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UDL is Looking AHEAD in Ireland! with Dara Ryder

Lillian talks with Dara Ryder, the Digital Media and eLearning Manager for AHEAD, the Association for Higher Education Access & Disability, in Dublin, Ireland. Besides his incredible work with AHEAD’s digital learning priorities, including a digital badge for Universal Design in Teaching and Learning, Dara is also very much involved in policy and research with UDL in Ireland. Today we have the pleasure of discussing the far-reaching and impressive progress that AHEAD has made with UDL implementation, the resources that AHEAD has made available to instructors in Europe and beyond, and the upcoming AHEAD conference this March entitled “Journey to Oz.” By the end of this podcast, you’ll want to hop a flight to Dublin to experience it all! Luckily, though, you don’t have to because Dara is here to tell us all about it and how and where we can access these resources wherever we are and whenever we have the time. Let’s enter the global UDL conversation!


AHEAD (the Association for Higher Education Access & Disability) video explains AHEAD’s work through the story of Sean, a student with a disability working his way through college and employment, and how AHEAD helps him along the way.

The Inclusive Practice Pyramid video: This pyramid describes best practice for inclusion in higher education from the disability support service to the mainstream classroom. Brought to you by AHEAD and DAWN. AHEAD’s mission is to shape a future where students with disabilities can succeed and the promotion of UDL is just one string/tool in that bow – you can see where it fits in our vision of inclusive education institutions in this short video.

The AHEAD Journal releases twice a year which promotes inclusive education and employment practices and regularly features Universal Design for Learning articles such as Dr. Abigail Moriarty’s tale of a campus wide UDL implementation in the latest issue.

Digital Badge for Universal Design in Teaching and Learning is awarded by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning which is a state body for promoting good teaching and learning in further and higher education. It is a short course aimed at getting people interested and the assignment associated with it gets them to make one change to their practice based on what they’ve learned and report on it. The reports are then made available to everyone else on the course so the ideas can be shared and learning communities created. Individuals or potential facilitators can run it in their own institutions, so it’s entirely scalable.

Active Inclusion Network – Cork ETB video that details experiences of instructors completing the digital badge in Universal Design for Teaching and Learning.

AHEAD Conference 2019 Europe’s largest conference around disability support and UDL with 200-250 participants from across the globe. The latest programme features contributions from Canada, USA, Brazil, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, Norway, Sweden, Italy and Ireland of course!!! Road Map for Disability Support in Higher Education in Ireland is laying out a vision for a HE system with UD principles at its heart and examining the changing role of disability support staff as we move towards a more inclusive mainstreamed approach and away from the add-on model of support


[Lillian] Welcome to think UDL, the Universal Design for Learning podcast, where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind. I’m your host, Lillian Nave, and I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding, and facilitating, but how you design and implement it and why it even matters.

Thank you for joining me for episode six of the Think UDL podcast.  My guest today is Dara Ryder, the Digital Media and E-Learning Manager for AHEAD, the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability in Dublin, Ireland.  Besides his incredible work with AHEAD’s Digital Learning Priorities, including a Digital Badge for Universal Design in Teaching and Learning, Dara is also very much involved in policy and research with UDL in Ireland.  Today, we have the pleasure of discussing the far-reaching and impressive progress that AHEAD has made with UDL implementation, the resources that AHEAD has made available to instructors in Europe and beyond, and the upcoming AHEAD conference this March entitled “Journey to Oz.”  By the end of this podcast, you’ll want to hop a flight to Dublin to experience it all.  Luckily though, you don’t have to, because Dara is here to tell us all about it, and how and where we can access these resources, wherever we are and whenever we have the time.  Welcome, Dara, to the Think UDL podcast.


[Dara] Thank you, Lillian.

[Lillian] So, I love to ask my guests the same question, and my first question for you is: what makes you a different learner?


[Dara] This was a very very interesting question for me, Lillian.  In all my time working in this field–I’ve been working for AHEAD now for ten years– I hadn’t actually considered what actually makes me different in terms of the way I learn, and how UDL and other inclusive measures would impact on me.  So, I suppose I took a sort of curious route to university.  My postsecondary or my secondary skill wasn’t known for its academic achievement at all.  I came maybe third or fourth highest in my year on the final state exam, but I still didn’t get enough points to get into university place.  So, I went in to study music technology in a further education college, which I believe is the same as your technical education colleges, is that right?


[Lillian] Yeah, something like a community college would be here in the United States.

[Dara] Yeah, so I went in through that route, and I studied music technology there.  That was really good for me because I’m a very very practical guy.  If I can try something, I can usually learn it very quickly.  Its when I have to start dealing in those more kind of nebulous, abstract concepts that I kind of run into trouble.  So, I scored really really well in that course, and that brought me to a music technology course in Queens University, which is in the north of Ireland.  Its kind of a fairly prestigious, ivory tower sort of university in an Irish level, and that was a huge huge change of pace for me, and for that first year, my God did I really struggle.  This new academic reality was really tough for me.  Suddenly, I had these huge essays, huge study loads, the fact that I had to juggle both work and study.  And because I came straight into second year as a result of the course that I had already done, I didn’t have all of the kind of orientation and preparation that the first years received.  So, I wasn’t really aware of any of the student supports available to me, things like how do I write an essay, how can I manage my study time.  So, its only really when I look back now, knowing what I know now and having worked in this area for a long time that I can realize that it wasn’t really that I was failing at all, but more that the college was failing to take into consideration the route that I had come in through, and I suppose that it was their job to help me to make that transition as much as it was mine.  The other thing that sticks out for me in the way that I interact and express with knowledge is that I am a bit of a video monster.  I’m sure, Lillian, you can attest to this


[Lillian] Yes.

[Dara] I’ve sent you a lot of video in advance of this just in preparation for it, so in terms of my work here in AHEAD, one of the key attributes that I bring to the table is my ability to explain concepts in kind of easily accessible ways through video, through animation.  So in a way, I sort of talk best through video if that makes sense.


[Lillian] Yes, that makes total sense to me, absolutely, and yeah, I have really enjoyed looking at all the videos you’ve sent me, and we’re going to put those on the resources for the podcast so all of our listeners are able to easily find those, and I’ve learned so much in such a short period of time.  You’re right, they’re so easy to understand.  So, I must say I appreciate that gift that you have and that particular way you learn and are able to teach others, so I’ve certainly benefited from it.


[Dara] I’m blushing now, thank you

[Lillian]  Which is great because its a podcast.  So, I really am interested in what AHEAD has done in Ireland, and what its history is, what you’ve done there, and what you guys are doing.  So, can you tell me about, and all our listeners about AHEAD in Ireland?


[Dara] Sure.  Well, AHEAD is, the acronym is the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability.  So, we’re thirty years old, or we were thirty years old in 2018.  Basically, we started as a grassroots student organization, student-led.  So it more or less arose from the needs of students with disabilities.  They all– this was at some stage in the late 80s– there was a number of students in a college here called University College Dublin, who were really struggling with the academic demands and one student in particular, Jerry Ellis his name was, a blind student, who just felt that what was happening just wasn’t good enough.  And he went straight to the registrar of the university and pretty much said that, “this is not good enough, we need better, we need more support.”  So, this resulted–the registrar was very open to this and worked with Jerry to form a sort of loose association of students which would meet every week, if you like, almost a support group at the time, which, over time, really just grew legs and developed, and eventually in the mid 90s developed into a fully-fledged NGO, and today we are working across further higher education and employment in terms of trying to improve access to education and employment, and also just trying to shift attitudes within the employment sector and the further and higher education sector with regard to students with disabilities.  So, its been a huge journey and I suppose our hands are in many pies here.  We’re working both at a policy level, we’re working at an institutional level directly with staffs in institutions with employers and directly with students themselves in terms of the kind of implementation provision, arming them with information about their rights and the responsibilities of the colleges and employers towards them as well.  So, we have our fingers in many pies and its really interesting work.


[Lillian] Well, fantastic.  What an amazing growth story, and it certainly seems like you have been filling a need and moving into a lot of implementation, too.  What is the effect that AHEAD has had on policy in Ireland?


