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Declan secured a place on the BEd  (Hons) Secondary Education degree majoring in Religious Studies at St Mary’s University College Belfast.

Declan attended St Paul’s High School in Bessbrook where he completed ‘A’ levels in Religious Studies, English and History. Declan worked hard and achieved A grades in all three subjects!

What makes Declan’s achievements more outstanding is that he experiences a hereditary sight condition and is registered blind. He has recessively inherited optic atrophy with visual acuity of 6/60 in each eye. He can read text minimum font size 14. At school he received extra time for essays as it took longer to read, write and complete tasks.

Declan describes his disability as a motivating factor. He is determined to succeed in everything he does and this is reflected in his focus and commitment to his studies. 

Declan had always been interested in a teaching career although he had considered both bricklaying and journalism. He opted for the BEd (Hons) Secondary Education in Religious Studies [ with history as his subsidiary subject ] as he enjoyed studying both subjects at school and felt they would give him flexibility in his chosen career.

He arranged a pre-entry visit to St Mary’s so that he could familiarise himself with the environment. Declan says:

I remember hearing all about St Mary’s close knit community, I believed it was a marketing gimmick however when I started studying at the College I knew exactly what it meant to be part of that community, socially it’s great!”

Surprisingly Declan did not apply for Disabled Student Allowances (DSA) at the start of his degree programme. Upon reflection he would encourage students with additional support needs to disclose their disability at the outset and to apply for support earlier (August/September) as the DSA assessment and application process can be time consuming.

Declan only sought support when his workload started to pile up. He approached the Student Services Staff at St Mary’s, presented medical evidence from his G.P. and applied for DSA. He received the support he needed; this included a laptop, software training using Dragon Dictate voice recognition software, printer and dictaphone. He was provided with extended library loans, flexible assignment deadlines, reading lists and lecture notes (in large font) in advance of lectures. In addition he was allocated extra time, rest breaks and the use of a computer or a scribe (if preferred) during exams. Declan was reassured to know he could avail of this support.

Declan says “St Mary’s is a great place to be and this is where I chose to be. For a long time I wanted to be a bricklayer and then changed my mind, I don’t know why! The point is, everyone is different and the decision is yours. I think if you have the potential to succeed in Higher Education, you can at least try it rather than regret your choice later in life”

Aoife secured a place on the BA (Hons) Liberal Arts degree majoring in Irish at St Mary’s University College, Belfast.

Aoife is fluent in Irish and attended Bunscoil Phobal Feirste and progressed to Meanscoil Feirste Secondary School, Belfast where she completed A-Levels in Irish, English and History. She achieved an A grade in Irish, her favourite subject.

Aoife graduated from St Mary’s University College with a 2:1 classification in her Liberal Arts degree and then undertook a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (Irish-medium) at St Mary’s University College.

‘I was and still am determined to succeed in my studies and I am motivated by the healthy competition from my peers and those who surround me at St Mary's.’

Aoife was diagnosed as having sleep-related epilepsy at the age of 11 and has been on medication since the age of 15. She has never experienced a seizure whilst fully conscious, so her condition remains unseen. As a Liberal Arts undergraduate Aoife chose not to officially disclose her disability as she felt she could cope.   During her undergraduate exams she received rest breaks and extra time.

Her condition caused fatigue and the side effects of her medication resulted in hand tremours and other symptoms. Gradually Aoife fell behind with her work and note-taking at lectures became very laborious. She experienced stress as she could not decipher her own handwriting or concentrate in lectures. Eventually Aoife contacted Student Services, presented medical evidence and applied for DSA. She received the support she needed; this included a laptop, software, printer and dictaphone and the provision of extended library loans, flexible assignment deadlines and notes in advance of lectures.

‘Although my disability is unseen it did affect my ability to study effectively. I cope much better now. I receive notes in advance (although that is standard practice at St Mary's) and I make great use my Dictaphone and laptop.’

During her PGCE Aoife worried less knowing that she did not incur overdue library loan fines, she could concentrate in lectures, she reduced the stress and frustration levels associated with deciphering illegible hand written notes and she could negotiate assignment deadlines with her lecturers.

'Accepting this support has made me calmer and I am better at managing my time.'

‘I would advise any student who has a disability or medical condition to seek support sooner rather than later.  My PGCE was so important to me and although the workload was heavy I had no intention of jeopardising my success because of a reluctance to accept the support I needed.’


Aoife’s motto is ‘With Higher Education the only way is up, with the right attitude and support Higher Education is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed!”