11.1 Education is just not schooling. Education is a process of sharing, developing, building, strengthening, encouraging and recognising the abilities of people. Education is achieved through many ways, the person is central to all. Education shares and respects diversity. Its aim is to enhance and enable the person to achieve his or her own goals. Terms used within this chapter reflect the existing terminology used within the current Irish education system.

11.2 If one is to measure the status of people with disabilities by their rate of participation and success in education, equality is still a long way off. Participation by people with disabilities in education at all levels is significantly below that of the population in general.

11.3 Children and adults with disabilities must come in from the margins and education must be made equally available for everyone. If sufficient resources and planning are applied now not only will the quality of life for people with disabilities improve, but their economic dependence on the state will be reduced in the long run.

11.4 The number of people with disabilities in education is estimated to be at least 4% of the school-going population. Approximately 8,000 pupils with disabilities are enrolled in 114 Special Schools and some 3,800 pupils with various disabilities are in special classes in primary schools. There are also about 8,000 pupils with "specific disabilities" in ordinary classes in primary schools. A further 2,300 pupils are enrolled in 48 special classes at post-primary level: another 100 pupils with disabilities are enrolled in the five designated post-primary schools.

The most recent figures for those attending third-level education indicate that there are approximately 1,000 students with disabilities. Unfortunately, no comprehensive figures are available for the numbers of children with disabilities in pre-school or the number of adults with disabilities attending local adult education centres.

It is estimated that up to another 2.5% of the population in mainstream education are people with disabilities. Thus, this chapter is concerned specifically with a minimum of 4% of all pupils and students who have special education needs in both special and mainstream schools, in third level colleges and in adult education centres of learning. However, we recognise that due to the poor quality of existing statistics the proportion could be higher.

11.5 One of the greatest areas of concern to the Commission is the lack of co-ordination between three Departments, Education, Health and Justice. Primary responsibility for the education of children, young people and adults must lie with the Department of Education, which should consult and co-ordinate activities with other Departments. It is imperative that the Department of Education should be the accountable authority in relation to all educational matters of concern to adults and children with disabilities and their families.

11.6 It has been the policy and practice of the Department of Education for some years now to educate as many children with disabilities as possible in mainstream schools. We see the present position as a base from which it will be possible to move quickly towards an inclusive education system.

11.7 In seeking to move forward towards equality and inclusiveness, the Commission has identified several barriers to the full participation of children and adults in education:

  • Lack of legislation establishing the right to an appropriate education. Until there is an Education Act the manner in which the state provides for the educational needs of children and adults with disabilities will be decided in an ad hoc manner and entitlements will remain unclear.
  • Lack of information: a substantial number of submissions to the Commission indicated problems in finding information on educational options and entitlements. This poses major difficulties for parents and students in making decisions about education.
  • Lack of resources: a high proportion of children and adults with disabilities have particular needs which must be met in order to enable them to participate in education on an equal footing. Not all the accommodations required cost money but the lack of adequate funds to meet the needs of people with disabilities, whether in mainstream or in specialist schools, is the single greatest barrier to their educational participation.
  • Poor attitudes: the lack of awareness about disability issues and the negative stereotyping of people with disabilities still create barriers for people with disabilities.
  • Lack of educational needs assessments: many parents encounter difficulties in having an appropriate educational plan drawn up for their son or daughter.
  • Lack of appropriate curricula to respond to individual needs: this is evidenced by the great number of adults with disabilities who, despite going through the school system, continue to have numeracy and literacy difficulties.

11.8 The Commission hopes to address all of these barriers. Its proposals for an equality strategy in education are based on a set of principles, which potentially form the basis of an education charter of rights.

Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities asserts the following principles in regard to the education of every citizen with a disability. The Commission further asserts that the rights explicit and implicit in these principles should be incorporated in all education policy, and should be enshrined in any legislation.

