Facilitating community education for adults with intellectual disabilities.

Community education offers flexible and creative learning environments for people attending day services, writes Lisa Maria Reilly.

  • Community education is a varied and dynamic form of adult education which takes place outside of traditional education settings.
  • It brings together learners, who share something in common, to develop new skills.
  • Community education responds to the needs of participants with the aim of increasing social inclusion.
  • Community education programmes are useful in promoting public awareness about intellectual disability while supporting adults with ID to have a greater presence in their local communities.
Community education facilitates collaboration and cooperation between groups.
Image: Shutterstock

In November 2018, a group of young adults from Daughters of Charity Disability Support Services, St. Vincent’s Centre were nominated for ‘community group of the year’ as part of a local newspaper’s annual community and sports awards. They had been nominated for their voluntary work in connection with a food bank during which they had collected hundreds of food donations from their day service, local supermarkets, public libraries and voluntary organisations for a period of 13 weeks. The project formed one part of a nationally recognised, personal development programme for young people known as Gaisce: The President’s Award and culminated in the group attending the awards ceremony with various other nominees from North Dublin. They didn’t win on the night. It didn’t matter. They were being recognised alongside fellow community-based groups that were working to improve their localities through volunteering and community development.


One of the many food drive donation boxes collected weekly by the group and delivered to the community food bank

Since the publication of New Directions (2012) by the Irish Health Service Executive there has been an increasing onus on disability service providers to promote community participation and active citizenship for adults attending day services. In-service activities, however useful and enjoyable, are now considered a second-best option. Lifelong learning is also a priority and should take place outside of the specialist disability service, preferably in partnership with local adult education providers.

The Changing Nature of Adult Education

Broadly speaking, adult education is any regular, additional learning undertaken by adults who have concluded initial education. A diverse sector, it encompasses adult literacy and numeracy, further education and training, mature students accessing higher education and community education. Despite the importance of adult education in encouraging personal and social development, participation by people with ID is very low. In 2000, the first and only Government White Paper on adult education, Learning for Life, explicitly listed people with disabilities as a priority group. Twenty years later however, structural and practical barriers persist.

The Further Education and Training sector is one of the biggest providers of adult education in the Republic of Ireland, offering a variety of basic education and accredited courses. However, it has undergone significant organisational and funding changes in recent years. What was once a sector offering vocational and practice-based learning is now more employment oriented in nature with courses reflecting this change in level and content. If you are a school-leaver with moderate to severe ID, there are few options when it comes to continuing education. The report Accessing Mainstream Training, Barriers for People with Intellectual Disabilities (2015), commissioned by the Dublin based, disability service provider WALK, highlighted how appropriate courses in the further education and training sector are limited. There are just too few courses at QQI level 3 and below despite these being the levels that many prospective students with ID would like to try.

While there are a handful of accredited basic education courses in adult education centres aimed at students with ID, they are offered on a centre by centre basis, championed by disability advocates from within the adult education sector, as opposed to being offered across the sector. Funding issues have ensured that resources, such as assistive technology, and changes to the built environment that would support participation have not materialised. As a result, disability organisations have had to create their own programmes, drawing on community support, to promote lifelong learning.

Why community education?

Community education is a flexible type of adult education, lauded for its success in delivering training and education to groups which are ‘hard to reach’. Implicit in the description of being hard to reach is that many of the groups availing of community education have historically faced challenges in accessing and participating in formal education settings. Due to its varied nature, community education does not lend itself to a precise, universally accepted definition. Nonetheless, for the purpose of this article, it is understood as any learning environment which brings together a group of people, who share a sense of identity, to work towards a particular goal (Tett, 2002).

The flexibility of community education means it can take place anywhere, from a church hall to a kitchen table. It is needs-based in design; you start where the learner is at and build from there. In Ireland, it is most commonly associated with the emergence of community-based women’s groups in the 1980s who came together to discuss and work out issues pertinent to their lives, outside of the traditional education system. The influence of these early programmes can be seen in other community based learning groups – the Men’s sheds movement being a notable example; providing a space for social interaction and meaningful project work for retired or unemployed men.

For the learner who has an intellectual disability, community education is a useful tool in promoting personal and social development. Throughout the community food drive, social and personal goals were developed in relation to participants’ learning needs. Meeting new people and using public transport, for instance, were worked on in tandem with building resilience and problem solving. The project was underpinned by the idea of active citizenship namely that young people with ID could contribute to their local communities with the right supports in place.

(from left) Katie Rooney, Kate Browne and Sarah-Jane McEntee are currently participating in Gaisce, The President’s Award personal development programme

Subsequent projects have focused on further developing independent living skills such as utilising assistive technology hardware (e.g. switches) to enable greater control and choice making when working on a computer or learning how to recognise everyday safety and social signs when using local amenities. Of note has been the transference of learning into the home with some participants discussing the projects with family and sharing their experiences. Overall, the community education programmes have been successful because they are flexible, relevant to participants and encourage informal, experiential learning for adults with ID.

Adult and community education within St. Vincent’s Centre continues to grow with community support. Its main programme is the Towards Independence curriculum, developed by the Awards Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN) designed for adults with special educational needs. Modules such as meal preparation, cooking and baking have facilitated collaborations with local area partnerships offering similar courses. Linking in with the personal development programme, Gaisce: The President’s Award, has encouraged group-based learning and community volunteering. Additionally, there is an accredited literacy programme in connection with a wonderful local Adult Education Centre which has been adapted to reflect the learning needs of adults with moderate ID, providing an opportunity to learn more about the locality and meet and form friendships with other students. Education is as much a social experience as it is academic.


Community education was borne out of necessity, developing from the bottom-up and in response to the needs of its participants; the provision of childcare was famously an issue for many women in those early community education groups. Likewise, the community food drive and subsequent education projects were developed due to the lack of suitable programmes in the further education and training sector for people with ID. At the heart of adult education theory has been its potential to bring about transformative change on a personal level. In recent years however, the everyday practice of much adult education has become more concerned with training for the workforce. While there are many, including people with disabilities, who participate in formal adult education as a means of gaining employment, it is not a viable path for everyone. Conversely, adults with ID have a desire to learn and to contribute to their localities. The flexibility of community education, both in its design and where it can take place, facilitates the delivery of different learning experiences and is one way of supporting adults with ID to have a greater presence in their local communities.


Department of Education and Science. (2000). Learning for Life: White Paper on Adult Education. Retrieved from: https://assets.gov.ie/24723/8eaa8222690f43279dd017f686427e9b.pdf [accessed April 2020].

Health Service Executive. (2012). New Directions: Review of HSE Day Services and Implementation Plan 2012 – 2016. Personal Support Services for Adults with Disabilities. Retrieved from: https://www.hse.ie/eng/services/publications/disability/newdirections2012.pdf [accessed April 2020].

Tett, L. (2002). Community Education, Lifelong Learning and Social Inclusion. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press

WALK. (2015). Accessing Mainstream Training; Barriers for People with Intellectual Disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.walk.ie/perch/resources/walk-accessing-mainstream-training-report-2015.pdf [accessed May 2020].

Dr. Lisa Maria Reilly coordinates the adult and community education programme for Daughters of Charity Disability Support Services, St. Vincent’s Centre in Dublin, Ireland.