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Pioneering Trinity course produces first graduates

Resource type: News

Irish Times |

The first students of a pioneering university course for people with intellectual disabilities complete their studies tomorrow. The 19 Trinity College students, who will be awarded certificates in contemporary living when they formally graduate in December, plan now to work in various areas including office administration, retail, hairdressing, catering and libraries. “What we are doing here really is pioneering,” says Dr Patricia O’Brien, director of the National Institute for Intellectual Disability at Trinity, which oversees the course. The course grew out of a pilot project initiated because two parents, concerned at what would happen to their intellectually disabled children as they approached the end of secondary education, contacted the institute. It is now a two-year course recognised by the board of Trinity College. The students complete 10 modules in such areas as English and spoken communication, social sciences, international awareness, music, dance and drama. “So we have looked at issues like Travellers and our perception of them and how democracy works,” says Molly O’Keefe, education officer. When asked how students with disabilities such as Down syndrome and cerebral palsy can really study subjects like this, she explains the approach is “layered”. Teaching involves the use of classic front-of-class lecturing but also uses pictures and work-sheets, and some of the students have staff working with them. Dr O’Brien acknowledges some may ask why these young people should attend third level, but counters that “everyone has the right to reach their full potential”. Once someone with an intellectual disability finishes formal education, at about 18, there is little available to them apart from placements in monotonous, sheltered workshops, she says. “Our emphasis is on life-long learning. Every life is valuable and why should someone, just because they have a disability, be denied the right to extend their potential?” She points out the right of people with an intellectual disability to a tertiary education is enshrined in the UN Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities. Irish legal experts were central to the writing of this and Ireland signed up to it this year. The institute gets no State funding, though Dr O’Brien says there has been “positive dialogue” with the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Education. Other institutions such as University College Cork and Athlone Institute of Technology have expressed an interest. Among those finishing tomorrow is Gina Wilkins (32) from Greystones, Co Wicklow, who lives in sheltered accommodation run by Sunbeam House. “It has changed my life. I feel like I’m out there in the community, going to college like everyone else,” she says. “I feel much more confident and independent.”