Third level can be a real option for people with intellectual disabilities
The Trinity model – study, paid internships and possible permanent jobs – is proven
Dale Blount, Julie O’Brien and Heather Marshall, first-year students at the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
We must do much better for our young people with intellectual disabilities in terms of access to third level education if we genuinely want an inclusive society.
A recent report by the Inclusive National Higher Education Forum (INHEF) concluded: “For many years children and young people who have intellectual disabilities attended segregated educational settings and were expected as young adults to move to day services for the rest of their lives. However, it has become clear that offering one pathway for their futures was no longer appropriate or just.”
In 2017 a total of 84 people with an intellectual disability were recorded in “third level education” out of a total of 57,872 with an intellectual disability recorded in day service provision (0.145 per cent), according to the report.
People with an intellectual disability are more likely to be unemployed, at increased risk of poverty, more dependent on social welfare, and have limited post-school options.
It was often wrongly assumed that people with intellectual disability were not capable of third level education. While third level is not the best fit for everyone with an intellectual disability – as is the case with society as a whole – the option should be much more available than it is now.
One of the legacies of the Special Olympics held in Ireland in 2003 was the establishment of the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities (TCPID) in Trinity College Dublin. The centre – which receives support from Atlantic Philanthropies – offers a two-year certificate course covering a wide range of subjects, from Disability Rights to Expressive Arts. The course crucially involves an element of work placement or internship. Trinity is now an international leader in this field.
Students and their parents say their lives have been transformed by the course and work. Partner companies emphasise the impact that the students make. One of our graduates, Tomas, would hardly go out of the house before the course. He was then chosen to speak on behalf of Ireland in Washington, DC. Tomas and his mother, Sheila, subsequently met the then taoiseach Enda Kenny. I thought Sheila was going to explode with pride.
Her teachers feared she would not go up to the podium 10 yards away to receive her certificate
Mei Lin Yap was another graduate who initially could not find a job. She met representatives from CPL recruitment, who saw her potential and offered her a six-month contract. She made such a fantastic impression that she now works full-time. She spoke recently alongside Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
The importance to the students of having somewhere to go after they qualify was dramatically demonstrated to me a few years ago at graduation. The staff were worried about one graduate. She had no educational or employment pathway post the course, and so had gone back to her care provider, who looked after elderly ladies with Alzheimer’s. She had actually regressed, and her teachers feared she would not go up to the podium 10 yards away to receive her certificate. She remained rooted to her seat, clearly very distressed. It was one of the most heartbreaking images that I have ever seen.
This highlights the central importance of providing intern and employment opportunities. The centre has grown from having four partners a few years ago to partnering with 30 of our leading companies today, and live discussions with 10 others. Every company of a certain size should consider whether they can take on a person with an intellectual disability.
There are nine other educational institutions around the country which offer some version of inclusive third level education. They include Dundalk IT, St Angela’s Sligo, Limerick IT, Mary Immaculate, Limerick, IT Tralee, UCC, DCU and TU Dublin. However, this is a reduction of four since 2014.
Government policies are encouraging people with intellectual disabilities to lead independent lives and become engaged within the community through employment. Current funding models tend, however, to favour the traditional “care-based” approach which, while valuable for some people in this community, fails to address the ambition and capabilities of many.
With 30 companies on board we are only scratching the surface of potential employers
The poet Brendan Kennelly wrote: “Disability is a mask that conceals a rich, surprising and fertile ability.” The aim of TCPID is to “remove the mask and reveal the beauty and promise of a hitherto hidden talent now brought into the light of day”.
We should support our young people with intellectual disabilities to reveal their hitherto hidden talent. Mei Lin put it succinctly in an article she wrote for the CPL magazine: “As a person with an intellectual disability I am aware that when we dream big and when others dream big for us we can achieve our potential. Having a job makes me feel accepted and included as a fully fledged adult in society.”
The Trinity model is proven: a substantial course of study combined with paid internship opportunities which may in time lead to permanent roles. With 30 companies on board and the number steadily building we are only scratching the surface of potential employers. We can substantially increase the number of students we can help to create independence and opportunity while significantly reducing financial dependence on the State.
It’s not only the right thing to do – it’s a great investment proposition. It’s time to dream big and to give our fellow citizens the same rights and opportunities as their peers.
Hugo MacNeill is an ambassador for the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities