The education system fails our citizens with disabilities


LEFTFIELD:The sticking-plaster approach no longer works. It’s time to step back and start again

This month’s report Our Bill of Health: Health, Disability and Carers in Ireland, published by the CSO using census data, shows that people with disabilities are seriously discriminated against in all aspects of Irish life and prevented from getting a basic education, gaining qualifications, getting jobs, having families and leading fulfilling lives. This is an unacceptable reality and a wake-up call for our systems of education and employment.

Research by the Association for Higher Education Access Disability shows that school-leavers with disabilities are four times less likely to progress to higher education. This correlates with the CSO figures, which indicate that disabled people are three times more likely to leave school before they are 15 and that disabled adults are twice as likely to be unemployed as nondisabled adults.

The main barrier for children with disabilities as well as specific learning difficulties is that the education system was never designed to include them. It is a traditional system that has not changed in spite of the introduction of a policy of inclusion and mainstreaming. Instead it has opted for a sticking-plaster approach of adding compensatory supports.

The Department of Education has provided many supports, such as resource teachers and special-needs assistants, which no doubt help. But the system and main teaching method, the text-based system of learning and what happens in the classroom, remain the same. Deaf children will never be taught in their own language, Irish sign language, because deaf people are prevented from entry to teacher-training colleges, as they don’t have the Irish-language entry requirements. This is the case even when these potential teachers will teach only deaf children.

Disability awareness is not a mandatory component of teacher-training courses, leaving teachers ill-equipped to manage disability. Children who need to use computers and specialised software to read textbooks are not receiving systematic training in using technology. ICT is not part of the curriculum, so the approach is ad hoc. Schoolbooks are not available electronically, nor are all ebooks readable by disabled children.

Even within the sticking-plaster system of providing compensatory supports, the application process for getting additional supports is administratively convoluted and highly complex, driving parents to despair. If additional supports, such as a special-needs assistant or specialised software, are given they are not necessarily the correct supports for the child. The system of needs assessment recommended by the National Council for Special Education is not endorsed by the teacher unions, so many of the supports put in place are inappropriate to the needs of the child. The system is both ineffective and often inappropriate to the child.

It is difficult for adults with disability to return to higher education because of limited pathways to courses. More importantly, higher education has no system of supports for people with disability who wish to go to education part-time, often because of the effect of their condition. So, for example, if you are deaf and need an interpreter, you will have little chance of taking up a Springboard course, as it is seen as too costly.

It is time to step back and start again. Many children within the system are losing out, as the Department of Education’s recent report into literacy and numeracy pointed out. Changes such as greater use of multimedia, onscreen learning and ICT need to be introduced for children with disabilities and specific learning difficulty. These skills are essential for the disabled child, but all children would benefit from learning them.

There is a need to review the inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream education and to design an education system that includes all children and ensure that they all have the opportunity to learn the core skills they need for tomorrow’s world. The consequences of not preparing all our children are too costly for the individuals who are consigned to lives of persistent unemployment and poverty.

ANN HEELANis executive director of the Association for Higher Education Access disability