Disability is not a bar to learning


THE EDUCATION PROFILE: ANN HEELAN, DIRECTOR, ASSOCIATION FOR HIGHER EDUCATION ACCESS AND DISABILITY:Colleges and employers can find it difficult to see how to include people with disabilities or how to help students and graduates reach their potential. Ann Heelan is working to change that

TWENTY YEARS ago, children with physical, learning, or intellectual disabilities were segregated into “special” schools. Progression to university was low, or unheard of.

Society was missing out, says Ann Heelan, director of Ahead (Association for Higher Education Access and Disability), an independent, non-profit organisation that promotes participation in further and higher education for those with disabilities, as well as helping them to secure employment.

There’s more than inclusion involved – Heelan says that people with disabilities have specific, necessary skills, which often get overlooked.

Ahead was born out of frustration. In 1988 a small group of students with visual impairment from UCD and Trinity were struggling to get suitable books for their courses, and so joined forces to provide support for students with disability in higher education.

Ahead now employs 10 staff, who work with second-level guidance counsellors, third-level disability support services, students, and employers.

Heelan says that a typical query from a school guidance counsellor would be: “I have a teenage student with cerebral palsy. She wants to be a nurse. How do I tell her that she can’t?”

Heelan’s typical response is: “Why would you tell her that? What would you tell any other student who wanted to be a nurse? Put the disability factor to one side for a moment. Let them see if nursing is appropriate for them.”

At a conference in March, Heelan met the keynote speaker, a successful senior academic midwife with just one arm.

“I’m not saying anybody can be a nurse,” Heelan says. “I couldn’t be a nurse, because I’m too squeamish. But what we are trying to do is persuade people not to make a decision about someone else on the basis of disability. Look at the core competencies for a job and ask if that person will be able to meet those. Often colleges or employers can perceive potential problems for students or graduates with disabilities that don’t exist, or can be easily overcome.”

Ahead also provides training and advice to third-level tutors and lecturers, helping them to integrate students with disabilities into the learning experience.

“We encourage teachers to look differently,” says Heelan. “A lot of it boils down to good teaching practice. Where a course is designed for students with disabilities, it will be better for the entire student cohort because it has a mixture of methods in it: multimedia, interactive elements, group work, and problem-based learning. Even putting lecture notes online makes a big difference to students with disabilities.”

Most Irish universities are now engaging with alternative teaching styles to improve their courses. University College Dublin’s Horizons Programme, for instance, has a number of experimental modules that employ a variety of media and include innovative assessment techniques such as group assignments and presentations.

Students with disabilities have as much right as anybody else to a quality education, says Heelan. But she goes further – people with disabilities are a valuable resource with much to offer.

“Somebody’s body or brain may operate differently but that doesn’t mean they are not able to make a positive contribution. Shutting them out is closing down a potential opportunity for the wider world.”

For example, people with dyslexia, who constitute over 50 per cent of students with a disability in the education system, are right-brain thinkers who have creative problem-solving approaches and can bring a fresh perspective to the classroom.

Heelan says that students with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome tend to be highly focused and disciplined, which can enable them to concentrate on a specific project. Bill Gates’ creation, Microsoft, may have been one such project; Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relatively may have been another.

A formative, two-year stint as manager of St Michael’s House in Glasnevin, which provides services and facilities to over 1,500 people with intellectual disabilities, changed Heelan’s perceptions of the possible.

“These were people with very severe disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and even multiple disabilities, and many were working, getting paid, being involved in the community, and living independent lives.”

St Michael’s House was breaking down barriers, defying a traditional approach which historically saw intellectually disabled people hidden away, denied a chance to contribute to society.

However, the recession has slashed the amount of funds available for experimental initiatives, a source of regret for Heelan. “When you look at mainstream support for students with disabilities today – supported employment, disability support services, the use of assistive technologies — these were all funded by experimental initiatives. I wonder what opportunities are passing us by today.”

During her time as a training and development manager with the National Learning Network, Heelan secured seed funding for a Distance Learning Project, offering people with a disability a chance to secure employment through computer-based work. Again, it was an experimental approach but it bore fruit.

“I like trying out new things: approaches, initiatives, or programmes,” says Heelan. “I don’t mind not knowing where a new project will turn up, and I get pleasure from building something out of nothing.”

Heelan graduated with an arts degree from UCD before going on to a Higher Diploma in Education and working in a Leitrim school. In the 1980s, she moved to Newcastle and worked in a further education college near a low-income housing estate, where she was instrumental in the establishment of an education unit for people with disabilities. Many were soldiers who had been injured or maimed during the Falklands War.

When Heelan began her job in Ahead, graduates with disabilities were leaving college with great degrees but they couldn’t get work. “That persists. Employers fear that it won’t work out, or that there will be some sort of legal reprisal if they get it wrong when employing a graduate with a disability, and they worry that there may be extra costs.”

A TNS/MRBI poll of 300 businesses, carried out for Ahead in 2008, found that 75 per cent of employers would not hire graduates with a disability. Ahead’s Willing Able Mentoring (WAM) programme has had some success in tackling this. Funded by FÁS, it links graduates with disabilities to a network of employers – including Citi, Microsoft, and the Civil Service – for paid internships. To date, over 110 graduates have secured employment through WAM.

“WAM gives them a safety net but we find that these placements are successful in the vast majority of cases,” Heelan says. “As much as anything else, it’s about creating the opportunities for a conversation between employers and graduates with disabilities. Bringing people together breaks down barriers.”

Despite many advances in society’s attitudes, students with a disability are still under-represented in higher education and, consequently, in the workplace. Only one in four children with a disability grow up to go to college, a significantly lower proportion than in the general population. There’s no reason why they should be excluded: a survey conducted by University College Cork’s Disability Support Service showed that students with disabilities performed as well as, or slightly better, than their peers in exams.

Surprisingly, the teaching profession is somewhat laggard in its approach to disability. Prospective teachers still have to list their “physical and mental defects” which Heelan describes as “an antiquated throwback.” Trainee teachers are not obliged to learn about assisting students with disabilities. In addition, the requirement of teachers to have Irish precludes deaf teachers from teaching deaf children, who continue to have significant literacy problems. Ahead is involved in discussions with the Teaching Council, the regulatory body for the teaching profession, to address these and other issues.

“A large part of our work is about changing minds and assumptions about people with disability,” says Heelan. “To me, teaching and learning is about change, and helping people to reach their goals and ambitions. I’m not here for the money but to see people learn and to see possibilities grow. But more than anything else, teaching is about seeing people leave you and move on with their lives. Students with disabilities deserve this chance as much as anybody else does.”