The Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, Strategy for Equality, states that education must be made equally available for everyone. NALA has drawn up guidelines to assist them to work with service providers to better meet the needs of learners with special needs. Inez Bailey, Director, NALA

National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA)

The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) is a non-profit membership organisation concerned with coordination, training and policy formulation in the adult literacy sector in Ireland. Our mission statement is to ensure all adults with reading and writing difficulties have access to high-quality adult literacy provision.

The Agency works from the following definition of adult literacy:
All good adult literacy work starts with the needs of individuals. Literacy involves the integration of listening, speaking, reading, writing and numeracy. It also encompasses aspects of personal development—social, economic, emotional—and is concerned with improving self-esteem and building confidence. It goes far beyond the mere technical skills of communication.

The underlying aim of good literacy practice is to enable people to understand and reflect critically on their life circumstances with a view to exploring new possibilities and initiating constructive change.

The adult literacy service is underpinned by a learner-centred approach; there is no set curriculum. Programme content, pace, session design, homework and seeking accreditation are dictated by learners, with support from their tutor.

Development of the Irish literacy service

Up until recently, like many European countries, Ireland underestimated the extent of the adult literacy problem and very few resources were allocated by government to provide options for adults with reading and writing difficulties to improve their skills. Although the literacy service is still patchy and inconsistent, the findings of the International Adult Literacy Survey have gone some way to redressing this major imbalance—prompting the first national policy on adult literacy in Ireland.

The White Paper on Adult Education, Learning for Life 2000, cites adult literacy as its number one priority within the context of lifelong learning in Ireland. It clearly states that those with the least educational attainment are the key priority group. Both the Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness and the National Development Plan make commitments to resourcing adult literacy.

Adult literacy tuition takes place in a range of settings. The VEC adult literacy service typically provides group and one-to-one tuition for two hours a week, free of charge. This is equivalent to two weeks of full-time education per annum. It is estimated that there are almost 19,000 adults currently in the adult literacy service, nearly 4% of those estimated to have a low literacy level. The vast majority of the recent increase in learners has been accommodated in groups, with paid tutors. Nearly 4,000 volunteer tutors provide the one-to-one service.

Guidelines for the inclusion of adults with learning disabilities in adult literacy schemes

The rationale for the development of these guidelines came from the Strategy for Equality Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities which states that education must be made equally available for everyone. This assertion sits well with NALA’s mission statement and is reinforced by the Equal Status Act requiring such inclusion by law.

The guidelines incorporate the experience and expertise of those involved from adult literacy services and learning disability agencies. They are intended to assist service providers in working together to better meet the needs of learners.

  • The first guideline refers to the realistic number of places a scheme may offer a person with a learning disability, in the light of limited resources. Five per cent of people with literacy difficulties are estimated to have a learning difficulty. Therefore a minimum of 5% of places should be available for these learners.
  • Tutors should volunteer to work with people with a learning disability and should receive the necessary training, materials and backup required.
  • Places should be available on a one-to-one, group or on an integrated basis.
  • The common procedure of an application form and assessment should be carried out with an attempt to secure additional information and link from any other organisation connected with the individual.
  • Places should be offered if appropriate and available.
  • There should be clarity as to the learning goal of the individual joining the scheme.
  • There should be ongoing assessment and the development of a learning plan with the learner, showing small, specific and attainable outcomes to be achieved in each session.
  • All progress should be recorded.
  • Specific support from the other agency should be sought if a number of their clients are availing of the literacy service.
  • An open and clear line of communication needs to be developed between the literacy service and the other agency.
  • Responsibility for attendance needs to be clear and the role of the literacy tutor in this regard needs to be agreed from the outset.
  • Literacy class premises should be accessible.

All literacy services have received copies of the guidelines and NALA regularly provides follow-up training on working with people with a learning disability. This training is very popular; some the bigger VECs have also provided in-service training in this area.

Implementation of the guidelines in the VEC literacy service

Most adult literacy services are providing through either one-to-one or group special needs tuition. Integration of learners with special needs into groups with non-special needs is uncommon because of the difficulty of meeting special needs within the context of groups with other identified needs—e.g. working towards accreditation. In addition, many VECs provide hours from their literacy budget to provide literacy tuition in other organisations such as RehabCare.

Support may also be available to learners with special needs who are involved in other forms of education, training or work. In this case the learning programme is contextualised around the specific content, with a focus on an identified literacy weakness.

According to Francis Ward, the literacy organiser in Crumlin, inclusion of adults with learning disability works well. There are a number of special needs groups in this centre at varying levels, including a morning group working toward the FETAC Communications module. This group has been in existence for three years. The use of computers is common among all special needs learners. The tutors working in the centre have participated in training and have proven their commitment to people with learning disabilities. Most learning in Crumlin takes place in large rooms, with groups and one-to-ones operating alongside each other, including learners with special needs. All social aspects of the literacy scheme are open to everyone who attends and all learners take their breaks together.

The Crumlin literacy scheme is representative of many schemes where all the services provided are available to people with learning disabilities. There is no differentiation in terms of approach or ethos. Being learner-centred ensures that all people have their individual needs met, as far as possible. Options of one-to-one, special needs groups and non-special needs groups are determined for each individual. The same model of organisation is in place to cater for adults with a learning disability, with additional considerations, as determined by the guidelines listed above.

Issues in literacy schemes

Owing to the lack of coordination and cooperation between literacy schemes and disability agencies in the past, there are some people with learning disabilities in schemes who have made no literacy progress. Many learners wish to remain in the centre for the social aspect provided by the learning activity or, in some cases, to provide carers with an evening respite. This situation is not unique to people with a learning disability, but it is a delicate situation which requires careful management by literacy organisers and the involvement of the disability agency and parents/guardians and the adult with a learning disability. It is hoped that the learning guidelines may go some way to creating greater understanding of the nature of the service provided by the literacy scheme and the primary focus on the achievement of learning goals.

Other opportunities

Outside the tuition scheme, there are opportunities for independent learning through the radio and television literacy and numeracy programmes. Free learning packs with videos and tapes, as well as tutor support, are available through NALA. Further programmes are to be developed in the near future.

All VECs employ Adult Education Organisers whose function it is to provide adult learning opportunities in their area. The publication Count us in encourages greater provision to meet the needs of adults with learning disabilities and no doubt efforts in this area will be enhanced during this year by the establishment of the National Adult Learning Council and the Back to Education Initiative, which will focus on the provision of part-time learning opportunities for those without upper secondary education. Part-time places on programmes such as VTOS, Youthreach, Traveller and PLCs, as well as other intensive basic education and community education options, will also be available. Accessing these and other opportunities will be assisted by the further expansion of the adult educational guidance service. Work is also underway to develop a publicly accessible database of learning options, integrated with a national telephone helpline.

The Education Equality Initiative is providing funding for eighteen projects to test models of good practice for marginalised adults, including people with special needs. It is also intended to set up an advisory group on special needs under the auspices of the National Adult Learning Council. This is clearly in recognition of the access issues for those with special needs to existing and planned adult education programmes.

As shown in this article, there are opportunities for people with learning disabilities in the adult education sector, particularly in the VEC literacy service. Further research and information on this area would enhance further development. However we are witnessing the development of a national system and a structure for the adult education sector which must take into the account, at this early stage, the needs of people with learning disabilities. This is the embodiment of lifelong learning for all.