The Ahead Journal


A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

Dr Nicola Maxwell

University College Cork (UCC)

@NicolaM58800458 @idplusucc

About the Author

Prof Maire Leane

University College Cork (UCC)


About the Author

A Culture of Inclusion: Reimagining the university as a place for students with intellectual disabilities


Recent research demonstrates the value of inclusive education for all parties (Burke et al, 2023; Bonar, 2018; Feely et al, 2022) and that inclusion is an antidote to prejudice and discrimination (Timmons et al, 2024) renewing interest and focus on providing inclusive education at all levels in Ireland (NCSE, 2024; Corby et al, 2022). The Programme for Access to Higher Education Path 4 Phase 2 (HEA, 2023 Path 4) seeks to promote opportunities for people with intellectual disability to engage in learning in tertiary level, higher education settings.  To date, there have been limited opportunities for this cohort to access education in tertiary settings with most available programmes providing separate learning opportunities for people with ID on campuses (Aston, 2019).

In this article, we outline the foundations and development of one inclusive education initiative, the id+ Project at University College Cork (UCC). The id+ Project promotes the fundamental rights of people with intellectual disabilities to attend third-level education and to progress to paid employment. It draws on the values of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD 2006)) in embarking on the journey towards inclusive education for students with ID in UCC.  We will show how we have developed an infrastructure for inclusive learning that incorporates structures for learning and critically that builds community, connections, and capacity for inclusive learning.

The Values Base  

The id+ Project vision is that people with ID, if they so wish, can exercise their right to access and participate in tertiary education as equal students. The id+ Project's conceptual approach is informed by the CRPD. The CRPD’s normative language and values underpin a human rights model of disability (Degener, 2016). The CRPD establishes that people with disabilities have rights the same as all others including rights to self-determination and community inclusion and recognises that there are obligations to provide support to uphold these rights (UNCRPD, 2006). The CRPD presents a challenge to historical and long held assumptions which have differentiated, segregated, and excluded people with ID from society.  Of particular relevance to the id+ Project are Articles 24 and 27.  Article 24 provides for the right to inclusive education, including further and higher education.  General comment 4 (2016) provides guidance clearly stating that inclusion requires systemic, structural, and cultural change for meaningful inclusion.  Article 27 provides for the right to work in inclusive, accessible environments. 

The id+ Project, informed by the CRPD, has embraced inclusive and co-learning practices and methods where students with ID learn in shared lectures and classes with students registered on degree and post-graduate programmes. In the following sections, we explore the infrastructure of the id+ Project including the people who are vital to its work.

The id+ Project 

From 2009 – 2020, the Certificate in Contemporary Living (CCL) provided opportunities for students with ID to learn in UCC. The CCL, like many of its peer programmes in other Irish third-level settings, was on a precarious footing (Aston et al, 2021) and concluded with the onset of the Covid pandemic in 2020. The CCL was profiled in an Impact Case Study submitted by UCC to the Higher Education Authority in 2021. Funding of €1million, under the Higher Education Authority Performance Fund, was awarded to support a new project developing rights-based, inclusive education programmes which:  

  • provide mutually beneficial learning synergies between students with and without disabilities;  
  • enable students with ID to develop skills for future learning and employment;
  • build capacity in inclusive education for students with ID across the higher education sector. 

There are four workstreams identified to deliver on these goals.

Image  showing HEA logo and a diagram of the UCC id+ Project 4 workstreams

Fig 1. UCC id+ Project workstreams

The id+ Project has developed two new one-year programmes: the Certificate in Social Citizenship (CSC) and the Certificate in Disability Inclusive Practice (CDIP). Each programme includes a three-month paid work placement.    The CSC and CDIP programmes are mapped onto the National Framework of Qualifications, at levels 5 and 6, respectively.  Graduates receive a National University of Ireland Special Purpose Award. Each programme is overseen by a Practice Educator who has responsibility for the coherence of the programme and for delivery of the cohort-based modules undertaken by students on the respective programmes.   CSC students are also supported by Learning Support staff whose role is to enable students to be included in learning through practical measures such as supporting individual learners, where necessary, and/or providing the necessary bridging to support Teaching Fellows in delivering learning.  A Learning Support Coach, a professional Occupational Therapist, provides tailored support and coaching to students, where necessary, to develop capacity to engage fully in all aspects of college life.   Providing such holistic support measures and mechanisms to underpin inclusion and academic and social flourishing is in line with UNCRPD Article 24.

