Adult education for people with disabilities: How do you access the inaccessible?

Spot on. Despite improvements in inclusive education in the compulsory and higher education sectors in the Republic of Ireland, participation by people with disabilities in adult education remains stubbornly low, writes Lisa Maria Reilly.


I had just finished a call to a local adult education centre.

I had been inquiring about some basic education courses for a group of young adults I work with; all of whom have moderate intellectual disabilities. The person on the other end of the line is friendly. She tells me that there is the possibility of the centre facilitating a course. However, the building is old meaning no lifts, no ramps – she asks if anyone has mobility issues.

Nobody in the group uses a wheelchair or mobility aid but maintaining balance can be an issue for some at times. I start thinking about stairs. What if the class takes place on an upper floor? Stairs could pose a problem. Should I ask if the class can take place downstairs?

I don’t want to be presumptuous. I feel lucky that this centre replied, as it doesn’t always happen.

The woman continues to talk. A computer course may be feasible. They will try to find a room and a tutor but nothing is guaranteed. I know the group enjoy working on the computer but not all of them have the fine motor skills needed to use a mouse. Are there any touch screen computers? No. That’s a shame.

What other group in society must rely on advocates in order to access basic education?

I ask if I can visit the centre some time to do a risk assessment of the building. I’ll need to look at the bathroom facilities, fire escape and so on. I’m told that a colleague will be in touch soon.

I don’t hear from the centre again.

FRUSTRATION. DISAPPOINTMENT. Tiredness. You begin to understand why people give up. Prior to my current role, I didn’t think much about the built environment in relation to education settings. I never had to.

Now I’ve come to see that for a wheelchair user the width of a door – be it a front entrance or classroom – can make the difference between participating in adult education or not. It’s that simple.

If you are a person with an intellectual disability – and assuming the built environment doesn’t present any obstacles – you will face the additional challenge of finding an appropriate course within Irish adult education. You will, most likely, have finished compulsory schooling with low literacy levels and this will be one of the biggest barriers to overcome in continuing education as an adult.

To begin with, the Further Education and Training (FET) sector has changed dramatically in recent years. It is currently consumed with constant measurement of performance, outcomes and progression. The aim now is to have students move on to higher education or employment in a timely manner. Consequently, it is difficult to find courses at an appropriate level for people with ID where they can learn at their own pace.

It’s not much better in terms of basic education either. Despite the plethora of literacy programmes on offer, few are aimed at people with ID. The limited options that are available tend to be championed by disability advocates from within the adult education sector as opposed to being offered across the sector.

What other group in society must rely on advocates in order to access basic education? Each academic year brings with it more uncertainty. If those advocates move on, there is no guarantee that courses will continue.

Adults with ID want to learn and to contribute to their communities. However, much like anyone else, they need to be given the opportunity.

At the same time, disability organisations in the Republic of Ireland are now tasked with promoting lifelong learning preferably in partnership with the adult education sector. But how do you access something so inaccessible?

SOMETIMES YOU JUST HAVE TO find a way. You need to look at what is relevant to the people you work with, where they are at so to speak, and build from there. From my own experience, community education has been useful in providing authentic learning environments.

What has been evident throughout the different projects is that adults with ID want to learn and to contribute to their communities. However, much like anyone else, they need to be given the opportunity.

How will adult education evolve post Covid-19? Who knows? I’m hoping that the ‘new normal’ will be a more inclusive place for people with ID. There will be challenges. Nonetheless, crises also present opportunities for change. They make us see things in a different way.

The disability services sector is certainly changing. It is becoming more community-based and education focused in nature. As a result, there will be a greater demand for adult education for people with disabilities.

Will the sector provide it?