual learning development sessions.

What do you like most about your job?

I love working with a small group of students over several weeks – it’s great to see people sharing their experiences and supporting each other and taking strides forward in their learning.

Are you working on any projects at the moment?

I’ve actually just launched an exciting technology project with our I.T. team. We’ve embedded the best learning apps and extensions on Google Chrome (for example mind mapping and flashcards apps) to all student Gmail accounts. This way all students at the institution have access to good quality learning technology, not just those who engage with Disability Services.

What is your top tip for students starting college?

Get organized! Read through module outlines, know when your assignments are due, how much their worth, the topic on the module. Create digital folders in Google Drive or Dropbox for all of your materials and stay on top of them right from Week 1.

How can parents help?

Parents can help by emphasizing how important routine is in learning – building a study routine almost like a real workplace routine can give students the structure they need to manage independent learning.

Exam accommodations in secondary school: What you need to know about RACE

In October 2016, fundamental changes to the Reasonable Accommodations in Certificate Examinations (RACE) scheme were rolled out to Principals, Deputy Principals in a nationwide series of information days.  This same information was disseminated to students and parents, quietly, via an announcement on the State Examinations website, namely:

For 2017 there have been changes to the scheme and we have a Guide For Students available on the link hereIf you need further information relating to the new scheme it can be accessed here.

A review of the RACE process has been ongoing since 2015, and was instigated in response to protests over a lack of fairness and transparency connected to eligibility and implementation, and late decisions on eligibility for supports.

Principally,  the following changes to RACE have been activated with immediate effect:

  1.  Examination accommodations granted at Junior Certificate can be automatically ‘reactivated’ for the Leaving Certificate on the strength of confirmation from the post-primary school, as a function of ‘identified and continuing need’.
  2.  The category of Specific Learning Difficulty has been replaced with a category for ‘Learning Difficulty.’
  3. Crucially, the new deadline for application for accommodations in the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate examinations in 2017, is the 9th December 2016.



Schools are the principal information providers on eligibility for RACE

  • Schools will identify the need for RACE and assess eligibility by undertaking testing to provide evidence.
  • Schools will make applications to State Examinations, recommend supports, manage expectations, communicate with students and parents about their eligibility and decisions, and engage with a Quality Assurance panel.

National Educational Psychology Service (NEPS)

  • Will provide advice, information and support to schools, and engage with State Examinations on Quality Assurance.

State Examinations Commission

  • Makes the decision on granting of examination accommodations, and advises on complex cases.
  • In general, State Examinations Commission accepts school recommendations.
  • Provides the Quality Assurance.
  • Uses discretion in sanctioning special centres.

General principles

  • RACE is part of the Continuum of Support umbrella (see the new general allocation of resources to primary and secondary schools as explained by Mary Byrne 18thmarybyrneseptember2015ilsaannualconference)
  • Examination accommodations should reflect the students normal way of working, and therefore ‘practice’ sessions should not be necessary.
  • They should be based upon a prior identified need.
  • They should go hand in hand with learning supports.

Management of the scheme

  • All existing circulars and guidelines are revoked with immediate effect.
  • The definitive RACE document underpinned by Expert Advisory Group report (has anyone seen this?) and an updated Framework of Principles.
  • There are new application forms : Reactivation Form RA1, New Accommodation Form RA2, Late Application Form RA3, Emergency Form RA4.
  • All deadlines will be strictly adhered to, no exceptions..
  • An Independent Appeals Committee will consider appeals and outcomes will be communicated to parents by schools.
  • Formal management of special examination centres in certain schools may be audio recorded to ensure integrity.
  • State Examinations will make the decision about their necessity, as not all RACE needs require a special exam centre.
  • The need for a special centre will not be automatically reactivated
  • Shared centres may be used for use of a PC, reading assistance, medical conditions, emotional / behavioural disorders.
  • Individual centres will be used for a scribe or recording device, full reader, contagious medical conditions.

Testing and assessment of need for RACE

  • Only standardized and normed tests should be used e.g. WIAT and WRAT 4
  • Results must provide standard scores and must have been assessed within 12 months of the date of application.
  • No change to criteria in terms of standard scores, percentiles, speeds etc. for eligibility.
  • There is no longer any need to test for cognitive ability, as there is no need to distinguish between general learning difficulty and Specific Learning Difficulty.
  • It is anticipated that all testing will be carried out by schools.
  • In the absence of school tests, results from Educational Psychologist reports are acceptable “where they are already available to the school” (i.e. not new?), and where testing was conducted within 12 months of date of application.  However, the required counts of error rates for reading and spelling may only be obtained from school assessments, results from external reports may not over-ride the school assessment.






