Mr Aston's long-standing dedication to championing inclusive education programmes for students with intellectual disabilities has paved the way for transformative changes within the Irish higher education landscape. Advocacy through INHEF, has led to the introduction of PATH 4 Phase 2, which will involve a three-year pilot to support an enhancement of course provision for students with intellectual disabilities and to inform future policy considerations in respect of students with intellectual disabilities in higher education As Des passes the baton to Dr. Órla Slattery from Mary Immaculate College Limerick, the future of inclusive education in Ireland appears brighter than ever before.
Over the past decade, educators across higher education institutions in Ireland have worked tirelessly to bridge the gaps in post-school provisions for students with intellectual disabilities. These educators have been instrumental in pioneering innovative educational programmes designed to empower students with intellectual disabilities and equip them with the skills necessary to lead more independent lives. These initiatives have not only provided a diverse academic curriculum but have also fostered essential transferable skills. Research, including work by Mr. Aston and Dr. Slattery, has underscored the tremendous impact of these programmes on students, showing increased self-esteem, confidence, social skills, and self-determination - ultimately opening doors to meaningful opportunities.
However, the path to establishing and maintaining inclusive education programmes has not been without its challenges. Course coordinators and educators have consistently gone above and beyond to ensure students receive a quality education and the full college/university experience. A significant hurdle for many has been the 'add-on' model of support, which often placed these programmes on the periphery of higher education rather than fully integrating them into mainstream activities.
In the absence of a dedicated platform to address systematic barriers faced by this population, individual course coordinators made admirable attempts to connect with one another. The year 2018 marked a turning point with the launch of the Inclusive National Higher Education Forum (INHEF). Under Mr. Aston's guidance, INHEF became a collaborative space where higher education providers joined forces to drive strategic development, inform policy debates, and enhance capacity within institutions to establish and deliver initiatives for students with intellectual disabilities across the Republic of Ireland.
As Des hands over the role of Chairperson to Órla, the future of INHEF and inclusive education in Ireland is filled with promise. Dr. Slattery's extensive experience and commitment to the cause make her a formidable successor. Together with a dedicated team of educators, they are set to continue the legacy of empowering students with intellectual disabilities, fostering inclusive educational environments, and further dismantling barriers to higher education.
The handover of leadership symbolises the unyielding dedication of educators in Ireland to ensuring that every student, regardless of their perceived abilities, has equal access to quality higher education. Des Aston's remarkable tenure as Chairperson of INHEF has laid a strong foundation, and his transition to a new role signifies not an end but a new beginning for inclusive education in Ireland. Under the guidance of Dr. Órla Slattery, INHEF will undoubtedly continue to shape the future of education for students with intellectual disabilities, embodying the principles of empowerment, inclusivity, and opportunity.