Student Life and Beyond
Gerard Gallagher recently graduated with a degree in Social Science from UCD. He talks to JOANNA MARSDEN about the college experience and his new role as Equality Officer in the USI.
When it came to college, UCD was the obvious choice for Gerard Gallagher from Co Donegal. “My grandfather was a lecturer in UCD, and both my parents studied there, as did my twin brother and older sister. My parents even got married there, so you could say it was something of a family tradition.” Gerard has cerebral palsy and dyslexia. “I applied through CAO, but I also ticked the DARE box. In the end I got the points the traditional way but having the DARE option took the pressure off me hugely when it came to exam time.”
In his first year, Gerard decided to live on campus. “I wasn’t driving at the time and I didn’t want the hassle of public transport.” When Gerard arrived, he was shown to an accessible apartment on an upper floor. “Within a day the lift had broken down and I’d missed my lecture. It wasn’t practical, so I went to Disability Support Services and the Residences Office. Between us, we arrived at a solution: I was moved to a ground floor studio apartment specifically designed for wheelchair access.
“I ended up staying in the studio for two years, but I found it hard not having housemates. When you start college that’s how you get to know people and I felt I was missing out on part of the first year experience. By the end of the first term, I realised I needed to get involved in something so I joined the Inclusion Participation Awareness Society (IPAS), and ended up becoming their Entertainment Officer. I also joined the wheelchair basketball team with IWA’s Mark Barry. The sport was so popular with able-bodied students that at one stage I was the only wheelchair user on the team! “Getting involved in these things gave me a purpose in the evenings. Whereas in the first term, I’d got through the entire box set of ‘The West Wing’, by term two I’d got to know so many people that you couldn’t keep me out of the Student life AND BEYOND student bar. My next challenge was trying to get the balance right between the social side of college and study - when you’re in college you’ve no parents around to make you do things!”
Getting the right supports in place also took time. “At the beginning I had a needs assessment and was given a PA for 15 hours a week. This allowed for someone to accompany me to all my lectures plus a couple of hours of reading and scanning in the library. (I was embarrassed to go into the library because when I’d reverse my chair would beep and disturb other people!) But after a while I foundthe level of support cumbersome, so in second year I reduced it to five hours plus a note-taker. The difference between a note-taker and a PA is that the note-taker sits in a different location - with the PA I felt like I had a bodyguard and it made it hard to meet other students. That was my experience, but it’s really a case of working out whatever is right for you.” With it came to examinations, Gerard used a scribe. “I took my exams at the same time as everybody else but in a different location and with an extra ten minutes. You get used to it after a while and develop a skill for dictating.”
In second year Gerard became more active in student politics. “I got involved in the campaign to elect a Students’ Union Officer. My scooter was a great advantage because it was very identifiable and we were able to stick election posters on the side! My social circle expanded hugely, so much so that by third year I decided to move off-campus, so that I could knuckle down without temptation!” In third year, Gerard ran for election as the Equality Officer for the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). “The campaign involved visiting 27 member colleges trying to draw support.” Gerard was successful but before he could begin his post he had to ensure supports were in place to enable him to do the job, including a stair lift and voice recognition software. “Once that was sorted I got stuck in. This month, we’re organising a national demonstration against cuts in the student grant or increases in the student contribution. It’s great experience but it’s only a one year post and like lots of others, it won’t be long before I have to decide what’s next - do I apply for a Masters, do I look for work, is there any work out there...?”