[Dara] Well its huge, really, for a long time now, really since the mid 90s, AHEAD has been, if you like, “at the table” of a lot of the big policy decisions that have been made in or around access.  So, things like, for example, in 1994 the fund for students with disabilities here was introduced, which is a fund which provides the money for support for colleges–sorry, for colleges to support– students with disabilities.  So, all of the reasonable accommodations that you would think of today are all funded through this mechanism, and AHEAD would have been a big driver in that.  In fact, we actually administered the first fund for students with disabilities in Ireland.  We were the sort of administration body that helped to give the money out to students.  So, things like that, really solid things all the way throughout the history of inclusive education here in Ireland.  We’ve had a big hand to play, and our voice has been at that table representing students, you know, for thirty years now really.  Things like as well, another concrete example would be, we have now what’s called the DARE scheme here in Ireland which is an access scheme to college whereby students with disabilities, in recognition of the impact that disability has had on their learning–on their primary and secondary learning– and in recognition of the barriers they’re exposed to there at those level can avail of potentially 10 to 15% reduction in the points entry for higher education.  So, that’s another example really of huge kind of measure that AHEAD has played a big role in implementing.


[Lillian] Wow, and what sort of implementation has occurred when students arrive at the University?  Your story that you mentioned about getting into the university through a somewhat different path, right, from that technical education and not knowing about the supports that might have been available to you.  What sort of things is AHEAD doing that’s making the path better or making the supports better for students who have disabilities when they get into higher ed?


[Dara] Well, a huge element of it is in around the training of staff in higher education, and I suppose also in aiming to shift attitudes of staff within higher education, both at senior levels and working on the ground in institutions.  So, in terms of our training piece, we have been conducting training for a long, long time.  In recent years, a lot of that training works online, so we’re able to get quite significant time with our institutional staff.  For example, we have an AHEADstart program which is basically the equivalent of one week’s training face-to-face, which we would never previously have been able to get because we have quite a small team here, you’re traveling around the country.  Now, we can do that online, and we can deliver that directly to the participants at times that suits them.  And basically, what that training is doing, is its introducing them to the key legislation around education and students with disabilities, so if you like, the responsibilities of institutions to support students.  Its introducing them to best practice around support and provision, its introducing them to universal design concepts, and a key piece of it really is in helping them to understand the needs assessment process, which is the process by where you’re taking a student with disabilities, you’re having a conversation with them, understanding their needs, and thereby coming to an appropriate support plan for them and making sure you can then have the skills and knowledge to implement that support.  So that’s, they’re the kind of examples of the training we do.  Increasingly now, we’re also doing a lot of training directly with teaching and learning staff around the area of Universal Design and inclusive teaching and learning.


[Lillian] So, that program that you mentioned is headstart? Is that right, headstart in Ireland?

[Dara] AHEADstart, so A-H-E-A-D.


[Lillian] Aha, very good


[Dara] So, yeah, I was saying to you previously that we have a lot of puns on AHEAD in our work here, Thinking AHEAD, AHEADstart, you name it, we’ve done it.  So, people are starting to get a little bit sick and tired of them at this stage, so I think we’ll drop it, but for now, AHEADstart is where we are.


[Lillian] Oh fantastic, and that’s been around for six or seven years, you said, but just now has moved into that digital six or seven week program?


[Dara] So, well we’ve been doing basically versions of that program face-to-face for a long, long time, for probably ten or twelve years now, but, you know, when I say versions of the program, it was much, much shorter because we just wouldn’t be able to get the face time with people.  So, you’re trying to pack a lot of time into maybe a half day session or a one day session with some staff.  But, yeah, I think it was 2013 we moved to our first version of the online program, and then about two years later, we kind of did a big re-development of that using UDL to actually guide us in the way we re-developed it, and its been a huge, huge success.


[Lillian] Wow, so, building on that, I know that you are personally responsible for a lot of the AHEAD videos and instructional materials that help people like me, someone who works in higher ed, to implement UDL strategies; and, one thing that really was the impetus behind why I tweeted you and said “hey, will you come on the podcast,” was this digital badge program, and I would love if you would tell our listeners about that and what the impetus was, and what you’ve done to create that.


