Inclusion of students with intellectual disability within a university setting

by Patricia O’Brien, Molly O’Keeffe, Una Healy, John Kubiak, Niamh Lally and Zoe Hughes, National Institute for Intellectual Disability, Trinity College Dublin


It is within the ethos of community participation that was so convincingly demonstrated by the Special Olympics World Games in Ireland in 2003 that the National Institute for Intellectual Disability (NIID), Trinity College Dublin, developed a two-year programme entitled the Certificate in Contemporary Living (CCL). The Certificate programme was approved by the Trinity College Council in 2006, and was aimed at promoting full citizenship for students with intellectual disabilities through development of learning and social networks, as well as career opportunities (Duffy 2003, 2008; O’Brien et al. 2008). In February 2008, nineteen students graduated with the qualification, becoming the first students with intellectual disabilities in Ireland to graduate from a full-time course within a third-level setting.

Outline of Certificate in Contemporary Living

The Certificate in Contemporary Living comprises ten modules that fall into the three categories of transferable skills, humanities and expressive arts (see Table 1). The NIID articles in this issue of Frontline focus on how the CCL course is pushing the boundaries of inclusion for students with intellectual disabilities beyond that of second- to third-level settings. This is in keeping with the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to provide an inclusive education system across all levels (Article 24.1). This article describes the content of the CCL course as well as some of its perceived outcomes to date; a second article outlines the challenges to roll out the CCL course to other third-level institutions; a third illustrates the need for partnership between the CCL course and employment sectors if students are to be sustained in jobs upon graduation; a fourth article shows how, with the support of Trinity lecturing staff and peer mentors, CCL students are attending mainstream lectures; while a fifth illustrates how the voice of students can be captured through accessible research and accessible dissemination strategies both nationally and internationally.

Table 1: Outline of CCL Course Content

Transferable Skills Courses

  • Written and oral spoken communication
  • Information and communication technology
  • Mathematics and financial management
  • Personal effectiveness
  • Career development & Work placement


  • Social Sciences: an international perspective
  • Inclusive studies and research
  • Special topic

Expressive Arts Courses (choice of two)

  • Drama and Dance
  • Art and Design
  • Special Topic
  • Creative arts appreciation and performance
  • Music Appreciation

Assessment is undertaken through presentations (oral and poster), personal portfolios and written work for each of the ten modules studied. This assessment is formative as well as summative, in order to assist each student with his/her personal learning development. To fulfil requirements for the award of the Certificate in Contemporary Living, each student undertakes designated assessments. Final assessment portfolios and gradings are subject to external examination by an academic from another university.

Evaluation of the first delivery of the course

As the Certificate programme was the first of its kind to be offered in Ireland, the NIID applied to the National Disability Authority (NDA) for a research award to document its development (see O’Brien et al. 2008). This was done through a series of focus groups, module evaluation questionnaires, analysis of student work portfolios, together with photographic and future planning records. The emerging themes that came from comparing the different sources of information identified that being a student within a third-level setting was perceived to have led to increased student confidence and enhanced self-esteem, independence and positive expectations for the future. The implications of how the course was experienced by the students in turn led family members and tutors to review their own supporting roles. Both groups experienced the need to let go. For tutors this meant finding more effective ways to facilitate different learning styles and interests. For the family members it meant leaving behind the sense of needing to protect their son or daughter or relative. Overall, all participants had entered a new world, but they were fearful that unless there was transition planning and implementation, the students’ experience would not be built upon in a manner that would meet their expectations.

Within Ireland there is a growing demand for students with intellectual disabilities to gain access to educational opportunities within third-level institutions, that is, either within a university setting or at an Institute of Technology. As with any inclusion initiatives, the challenge will be to ensure that students are not just located within a third-level environment but that they become part of the community of students; that students are sustained in jobs arising from the CCL course and do not at a later stage return to sheltered day programmes; and that the voice of students with intellectual disabilities is heard, leading to ownership over what students see as the important issues in their lives. As a means of safeguarding the CCL programme as one of inclusion, several initiatives are ongoing at the NIID and these are the focus of the other articles that follow.

The CCL course has brought change to the lives of students with intellectual disabilities, as well as family members and tutors. With change comes hope illustrated in the voice of a family member:
That’s the goal. After all, we’re not going to be around into their late years, you know, and their going to have to be able to do that and I think that the two years that they’ve spent here has kind of been equivalent to the previous ten to fifteen years in improvements in confidence, improvements in independence. The goals they now want. Following this course has given them this incentive that they can go and be part of society.’

With change comes new confidence and new skills, illustrated in the voice of a tutor:
… they are so self-confident standing up and giving a presentation, talking about their views which is a skill that is absolutely huge, and they’ve really developed it

With change come future expectations, illustrated in the voice of a student:
I am more independent. I am not reliant on my parents. I have great support I am really getting independent and it is great ….and I meet people and at 31 I am ready to move on and get a life of my own

Involvement in third-level education is only the start for the graduates toward their future life, but being a graduate of Trinity brings with it a resilience to face both the bumpy and smooth roads that lie ahead. This is best shown in the words of one of the graduates of the CLL, who expresses her time at Trinity thus.

As one door closes after me
I open a door to the future
Full of challenges and experiences

The next door I open
Is a bumpy road ahead
And it becomes steeper
And harder to walk

Until I reach the top
Then I come down, followed
By a smooth path along the way
Helen Donnelly, 2006


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