“Even the smallest key can unlock the biggest door.” That was the take home message from keynote speaker Jack Kavanagh as South East Technological University (SETU) proudly launched its disAbility Network at an event on Wednesday, 18 October.

The Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) funded disAbility Network will provide a strong voice for students and lecturers with both neurological and physical disAbilities. This will be achieved through knowledge sharing, upskilling, and peer networking supports.

Commenting on the launch, Dr Aidan Walsh of SETU’s School of Business noted the Network’s importance: “The overall aim is to foster inclusiveness all while encouraging collaboration with organisations that work with people with disAbilities across the south east and beyond.

Another key network objective is to develop a prominent platform for members of the university’s disAbled community to voice, discuss and liaise with internal and external parties on matters of importance to them.

These Network ambitions align with SETU’s commitment to implementing a policy of equal opportunities for people with disAbilities where all have equal access to all services and experiences. Supports already offered by SETU’s Disability Service include assistive technology, access to an ASD educational support worker and personal academic assistant access.

Powerful speakers

Organised by Dr Aidan Walsh; SETU’s Disability Service; and key members of the EDI Office, the network launch event featured a host of powerful speakers. Dr Aidan Walsh opened proceedings with a career-spanning talk entitled ‘Learning on Wheels: Reflections on 30 Years in Education.’

SETU alumni John Byrne spoke frankly about growing up with dyspraxia: “I understand that many people are not as fortunate as I was. Having studied at SETU in Carlow I was someone who had supports available to me. The same goes for my secondary school. If you alter a single variable in my story, it’s very likely I wouldn’t be speaking to you at this event.

“That’s why I want to support the network,” he continued. “As a graduate of SETU who received help during my time here, I want to ensure that the excellent support that I received is replicated for everyone else.”

Pharmacist, podcaster and wheelchair user Jack Kavanagh’s keynote speech entitled ‘I Believe in People and People have Diverse Abilities’ struck a hopeful note. Since first sharing his story at a TEDx event in Dublin, Jack’s searingly honest but uplifting life story has since been told on The Tommy Tiernan Show (RTÉ), BBC News at 9 and the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) YouTube channel.

“All of you coming here today are making a statement. A statement of intent which says ‘I’m here to support those with neurological or physical disAbilites’,” said Jack Kavanagh during his keynote speech. “The expectations we have for people with disAbilities are too low. That’s a mindset we need to overturn and a network like the one being launched today is an encouraging step forward.”

Jack Kavanagh’s hopes for the Network mirrored the positivity of his keynote speech: “My hope for the SETU disAbility Network is first that it becomes a place where students with disAbilities better understand themselves and what reasonable accommodations allow them to thrive.

He continued: “More than that I hope this network becomes a place where students recognise their individual and collective abilities and come to acknowledge that when they band together, they can make meaningful changes to both their lives and the lives of those around them in the college environment and further afield. There is a great power in understanding that agency and collective support.”

Dr Allison Kenneally, vice president for equality, diversity and inclusion at SETU, described the launch event as a “celebration of inclusion.”

She said: “The creation of the disAbility network for staff and students across the SETU campuses will provide a much-needed forum to discuss and prioritise issues and allow us better to understand the needs of and how we can best support staff and students of diverse abilities across our campuses.”