[Dara] Sure.  I suppose the impetus was, here in Ireland, Universal Design for Learning is still kind of a burgeoning concept, you know.  The sort of terminology is quite well known within the higher education sector, but actually what it is isn’t really well known. And in terms of people actually grabbing it and using the framework on a regular basis, you know, there’s still some way to go towards that.  So, the aim of the program really is to get people to dip their big toe in the water, if you like, and just get them started on the road towards implementation of UDL, get them to see the possibilities first-hand.  So, it comes from our national forum for the enhancement of teaching and learning, which is a national teaching body, teaching and learning body funded by the state here.  They have a digital badge program which is, I think, sixteen different digital badges, which are all-around professional development for teachers in further and higher education.  And, those digital badges really are, I suppose, they act as a carrot for people to get involved because they’re taken seriously by HR departments in the colleges.  So, if you like, they are part of the road towards showing your skill set as a professional in terms of if you want to move up, move institutions, so forth.  So, they are quite attractive in that sense.  So, we developed this badge, we’re the experts on this particular badge, so we developed it with University College Dublin.  And, essentially what it is, is its actually a training pack, and its an open source training pack, which means that any institution can take the training pack and use it.  But, basically the institution and the people within the institution register with the teaching and learning forum and say “I want to be a facilitator,” then they can go and do the badge in their own institution, and roll it out for their own staff.  Which gives it great scaleability, it means that this is a very small organization trying to reach everybody in Ireland, then all we have to do is reach one facilitator in each institution and get them on board.  And that’s starting to have a big impact now, particularly what we’re seeing is, actually the program is resulting in massive changes, we didn’t really anticipate it, but massive changes in what these individuals are actually producing as teachers, and the effect that its had on them in terms of the evaluations that they’re coming back with to us, how the interaction with the UDL framework has changed the way they think about teaching, is actually quite phenomenal.  And, I suppose, for us, really, its the big part of the badge itself, is allowing people the chance, and the permission, if you like, to step back and reflect on their teaching, and using the framework as a guide.  So, the biggest part of the program is where they actually take all of what they’ve learned about the framework and they make one significant change to the way they’ve rolled out something that they’ve already taught previously, and then they have to gauge the students’ reaction from that to evaluate their response to it.  Yeah, its just been a real pleasure to see the innovative stuff that people have been doing once they’ve been given the time and space and permission to kind of reflect and make changes; because, in a sense, I think, its all well and good, you know, knowing about the UDL framework, but actually making that step into doing it for the first time, I think, is a daunting thing for educators, and if you can help to make that a little bit easier, lay out a path for them, and also a bit of a carrot at the end of it to say “if you do this, then you have this nice digital badge that goes on your CV” that, you know, can help you in terms of promotion, in terms of finding work if you want it, then I think that’s a real help.


[Lillian] And it sounds like AHEAD has also played such a large part in making sure that that digital badge has a lot of force behind it, right?  That the administration, that the government all sees that as very important.  That if you have this digital badge that means you are a good teacher, and that this is so important for the learners in Ireland.


[Dara] Absolutely because obviously the badge is only worth what people think of it, you know, and that’s really important and as part of that we’ve actually just recently launched–in fact its part of celebrations of our thirtieth birthday–an award called the John Kelly Award, which is John Kelly is the name of the registrar in UCD who was one of the kind of founding fathers of the organization if you like.  So, as part of that we’ve launched this John Kelly award which is for the graduates of the digital badge who’ve done the most innovative practice, and the award comes with a one thousand Euro bursary towards their professional development.  And it’s a very flexible bursary, too, because it can be spent on a course or it can be spent, for example, if they wanted to go to the CAST conference in the United States or something like that, it can be spent towards that kind of a trip too.  So, those kinds of measures are just helping to raise the profile of the badge and give it more weight in our institutions.


[Lillian] Wow, that’s fantastic.  And, how long would it take a practitioner, somebody in higher ed, to complete that digital badge?

