Students with a disability, including those with a visual impairment, attending courses in approved third level institutions and post leaving certificate centres may apply for grant assistance directly to the fund for students with disabilities, which is administered by my Department.
The purpose of the fund, which is assisted through the European Social Fund, is to provide students with serious sensory, physical and-or communicative disabilities with grant assistance towards the cost of equipment and the provision of services. Applications for assistance are made in October of each year by the individual students through their third level institution or post leaving certificate centre. The allocations are paid to the relevant institutions in respect of the particular students
The number of approved applications has been increasing, from 511 in 2000 to 809 in 2001. Expenditure also increased significantly from €1.565 million in 2000 to €2.619 million in 2001. Allocations in respect of the 2002-03 academic year are now being finalised. This year the number of applications has increased to approximately 1,100.
In addition to the fund for students with disabilities, most third level colleges have developed initiatives to promote equality of opportunity, including access for students with disabilities, through targeted funding provided to the universities by the Higher Education Authority and funding from within the overall financial allocations to the institutes of technology.
There is a provision within the national development plan for a third level access fund totalling €120 million over the period 2000 to 2006 to tackle disadvantage at third level. In line with a commitment under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, my predecessor, Deputy Michael Woods, established the Action Group on Access to Third Level Education to advise on the development of a co-ordinated strategy to increase participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, mature students and students with a disability at third level. The action group's report was published in July 2001.
Some of the action group's recommendations relate to the achieving of targets for access to third level education over the period of the national development plan on the part of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, mature students and students with a disability.
My Department is committed to assisting students with a disability through progressing these and other recommendations in the report of the Action Group on Access to Third Level Education. Accordingly, there are no plans to provide separate funding to organisations such as the National League of the Blind of Ireland to assist people attending third level education.