This is a study about how disability and social class intersect in the lives of young adults in higher education in Ireland to reveal complex inequality, oppression, privilege, and power. The overall aim of this study is to identify how disability and social class are constructed and enacted in education in Ireland, how they intersect to maintain, reproduce, and sustain inequality and privilege, and how they are shaped through individual agency. I locate this study within a social constructivist and an advocacy/participatory paradigm and the theoretical framework of intersectionality. This is a mixed methods study and uses quantitative data from the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) and the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR), national access initiatives, and interviews with ten student participants, to analyse how disability and social class, as social identities, intersect to influence progression, retention, and the experience of higher education.
The findings from this research enhances our knowledge of complex educational inequality, identifying how working-class students with disabilities are currently falling through the cracks of national and institutional policy and practice. The voices of the participants are central and offer a quite different way of thinking about disability, about widening participation policy and practice, and about access to education in Ireland. Students identified multiple embedded barriers, inferior positioning, unequal resources, hardship and sacrifice, and the negative impact on their student identities. They also describe extraordinary resilience and activism supported by parents, individual teachers, and more inclusive schools. The study identifies how current understandings of disability and social class have created a powerful regime that is reproducing inequality in education and relegating all students with disabilities, particularly working-class students, to positions of inequality and inferiority. The study illustrates that what it means to have a disability depends on each individual’s simultaneous location in the social hierarchies of disability and social class.