Removing barriers to learning for all: GATHER with AHEAD and NALA

31 May 2023
GATHER was a free three-day online assistive technology event run by AHEAD in partnership with AONTAS, the National Adult Learning Organisation, and the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA). It took place from 22nd to 24th May, 2023.

- Conor Thompson, AONTAS Project Officer

Over three mornings, educators from adult and community education, FET and Higher Education came together to share best practice and consider the 'big questions' in the world of assistive technology (AT). We had between 80 and 100 participants each day.

GATHER event screenshot featuring a slide show and attendees on Zoom
The week kicked off with Dr Richie Healy from AHEAD giving an overview of their research findings on students’ experiences from the beginning of the pandemic to now, as we emerge from almost three years of disruption in education. A key finding here was that 26% of students with disabilities were using AT at the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020, compared to 53% in their most recent survey this year. A silver lining to the pandemic is perhaps the emergence of more accessible, built-in support tools, as well as students becoming more accustomed to using AT to support their learning.  

The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) also presented on Day 1 with a fascinating case study from tutor Pauline Hensey. Pauline interviewed one of her literacy students and shared his story of using AT to develop a sense of independence and connection in his rural community. He uses 'text-to-speech' software to help read his post: 

‘I used to hate seeing the post because I could never read it. The post would build up and I would have to beg someone to read it for me. Those letters I don’t understand I can take a photo of it with the app and listen to it as I drive home. I can go back through the letter and take out parts of it and read it.’  

He also used the app also to read death notices independently and find out about neighbours who passed away. This shows a real impact on this man's work and community life.  

On Day 2, GATHER kicked off with a discussion on Artificial Intelligence and its potential as an AT tool. In this rapidly expanding area, it's still unclear as to whether this will be a benefit or a barrier for adult learners, and society as a whole. In this session, Mary Walsh O'Shea of WWETB demonstrated how they are using Virtual Reality to replicate healthcare settings with learners. It was noted by one attendee that this could aid 'systematic desensitisation' with learners who struggle in certain environments, working with them by removing the unfamiliar.  

On Day 3 we heard about innovative work being done in Donegal ETB and Limerick Clare ETB. DL ETB have established Digital Hubs which are working to close the digital divide in Donegal. LCETB presented on AT in the classroom. In Limerick and Clare, their aim is not just reducing barriers but to completely remove barriers to learning for all – a powerful mission and message. They are doing this by bringing AT into the classroom for all learners to access and use. This reduces the necessity for students with disabilities to disclose a diagnosis.  

These were just a couple of snippets from a fantastic three days of learning. The recordings will be uploaded and shared when ready, for now you can check out the programme and presentation slides on the GATHER 2023 webpage. 

For more information, get in touch with Conor at

Images courtesy of AHEAD