Certificate in Social Citizenship (CSC)

The CSC is an entry-level programme with a maximum capacity of 15 students.  The learning outcomes require that having completed the programme, students will be able to recognise themselves as learners with individual learning styles and strengths, demonstrate their engagement and participation in inclusive learning settings, and demonstrate knowledge and application of rights of self-determination, participation, and inclusion.  A core objective is that students recognise themselves as individuals with rights, choices, and aspirations for their own futures both in terms of learning and of working. CSC students take 30 credits of the curriculum. Fifteen credits are taken in cohort-based modules; these are modules where the students are learning together as a group. Five credits are taken through work integrated learning on the work placement. The remaining ten credits are taken in co-learning modules where students with ID and students on bachelor's and master’s programmes from different disciplines learn together in a range of modules drawn from all sectors of the university.

A chart showing the 6 study areas and related modules available to CSC students in the id+ Project UCC

Fig 2. Choice of Study Areas and Co-Learning Modules 

CSC students choose their co-learning modules from thematic subject areas which provide opportunities to learn alongside degree students in at least three separate modules. The grouping of modules in thematic areas means that students have a degree of specialisation in their chosen thematic subject and this may subsequently inform what type of paid work placement they undertake at the end of their coursework. The academic staff delivering the modules are designated as id+ Teaching Fellows and they ‘pitch’ the modules to the id+ students at the start of each semester, outlining the content, the teaching and learning approach and what is expected in terms of assessment.   The students then choose which thematic subject area they wish to follow. While the thematic areas are not exhaustive, they do provide the opportunity for students with ID to engage with a diverse range of learning opportunities. Peer buddies drawn from the modules provide the id+ students with support as they engage with all aspects of the module learning opportunities. This is an unpaid peer to peer learning support arrangement with which bachelor and masters’ students have wholeheartedly engaged and, our emerging research suggests, is mutually beneficial.

Certificate in Disability-Inclusive Practice (CDIP)

The CDIP is open to people who have completed the CSC, the CCL, or an equivalent course.  The CDIP emerged from a growing realisation that the unique perspective of students with ID was contributing to addressing physical, social and cultural barriers to inclusion in UCC.   Students with ID are experts by experience and some wish to become advocates for policy and systemic change and get paid, as experts do, for their experience and work.  CDIP students take cohort-based modules and co-learn in degree modules that equip them with relevant legal and policy knowledge, and skills required to ensure that the voices of people with ID are heard, recognised, and acted upon in all sectors of life. 

Table showing co-learning modules taken by CDIP students

Fig 3. CDIP Co-Learning Modules 


Assessment on the id+ Project is deliberately multi-modal and allows students to demonstrate their learning in formats that speak to their strengths and best demonstrate their learning.  To date, we have read, seen, heard, and felt students’ learning through diverse formats.  PowerPoint presentations, written reflections, podcasts, videos, role-plays, and creative artwork have all been used as media to demonstrate learning.  This plurality speaks to the diversity of students as learners but also of the creative courage of educators who have adapted existing approaches to assessment or embraced new and innovative means of assessment to the benefit of all students involved.   This is beginning to have ripple effects with educators considering creative approaches to both content and assessment for the broader student body.

Connections and Community for Inclusion 

Community and connections are vital to the qualitative, affective experience of rights (Quinn and Arstein-Kerslake, 2012). The connections forged between the various groups that make up the id+ project are felt and recognised as sources of enrichment at both a learning and a personal level.   A project like id + fosters and thrives on a whole of community approach, or in this case a whole institution approach, where students with ID are recognised as rights holders and equal learners, and where co-learning provides opportunities for everyone involved, to learn with, from and about each other. 

Chart showing UCC id+ Project roles

Insert People image (blue)

What has emerged is a value based, community of practice which recognises that everybody that we invite and everybody that comes forward to be involved in the id+ Project bring their own disciplinary, pedagogical, and personal experiences. Many Teaching Fellows and Peer Buddies have literally jumped in at the deep end to make co-learning a real experience.  It was vital that we provided scaffolded and shared, spaces via regular roundtable sessions to explore any feelings of trepidation, share reflections and critically, strategies for developing practice for inclusive education. 


