Including people with intellectual disability at university

31 October 2012

(L-R) Julie Doherty, Careers Development Manager, and students Chris Dyke and Sarah Butler.
(L-R) Julie Doherty, Careers Development Manager, and students Chris Dyke and Sarah Butler.

A new program at the University of Sydney has opened the door to university study for five students with intellectual disabilities.

The students are taking undergraduate courses at the University this semester in an Inclusive Education Program (IEP) pilot, an initiative where they have selected to go to lectures in Greek and Roman Myth, Film Studies, Mathematics and Numeracy, Painting and Renaissance and Reformation.

With the guidance of student mentors and additional support from academics, the students are attending lectures and tutorials throughout the semester. Danielle Gild (Dan) receives personalised fortnightly tutorials on Greek and Roman Myth from Classics and Ancient History senior tutor Fran Keeling. Together, they discuss various websites, books and course materials. Fran has set a tailored assignment for Dan; students at this stage aren't required to complete formal course work.

"The best part about uni is Fran, who has been amazing and is always happy and helping me," says Dan. "And she makes me laugh."

Australians with intellectual disability who complete high school typically go on to TAFE courses oriented towards daily living skills and vocational training. Professor Patricia O'Brien, who leads the IEP pilot from the Sydney Medical School's Centre for Disability Studies, says the program helps Australia meet its UN obligations in relation to disabled people and provides participants an opportunity to fully participate in society.

"A lot of people interested in the program have siblings and friends enrolled at University and this initiative gives them a chance to also be included," she says. "Aside from the intellectual stimulation that comes with studying something they're interested in, they're building new relationships. It's something many of us take for granted."

Professor O'Brien says the students will complete the program with the confidence and social skills to undertake further study.

The IEP follows in the steps of a similar program developed at Trinity College in Dublin, the first of its type in Europe. Niamh Lally and Minerva Rivas worked with Professor O'Brien to develop the Irish program and both have come to Sydney to work on it here while completing their doctoral studies.

Professor O'Brien says university programs involving students with intellectual disability are gaining momentum. Well established in Ireland and Canada they are being explored in Nordic countries and the US. In Australia, she has received encouraging enquiries about the IEP from other universities.

"We're at the start of a new stage of inclusion," she says. "When I began my career, it was all about including students with intellectual disability in early childhood education. Then it was primary school, then secondary school. Now we're spearheading the lead into university."

The pilot IEP is being funded by the NSW agency for Ageing, Disability and Home Care, but Professor O'Brien says its continuation depends upon further sources of funding.

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