Catherine Gallagher is a 23-year-old student with a disability from Achill Island who was offered a scholarship to pursue a PhD in DCU. Incredibly, due to regulations and red tape she is being forced to decline the award in order to keep her disability supports.
When her case was raised in the Dail, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar responded by saying that he felt this was a mistake and that it ‘would be a terrible thing for somebody with a disability who has qualified for a scholarship to do a PhD to find she would lose her welfare payments as a result. There must be a way around it and, if there is not, we ought to find one.’
I’m afraid that’s not good enough from the Tánaiste. Sadly it’s not a mistake , it is just another example of the way the system works , a system that puts roadblocks in the way of equal participation in our society by people with disabilities. In this case the awarding of a scholarship creates a negative financial situation.
Numerous reports have highlighted the extremely low participation by students with a disability in third level education, it’s especially low in postgraduate studies. The latest report from AHEAD an independent non-profit organisation, shows a year on year decline in the percentage of postgraduate students with a disability from 2.8% of total postgrad students in 2018 to 2.4% in 2018/2019. Undergraduate students with a disability account for just over 7% of the total student population. This figure is abysmal and way below that of our neighbours in the UK who are at 13%.
There is a real appetite for change driven by disabled students like Catherine and their advocates. Third level institutions need to respond accordingly and the government needs to take immediate action to ensure that the students are not caught in a poverty trap.
More is needed than a ‘way around’ a specific problem. The government needs to remove barriers for students with a disability to allow them participate in higher education and to be effectively supported throughout their studies.
Meeting the needs of people with disabilities should not be seen as a burden on society rather it should be viewed an investment. Catherine Gallagher continues to look for a solution to her problem. A talented and promising student, she has described how this experience has left her exhausted and that the stress of the situation has caused her actual pain.
If you have a disability the system nearly always wins, it grinds you down. The hoops that have to be gone through, the negative responses and delays in decision making all contribute to inertia in the system. However in this case they have a formidable opponent.
I’m rooting for Catherine, she deserves our support.
Micheal O’Dowd is a disability rights campaigner