  • Every child is educable. All children, including those with disabilities, have a right to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. Appropriate education for all children with disabilities should be provided in mainstream schools, except where it is clear that the child involved will not benefit through being placed in a mainstream environment, or that other children would be unduly and unfairly disadvantaged.
  • Every individual has an equal right to educational provision, which will enable him or her to participate in all aspects of economic, social, cultural and political life, to the fullest extent of his or her potential.
  • The unique needs of the individual person must be the paramount consideration when decisions are being made concerning the appropriate provision of education for that person. In so far as is practical a continuum of services must be available to meet those needs close to the person's home and family.
  • It is the responsibility of the State to provide sufficient resources to ensure that pre-school children, children of school-going age and adults with disabilities have an education appropriate to their needs in the best possible environment.
  • Parents have primacy in the decision-making process as soon as their child with a disability has been identified as having particular educational needs. They [and the child whenever appropriate] must be entitled to make an Informed choice on the educational placement of their child.
  • There shall be an accessible appeals procedure on educational enrolment recommendations. This will have due regard for the rights of the child, the rights of the parents and the educational rights of other children.
  • All schools have a responsibility to serve children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. Each school plan must strive to make schools inclusive institutions. To facilitate inclusive education, due recognition must be given to the rights and needs of teachers for resources, initial education, and continuing professional development.
  • Flexibility and formal linkages should be built into educational provision at local level. It must be a statutory duty of all existing or new management structures to secure access to high quality and appropriate education for all children and adults with disabilities.
  • Priority should be given to the needs of people with disabilities, within the broad framework of educational provision, and this should be reflected in the allocation of resources.

Education Act

11.9 The rights explicit and implicit in the above principles should be incorporated in all education policy and enshrined in the forthcoming Education Act. The Act must accord to all people with disabilities, irrespective of the degree of their disability, the right to an education appropriate to their needs and abilities.

11.10 An inclusive Education Act should enshrine and stimulate further progress towards inclusion while increasing support to specialist schools. It should facilitate co-ordination and linkages between mainstream and specialist schools and between specialist vocational training centres and centres offering adult education opportunities.

11.11 The Act should also set out clearly the entitlements of students and the rights of parents. The Commission strongly recommends that its Education Charter of Rights should be incorporated into the legislation.

11.12 All people with disabilities should be offered an appropriate education in the environment of their choice. The concept of an "appropriate" education needs to be clearly defined in legislation. In this regard, the Commission favours the definition of "appropriate" which is contained in the American Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It states that for a programme to be "appropriate" it must be based on and responsive to the child's individualized educational needs as identified in the evaluation process. The IDEA requires that a written Individual Education Programme (IEP) is developed for the adult or child with a disability.

11.13 Legislation must create a strong presumption that students will be placed in the least restrictive environment. The onus of proof in demonstrating the inappropriateness of a placement in a mainstream school should be placed on the school authorities. It should be rebutted only by demonstrating objective impossibility, or that such placement would not be in the best interests of the child, or that placement would unduly hinder the education rights of other children.

11.14 Legal provision is also required for individual assessments of need and the development of an individual education plan which would give effect to the student's educational requirements. This legal provision should take the form of a statutory instrument and should contain provision for enforcement. The individual plan should assess the resources required to meet the students' needs and make recommendations for placement (see Chapter 4). Assessments should be carried out by an independent agency, ideally under the auspices of the proposed Regional Education Boards, and should be holistic in nature. Education plans should be reviewed annually and revised in the light of a child's changing and developing needs.

The legal rights, roles and responsibilities of parents must be clearly outlined in relation to any assessment or decision-making process and should reflect the constitutional rights of parents in the matter of their child's education.

11.15 A second opinion should be available in relation to decisions about placements and an appeal procedure should be available to an independent body by either the parent, pupil or school authority. Schools and educational establishments should be required to make every reasonable accommodation to meet the educational needs of a student, in line with the choice of the student, or where appropriate, the parents. The right to refuse entry must be allowed only in very exceptional circumstances: refusal should not be possible solely on the grounds of resources.

11 16 The National Disability Authority, in collaboration with the Department of Education, would be the appropriate body to monitor and enforce the disability provisions of the Education Act.

11.17 Although the overall formulation of education policy is ultimately the prerogative of the Government, specifically that of the Minister for Education, local policy issues should, as far as possible, be decided locally, within the overall policy framework. The proposed Regional Education Boards will create greater opportunities for local planning and greater opportunities for parents and students with disabilities to influence the shape of local services.

11.18 In particular, the Regional Education Boards must have a statutory duty to ensure that every child with special educational needs is provided with an appropriate education. They should be required to provide:

  • Assessment facilities;
  • Access to independent appeals procedures in relation to placement recommendations;
  • Consultation with parents and children in the planning of local services;
  • Information to parents, people with disabilities, the Disability Support Service and the public about all aspects of services in the area.

11.19 Legal provision for the participation of parents of children with disabilities in the assessment and placement of their child has already been proposed. But that is only the starting point for parental involvement. Parents must be acknowledged as full and equal partners throughout the educational process and be provided with guidance and support, full information about their child's progress, and be allowed to contribute meaningfully to it.

