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Republic of Ireland Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris has announced new initiatives to support students with learning disabilities and autism access third-level education, which includes access to assistive technologies.

The goal is to enhance opportunities for students with learning disabilities in higher education and ensure easier access to disability equipment.

In Ireland, third-level education sector in Ireland consists of universities, institutes of technology, and colleges of education, collectively known as higher education institutions or HEIs, according to Citizens Information.

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The new proposals, which will form part of the proposed new National Access Plan, will allocate ring-fenced funding of €3 million a year to 2025 so higher education institutions can implement universal design and inclusive practices on their campuses.

Funding in 2022 will be directed towards universal design and inclusive practices. This includes improving campus accessibility improvements such as supporting autism friendly campuses, such as wayfinding apps, signage, and sensory rooms.

Importantly, technology-based solutions that support inclusive practices in teaching and learning, and training for students to support learning and utilising assistive technology and upgrading students’ digital skills, will also be supported.

The funding this year may also be used for training and professional development for staff, including training resources and recruitment of specialists, to develop and enhance of inclusive teaching, learning and assessment practices. Funding can be used to make services available at times which suit students’ needs.

Minister Harris said: “We have never focused on how many students with an intellectual disability or autism have entered or completed third level. 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.

“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.”

The proposals will form part of the National Plan for Equity of Access, Participation and Success in Higher Education.

Later this year, a competitive funding call will issue to colleges seeking proposals for three-year pathfinding pilot programmes supporting the creation of on how to assist students with learning disabilities. Funding for approved programmes or courses will be rolled out over three years, starting in 2023.

“Before we agreed these proposals, we examined what was already happening,” added Minister Harris. “There are examples of very good practice in the system and encouraging signs of commitment to the extensive process of change required to make such programmes a success.

“However, there are also examples where, despite strong commitment, it was not possible to deliver programmes which were sustainable over time. The government is also seeking expertise to support the department and HEA to ensure this roll out meets the needs of students.

“This is an important day and I really want to thank everyone for working with us to make this a reality. This has the potential to change the lives of autistic students and students with intellectual disabilities.”

The Programme for Access to Higher Education (PATH) Fund supports innovative approaches to delivering the ambitions, goals and objectives of National Access Plans.

This new measure will support the creation of greater capacity within higher education for embedding inclusive practices using universal design practices, which will help all students, including students with autism and other additional needs.

PATH Phase 1 will be a one-off fund of €3 million for universal design that will be allocated to higher education institutions in 2022 to advance universal design and inclusive practices in higher education.

PATH Phase 2 will be a competitive funding call for new three-year pathfinding pilot programmes/course provision for students with intellectual disabilities with a funding stream of €3 million a year over three years, commencing in 2023. The outcomes arising from this investment will inform future policy beyond the pathfinding pilot phase, which will take place over a period between 2022 and 2025.

Earlier this year, Ireland’s minister for disabilities, Anne Rabbitte, announced €2m for 11 projects under the Health Service Executive’s (HSE) CREATE initiative, which aims to improve access to digital and assistive technologies for people with disabilities.

Some of the projects that received funding include Ireland’s first Sit-to-Stand Wheelchair Service, a service for disabled people with access and communication needs, and support for disabled people living independently in the community.

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