[Dara] Sure, its actually–well its very short, its twenty five hours, its done, twenty five hours done over–it’s a flexible amount of time, it doesn’t have to be done over eight weeks, we leave that up to the facilitator for some depending on what works for their own institutions really, but for the most part its twenty five hours that’s done usually over one semester.  So, its quite manageable and we did that on purpose because clearly if you’re trying to get someone to dip their big toe in the water, you don’t want to just throw them in the pool first, you know, or ask them to make this huge commitment, you know?  So, what we’re doing is we’re just trying to open this door for them and say “hey look, this stuff is pretty cool, I think if you give it a try then you’ll find you’ll get big, big results from it.”  And, the interesting thing that we’ve had come back from the badge, from the feedback, is yes, we’ve had huge amounts of educators saying “well, I didn’t expect that this would affect my learners in the way that it has” particularly, because we come from a disability point of view, there is maybe a certain misnomer that people saw us pushing the UDL thing and maybe thinking it was very strongly focused on disability, but obviously disability is only one aspect of it, so one of the big things we’ve heard coming back is “well, my mature learners, my non-nationals whose English is not their first language,” huge amounts of positive feedback on that.  But also, huge amounts of positive feedback on the sense of what its given to them as educators, which was maybe slightly more surprising for us.  You know, it took us a little bit back in terms of “well this has really given my teaching career a new lease of life” was one of the things that actually somebody said, I think its in one of the videos that we can share with you later on.  But, yeah, really really positive feedback from both them as educators themselves but also what it was bringing to their students.


[Lillian] Wow, what a large change that’s happening, that’s very exciting, what’s happening in Ireland.  I think our listeners in the United State–and we’ve got listeners all over the world, we’re hoping–can learn quite a bit from what you’re doing at a national scale.


[Dara] Yeah, one of the things that we wanted to do here in AHEAD, one of the things we do every year, is bring the international community together at a conference here in Dublin.  Its Europe’s conference in or around UDL, inclusive education, disability support, it kind of has a broad enough focus in that sense, but what we’re doing is we bring teaching and learning staff together with disability support staff with other front line services staff, because we have a very big picture approach, I suppose, in AHEAD, we’re not just looking at you as educators will focus very strongly, and rightly so, on the classroom, but we have to look at the institution as a whole.  You know, you have the social realm, you have the front line services, you have the physical environments, the digital environments, all of those things around the accessibility of all of those are very important to us as well.  So, what we do is we bring the entire international community together–we try to–across those different departments, we invite them to Dublin and every year in or around March time we have a really amazing conference which, I suppose, this year, as an example, we have five continents covered just in the program alone, which we’ve just released.  Five continents over fifty presentations over two days, and its just really exciting because what you’re getting is a flavor of all of the different things that happen across the world and its this kind of melting pot that happens and suddenly all these ideas are flying out everywhere and its not anything that we do other than other than we facilitate really the people coming together to share what they know.  And, an example of the kind of things that can start from there, there’s actually a book being launched at the AHEAD conference this year which is edited, co-edited by Katie Novak, and I’m sure all of our UDL folks over there will know, and Shawn Bracken whose from the University of Worcester here in the UK, and they actually met for the first time at the AHEAD conference, and met several of the contributors that wrote that book together at the AHEAD conference, that book is called Transforming Higher Education: True UDL and its going to be launched now in March, so there’s a nice circle there that’s happened and come all the way back around again.


[Lillian] Well that’s fantastic, in fact I interviewed Tom Thibodeau who has a chapter in that book, and so we’ll also be having links to that book on our podcast website.  And, could you tell me a little bit more and tell our listeners a little bit more about the theme of this year and why the theme has something to do, I believe, with the Land of Oz?


[Dara] Yeah, so our theme this year is the Wizard of Oz.  We always try to inject a little bit of fun into the conference, you know, very much we are hell bent on getting away from the idea of just, you know, sixty, seventy presentations just over and over with no real break in between, there’s–nothing fun is happening, so really, what we try to do every year is just add a little spice into the event.  And this year, we’ve gone with the Wizard of Oz theme.  So, its that idea of the sort of journeys that we’re on as both students and staff members, especially in this new world in Ireland, you know, the idea of mainstreaming inclusion is–its not new but its becoming increasing prevalent in terms of, you know, the responsibilities of teachers, the front line staff, its not just those students, the disability support team students, its “OK, how can I play my part in inclusive institutions?”  So, we’re all on journeys as both students and staff, so we took this idea of the journey to Oz, and we’re sort of weaving that throughout as a theme to add a bit of fun into it and you know, particularly around the conference reception, one of the things we try to do is loosen people up a bit and I don’t want to ruin any surprises for anyone coming so I won’t say too much more, but there’s always a little bit of shenanigans that go on there in relation to the theme.


