HELEN KELLER, THE American activist who was the blind and deaf had this to say about positive thinking: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope and confidence”.
Well, while I largely agree with this sentiment, I feel the word “education” could be substituted for optimism. To paraphrase, “Education is the faith that leads to achievement”.
Generally, education can be the prism with which we see the world, other people, situations and experiences. There are many forms of education and certainly life experience should never be discounted as a whole and rounded source of knowledge and wisdom.
However it is generally accepted that those people who have the benefit of formal education, and have the opportunity to go on to higher education grow and blossom, both in hope and confidence. And that should be an opportunity for the many, not the few. The very essence of education should be inclusivity.
Today in Ireland we have the very disturbing situation where higher education is simply not inclusive for large numbers of students with sight loss and this is reflected in the falling numbers going on to third level.
That this situation is bucking the wider trend of people with disabilities going on to third level further education is all the more worrying, and totally unacceptable to us in the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI).
Figures from AHEAD show that while the numbers of students with disabilities in Higher Education rose by 4% from 2015 to 2016, the number of students who are blind or vision impaired actually fell by 10%.
The National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education show that students with sensory disabilities continue to be less likely to enter higher education that students with other types of disability. In 2017, students with visual impairments represented the smallest group of people with disabilities in higher education, making up just 1.8% of the total disabled student population (AHEAD,2017).
This is a very negative trend given the abysmal record of people with sight loss in employment, which currently stands at 84%.
Why is this?
We believe that the Department of Education can and must do more. If we were marking its progress cards it would get a less than glowing report.
Compared to Denmark, a country of similar population size, and whose library for people with print disabilities receives State funding of some €22 million, we receive no State funding for our NCBI Library. In fact, our library service could be at serious risk unless we secure the necessary state funding.
NCBI is not being supported or indeed utilised by the Department of Education. We can produce the curriculum in Braille, this is highly specialised but we can do that. We can offer an advisory service to colleges, we can liaise with Disability Officers. We are an untapped resource and we have a wealth of knowledge. We are the experts and we need to be heard to ensure the voices of those with sight loss are heard.
People with vision impairment or blindness, and other print disabilities must be facilitated to access print materials in accessible and appropriate formats. With appropriate funding, there is an opportunity to build a more inclusive and equitable system for people with print disabilities.
Education has expanded significantly in Ireland in the past 50 years but the hope that this would automatically bring about a fairer society have been only partly realised for people with print disabilities.
It starts with us and inclusive education systems. NCBI is calling for a true inclusive and equitable quality education system for all people with print disabilities.
Nobody with a print disability should get left behind. The barriers have to be broken down and it starts with the Department of Education.
Chris White is CEO of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland.