Pushing the boundaries of inclusion within third level education

by ohn Kubiak, NIID, Trinity College Dublin. and Deborah Espiner, Faculty of Education, University of Auckland.

Inclusion—A human rights issue

It is no longer satisfactory that people with disabilities are excluded from further education opportunities at third level. The desire for inclusive tertiary education is growing and has become a reality, not only in Trinity College Dublin but also in other countries such as Canada, Australia and Finland (see Hughson, Moodie and Uditsky 2005).

The model used by advocates of tertiary education in these countries combines the principles of full inclusion, informed by a human rights perspective, with an understanding of the social model of disability (Oliver 1996, 1998). Rather than seeing impairment as tragic and difficult for the person involved—as in the medical model—the social model of disability is based on the view that society is responsible for preventing the full participation of disabled people. More recently, the disability movement has followed the lead of other minority groups who have experienced discrimination and exclusion from society. A rights-based model has begun to emerge with declarations such as the United Nations Draft Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) affirming the right of disabled people to full participation in all aspects of societal life. This shifts the emphasis from ‘individual needs’ towards ‘civil rights.’

Being a third-level student: A socially valued role

Going to university can open up a whole new way of being for students who have previously experienced marginalisation. Such inclusion is a powerful way to promote a person’s talents and abilities. Being a third-level student also means having a socially valued role which, according to the Social Role Valorisation (SRV) theory of Wolfensberger, can lead to the ‘good things in life’ (Wolfensberger 1972, 1992).

Wolfensberger, however, recognises that many or most of the ‘good things in life’ are beyond reach of, or harder to get for, devalued or marginalised people. Instead, what might be called the ‘bad things in life’ are imposed upon them. They are sometimes perceived as being deviant or a burden on society, they can be rejected by the community, segregated or become the object of violence and abuse (Kendrick 1994).The reality of being labeled devalued means that the abilities of people with intellectual difficulties are often underestimated or unrecognised, so they are not given the chance to achieve their true potential.

It is also a fact that, to date, this group of people has largely been excluded from access to lifelong learning in Ireland. This means that many people with intellectual disabilities finish school with their dreams and career ambitions unrealised, while their transition from school life to adult life can be restricted and contained.

Certificate in Contemporary Living

The Certificate in Contemporary Living (CCL) at the National Institute for Intellectual Disability (NIID), Trinity College Dublin, focuses on three aspects: academic learning, personal growth and career development. The course is supported by other departments within Trinity College, which enables the students to engage with undergraduate students from different disciplines.

The aims of the Inclusive Studies and Research module

One of the mandatory modules of the CCL programme is the Inclusive Studies and Research (ISR) module, which is aimed to allow CCL students to be included in third-level educational programmes alongside the wider student body at Trinity. As this approach is exploratory, the process is part of a research project ethically approved by Trinity. The purpose of the research is to investigate how the CCL students can audit classes in other disciplines while undertaking the CCL course at Trinity. To meet the requirements of the Inclusive Studies module, students are given the opportunity to attend up to three classes within a course that they have selected and have been invited to attend by the lecturer in charge. The research is aimed at identifying:

  • The conditions (physical, emotional, social) that help students with a disability to integrate into undergraduate university courses.
  • The strategies of instruction used by mentors and lecturers to support the learning of a student from the CCL programme.
  • The resources and supports that facilitate the inclusion of students with a disability into undergraduate courses.
How the Inclusive Studies and Research  module works

For the ISR module, CCL students select an area of Trinity College’s undergraduate prospectus that they are interested in. During the 2008-2009 academic year, the CCL students  have chosen from a wide variety of subjects including Art History, Economics, Social Policy, Classics, English, Geography, Drama and Zoology. Once these decisions are made by the students, and they have done some research on the subject, individual lecturers from these Departments are approached to see if they are open to the CCL students attending up to three lecture or group activity sessions.

Lecturing staff from within the above departments showed no hesitation in including the CCL students admission to their lectures. Several staff have reported that they have made some alteration to their delivery style and used Powerpoint to accommodate the different learning styles of the CCL students. Lecturers were very considerate in their responses to the students’ questions, validating the students’ observations and queries with their answers. Lecturers have been willing to rephrase the main points and the more difficult concepts of their presentations for the benefit of the CCL students. Some lecturing staff have commented that these adaptations have made their delivery more accessible to the whole class.

NIID student feedback

The NIID students’ experience of attending mainstream lectures has been successful. Feedback from the students suggests that they felt more self-confident as a result of sustained interaction with their undergraduate peers. The following comments are examples of what individual students have gained from taking part in the ISR module during 2008-2009, and attending lectures on the main campus:
‘My support mentors [a mentor is another undergraduate student who supports the NIID student attending lectures] are three very, very nice girls, who are willing to give us a hand…. The three of them take different days to meet with us and talk about the lecture. We’ve learned that we can ask.’

‘There is only ten or twenty of us in the lecture. The lecturer wouldn’t be rushing off—if  you wanted to go talk to her you could.If I wanted to get more details off her for my project I could go and ask her. I’m really, really happy about going to the labs (and) the lecturer was happy to have us—I didn’t think that she would. Even the other students asked about the course we were doing and have been interested.’

One student who took an ISR module in Zoology said:
‘I look at birds in a completely different way now. You learn about the behaviour of animals and you’re also learning about insects.’

Another student, studying classics, said:
‘The lecturer was very good. She made the presentation very colourful and she used more pictures in her presentations than she did words. That works for me as I’m more good with pictures rather than words. I was very impressed.’

Two other students who were studying history said:
‘I’m studying History. We got on well with the other students— if we were stuck or anything they’d give us a
hand. I enjoyed learning about the Black Death….and Christopher Columbus’ voyage and trip from Spain to the USA.’

‘We were studying India at the time and she [the lecturer] used Bollywood films in the lectures. We watched a film last week in black and white with subtitles. It gives you a look at what history was like years ago in the old days.’

Implications of CCL students attending mainstream lectures

Among the core values of the CCL programme at the NIID is a belief in the equality of opportunity for individuals with intellectual disabilities. The CCL course also endorses the view that the students’ educational experiences in third-level education should reflect what is available to their peers. By educating all university students together, the CCL students are given the opportunity to engage with the college community and to prepare for life in the wider world. Lecturers are also encouraged to adapt their teaching methodology and to become more creative with their pedagogy.

Members of the college community, which includes everyone from undergraduates and canteen staff to security workers and library staff, are also encouraged to make the conscious decision to operate according to the social value of equality for all people. Universities like Trinity College that promote inclusive education understand that this makes them, and the society they serve, more economically and culturally productive because they use and extend the talents of all. They command public support because part of their mission is to support the public good. They are better at what they do because they are ‘learning institutions’ and people use them because they treat people well and are guided by social justice considerations.

It is only in this type of environment that students with an intellectual disability can grow and flourish and, as Wolfensberger (1972) observed, are allowed ‘the dignity of risk… and [avoid] the dehumanizing indignity in safety.’ (p.200)


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