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Minister Simon Harris visits NCI campus

NCI Registrat John McGarrigle, Minister Simon Harris DFHERIS and Director of Marketing Robert Ward stand outside the NCI campus

On Monday this week, Simon Harris TD, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, visited National College of Ireland, greeted by Registrar, John McGarrigle, and Director of Marketing, Robert Ward.

Minister Harris remarked on the exhibition of hand-crafted hearts at the entrance to the College. I HEART NCI allows staff and students to have a presence on campus, even as Covid restrictions keep us apart. Conversation moved to this coming September and the return of student life to campus. NCI is well prepared to respond to changing circumstances and looks forward to lots of activity in the coming academic year, particularly for full-time students, including learning events and other opportunities for networking and socialising, while following the latest health guidance. 

Minister Simon Harris DFHERIS with NCI Director of Marketing Robert Ward in the atrium of the College, admiring a 'yarn bomb' of handcrafted hearts

The purpose of the Minister’s visit was to inspect NCI’s newest addition – a sensory room. Containing a sensory pod, mirror walls, bubble tubes and a variety of lighting and sound installations and states, this room also has couches, bean bags and weighted blankets, and generally provides a safe and quiet space for autistic students and staff to self-regulate when they feel overwhelmed. You do not need to have declared your autism to have access to this room. We recommend our students contact Student Support to avail of all the supports the College offers.

Robert Ward demonstrated to Minister Harris the function and scope of each element of the sensory room, while briefing the Minister on NCI’s Autism Friendly Initiative, which commenced in 2019. This initiative, led by a committee drawn from all departments of the College and informed by student voices and the College’s work with AsIAm, brought NCI on a transformative journey, resulting in AsIAm recognising the College as an Autism Friendly HEI. 

Minister Harris said:  

“One of the key pillars of my department is to support learning for all. We need to create learning spaces that are accessible to everyone in society, ones which promote inclusion and equity, and foster understanding and compassion. 

"I am incredibly excited to see the truly inspirational work which has been carried out by the National College of Ireland to create an autism friendly campus. 

"Last January, my Department announced details of a number of strategic initiatives worth €5.4m, designed to help students with disabilities to access and fully participate in college life. Today's visit is an opportunity to see some of that work and to learn for campuses throughout the country.” 

Minister Simon Harris DFHERIS inspects a sensory pod, guided by NCI's Director of Marketing Robert Ward

NCI is the second HEI in Ireland to receive this designation. In 2018, Dublin City University (DCU) was the first HEI to achieve Autism Friendly status, in collaboration with AsIAm and Specialisterne Ireland, as the conclusion of an 18-month research project by Dr Mary Rose Sweeney. NCI is cognisant of building on this foundational work and, in turn, looks forward to sharing its learnings and experience with other educational institutions. 

Much of the work to achieve this award is less immediately visible than the physical changes to the campus but is, rather, about an ongoing and consistent application of the principles of autism inclusion across all areas of college life. 

Gina Quin, President of National College of Ireland said:

“We worked hard for and with our students to achieve this award. This is not a static award to display in our atrium, but a living commitment to make NCI a welcoming place for autistic students.” 

AsIAm’s Autism Friendly HEI initiative addresses the fact that, even as more autistic people enter higher education, the number who graduate is comparatively small. Furthermore, those who do graduate are likely to experience unemployment or underemployment. To address this challenge, NCI partners with Specialisterne Ireland as part of the College’s career support for autistic graduates. 

Adam Harris, Founder and CEO of AsIAm said: 

“We’ve been really impressed by the commitment of NCI to this initiative. We believe they have set out an exciting roadmap to encourage more autistic students to study at National College of Ireland, to thrive there, and to access employment after their time there.” 

Photos by Sasko Lazarov, Photocall Ireland