“My whole life, I have been trying to accommodate for the system, instead of the system becoming accessible for me”

We're sharing Niamh’s story as part of One Step Up Week this January! One Step Up is a free information service that raises awareness about the benefits of returning to education as an adult. For more, check out

Niamh Murray is a student in one-year Level 4 Hairdressing at the College of Further Education and Training in Ennis, Co. Clare. Niamh has dyslexia, and physical and verbal dyspraxia (which affects co-ordination), but this doesn’t stop her from wanting to pursue her passion for hairdressing. She works part-time in a hair salon and, through her course, she is learning new skills that help her in work. She wants to progress to a three-year hairdressing apprenticeship. Here, Niamh speaks about the challenges she faces in a system that has failed to support her needs.

 ‘I have been fighting my whole life to get support’

All the way through my life and in education, no accommodations have been made for me. I have dyspraxia, dyslexia and verbal dyspraxia – disabilities that sometimes can be hidden –  so some people don’t always believe me.

My family and I have been fighting my whole life to get support and for people to listen to me when I say that I need help.

Niamh Murray from Clare standing with green grass and the sea in the background, against a blue sky. Niamh wears a graduation cap
In primary school, the supports that I should have received were delayed by years. Then, when I went to secondary school and I started to get extra help sometimes, I was bullied because people couldn’t see why I was getting extra help.

After that, I went into my shell a bit and I stopped talking about my disability but then people would say ‘why aren’t you proud of something that you have?’ When my parents tried to see if anything could be done, the only answer offered by the system was to reduce the number of classes I had, and to put me in part-time education instead of fixing the real problem. Their answer was to push me away, to have me come in only half of the time, so I was only half of their problem.

In secondary school, a resource teacher, Ciara Breen, helped me understand my disability. She was a woman with angel wings, she knew me inside out and knew when I needed a bit of extra help with school work or just needed some time out.

‘There should be more options for students with disabilities’

I wanted to apply for a three-year hairdressing apprenticeship, but because of my disability I can’t do it full-time. I asked if I could do it part-time and they said no.

The full-time course involves doing one day each week in college and then four days of work experience. I already do two days every week in the salon, so I asked if this work experience could just be spread out over a longer time, so that I could meet the hours that they wanted me to do, but I was told no. I really want to do the one day in college but, with my disability, I can’t do the full four days in work.

I contacted Ministers, the Government and TDs, basically everyone that I thought could help. They all said that they couldn’t help me and passed it on to somebody else.

When I contacted the Department of Education, they said we need to pass it on the Disability Office, then they said that they would have to pass it on to the Department of Further Education, then we ended up doing a complete circle.

When I finish this one-year course, there are no options for me.

‘I want to teach other people that if they have a learning disability, they can still learn. They do not have to stop learning at 6th year’

I am enjoying the one-year hairdressing course. Everyone is an adult and I feel respected. The other students offer to help and the tutor tries to help me through anything that I find difficult.

I don’t have to hide things anymore, I can let my tutor know if I am finding something difficult. Even with the other students, I feel like they are there to help, which is a nice feeling.

I like my course because it’s actually about learning by hand and not about trying to copy off a board. My course works for me because the tutors tell me, ‘oh try it this way’. Because I have dyspraxia, I like how the tutor shows me ways that I might find it easier with my hands.

I started my course so that I could improve my skills to be better in work, so I could help more and not stand in the background because I don’t know how to do something.

Now I can say, ‘I can do that’ because I have learned how to blow-dry properly.

I want to do the three-year course because I want to be able to train in colour and cutting. I want to learn more so I can build up my own group of clients and take them through the full appointment from start to finish.

I want others with learning disabilities to know that they can continue to learn. They do not have to stop learning at 6th year and they can go on and get jobs too.

It’s hard because learners with disabilities have to find a way to make education accessible for them, instead of education becoming accessible for people with disabilities.

I hope we can change that and give more options to everyone who wants to learn.

This piece from Niamh is being shared as part of the One Step Up information campaign, happening from 9th to 13th January 2023, as part of New European Agenda for Adult Learning (NEAAL) project One Step Up. This raises awareness about the benefits of returning to education as an adult.

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