Students with intellectual disabilities face ‘cliff edge’ after secondary school, minister says

Simon Harris opens €9 million fund to support students entering universities and colleges

Too many people with intellectual disabilities in Ireland face a “cliff edge” of educational opportunities when they finish secondary school, Minister for Further and Higher and Education Simon Harris has said.

Mr Harris was speaking following the announcement of a €9 million fund for higher education institutions to improve access to postsecondary school education for students with intellectual disabilities.

It is envisaged the fund, which will provide €3 million per year in 2024, 2025 and 2026, will develop programmes in universities and colleges for people with intellectual disabilities. It is the first time ring-fenced funding has been provided for this purpose in Ireland.

“I think we’ve made massive progress as a country in terms of access to education for people with disabilities but I am concerned that too many people face what is either a cliff edge real or perceived when they reach third level,” Mr Harris said.

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“I think it is on one level the success we have made as a country in terms of progress at primary school and secondary school. But there are far too many students, people and parents who want to know what happens to their son or daughter after secondary school.

“I have met, for example, the mums of children with Down syndrome and they have said to me ‘sometimes I don’t even see my child regress after school, I’m watching them regress’. That’s simply not acceptable.”

Mr Harris said “of course” there are many people with disabilities succeeding at education, but he said there was a need to “do more” to build on that.

Under the fund, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are being asked for three-year proposals on how they can improve access and enhance course provision for students with intellectual disabilities.

Dr Alan Wall, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), said students with intellectual disabilities are “for the first time a priority group in the National Access Plan”.

“[This] ground-breaking initiative will improve opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities to engage in higher education,” he said.

“The engagement of students with intellectual disabilities in higher education is laying the foundations for innovative ways of improving equity in HEIs and this is core for the future of our society.”

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times