Are we levelling the playing field? Exploring if reasonable accommodations provided for students with disabilities in higher education remove barriers and impact on the student experience

Reilly, Declan (2017) Are we levelling the playing field? Exploring if reasonable accommodations provided for students with disabilities in higher education remove barriers and impact on the student experience.


This research thesis explores the experiences of students with disabilities in Trinity
College Dublin (Trinity) and asks if the provision of reasonable accommodations
remove barriers and impact on the student experience. The thesis is divided into ten
chapters. Chapter 1 outlines the purpose and rationale for this research and the
background and motivation of the researcher. The emergence of Disability Services
in Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) in Ireland has coincided with significant
increases in the numbers of students with disabilities attending HEIs. From 990
attending in 1993/4, to 9,694 in 2013/14 (Ahead, 2015), the increases have
prompted a range of support services to develop in response to the growing demand
for reasonable accommodations. The question, are we levelling the playing field, is
a qualitative inquiry interested in exploring the experiences of students with
Chapters 2, 3 and 4 cover three literature review areas that constitute the
background for this mixed methods research project. The concept of disability is
explored in Chapter 2 from historical, medical, sociological and political perspectives.
This allows for disability to be seen broadly and from many perspectives. The focus
in Chapter 3 is on disability legislation, policy and practice in Higher Education (HE).
Here definitions of disability are explored, international comparisons on legislation
and participation rates are made and specific developments in Ireland are explored,
such as the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE). A background and
overview of the Disability Service in Trinity is also provided. In Chapter 4 the issue of
Student Retention is the focus. An insight into the student retention literature at a
national and international level is provided first, before attention turns specifically to
students with disabilities. This comparison is necessary in order to understand how
students with disabilities enter and move through HE.
Chapter 5 explains the rationale for choosing Actor Network Theory (ANT) as a
conceptual framework for this research. A brief history of the origins and
development of ANT is provided and the key ideas are explained. The suitability of
ANT for research in a range of areas is explored, including education and disability. Chapter 6 outlines the methodology used. The central focus of this research is a
case study of Trinity through a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data sets.
Semi-structured interviews (37) with current and former students acted as
‘embedded case studies’ (Yin, 2003) along with statistics on entry, progression,
retention and completion rates. The interview transcripts were coded thematically
and a cross case analysis identified secondary themes which were used to address
the research question. Chapter 7 looked at a range of quantitative data sets relevant
to Trinity, in order to create a meaningful background and context to the qualitative
Chapters 8 and 9 looked at the qualitative findings from 37 interviews with
participants who were all students with disabilities in Trinity between 2007 and 2013.
As embedded case studies, their experiences were characterised as striders,
strugglers or strikers. These terms describe their journey as students and denote the
range of experiences and challenges that students spoke about on their journeys
into, through and out of Trinity. The striders fair best in terms of more positive
experiences, smooth progression and grade attained. Strugglers had mixed or more
negative experiences, had delayed progression and tended not to attain high grades.
Strikers left before completing their course, some leaving HE altogether others
returning to different courses or other HEIs.
In Chapter 10 the findings demonstrate that students with disabilities are not a
homogenous group. While the quantitative data demonstrates that more students
with disabilities are entering and progressing through Trinity, the qualitative data
provides a more fine grained understanding of the factors that shape student
experiences. The barriers that face students with disabilities are varied and not
always obvious. While disability or impairment issues often feature in relation to
barriers, not every challenge is related to disability. The use of ANT as an approach
to interpret the findings demonstrates the complexity of factors involved in levelling
the playing field. Both material and semiotic actors in the network of Trinity can
‘disable’ and ‘enable’ simultaneously.
This research shows that the attempt to level the playing field is ongoing. While it is
constantly being levelled, it is also in constant need of levelling because the barriers are constantly being assembled.

View Item