Dáil debates

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Adjournment Debate

Special Educational Needs.

5:00 pm

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this most important issue on the Adjournment. My request can be simply stated, namely, that funding be provided for sign language interpreters for five deaf people who wish to participate in a course at Waterford Institute of Technology.

The Unite trade union has been working with Waterford Institute of Technology on the development of education courses for workers who lost their jobs when Waterford Crystal closed. An information evening was held at Waterford Institute of Technology on 23 September 2009 and there have been subsequent meetings between the college and the Unite trade union. Waterford Institute of Technology has developed a programme to address the educational needs expressed by the group from Waterford Crystal who attended on the information night. There are three main areas in the programme, namely the recognition of prior learning from life and work, personal development in study skills and the opportunity to taste higher education programmes. This pilot initiative, which has been developed by Waterford Institute of Technology, is funded by FÁS. It is to be run on a part-time basis from the end of this month until May. The target group are those who wish to up-skill and return to education and this constitutes an innovative approach to life-long learning.

It aims to inform participants about new opportunities and developments in the education system. It provides the opportunity for individuals to map and evaluate their life and work experience to date. This facilitates educational progression and will involve the exploration of relevant educational pathways. It will allow participants to sample a range of the programmes provided by Waterford Institute of Technology in order that they can identify programmes of interest to them. There will be individual guidance and support sessions while learning will be provided within a group context.

The college states that the aims of the programme are to enable learners to review their perceptions of themselves as learners, to increase participants' levels of confidence in their learning abilities and to enhance skills and identify progression routes appropriate to the individual learner and to assist in developing in participants the confidence to undertake further study at an appropriate level. I greatly welcome this pilot project and see great potential in it as an example to be implemented widely in the interests of those who have lost their jobs and who wish to enhance their prospects of re-entering the workforce as the economy recovers and employment opportunities come on-stream.

Given the kinds of employment that are likely to emerge in the future, the whole area of enhanced qualifications is a major factor. Both the Unite trade union and Waterford Institute of Technology perceive this pilot project as being vital in the context of the participants taking up full-time courses in the new academic year, starting in September next. This course is fully accredited and will allow participants to build additional credits to further their education options. As for the five people who are deaf, I consider having the opportunity to participate in this course to be their absolute right. I call on the Minister to provide the funding for the sign language interpreters and ask him to make an urgent positive decision in this matter in order that the course can go ahead and the five people who need the services of sign language interpreters are facilitated.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. I wish to thank the Deputy for giving me this opportunity to outline the Department of Education and Science's position on the provision of supports to students with disabilities who wish to attend higher education.

A fund for students with disabilities is administered on behalf of the Department by the national office for equity of access to higher education, which is a unit of the Higher Education Authority. The purpose of the fund is to provide required assistance and equipment to students who have a disability to enable them to access, participate and complete their course of study. Support under this fund is available to any student who has specific support needs arising from a disability. It is available to students who are enrolled on a full-time course in a further or higher education institution.

I am pleased to report that approvals under this fund have increased significantly in recent years. For example, in 2003-04 a total of 1,499 students were approved for support from a total allocation of €5.8 million. In 2008-09 the number of students approved for support increased to 3,844 with the total allocation increasing to €11.7 million. In 2008-09, 179 deaf or hard of hearing students in further and higher education benefited from the fund for students with disabilities. The total amount of the benefits to these students amounted to approximately €2 million. Among the students to benefit were eight deaf or hard of hearing students in Waterford Institute of Technology. The number of students with a disability enrolled in higher education continues to increase. In 1998 it was estimated that slightly more than 1% of all undergraduates were students with disabilities. Recent data available from the Higher Education Authority indicated that 4.2% of first-time enrolments in higher education in 2007-08 were students with a disability.

Applications for support from the fund for students with disabilities are made to the National Office for Equity of Access by the institution on behalf of the student. Students must supply appropriate documentation relating to their disability for approval. Funding is made available to the institution, which in turn puts in place the various supports required by the student. Common supports required by students who are deaf or hard of hearing include Irish sign language, note-taking and academic learning support. As an initial course of action, it would be advised that any third level students requiring support of this nature should contact the access or disability officer in the institution in question.

I understand that decisions on some applications made to the fund for students with disabilities for 2009-2010 are still being processed. Information on the fund for students with disabilities and on all other State supports available to students at third level is available from the HEA website, www.studentfinance.ie. I thank the Deputy once again for raising this matter.