LEARNING ABOUT LEARNING DISABILITY

Bairbre Redmond describes how she and her colleagues at UCD have developed an inclusive approach to teaching and research in learning disability--educating students who are likely to be Ireland's policy-makers of the future. Bairbre Redmond, Department of Social Policy and Social Work, National University of Ireland, Dublin (UCD)

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When I joined the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at University College Dublin in 1989, after eleven years as a social worker with those with learning disability and their families, there was little or no specific teaching in the area of disability in the department. I was aware that individual staff members in other departments had a teaching/research interest in learning disability, but there was no contact between us.

Now, over ten years later, both in my own department and in the university as a whole, there is a thriving and inclusive approach to teaching and research in learning disability. This is due to a number of factors: a growing awareness of disability issues in general, the setting up in UCD of the Centre for the Study of Developmental Disability (the first university-affiliated programme for learning disability studies outside the US), and the subsequent coming together of staff, students, practitioners, individuals with disability and their families who now form the nucleus of an exciting and innovative teaching and learning community.

This article gives a flavour of how some of the teaching in learning disability has been developed within UCD. Although I will focus on my own Department of Social Policy and Social Work and the Centre for the Study of Developmental Disability, similar teaching initiatives in learning disability are also under way in other departments, e.g. psychology, engineering, sociology, architecture, nursing and education.

Teaching undergraduate social science students

In his work on educating communities about learning disabilities, Roy McConkey (1994, 14) found that three out of five people have no contact at all with individuals with disabilities or their families. It is fair to assume, then, that more than half of the population of incoming university students know little or nothing about learning disability and probably have never met a person with a disability. In the Department of Social Policy and Social Work we have 150 students in each year of a three-year Bachelor of Social Science degree programme. Graduates go on to a variety of professions–social work is perhaps the best known, but also policy planning and analysis, personnel management, research, broadcasting and even town planning. In short, a social science degree leads to a wide variety of ‘people-focused’ professions and many graduates may well become the policy-makers or service-providers of the future. Because of this, we are keen that none of our students leave college without a basic understanding of the nature of learning disability and the current issues that face those with disability and their families.

All first-year social science students attend lectures on learning disability. These offer basic but essential information to help them understand the nature of learning disability, e.g. to differentiate between learning disability/mental handicap and mental health/psychiatric problems. The course also explores the importance of providing adequate and appropriate educational settings for those with learning disability, the current crisis in residential and respite-care provision, and the new challenges faced by those with learning disability now entering old age. Students are encouraged to familiarise themselves with current literature, both by researchers and by family members. Articles written by parents, such as those in Frontline, prove popular with these young students.

In the second year of the degree course, students choose to study one current social topic in depth as a year-long project. Many students report that this project is one of the most interesting aspects of their time at university. Disability is a popular topic choice; with the help of an experienced tutor, approximately 30 students each year research the needs of individuals with disability and those who care for them. They access current research and literature, visit different agencies and explore the range of services for those with disability, either in Dublin-based services or those in their own local areas. Agencies such as NAMHI and the NDA provide an invaluable service, sending students fact-sheets and contact names, and patiently answering their many questions. Students also carry out interviews with family members to gain an understanding of the impact of living with someone with a learning disability. As a result of their project work, many students have taken summer or part-time jobs as careworkers in a learning disability service. The overall success of this year-long project lies in the fact that, rather than being ‘taught’ about disability, students are encouraged to find out for themselves the reality of either having a disability or caring for someone with a disability.

Postgraduate social work training

Having successfully completed their social science degree, those training to be social workers undertake a further two-year full-time master’s programme in social work. This course is divided equally between theory and practice, with students spending 50% of their time in the university and 50% working with an experienced social work practitioner on placement. In recent years, the profession of social work has become increasingly associated with child protection issues and work with children at risk, and because of this there is a danger that some social work students may not appreciate the important role that social workers can play in working cooperatively and imaginatively in partnership with the families of those with learning disability and with those with disability themselves. Research has also revealed that few university-based social work training programmes include a specific course in disability studies; a recent cross-national comparison of schools of social work in the United States showed that only 14% of social work programmes had any disability content in their curriculum.

