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Are we levelling the playing field?

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Principal Investigator:

Declan Reilly, Disability Officer, Trinty College Dublin.

Research Aim

The aim of this research programme is to: 

  1. Explore the range of reasonable accommodations that students with disabilities use during their time in higher education and evaluate their effectiveness in terms of, impact on the student experience, overcoming barriers and progressing through higher education.
  2. Complete a case study of a single HEI in Ireland in relation to the question: Are we levelling the playing field for students with disabilities?

The objectives of this research are to:

  1. Examine the background of quantitative data on the entry, progression, retention and completion rates of students with disabilities in a single HEI from 2007 to 2014.
  2. Capture the experiences and perceptions of a range of students who applied for supports with a Disability Service in relation the barriers they faced and the impact that supports may have had.
  3. Provide an analysis of the issues presented by both quantitative and qualitative data sets, identifying significant patterns that may emerge and drawing conclusions and recommendations as appropriate.


The emergence of Disability Services in Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) in Ireland over the past two decades has coincided with a dramatic increase in the numbers of students with disabilities attending HEIs. From 990 attending in 1993/4, to 7957 in 2011/12 (Ahead, 2012), the 700% increase has seen a range of support services develop in response to the growing demand for access and reasonable accommodations. 

The focus of this research is to evaluate the impact of reasonable accommodations on the student experience in one HEI. In responding to the increasing numbers of students with disabilities in Higher Education, Disability Services must establish an evidence base so that the innovation and development of reasonable accommodations can continue to provide support.

grapgh showing the rise in students with a disability at 3rdlevel

Research approach

A case study of a single Higher Education Institute is the primary research approach. A mix of quantitative and qualitative data sets will be used. 40 semi structured interviews with current and former students will act as an ‘embedded case study’ (Yin, 2003) along with statistics on entry, progression, retention and completion rates. An embedded case study allows the quantitative data to set the context within which the qualitative data is situated and triangulated. This approach is a useful way of examining issues where the distinction between the area of interest and the context are not self-evident.

Yin, R. K. (2003). Case study research, design and methods, 3rd ed. Newbury Park: Sage Publications

Disability Service Strategy 2009-2014 phase alignment: Phase 2
Level of research: PhD in School of Education
Supervisor: Dr. Andrew Loxley
Stage of research: Year 4