Meeting the Needs of Learners with Disabilities

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Meeting the Needs of Learners with Disabilities

(comprehends Mental Health and Learning Difficulties)


Further Education and Training (FET)


2017 sees the 10th anniversary of the opening for signature of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Over those ten years, Ireland has made huge strides towards vindicating the rights of learners with disabilities in our school system and in third-level education but, despite much excellent practice, there still is no coherent approach to upholding the rights of all learners with disabilities in FET (Further Education).

In recent decades, our understanding of what constitutes a disability has broadened greatly. While the legal definitions of disability is explored further below, it is sufficient, at this point, to note that the 2016 Census1 indirectly defined disability as comprehending the following long-lasting conditions or difficulties:

  • Blindness or a serious vision impairment

  • Deafness or a serious hearing impairment

  • An intellectual disability

  • A difficulty with learning, remembering or concentrating

  • A difficulty with basic physical activities

  • A psychological or emotional condition

  • A difficulty with pain, breathing, or any other chronic illness or condition.

From a macro perspective, at a National Disability Authority (NDA) seminar on Employment Transitions among People with Disability in Ireland on 12 April 2017, the ESRI identified employment (and by implication education and training) as a crucial issue for people with disabilities from two perspectives: their economic welfare and their social participation2. It then set out the stark reality facing those with a disability in Ireland who want to work.

  • People with disabilities are less than half as likely to be at work - 31% compared to 71% of those without disabilities. This is partly explained by the substantially lower average levels of education amongst those with a disability when compared with the rest of the population.

  • Most people (82%) with a disability have worked at some stage - often more than four (4) years ago (35%).

  • The chances of getting a job for a person without a disability are nearly four (4) times higher than for those with a disability and two (2) times higher if we take account of other factors such as education. Even for a person with a disability who is not affected in his/her daily life by the disability, it is more difficult to get a job.

  • People with a disability are two (2) times more likely to leave a job than those without a disability. Even where a person with a disability is not affected in his/her daily life by the disability, it is more likely that s/he will leave a job.

  • There is little sign of recovery in the prospects of people with disabilities getting a job.

The situation for those with a mental health disability is even more precarious. Census 20113 data indicates that only 43.8% of the working age population of people with a mental health disability are in the labour force compared to 61.9% of the overall population over 154. Indeed, people with a mental health disability are nine (9) times more likely to be out of the labour force than those without such a disability, the highest rate for any category of disability5. Of course, given the invisibility of mental health issues (and indeed some physical disabilities) and the difficulty of identifying learners with such disabilities, FET providers need to be especially proactive if Ireland is to ensure that those with mental health and other non-visible disabilities are appropriately supported and accommodated.

The role that FET can play in the recovery of people with mental health issues merits greater recognition. As Rooney6 notes, participation in Further Education has the potential to promote recovery and counteract marginalisation, provided FET providers promote inclusive practices and implement appropriate staff development programmes. Indeed, the significance of adult education programmes in addressing the needs of adults with mental health problems and the importance of mental health services linking effectively with education and employment services was recognised in the 2006 publication: A Vision for Change7. Clearly, when it comes to appropriately accommodating those with mental health problems in FET, the FET sector generally and individual providers must link in with the health sector if learner outcomes are to be optimised, a reality acknowledged by the World Health Organisation (WHO)8.

According to the ESRI, if all those with a disability who want to work had a job, 50% of people with a disability would be working and almost 5% of all workers would have a disability. Some 36,000 people with a disability are not currently working but would like to work.

Data on the prevalence of disability among FET learners is less than comprehensive – see 2.2 below. However, we can extrapolate from research data published by the NCSE9, the HEA10 and AHEAD11.

Section 1 of the2004 Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act12 broadened the definition of special education needs to mean ‘a restriction in the capacity of a person to participate in and benefit from education on account of an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or learning disability, or any other condition which results in a person learning differently from a person without that condition’ – a definition that aligns with the definition of disability set out in Section 2 of the Equal Status Act 200013 - see 1.0 below. Based on the EPSEN definition, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) in its 2006 report on the phased implementation of the EPSEN Act14 noted that the prevalence of special need (disability) in the school population was 17.7%. In a subsequent NCSE 2011 report15 (prepared by the ESRI) on the prevalence of special educational needs, the prevalence rate was increased to 25% based on Growing Up in Ireland16 data, with the caveat that this rate does not imply that additional resources may be required in all cases. Rather, it may only be necessary to tailor the pedagogical practice to meeting the specific needs of the learners.

According to research undertaken by AHEAD17, 5.5% of students in Higher Education have a medically validated disability – amounting to 10,000 students. Ten years ago, these students were not able to access Higher Education, which resulted in human talent being squandered. Today, these students with a medically validated disability are achieving to their potential and graduating with honours degrees.

When we have regard for our current understanding of what constitutes a disability and our awareness that those with a disability have fewer qualifications than those without a disability when they leave school18, the discrepancy between the NCSE and AHEAD’s rates for the prevalence of disability in education, implicitly tells us quite a lot about the prevalence of disability in FET. While the prevalence of disability among FET learners may not be documented definitively, it seems reasonable to assume that a high proportion of those with a disability have, or potentially could have, their education and training needs met in the FET sector.

While Ireland has still not ratified the UNCPRD, it would nevertheless seem timely, in the 10th anniversary year of the convention being adopted by the United Nations, that a clear strategy should be put in place to ensure that learners with disabilities involved in all FET programmes have ready access to all supports and accommodations essential to them making the most of these programmes and their lives generally.

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