[Lillian] Oh, you’ll be wearing some ruby slippers, maybe?

[Dara] Possibly.  But, last year, we had a conference that was closed by a circus ringmaster in a top hat, so anything is possible.


[Lillian] Fantastic, oh this will be fun, now I’ve got to find a way to get to Ireland, and we’ll have a link to that conference in the show notes so our listeners can find it and read about it and the AHEAD conference also, is that the conference–is that associated with the publication that you have as well, or just something else that’s put out by AHEAD?


[Dara] Yeah, no so the publication I think you are referring to is AHEAD Journal, is it?

[Lillian] Yes, the online practice journal that is helpful for everybody not just egghead academics, right?


[Dara] Yeah, so the idea of the journal really is, it’s a practice journal, not an academic journal, so the aim for it is to be readable by anybody and everybody.  Its not a heavily peer-reviewed journal, so you don’t have to go through a rigorous process, its really just about a simple way to share good practice, and for people who’ve done something, who’ve seen the change in what that initiative has done first hand and who want to share it, it covers both inclusive education and employment, and increasingly there’s a very very strong UDL focus and that’s released twice a year, so its kind of spring and winter.  So the last one was released just before Christmas there and you can find all of this at  And, the next one I think comes out sometime around May.  So, if there are people out there who’ve done anything really cool around UDL, whether its implementation or even just have an opinion, you know, on something, we often get those kinds of articles too, for example, Frederic Fovet, I’m not sure if you’re aware of Frederic’s work, does some brilliant work around UDL and he’s a great abstract thinker in and around UDL, he has a brilliant piece in the last journal about the student voice in UDL and how, potentially we have to be wary that because UDL is moving away from differentiation as a method of teaching and learning, that we don’t lose that individual interaction with the student as well, you know, that we capture the student voice and make sure that plays a strong role too in the framework.  So, there’s lots of really, really interesting stuff that goes down there, and yes, we’d absolutely love to hear more from that side of the water because a lot of our articles come from, you know, from the European end.  So, we’d love to hear more from all of your listeners too.


[Lillian] That sounds like a call for proposals or articles from our think UDL listeners.

[Dara] It absolutely is, one hundred percent.


[Lillian] So, how would people find this journal, do you have to pay large amounts of money to have access to this journal?


[Dara] You don’t, all you have to do is–well, you have to pay large amounts of money to your internet provider for a connection, that is the fee to access the journal–so its, its completely free to contribute and to visit, and you go and you can see all the back issues there, we’re on, I think issue nine will be the next issue now.  So, yes we’d absolutely love to hear contributions and you can find details on how to contribute I believe on the journal homepage.  And if not, I will fix that immediately after this podcast. 


[Lillian] So, we can have a link to that as well, this is going to be a whole bunch of wonderful resources for our listeners to contribute and to learn so much from what AHEAD is doing in Ireland.  And, that brings me to another huge thing that you are doing, and something that I’m interested in, that think UDL is interested in, and that’s the workforce readiness or what you’re doing for the workplace.  So, not just higher ed, but what happens after you get that degree.


[Dara] Sure, sure.  Its about twelve years ago I think it was now, that we essentially came to the conclusion that, you know, we’re doing all this work in higher education, we’re making such big strides, we’re getting so much more numbers through the doors, our own statistics, we carry the annual statistics around students with disabilities interacting with services in higher education, they’re showing that its more than tripled in the last nine years, that’s the kind of rate of change that’s happening here in Ireland.  And, we came to the conclusion that if this is happening, well its no use just having a degree if you can’t do anything with it.  So, we started to focus on the problem of employment and obviously huge, huge attitudinal issues around employment of people with disabilities.  People make assumptions about what people can and can’t do, and often they just think “Oh God, I’m just not too sure about this,” they’re a little bit afraid themselves, maybe there’s a little bit of ignorance involved, where they’re making misconceptions and so forth.  So, we start on the path of trying to make an impact on that as well.  So, we created a program called WAM, which stands for Willing Abled Mentoring, and WAM has been a huge, huge success.  Essentially what it does is provides work placements for graduates with disabilities.  These placements are usually from six months but sometimes more now.  They’re fully pledged at a graduate level.  And, what makes them different is that they’re only open to graduates with disabilities, so we have a graduate database that hosts a whole series of information about graduates, if you like, an online CV for tons and tons of graduates.  And, they can then apply through our graduate database for positions that come up through the WAM program.  What happens then is that we sit down with them if they’re successful through the recruitment and selection procedure, we undertake a needs assessment, and we liaise with the employers, make sure that work practices are tweaked, maybe assistive technology if it needs to be put in place, maybe if its something to do with physical access, that we can address that with the employer.  So, that’s one side of the program really is just about allowing graduates to get their foot in the door, because often they wouldn’t have had a chance, even on their CV they wouldn’t have had a chance maybe to volunteer in the way that others have.  So, that’s a really important aspect of it.  But the other very key aspect of it is that we’re actually working with employers to audit their practices so that they can understand for example, why students or graduates with disabilities might not actually apply for a particular job.  It could be sometimes quite small things, things like language used in job specifications, you know, job advertisements, things like “we’re seeking an energetic individual,” well, what do you mean by energetic?  Do you mean somebody who can run around the block seven times in thirty minutes?  Or do you mean somebody passionate maybe?  Is that what you’re referring to? Because that can often be a by-word, energetic, passionate, they’re interchangeable.  But, often a word like that could have a very negative impact on the way someone sees their ability to do a job, if you’re asking for somebody energetic, and somebody’s sitting there maybe that has a mobility impairment or an issue with fatigue then straightaway you’re looking at them saying “oh, I’m not applying for that, that’s not for me.”  So, we do all of those kind of things, sometimes quite small, sometimes much more, much larger issues that are much more profound.  But we work with employers to kind of audit their practices, and then we support them throughout the whole placement process with the graduates, so if any issues are arising, we’re working with them and the graduate to fix them up really and make sure that the experience is a good one for everyone.  So, the graduates are then leaving with a qualification or skill on their CV, or often, in fact, not leaving at all, because many, many of the graduates end up securing permanent employment with the  people that they’re placed with. 


[Lillian] So, this is fantastic.  Is there a particular story that you could give us an example of where–or, a vignette or something that you could kind of tell us how that worked out?

[Dara] Yeah, well, I love this story–there’s a guy called–actually, you know, maybe I shouldn’t mention his name, that would be probably wrong.  The data protection commissioner will be on me before I can say anything.  Let’s call him Bill.  So, Bill had left college, had acquired a disability, and had struggled for work for years and years, I think it was five or six years.  So, as well as running the placement program itself, there’s also a lot of side events, like one of them is a graduate fair for graduates with disabilities.  So, like any graduate fair, you would get but this one was just solely focused for graduates with disabilities.  So, Bill came to one of our graduate fairs and spoke to us at the fair, was feeling quite down about the situation that he was in, naturally enough, he couldn’t get work, he’d been applying, couldn’t understand why no one would give him a hearing, or a fair hearing at least as he saw.  So, he met a company here, again I won’t mention the company but it’s a big huge international IT company which has a base in Dublin.  And, he met them at the fair, they, he got a call from them on the way home from the fair because they were very, very impressed with him when they actually looked past his disability and saw the skills that he had in terms of his CV and so forth and his qualifications.  They looked past all that, and they gave him a ring the next day, called him for interview, and one year later, he was sitting on the other side of the desk at that very fair, actually interviewing graduates or speaking face-to-face with graduates about their skills, and that, for me, is kind of a little snippet of why the program is so important and why it works.  And, the things about these graduates is, its not just themselves that are benefiting from the placements.  There’s a huge, huge impact, cultural impact, in these institutions in terms of the people who interact with them on a day-to-day basis, you know, so many stories of mentors who’ve been through the program who say “to be honest, I was a little bit afraid when I first started,” you know, within, you know, two days of working with someone like Bill, and they’re just saying “I can’t believe I had these thoughts in my head, you know, Bill’s just like anybody else.”  And, if anybody working had said that, we know that already, but you know, in terms of shifting the cultural attitudes in organizations, this stuff is actually huge.  And, the best way to shift attitudes is for people to work face-to-face with those individuals.