In UCD, a colleague with expertise in physical disability and I provide all social work students with a twelve-lecture course on social work and disability. This not only prepares social work students who may go on to work in the area of disability, but also demonstrates the need for students who will work in areas as diverse as hospital social work, child protection, local authority or probation and welfare to have a proper understanding of disability both for individuals and their families. The disability course aims to encourage social work students to understand the individuality and unique ability of each person, no matter how severe their disability may be. It also helps students to appreciate the strengths of families, the expertise which each family has on their own child or adult with a disability, and ways in which to work in better collaboration with parents and siblings. In order to help students to appreciate the views of individuals and family members, and to provide stimulating material for class discussion, lectures incorporate the use of video and audio interviews, e.g. the Limerick Parents and Friends video When Happiness is a Place for your Child and items from radio programmes like RTÉ’s Not So Different.

An important aspect of the Master in Social Work programme is that every student completes a thesis at the end of his/her final year, combining academic study with some fieldwork research in a chosen area. In recent years a significant number of students on the Master’s programme have completed their dissertations on topics in the learning disability area. ‘Appreciating human diversity’ (Lawlor 1996) was a study of approaches to care in a Camphill community; ‘The needs of parents who have young children with learning disability’ (Saunders 1997) was a look at a group work approach for social workers working with young families; ‘Siblings who have a brother or sister with learning disability’ (Brennan 2000) was an evaluation of the Sibshop model of sibling support. Research studies such as these help to ensure that students’ new information and fresh thinking will inform and revitalise future teaching and research in the area of social work and disability.

The Centre for the Study of Developmental Disability

In 1996 the Centre for the Study of Developmental Disability was established in UCD to promote the independence and inclusion of people with learning disabilities through teaching, research, service development and public awareness. The Centre brings together staff from many different university departments who have an interest in teaching, practice or research in learning disability. This is of major benefit for those staff members who, up to the Centre’s inception, might have been the only people with an interest in learning disability in their own departments. The Centre has allowed new, innovative teaching partnerships to develop, and now postgraduates, such as psychology and social work students, come together with their lecturers to discuss their common interest in learning disability issues.

The Centre also has a strong commitment to teaching and offers courses at certificate, postgraduate and master’s degree levels. The Higher Diploma in Learning Disability Studies is now in its fourth year. It provides a one-year part-time course to clinicians, practitioners and administrators who work with those with learning disability and their families. The eight teaching modules within the higher diploma cover areas such as assistive technology, barriers to inclusion, policy and the law and understanding learning disability from a life-course perspective. My own module looks at aspects of teamwork and partnership, helping students to recognise the advantages of working in full cooperation with fellow professionals, with families and with those with disability. The idea of teamwork is also reflected in the backgrounds of the teachers who work with me on this module. They include academics and those in practice and, even more importantly, parents and advocates with disability themselves. By having teachers from such different backgrounds, students hear a variety of opinions and viewpoints which, hopefully, stimulate them into attempting new, more inclusive approaches in their own practice.

Teaching about learning disability is more than just passing on ‘facts’ to students; it is also about challenging them to think in a fundamentally different way about people with learning disability–to understand them better, to treat them with respect and to appreciate the contribution they make to society. My own teaching philosophy is one of ‘reflective teaching’, an approach which incorporates the views of service users, particularly those with learning disability and their families, into the teaching of professional practice, thereby moving students away from adopting a non-reflective ‘expert’ attitude toward those with whom they work.

Earlier in this article, I noted the importance of educating students who may be policy makers of the future about learning disability. Perhaps it is more basic than that­­­. Today’s students will go on to encounter people with learning disability in their everyday lives–they will meet them as co-workers, as neighbours, as fellow travellers and, hopefully, as friends. What we in UCD hope to do is to prepare students to view persons with learning disability not as a separate group to be ‘studied’ but as fellow citizens with hopes, needs and interests not dissimilar from their own. By doing so they may find out what many of us have already discovered–that knowing and working with those with learning disability can be one of the greatest learning experiences there is.

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