School inclusion has been an important local and national agenda in Ireland for several years. However, the link between inclusive schools and inclusive communities is not as well developed. This is particularly evident in the transition of young people with disabilities from education to employment. For instance, youth with intellectual disabilities have been found to experience poor post-school outcomes compared to youth with other disabilities and youth in the general population.
The UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities emphasises “the right … to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities”. Yet, research in Ireland suggests that fewer than 10% of adults with intellectual disability participate in real paid employment. Furthermore, Ireland ranks very poorly on the list of OECD countries in the provision of employment opportunities for those with a disability. In several respects, school staff in Ireland have been at the vanguard of the inclusion movement and have much to offer towards the establishment of inclusive communities.
In this article, we report on the effect of developing a year-long inclusive work experience programme in Co. Wexford Education Centre for a young adult (Shane O’Neill) with intellectual disability attending a QQI Level 3 course in a local community workshop. The work experience programme utilised customised employment approaches, such as job carving and emphasised proactive problem-solving in conjunction with co-worker support. Customized employment creates job roles that meet an individual’s employment needs and conditions necessary for their success as well as the needs that the employer has for valuable work.
The concept of self-determination has its origins in the field of special education with a focus on individuals’ rights to have control over decisions regarding their personal lives and access to information to make those decisions. Recently there has been increased emphasis on the development of conceptual frameworks to guide practices that promote the self-determination of individuals with disabilities. Students who have self-determination skills have a stronger chance of being successful in making the transition to adulthood, including education, training, employment and independent living outcomes. We wholeheartedly support the key skills approach embedded in the new Junior Cycle, which prioritize self-determination skills, such as managing yourself, staying well and working with others.
During the work experience programme, Shane’s self-determination score increased from 85 to 124 due largely to strong gains in autonomy and self-regulation (as measured using the ARC Self-Determination Scale). Qualitative feedback was gathered from Shane along with his parents and co-workers.
Shane reported: ‘I think self-determination is great as I am given work that I love; work that I am able to do and complete. I am always busy at work and feel I have achieved and completed a good days work at the end of the day. I get on very well with staff and feel very much part of the team.’
Shane’s mother reported: ‘Like most parents of children with disabilities, we have had to lobby and canvas for any entitlements that Shane has secured. At this stage our family is very fortunate that Shane has secured work experience in Co. Wexford Education Centre, with the assistance of Ms. Elma White from Co. Wexford Community Workshop, who has worked tirelessly to find Shane suitable work experience. I have seen significant improvements in Shane’s wellbeing since he began his work experience programme.’
At the end of the work experience programme, one of Shane’s co-workers reported: ‘Last year, I had little or no experience of working with a colleague with disability so I wasn’t very comfortable around adults with a disability. The past year has opened my eyes so much. There is a much more inclusive feel in the office and I realise the importance of inclusion for everyone. We all deserve a chance to be part of work and society as we can all play a part in making each other’s lives happy and fulfilling.’
Quantitative data was also gathered from an organisational perspective, which showed increased administrative efficiencies and reduced sick leave. Overall, a compelling picture emerged on the value of customised work experience programmes for students, families and work places.
From the early years of the inclusive school movement, teachers have acted as agents of change in the context of inclusion and social justice. Inclusive practice requires the collaboration of teachers and others, such as associated professionals and parents. Agents of change work purposefully with others to challenge the status quo and develop social justice programmes that promote inclusion. It is now time for us to share our knowledge of inclusion with the wider community so that all of our students can have a brighter future.