[Lillian] It sounds like it is that same experiential education that you preferred is going out and actually getting your hands dirty, that’s what you’re providing too.

[Dara] Very much so, yeah, very much so.  And, to be honest, you know, we used to spend a lot of time, I suppose, writing theoretical, I mean, we still do spend a lot of time writing theoretical and academic documents around this, but there’s absolutely no substitute for the kind of narratives of people who’ve been through this, and so I think that’s one of the sort of secret weapons of AHEAD in terms of how we work to influence people on a systematic level, on an institutional level.  For example, the conference, the first thing you’ll hear at the conference is a student telling their story.  So, its an international event with academics and student support staff from across the world, but the first message they will hear is from a student with a disability, and I think that sort of stuff is very, very important in how we change the narrative around disability in our society.


[Lillian] Absolutely.  That student voice is so very important and I love how UDL as a design framework is focused on that student success and how what you are doing all throughout Ireland with AHEAD is bringing that student voice and bringing other people to understand others, that’s fantastic.

[Dara] And, I suppose, like you mentioned about the UDL framework there, for me, what makes it exceptional as a framework overall, because we all know there’s oodles of teaching and learning frameworks, and there’s a couple of others that are Universal Design based, but what makes it different for me is, OK you have access to knowledge, which is a huge, huge part of it, and it’s a part of all the Universal Design based frameworks, you know, I suppose how– what are the barriers to learning and how can we reduce or remove them.  Those barriers can be anything from disability, distance, personal background, whatever it might be, but how can we reduce or remove those barriers.  But, I think the thing with the UDL framework is that it has greater ambitions than that.  Its actually going above and beyond just access.  What you’re doing if you use the UDL framework is aiming to develop competencies that are completely outside of the knowledge base of what you’re teaching as well.  So, things like how can I think strategically about approaching tasks, how can I set goals, lay out paths to realizing them, how can I understand what motivates me as a person and how can I use that information to make me more productive; how can I build resilience for when the S-H-1-T hits the fan and things go wrong?  All of those sort of things, these are all kind of transferable skills that are sort of in-built in the UDL framework, and, you know, if you use the framework, then your students will become individuals who are capable of being good professionals in almost any field.  And, I suppose, in the world we live in today, where many of the jobs that me and you and others are working in, may not be around in ten to fifteen years, I think that’s a huge, huge strength of the UDL framework and its also a big strength for us in how we sell the UDL framework to institutions to senior people, I suppose, nationally and institutionally.


[Lillian] I absolutely agree, this is fantastic what you’re doing, and if people want to know more about what’s going on in Ireland, they can certainly go to the resources on our episode with you for Think UDL, but what’s a way that they can find out more through twitter or websites, what’s the best way to find out?

[Dara] Sure, well our main website is so that website you can see has pretty easy paths on the homepage there, if you’re an educator you can slip into that stream, or an employer you can slip into that stream and get plenty of information about UDL, about disability support, etc.  You can connect with us on twitter, we’d love to hear more from you, I’d love to hear more from you personally, I’m @DaraRyder, or you can get AHEAD @AHEADIreland so please do connect with us and keep in touch, and, indeed, if you’re interested in coming to the AHEAD conference, and you’ll get some great information there and we’d love to host you in Dublin and we’ll bring you for a great pint of Guinness and have a great laugh as well.


[Lillian] Well, that sounds like a great invitation, I accept, now I just have to find out how to get there.

[Dara] I just realized I said “big pint of Guinness,” I should qualify, all pints are the same size, just in case that’s mis-advertising.

[Lillian] Because we’re very confused over here in America because we’re not metric, so we wouldn’t know.

[Dara] Yes, 565 milliliters of Guinness.


[Lillian] Well, perfect, thank you.  Thank you so much, Dara, for joining me on the Think UDL podcast, and I so appreciate you telling us so much, and now we have a lot to look through and to learn about, and if any of our listeners want to know more, you can find Dara on twitter @DaraRyder and AHEAD Ireland on twitter as well, and find all of the videos that were fantastically produced on the resource page for this episode.  So, thank you so much for joining me on Think UDL today, Dara.


[Dara] Thanks a million, Lillian, it was a real pleasure to join you.  I hope your listeners got something from it.

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