11.20 Furthermore, consultation with people with disabilities and their representative organisations must be a key feature of future policy formation. A permanent committee on the educational needs of children with disabilities should be established. Its membership should include parent representatives, student representatives, representatives of the Departments of Education, Health, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Disability Support Service, Health Boards and Regional Education Boards (when established), teacher and management representatives, specialist providers, and representatives of psychological and other support services.

11.21 It should have direct links with the Co-ordinating Group of Secretaries and the Council for the Status of People with Disabilities. It will be essential that parents and students are fully represented and do not have minority status within the Committee.

Community Education Plans

11.22 The Education Act should require the Department of Education - and the Regional Education Boards when established - to draw up Community Education Plans to meet the needs of students with disabilities on a regional basis. The Act should also impose a legal obligation on the Department of Education through the Regional Education Boards to assess the education needs of all people with disabilities who request an assessment, including those who live in residential settings.

11.23 The core provisions of the Community Education Plans should be contained in the Education Act and should include:

  • Speech and occupational therapy;
  • Physical education;
  • Support and counselling for parents;
  • Psychological support;
  • Technical aids and supports;
  • Communications support;
  • School transport, including an escort where necessary;
  • Classroom assistants;
  • Resource and remedial teaching;
  • Personal assistants.

The plans should be drawn up in consultation with the Council for the Status of People with Disabilities and organisations of people with disabilities.

11.24 The Education Act should require the Department of Education (and Regional Education Boards) to take into account the needs identified in the assessment procedures in drawing up the Community Education Plans. The Department should also be statutorily required to take into account the needs identified in deciding both the level of funding and the type of services for which funding is provided.

Support Services

11.25 The lack of support services is one of the greatest barriers to the equal participation of people with disabilities in education. Such services range from information, advice and guidance to psychologists and specialist teachers. They also cover technical and mechanical appliances and equipment; transport; therapies, including speech therapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

11.26 There are difficulties at present in relation to the availability and organisation of these support services. The school psychological service is one such: it should be increased significantly in strength and its role and operation needs to be broadened.

11.27 The gaps in the provision of therapies have been highlighted in several reports, as well as in the submissions received by the Commission. The provision of those supports has to be a matter of right rather than choice as access to them is essential to enable a child to achieve his or her educational potential.

11.28 It is the view of the Commission that essential supports should be provided in a coherent and co-ordinated basis within each local area. Specialist support personnel should be brought together into cohesive local teams. They would provide information and support to local schools and teachers' centres as well as students and parents and assist in drawing up school plans for the inclusion of students with disabilities. There should be strong links and networking at local level between the Teams and the local Disability Support Service.

11.29 Education support services should be available to all children with disabilities and their families from the earliest possible point, namely the point of diagnosis of disability. The measures required to meet an individual's needs could be identified at the stage of the individual Needs Assessments outlined in Chapter 4.

11.30 The current lack of clarity, regarding who provides what support services results in hardship, delay and serious frustration for children, adults, parents and teachers. The Commission recommends that the provision of support services should be the subject of joint action between the Health Boards and the educational authorities. A technical aids and appliances' fund should be set up at local level, funded jointly by educational and health budgets, from which the necessary appliances would be purchased, without the need to decide whether a particular appliance is an educational or a medical appliance. This distinction is often impossible to make in practice and quite irrelevant from the point of view of the child's/student's well-being and educational development.

11.31 Support teaching services - remedial, resource and visiting teachers - should be extended to cover all children with disabilities in both special and mainstream schools, especially in their early years when support and guidance is essential. Due recognition of the contribution of these teachers and appropriate time-tabling is recommended to allow them fulfil their roles. The Commission recommends that more specialist support teachers should be employed, especially for schools and students who do not get such a service at all.

11.32 The absence of accessible school transport and sufficient numbers of bus escorts to travel with children represents a further barrier to participation in mainstream education for many students. It is not an acceptable reason for denying a child the right to attend a local school. Where local school transport is not an option for a child with a disability, alternative supports must be provided.

11.33 The present review of the school transport service offers an opportunity to examine imaginative possibilities for the provision of an integrated local transport service which would provide accessible transport services in a local community. (see Chapter 13: Transport and Mobility) Transport or alternative support should also be available to students who wish to advance to further education or third level education.

Curriculum and Assessment

11.34 There is a fundamental need to develop programmes which accommodate different rates of learning and different learning needs within the mainstream classroom. To accommodate students with disabilities in mainstream schools, curricula should allow for flexibility, additions and adaptations. Where necessary, students with disabilities in mainstream settings should have specially adapted teaching methods, materials, curricula and examination regulations.

