Making College more Accessible: Damien McClean, Welfare Candidate

Current Citizenship Officer Damien McClean talks accessibility, pronoun recognition from College and his Study Balance Week

Damien McClean is a Senior Sophister Mathematician from Louth. He is currently the Citizenship Officer in the Students’ Union and a Student Ambassador in the Global Room.

While recalling his first year at Trinity, McClean says “I did not feel comfortable until I got to Trinity”. He found the university to be open and inclusive, a place where he felt he belonged. “I flowered, I really did”, he says, noting that the open atmosphere  of college is “very much a Trinity thing”.

From when he first came to Trinity, McClean has been heavily involved in student life. He has held positions in the SU previously, including as LGBT Rights Officer, Convenor for the School of Mathematics, member of the Campaigns committee and a class rep. He has also been active in society life,  for example as a committee member in the Climbing Club.

Among the qualities a Welfare Officer needs, one of the most important for McClean is that “you need to be adaptable in the role”. He also emphasizes the need to gather information from multiple sources when assessing an issue and believes he is particularly well equipped to do this. “I’ve had my finger in a lot of pies for a while,” he says. “I think I’ll have a good network to feed into what we need”. Above all, he says, “you have to be honest, and I think people respect you if you’re honest”.

When asked for his opinion on the perennial matter of whether the SU ought to take stances on national issues or focus on college issue, McClean says “I do think it’s important to take outside stances”, though with the clarification that it “depends on the issue”. He believes that “the majority of students would want us to have stances on some things”.

While McClean claims that one of the SU’s strengths is that, in contrast to College, the Union communicates well with students, he also believes that “there are a lot of students that we don’t listen to”.

“What we don’t do well is we don’t branch out. We don’t branch out to the likes of off-campus,” saying that the problems for those in places likes St. James’ Hospital are different to problems found on campus. He mentions student nurses as a group overlooked by the SU.  He says their pay is  “absolutely diabolical”, that they are being “royally screwed over” and need the SU to “fight for them”.

From there, McClean talks  through the main points of his manifesto. Of accommodation, he states that “I can’t solve a crisis in a month, but what I can do is plan for the long term and alleviate [some of] the stress now”. In his manifesto, he promises to partner with private student residences and reserve places for Trinity students, a practise already underway in places,  such as the “Binary Hub” flats.

McClean acknowledges that the contract Trinity made with Binary Hub only lasts one year, saying  “we’re not guaranteed that the college are going to do the same deal [next year]” and “if they’re keeping on the deal, then expand, [and]  if not, fight for them to keep doing it”.

In the past, McClean has worked with the Association for Higher Education and Disabilities (AHEAD) and was a carer and support counsellor for Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland (SBHI), and his concern for those with physical disabilities is evident in his manifesto, with the term ‘accessibility’ mentioned many times. He says that he wants to hold regular “accessibility hours” away from House 6, where he would be available to talk to students in a more accessible location on a regular basis.  

He emphasises the little things which can be done to help students with disabilities in college, such as allowing students with disabilities to access the elevator to Seomra na Gaeilge (“there’s an elevator there that they can’t use”) and replacing any remaining keypads on doors with key card scanners or buttons. He believes students with disabilities should have the option of assistance when they’re moving in: “that’s something that can be done, that isn’t done, that [students with disabilities] weren’t able to get help with”.

When asked about making rooms “more physically accessible”, a campaign promise of his, McClean acknowledges the difficulty in altering existing buildings but sees Oisín House as a “rare opportunity”. He states that wants physical accessibility to be part of the conversation for the new student building.  He also wants to see communal rooms for events built in Oisín House, another promise of his.

The lack of light at night  in some parts of the college is a concern for McClean: “there’s areas of campus which you can feel unsafe in and it’s a bit deserted”. In particular, he refers to the area near the Pav and the walk from the 24-hour part of the Usher Library to the lavatory. He says that these areas “can be so much safer just by having lights. That should be an easy enough thing to do”.

He also wants to launch a Walk-Home Campaign to increase the safety of Trinity students, which would not only encourage students to let someone, such as a friend, know when they are leaving college, when they expect to be home, and if they feel uneasy, but also “how to be that friend, [and] what support services are on call that night”.

Mental health problems are an area McClean has had family experience with, and he relates the struggle of a family member to his own experience regarding his sexuality. “I felt very isolated because I didn’t have any role models to follow, that I could ask about coming out and stuff, and they went through the same thing with their mental health”. He believes Suicide Prevention Training would equip students with the skills necessary to approach and help friends and family members suffering from mental health difficulties. “There’s a lot of people in Trinity who want to help, and I think we have to give them the tools to help”.

McClean has had occasional skirmishes with controversy during his time in the SU. In 2014, complaints were made against him following an incident at class rep training where he made a number of remarks perceived to be insensitive during a speech on mental health and LGBTQ issues. His apologies to those affected was brought up at a subsequent Council meeting. “It was awful… I felt awful”, he says on looking back to it now. He says that it was partly due to his lack of emotional maturity, and that “my intentions were good”. “I knew then that a ‘sorry’ isn’t what was needed, what was needed is that it never happen again, and that it was rectified”. He reckons that “I have matured on how to handle these issues” but that, even now, “it genuinely haunts me”.

A Study Balance Campaign is another of McClean’s proposals,  as he  believes “your mental, your  physical health should not get in the way of getting a good mark’’. He adds that many students, upon arriving at university, are not prepared for independent learning and find it difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Another important plank of the new Welfare officer’s term will be the campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment. “Abortions are still happening in this country, we need them to be safe and legal”, McClean says but he is aware that this stance may reduce some students’ trust in him. He also believes that the sexual consent workshops offered to first years staying in Halls should be compulsory.

In his manifesto McClean says he wishes to create a guide for LGBTQ students on how they can get the most out of their Trinity experience. He says that “there are a lot of supports in Trinity that are available to LGBT students that maybe they’re just not aware of. And we need to expand on them as well”.

While McClean praises Trinity’s inclusive atmosphere, he acknowledges that some students do experience a degree of disrespect. In the past, McClean was involved with lobbying efforts by the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI), and says he is sensitive to transgender issues. In his manifesto, McClean says that he wants Trinity staff to be provided with training that promotes “inclusivity and respect in teaching” with regards to non-binary students as, he says, some students are “constantly misgendered, constantly misnamed”. While he acknowledges that staff already get training, “it’s about reviewing and updating it”.

Aisling Grace

Aisling Grace was the Editor-in-Chief of the 66th Volume of Trinity News. She was also formerly Online Editor and Deputy News Editor.