Bringing the normative promise of the human rights model into practice has focused the attention of the id+ Project on the arrangements, practices and people required to provide inclusive education in a meaningful way.  In our conversations and emerging research, we are learning that inclusion for one set of people, in this case people with ID, has far-reaching effects in terms of creating cohesion and connections across various stakeholders in the institutional communities of third level campuses.  

CSC and CDIP students like being in college.  They tell us it makes them feel like everyone else when they have opportunities to experience student life and meet other people who share their interests.  Peer Buddies and Teaching Fellows are reporting enhanced learning opportunities for all students involved in co-learning modules and personal feelings of meaningful collegiality and community through participation in the id+ project.   Teaching Fellows in different disciplines, who had not met before, are fostering alliances, sharing tips and strategies, and collaborating on research and projects.  Peer Buddies speak to feeling part of a community through their connections with the id+ Project and recognise CSC and CDIP students as student peers.

This, we hope, is only the beginning.  We continue to advocate for systemic change to address the structural barriers that exclude students with ID from higher education (Aston et al, 2021; Maxwell and Leane, 2021) and warmly welcome the PATH 4 Phase 2 provision of designated funding for the provision of programmes for students with intellectual disabilities at third level.  The id+ Project has demonstrated there is an appetite for inclusion.  As we are learning, inclusion requires support from all stakeholders involved in, and at all levels, in higher education.


We would like to thank Dr Mary Byrne, id+ Project Manager, and Dr Elaine O’Callaghan, id+ Project Researcher, for their comments on this paper.

Further Information:


Aston, D., Leane, M. and Slattery, Ó. (2021) Collaborating for Inclusion: A National Forum of Inclusive Higher Education Providers. AHEAD Journal 13 2021 ISSN 2009-828

Aston, D., 2019. Higher Education Opportunities for Students with Intellectual Disabilities in Ireland – A National Response. Dublin: Inclusive National Higher Education Forum.

Bonar, D. (2018) The Impact of a Universally Designed, Inclusive Third Level Education Programme for Adults with Intellectual Disabilities in a Dublin College, Universal Design & Higher Education in Transformation Congress, 30th October -2nd November 2018, Dublin Castle.

Burke, A., Cull, B. Dineen, C. O’Donovan, W., & Twomey, K. 2023. “It’s only right”: Recognising and Including Adults with Intellectual Disability in Higher Education in the Republic of Ireland” in Tilly, L. & Walmsley, J. (eds) Rights in Practice for People with a Learning Disability: Stories of Citizenship. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan. pp 29 - 36

Corby D, King E, Petrie M, Reddy S, Callan A, & Andersen T. (2022) “Making a Case for the Inclusion of People with Intellectual Disabilities in Higher Education” Disabilities 2(3) pp 415-427.

Degener, T. (2016) “Disability in a Human Rights Context” Laws 5: 35

Feely, M., Garcia Iriarte, E., Adams, C., Johns, R., Magee, C., Mooney, S., Murray, A., Turley M & Yap, M.L. (2022) “Journeys from discomfort to comfort: how do university students experience being taught and assessed by adults with intellectual disabilities?” Disability & Society 37 (6) pp 993-1017, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2021.1874301

General comment No. 4 (2016) The right to inclusive education CRPD/C/GC/4.

Government of Ireland (2024). Minister Harris announces introduction of transformational higher education courses for students with an intellectual disability. Available at:

HEA (2023) PATH Programme for Access to Higher Education: Strand 4,  Phase 2 - Enhancement of course provision in Higher Education for Students with Intellectual Disabilities Call for Proposals

Maxwell, N. & Leane, M. (2021) Disrupting and reimagining: Critical Reflection on the Development of Rights Based Education Programmes for People with Intellectual Disability in Further and Higher Education. s.l.:Irish Learning Support Association.

NCSE (2024) An Inclusive Education for an Inclusive Society: Policy Advice Paper on Special Schools and Classes. Dublin: National Council for Special Education.

Timmons, S., McGinnity, F., & Carroll, E. (2023) “Ableism differs by disability, gender and social context: Evidence from vignette experiment” ESRI Research Bulletin 202401.  Dublin: ESRI.

Quinn, G.& Arstein-Kerslake, A. (201). “Restoring the 'Human' in 'Human Rights': Personhood and Doctrinal Innovation in the UN Disability Convention” in Gearty, C. & Douzinas, C. (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press pp 36 – 55.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, December 13, 2006, , ratified in Ireland March 2018.

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