11.35 The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment should establish curriculum development projects for pupils at primary and post primary levels. This work should be done in consultation with the agencies providing special education services who have done excellent work on developing curricula to include students with disabilities. Special emphasis should be placed on education for creativity, appropriate testing and examination procedures, and upon adequate and appropriate extracurricular activities.

11.36 Curriculum flexibility is particularly important in second level education where the academic focus and the high level of emphasis on language skills can create difficulties for many students with disabilities. There is evidence of a high number of early school leavers, especially among students with learning disabilities who have attempted to "fit" into mainstream classrooms. New models utilising specialist classes, special and mainstream schools and the sharing of school facilities are urgently needed so that all students are enabled to achieve a recognised educational qualification.

11.37 The curricular needs of all pupils in specialist settings should be reviewed, based on ages, abilities, needs and aspirations.

11.38 Special national schools should be reclassified as primary and post-primary schools to recognise the fact that students attend such schools up to the age of eighteen years. Post primary special schools should attract all of the facilities, improved teacher ratios, posts of responsibility, and additional capitation that applies to mainstream post primary schools.

11.39 In relation to assessment, greater flexibility is required from the state, individual schools and examining bodies in their approach to, and methods of, examining students with disabilities. A fair and appropriate system of examination testing and of assessment should be provided for the student with a disability. All examinations should be offered in a place and manner appropriate and accessible to people with disabilities.

Oral examinations should be available for those who have difficulty with writing or visual text. The Department of Education should provide a suitably qualified interpreter for those who require one in oral examinations.

Special arrangements, for which pupils with specific learning disabilities are eligible, should be available to all pupils with disabilities without distinction. Adolescents who experience mental health difficulties should be reasonably accommodated to sit their exams when they are fit and able.

11.40 A system of standards must be applied to all specialist schools. The option of access to mainstream certification must be available to those in specialist education settings.

11.41 A greater emphasis should be placed upon forming links between vocational training centres and all local post primary schools. This is especially important for students whose abilities are more skill based than academically based.


11.42 It should be the responsibility of the Department of Education to provide high quality, appropriate pre-school services to children with disabilities. Teaching personnel should have a background and training which equips them to respond to the particular needs of young children with disabilities. Every encouragement and practical support, including financial support, should be given to community playgroups and pre-school groups who wish to include young children with disabilities in their services.

Special Schools

11.43 The number of pupils in special schools is estimated at 0.9% of the total primary and post-primary school-going population. The special and mainstream systems have tended to operate in almost total isolation from each other for historical reasons. This duality needs to be addressed so that they come together into the regular educational system.

11.44 The Commission recognises that the unsupported inclusion of students with disabilities in mainstream schools can discriminate against them, even where integration is ideal in principle. This is true for example in the case of children and adults who are deaf and whose first language is sign. It is important to respect the needs of the deaf child and their absolute right to a specialist education whether in a specialist school or a designated setting attached to a mainstream school. Similarly, adults who wish to have access to further education options through sign language should be enabled to have such educational options met at local level.

11.45 In order to remove the duality of the special and mainstream systems, a series of actions will be needed:

  • It should be feasible for a student to be enrolled in more than one school at any time;
  • Closer curriculum linkages with joint planning between specialist and mainstream schools for individual students;
  • Bridging the huge gulf between teachers in the separate systems;
  • Practical supports for closer linkages, such as flexible transport arrangements;
  • A funding strategy in which funding is linked to the student rather than to any school.

It is the Commission's view that innovatory or pilot programmes should be initiated in a number of local areas in the short term to achieve the necessary linkages, outlined above.

11.46 The development of the network of supports proposed in this report and in the report of the Special Education Review Committee (1993) will take some time to put in place. For these reasons, there is a need for a systematic plan to develop a clear specialist role for special schools in the longer term. That role will involve catering for children with very special needs who cannot be accommodated within the mainstream system. Work done in the specialist schools should be developmental, innovative and capable of dissemination to the wider educational community in order to facilitate greater levels of inclusion.

11.47 To facilitate these specialist roles the schools concerned should have a core multi-disciplinary staff, which is free of the constraints imposed on staffing ratios by changing student numbers. It should be in the nature of the specialist role of these schools that numbers should fluctuate as students move between them and the mainstream as individual needs change and develop. All specialist schools should be required to have in place a policy and a programme to support their students in linking into the wider community in all possible ways.

Designated Schools

11.48 Designated schools are mainstream post-primary schools which are supported and funded by the Department of Education to meet the needs of pupils with specific disabilities. The number of designated schools at present is small, five in total.

