by Sonia Edwards, Education Officer, National Institute for the Study of Learning Difficulties, University of Dublin


Access to education within the third-level environment is increasingly becoming a recognised ambition of people with learning difficulties. The National Institute for the Study of Learning Difficulties at Trinity College Dublin has responded to this ambition through the introduction of an inclusive, full-time certificate programme.

Ireland: The current position

Access initiatives within third-level education in the 1990s and early part of this decade have facilitated increased participation for traditionally marginalised groups. Legislation has been enacted which advocates the widening of participation in higher education (Kenny, McNeela and Shevlin 2003). The Report of the Task Force on Lifelong Learning (Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment 2002) has identified the need for accessibility to lifelong learning by all and Department of Education and Science (DES) literature (DES 2001a; DES 2001b) has emphasised provision of lifelong learning for those with learning difficulties through innovative approaches, including access to third-level learning environments. But this rite of passage into adulthood (Doyle 2003) that occurs for so many through third-level education remains a closed door for students with learning difficulties.

As those with learning difficulties leave mainstream school there is a growing demand and ambition for them to remain with their peers, as emphasised by Doyle (2003, p. 308). As increasing numbers of students with significant disabilities are included as members of their school communities, it is not surprising that some of these students question the possibility of joining their non-disabled classmates in a college or university experience.

Trinity College Dublin has promoted inclusion of people with learning difficulties with their non-disabled classmates within the College’s third-level community since 1995.

Trinity College Dublin: Project Interact

From 1995 to 1998 the School of Occupational Therapy, St John of God Carmona Services and the National Council for Vocational Awards (now FETAC) cooperated in a European funded inclusive education programme, Project Interact, which was aimed at offering mainstream certified education to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Between 1998 and 2000, Project Interact was further developed to include students from five additional service agencies. By 2000, 54 students had participated in this integrated learning programme.

Trinity College Dublin: Certificate in Contemporary Living

Ten years after the commencement of Project Interact, the promotion of inclusion for students with learning difficulties within the College community has led to the launch of a two-year Certificate in Contemporary Living, awarded by Trinity College and recognised within the forthcoming national framework of qualifications. This course will, however, involve so much more than just studying for a recognised qualification. Like all who enter third-level education the students will have access to the numerous clubs and societies, will make lifelong friendships, enjoy the craic and participate in, what has been termed, the best years of their lives.

Pilot Programme

To determine the efficacy of areas of study proposed for inclusion in the two-year certificate programme, fifteen students with learning difficulties participated in a pilot programme for fifteen weeks from January 2005. This was a part-time programme which comprised four areas of study: Equal People (Open University), Music Appreciation, Office Procedures, and Active Citizenship (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network, ASDAN) and included the students in the social life of the College through a peer-mentoring scheme. In recognition of their participation each student will receive a certificate from the Open University and ASDAN.

Through this pilot the fifteen students, all of whom will be joining the full-time certificate course in the future, joined the College’s third-level environment—sometimes following in the footsteps of their parents or siblings, occasionally representing their family for the first time in a third-level educational environment.

Evidence from the students, their parents and staff within the service agencies, while anecdotal, also indicates that the objectives and purpose of the certificate programme should be achievable. In the period of fifteen weeks they learned to work together within a group, they interacted with their peers in an inclusive environment, they found their individuals voices, and five students started to travel independently.

Values of the certificate

The core values of the certificate programme include: a belief in the capacity of people with learning difficulties, a respect for the contributions of people with learning difficulties and a belief in equality of opportunity for people with learning difficulties.

Objectives and purpose of the certificate

Through the certificate programme the aim is to promote the full inclusion of people with learning difficulties and facilitate their lifelong learning, providing them with the strategic skills to become independent self-reliant adults and giving them the potential to contribute fully in society.

