Student to lose disability allowances if she accepts scholarship to pursue PhD

Catherine Gallagher, 23, was told by the Department of Social Protection she would lose all allowances if she accepted 'very modest' stipend
Student to lose disability allowances if she accepts scholarship to pursue PhD

Catherine Gallagher, 23, from Achill Island was offered a scholarship to pursue a doctorate on the topic ‘Journalism and Political Communication Response to Covid 19 in Ireland’.

A student with a disability who was offered a scholarship to pursue a PhD is being forced to decline the award in order to keep her disability supports.

Catherine Gallagher, 23, was awarded a scholarship to pursue a doctorate for Dublin City University after coming first in her masters course.

"When I first got the offer, I was completely over the moon,” she said.

However, after contacting the Department of Social Protection, she learned that she would lose her disability allowance and associated travel and medical card allowances if she accepts the €16,000 stipend as part of the scholarship.

The scholarship would help Ms Gallagher pay for significant costs associated with pursuing her education, but it is "very modest" in the grand scheme of things and cannot make up for her disability supports, she said.

"It would help me pay for significant costs like campus accommodation, which for me would be around €10,500, IT equipment – I have a specialised keyboard I use at home, I need one for college. I also need specific furniture because of my physical disabilities, I have a hydraulic desk at home and I'm going to need one on campus."

"But if I accept that scholarship grant, all of my disability supports will be completely stripped by the Department of Social Protection.” 

Since finding out about the issue, Ms Gallagher, who has a condition known as congenital scoliosis alongside a non-progressive muscular disorder and arthrogryposis (an abnormality of the joints), has contacted everyone from Citizens Information to non-governmental organisations to get answers. 

She has also written to Higher Education Minister Simon Harris and Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys.

“The information-seeking exercise of all of this has been really, really difficult," she said.

I am exhausted. The stress of the situation. I'm actually in pain. I'm in physical pain all the way from my neck down to my arms.” 

Ms Gallagher said she was aware of her privilege, as a journalism student she knows who to contact, and she has a very supportive family. Others in her position might "just give up" she said.

Dara Ryder, chief executive of Ahead, an advocacy group for people with disabilities in education and employment, said he was aware of other students who have come up against this barrier, and the group is preparing a submission for the Government.

Mr Ryder said many students with disabilities face significant financial challenges when undertaking a PhD, due in part to the fact it is not possible for many to take up part-time work in addition to their studies.

“The typical PhD stipend is between €0 and €16,000 – less than the minimum wage,” he said. "Most students supplement this with additional work to make ends meet, but students with disabilities have a lack of access to incidental work opportunities."

Catherine Gallagher graduating with her BA in Journalism from DCU.

Catherine Gallagher graduating with her BA in Journalism from DCU.

In addition, many students with disabilities have "significantly higher daily living and learning costs", he said, which can include the higher cost of low-availability accessible housing, counselling services, specialised diets, and increased transport costs.

Ms Gallagher said while it is not possible for her to work at this point, pursuing her education will enable her to work in the future, which she ultimately hopes will mean she will not need to avail herself of all the supports she currently has.

“Ultimately, that is good for the economy," she said. "I want to work. I want to work in research, but in order to do that, I need this qualification.”

Ms Gallagher’s local TD Rose Conway-Walsh, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson for higher and further education, raised her case in the Dáil on Thursday.

Responding, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the issue “sounds like a mistake”, but that Ms Humphreys was looking into it.

Ms Gallagher said: “It’s not [a mistake], it’s not human error. It’s a barrier.”

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