10 minutes with …


…. Lisa Marie Clinton, CEO, Avail: Assisted Visuals Achieving Independent Living




1.  What does avail do?

avail is an educational platform that promotes independence for children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Intellectual Disabilities and Developmental Coordination Disorder. avail provides personal step-by-step instructions of tasks through the use of videos, pictures, audios and text prompts. These are delivered on our avail app, while our avail web portal tracks and reports progress.

2.  Why did you choose to create this kind of support / product?

I have worked within the disability sector for the past 10 years, the majority as an ABA Tutor in a school for children with Autism. I witnessed many teenagers transition into adulthood and seen a need to provide an approach that can promotes lifelong learning and opportunities within and outside of the educational system. At the time I was completing my Masters and questioned using the advances in technology “How can I help people be independent?”

3.  Where did you train and how long did it take?

I completed a 4-year Honours degree in Social Studies in 2008. After many years of supporting people with disabilities, I wanted to take a step back and study the research conducted in the field. In 2014, I returned to college and completed a Masters in Child, Family and Community Studies with DIT. I loved the variations of modules and the broad experience of the lectures and fellow classmates. Adamant to make the most of the opportunity, since I had taken a career break from school and made financial sacrifices, l completed my dissertation on the use of assisted technology for people with disabilities. I knew l could use the research in my work and raise awareness on the use of assisted technology, an area l always had a keen interest in. Although, l wasn’t expecting to development avail from it, that just happened as a result of seeing an opportunity!

 4.  What qualities and skills did you bring to this initiative?

There are real benefits to gain form building a product from the ground up. From my experiences l obtained valuable insight into all of life’s transition: home support, education, day services, employment and residential/independent living.

Having worked 1:1 with students and adults, l developed the motivation and courage to want to do more for the fantastic people and family that l work with but also for the others who also have dreams and personal goals. Other skills l bring to avail, l would like to think a positive attitude and open mind. I started avail with student load and a big dream!

5.  Have you always worked in the area of disability?

Mostly yes, when l was completing my Master’s l worked part time with teenagers in care. I found this area challenging and alien to me, within my other roles l could witness the progress and impact l was making on an individual’s life although it was difficult to make such an impact within this role. It was a valuable experience, but l knew my passion was working in the disabilities sector.

6.  How can avail support college students and / or school leavers?

avail can support in many different ways, and this is based on the person’s goals. We actually have one student using it to support him in travelling to his college, he is now travelling independently! He receives instructions on the task e.g Picture and audio prompt of his bus, video of how to hand over his ticket, picture of his stop is, video of how to cross at the traffic lights and then a picture of his class.

School leavers can use avail for independent living e.g cooking, cleaning or community skill e.g purchasing items, going to the gym etc. It is built around the person, so there are no limits on the skills that can be learned.

7.  What do you like most about your job?

Ok, well that’s an easy one. I love that l have changed and will continue change many people’s lives! As l say this l am cringing but that is what avail has done for the people who are already using it, and we haven’t launched yet. From travelling independently, cooking your own dinner, living independently. These may seem like small things to a lot of people, but for a person and their family this could be like winning the lotto! I love presenting avail to people, as afterwards l hear about all the possibilities that are an option now as a result of avail. I am so fortunate and thankful l didn’t give up, these stories are my motivation that got me to this point.

8.  Are you working on any projects at the moment?

Yes, at the moment we have various Day Services and Parents trialling avail ahead of our launch at the end of October. We are also speaking to Employability Services who have also seen the potential of avail as an aid to support people in employment. While I am building our avail library to include a variety of tasks and social studies that can be downloaded.

9.  What is your top tip for students starting college or entering employment?

I know it can be a major adjustment for many young people, so familiarise yourself with the building, course content, classrooms, canteen, community if the student is staying up or the bus route if traveling. This will hopefully reduce anxiety or sleepless nights, and help you settle in. Also, choose a course that you are interested in!

10.  How can parents help?

I believe preparation is key, and this is probably related to my background. So start talking about college early and explore what is needed for a successful transition. If you have any questions, don’t be afraid to contact the college, they are there to help. Continue reading “10 minutes with …”