€12 million announced to improve third-level accessibility for students with autism and intellectual disabilities

Strand 4 of the PATH fund was announced by Simon Harris yesterday in Trinity

A new initiative for third-level access support for students with autism and intellectual disabilities was yesterday announced by Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris

The Programme for Access to Higher Education (PATH) Fund seeks to promote diversity and inclusion within third level education. Launched in Trinity today, PATH Strand 4, dedicated to improving access for students with intellectual disabilities, looks to include strategies such as universal design and support the participation of students with autism and intellectual disabilities within third level education.

With a total of €12 million dedicated to these proposal – €3 million annually for four years – funding in 2022 will be targeted towards goals such as improving campus accessibility. Tailoring these goals to difficulties faced by autistic students, solutions may include wayfinding apps, signage, and autism-friendly spaces such as sensory spaces or quiet rooms.

In addition to campus accessibility, these funds will also be allocated to staff training and specialist recruitment. The development of new inclusive teaching and assessment strategies is a principal focus of this plan, as well as the improvement of these existing practices.

Today, Minister Harris spoke on this realignment of goals: “We have never focused on how many students with an intellectual disability or autism have entered or completed third level.”

He continued: “These new proposals will allow us to assess how we are doing but crucially, we will be introducing new policy changes to ensure we do better.”

Technology-based solutions are similarly introduced in these proposals, aimed at supporting inclusive teaching and learning practices as well as the strengthening of assistive technologies and the enhancement of students’ digital skills.

Minister of State with responsibility for Disability Anne Rabbitte added: “People with disabilities in Ireland have equal rights of access to education, but there is much more work to be done to enable people with disabilities to vindicate their right to education, particularly in Further and Higher Education. The work Minister Harris is doing, as evidenced in today’s launch, represents excellent progress in this regard. The New Action Plan is a key piece of work in Ireland’s overall efforts to achieve the objectives of the convention.”

As Phase 2 of PATH, a competitive funding call for proposals from colleges for 3-year pathfinding programmes and courses for students with intellectual disabilities will be announced this year. Funding will begin in 2023 with a three-year timeline.

Touching on the importance of these initiatives, Minister Harris said: “Education is the greatest leveller in society. A key ambition for me is to ensure that supports and opportunities are provided for learning to all. This means recognising the needs of vulnerable learners, people who are most marginalised and people with special and additional needs and assisting them in accessing and progressing through third level education.”