Structure of the certificate

The two-year certificate programme will be made up of eight modules, six mandatory and two optional. The mandatory courses are: English and Spoken Communication, Numeracy for Life, Information and Communication Technology, Personal Effectiveness, Inclusive Studies, Preparation and Experience for Work. The optional courses are Drama and Dance, Music, Art and Design and International Awareness.

English and Spoken Communication and Numeracy for Life cover the basic literacy, communication and numeracy skills required to allow access to modern society and workplaces. They will enable the students to develop skills appropriate to their contextual environment, for example numeracy will involve learning how to run a bank account

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) will equip the students with the basic transferable skills required to meet the ICT demands of modern society. To allow for skill development and retention this module will run over the two years of the certificate programme. Personal Effectiveness will consider two areas of importance to people with learning difficulties: active citizenship and advocacy. Through the study of both areas the students will be able to represent themselves in society, rather than relying upon their voices being heard through others.

The tertiary learning environment allows individuals to access further learning in areas of educational interest to them. The Inclusive Studies module will allow the Certificate students to access areas of personal interest to them through undertaking a personalised course of study which includes attendance, with a supporter, at selected Junior Freshman lectures.

Preparation and Experience for Work will contain two elements: the world of work and practical skills related to individual career interests. Through a knowledge and understanding of the world of work the students will be able to clarify and reflect on their own expectations, match their personal qualities, interests and needs to future employment possibilities, demonstrate an awareness of the types of work available, gain a knowledge of where and how jobs are advertised, gain the skills necessary to apply for jobs and develop interpersonal skills for use in the workplace. The practical skills element will introduce the student to the basic skills required in their particular area of interest and then, with a job coach, to access and gain experience in the work environment.

Drama and Dance will allow the students to develop and use skills of creative drama and dance, culminating in the development of presentation skills. The Music module will provide the students with the ability to demonstrate an appreciation and knowledge of music through developing their active listening skills, developing the skills to analyse music, acquire an understanding of music vocabulary and a heightened appreciation of music. Art and Design has been designed to offer students an opportunity to experience art and design through expressing themselves, appreciating different forms of work and working practically with media, materials, processes, equipment and technologies in an enjoyable environment.

The International Awareness module has been created to offer the students an opportunity to consider cultural, historical and geographical diversity. The students will undertake a study of different global regions and will then undertake a comparative study of Ireland and one other European country, culminating in organising a visit to the comparison country and making use of the skills gained in their study of other certificate modules.

To ensure that the certificate programme is fully inclusive, allowing access to social as well as educational experiences at tertiary level, the peer-mentoring programme will be further developed to facilitate the students’ inclusion in university societies, clubs and social events. The students will be encouraged, in collaboration with their peers, to form a university society in order to enhance the social element of studying at Trinity.

Outcomes and impact of the certificate

Through undertaking the Certificate in Contemporary Living, the students will experience personal achievement, undergo personal development, obtain abilities and skills which place them in a position to follow their dreams and to take a full place in society, in whatever form that means to them as individuals. The certificate will have provided them with a recognised qualification, allowed them to study in a third-level environment with their peers and to develop the confidence that such an opportunity provides.

The certificate opens the door to an environment that can be available to all, in a manner that is suited to their requirements. It is to be hoped that it will become a model of best practice for education at third level for individuals with intellectual disabilities throughout Ireland and will be recognised internationally as an exemplar of what is possible. If the evidence, although anecdotal, observed from a fifteen week pilot programme is extrapolated the students will be able to challenge the current expectations of what they should achieve in the transition to adulthood and to join society as core, rather than peripheral, members. Allowing fulfilment of some of the dreams identified by students on the pilot programme:

  • To study at Trinity and get a job.
  • I would love to go on telly. Study in Trinity on two-year programme and finish college. Work in a pub and go on a cruise holiday with my family.
  • Get some poems published. Get a certificate from Trinity and travel to Trinity on my own.
  • To get a full-time office job in a supermarket. Have an apartment with my friends.
  • Work in a library sorting books.


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