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University for people with intellectual disability

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All students should be supported to achieve the educational outcomes they desire, including people with intellectual disabilities. Inclusive university programs for people with intellectual disability originated in the US and Canada in the 1970s.

Internationally, governments and universities are opening their doors to a broader cross section of the community, including people with intellectual disabilities (O’Rourke, 2011). The rise in inclusive higher education has been dramatic in countries such as Canada, USA, Ireland, and Finland. Supporting people with intellectual disability to attain university education has been found to increase their employment rates (Lee et al., 2021).

We are happy to be part of a National Community of Practice, facilitated by the Centre for Disability Studies, involving students with intellectual disability, their parents, academics, professionals, and advocates. The Community of Practice aims to advocate for more opportunities for people with intellectual disability to receive a quality university education experience to support their lifelong learning and generate opportunities for success.

We have put together a snapshot of the literature that exists on inclusive higher education. It provides an overview of the critical issues related to potential opportunities in Australia, including the three distinct models of inclusive post-secondary education - truly inclusive; hybrid and segregated.

Read an overview of the literature and outcomes: Inclusive higher education for young people.

The Centre for Disability Studies, in collaboration with the Community of Practice members, developed a joint national position paper finding that it is crucial for governments, tertiary education providers, and schools, to work together to provide an inclusive and accessible education system. The position paper makes a number of recommendations to Australian governments (federal, state and territory) as well as to Australian universities.

See the position paper here and easy read version here.

They have also created this advocacy video:


Key recommendations

For Australian Governments (Federal, State and Territory):

  • Enhance policy and take a national strategic approach to engage Australian universities, primary and secondary schools and encourage them to collaborate in design, implementation, delivery and evaluation of programs/pathways to support the learning of people with intellectual disability.
  • Offer transition planning and supports. These should typically begin early in secondary school and involve the person with intellectual disability, their family and other supporters. For non-school leavers, alternative models of transition planning should be funded.
  • Provide funding to integrate NDIS service providers to support students at university to gain the individual support and other forms of assistance needed, especially if funding does not exist within the university.
  • Create more university pathways and programs across Australia and within each state and territory, in addition to the two programs that already exist, to support greater access to tertiary education that is appropriate to each person’s capabilities and aspirations. These may include additional incentives for universities, schools and communities to deliver pathways, programs or scholarships.
  • Develop partnerships and linkages with private sector organisations and graduate programs to enhance employment pathways and networks of continued support as students with intellectual disability move through their university program and onwards to employment.

Recommendations for Australian Universities:

  • Foster institutional and cultural change to make inclusion of students with intellectual disability a core part of their disability strategy, with specific programs and pathways that support their education journey from high school to tertiary education. All students should be supported to achieve the educational outcomes they desire.
  • Offer more choice, flexibility and support within programs where reasonable, including formal recognition of student attainment within a program or degree. This may involve emphasising and supporting reasonable adjustments to ensure success and completion for students with intellectual disability, as part of creating an inclusive and supportive educational environment.
  • Foster greater awareness about inclusive tertiary programs and pathways in high schools and across the wider community. This is especially important for enrolment of mature age students and for people who thought tertiary education, including university, would never be an option when they graduated from high school.
  • Create more education pathways for people with intellectual disability to move across different tertiary education providers to better support their learning needs, without financially disadvantaging them.

Invest in staff training and cultural change to ensure fully inclusive practices across the university campus, not just in the lecture room

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