11.49 The Special Education Review Committee has proposed the extension of the designated school concept to primary education. The Commission has several concerns about this proposal. There is a real worry among people with disabilities and parents that the availability of a designated school in an area would act as a disincentive to other local schools to make proper provision for students with disabilities, even in cases where such provision might only require the addition of physical access facilities.

The availability of a designated school must not be seen as justification for not spending resources to provide accessible transport or support services. The child's right to the least restrictive placement, and the parental right of choice cannot be frustrated on the grounds that a cheaper option exists.

The main benefit of a designated school might be to locate facilities there for children with rare disabilities, who would otherwise have to leave their local area in order to receive an education. The Commission recommends that an in-depth evaluation of the concept of designated school should be carried out before any further developments in this area occur. We further urge that local parents be consulted fully if consideration is being given to the development of a designated school in an area.

Third Level

11.50 The Commission supports the general recommendation of the Report of the Committee on Access and Participation of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education that "there should be full integration of persons with disability in the higher education system, and that appropriate funding provisions should be put in place to support this policy".

11.51 The Department of Education should fund pre-university and college education courses such as the Pre-University College Course at Roslyn College which prepares people with disabilities for university and third-level colleges. While such preparation may be achieved within secondary schools in the long-term, there is currently a substantial need for this service.

11.52 The Commission commends the work presently being undertaken by TCD and UCD around the specific inclusion of adults with learning disabilities on a university campus. The development of research into the educational needs of people with learning disabilities, the development of appropriate curricula and teaching methods, and greater access over time by people with learning disabilities to different levels of education appropriate to their needs is essential.

Teacher Training

11.53 All initial and continuing teacher education programmes should include modules on meeting the needs of pupils with disabilities. Elements on disability awareness and appropriate curriculum design should be included. Sign language or braille should be taught as part of all teacher training courses.

11.54 The specialist education element should be taught within the general context of child development and educational psychology. Specialist modules should incorporate obligatory components on the identification, assessment and teaching of pupils with disabilities and special educational needs. Emphasis should also be placed upon working with and including parents, special needs classroom assistants and visiting teachers, as well as on the principles of guidance and counselling.

11.55 More advanced courses and more alternative methods leading to qualifications in aspects of specialist education are required.

11.56 Induction programmes should be organised for any teacher, visiting teacher or special needs assistant who is taking up for the first time a post with defined responsibility for the teaching or care of children with special educational needs, whatever the stage of his or her career.

11.57 All in-service courses supported by the Department of Education should have an input on disability awareness, as is the case with gender equality. In addition to in-service courses, booster courses and one-day conferences should be held regularly in order to give teachers the opportunity to update their skills and to access best practice.

11.58 In-service education and training for guidance counsellors should be provided to ensure that they are aware of all of the options, including specialist training and further education facilities, that are accessible and available to young people with disabilities leaving school.

11.59 Physical education teachers should be encouraged to develop alternative strategies and games that are inclusive of all the children enrolled in their school.

11.60 More opportunities should be created for people with disabilities to become teachers in both specialist and mainstream schools.

11.61 Entry procedures to teacher training courses for deaf candidates should use subject suitability as the criterion. Ability in the area of sign language and an aptitude for teaching should be central to selection for training. The teacher training course should meet the educational needs of deaf teachers and their students.


11.62 Meeting the needs of people with disabilities can, and must be regarded as an investment, and not as a burden on society. There is no doubt that the improvements needed in order to bring about equality and full participation will require additional expenditure. We recommend that a figure of 1% of the existing education budget (i.e. Approximately £20 million at current rates) of additional expenditure be allocated annually to meet the educational needs of pupils/students with disabilities. Given the very high levels of educational disadvantage experienced by this group, and the commitment of government to the targeting of disadvantage, such an increase is justifiable and, indeed, essential in terms of social justice.

11.63 Funding should be linked to the student and should follow the student as he or she moves to appropriate educational settings. In the Commission's view, it is not appropriate to link funding levels, teacher allocations or staff student ratios to diagnostic disability categories. The level of funding or other supports must relate to need, rather than to diagnostic categories, since there is no necessary link between these two concepts.

11.64 School managements should be encouraged to move towards inclusiveness by a range of incentives and supports which would enable them to develop programmes and support structures for inclusion. Support should not be provided in the form of non-specific grants: it should be given for specific planned reforms, development of materials, appropriate in-career programmes, and physical adjustments to buildings. School managements who make good progress towards being an inclusive school should be awarded a "Positive to Disability" symbol of excellence, analogous to the scheme for employers referred to in Chapter 7: Work and Training.