The Upside – Education

True inclusion needs a whole system approach, a whole education approach and a whole person approach. (Byrne, 2019)

One of the biggest barriers preventing people with Down syndrome from reaching their potential is low societal expectations. Children with Down syndrome learn differently. If children don’t learn the way we teach, then we have to teach the way they learn.


When Down Syndrome Ireland was founded fifty years ago, children with Down syndrome were often not sent to school. In more recent years, people with Down syndrome were not considered capable of completing the Junior Certificate or Leaving Certificate, yet every year students defy that expectation.


Regardless of academic achievement all children in the State should receive an education which meets their individual educational needs.

Pre-School Primary and Post Primary

Many children with Down syndrome will have better outcomes in mainstream schools, but the system is far from perfect, so many families choose special education settings looking for smaller classes and better access to therapy services.


The academic benefits for students with Down syndrome who are educated in inclusive settings are well established (Buckley & Bird, 2000), but less well known are the academic implications of inclusion for the other students.


The principle of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is that the type of good teaching practices which are implemented to support students with additional needs actually help everyone by providing multiple ways of engaging with and understanding the subjects taught.

The teacher’s viewpoint


One advantage to having a child with Down syndrome in my classroom is that it changed the way I teach. It showed me that every child can learn and we as teachers have to find the method that works for them. I’m a better teacher for this.


The children who have a child with Down syndrome in their class are more sensitive, caring and patient.


In my experience, classmates exhibit more kindness and appear more considerate and tolerant of others as a result of having a pupil with Down syndrome in the class.

Further Education

The end of formal schooling often marks the beginning of adulthood for many people, whether they have Down syndrome or not. It brings with it new adventures, as well as new difficulties and new uncertainties.

In Ireland, most people with Down syndrome move into disability day services when they leave school. This move from education to health is something which doesn’t happen for other 18 year olds who don’t have disabilities. While their peers are encouraged to continue learning or find employment, it can be difficult for people with Down syndrome to find appropriate courses or to find jobs. People with Down syndrome may struggle with other people’s low expectations of what they can or should do with their lives. Many would like to continue in education, find a job and live fairly independently with minimal support, but it can be hard to find those opportunities.



Many people with Down syndrome have high expectations and want the option to continue to further and higher education. However for most, once they leave school that will be the end of their formal education. A few people find their way into the three third level courses designed for people with intellectual disabilities in Cork, Limerick and Dublin, but the small number of courses means that this is not accessible for most. For the past 8 years, DSI has been the leading provider of further education for adults with Down syndrome through our Ability programme. But continuing education should be a right, and should be available to all, with accessible courses provided locally.



As well as ensuring that courses at the right level are available locally, change is needed in Post-Primary schools and Special Education settings to ensure that people are aware of their options. Students with Down syndrome often receive no career guidance at school as the assumption is that they will move straight from education into disability day care services. There is an expectation that they will not access further or higher education and that their path in life is already decided. Without appropriate guidance or digital literacy skills to find out about courses, people may be unaware that further or higher education options exist.


Adults who wish to continue to study need to go against the trend and defy the expectation that a disability day service is the only option for them. It is shocking that this outdated assumption is still there.


Improved guidance, accessible information and clear pathways from school to further and higher education need to be established and maintained. DSI is working with State bodies Solas and the ETBI to improve the access to further education for people with Down syndrome.


Did you know? There is strong public support for higher education access for people with Down syndrome. 87% of adults agree that there should be supports for adults with Down syndrome to engage in further and higher education. Source: DSI Commissioned Empathy Survey (2021)

An Appetite for Further Education (Source: Down Syndrome Ireland)

  • 62% of post primary students with Down syndrome would like to go to college.
  • 71% of adults with Down syndrome who have already left school would like to attend further education
  • Before the pandemic, just 29% of adults with Down syndrome were doing some kind of course, many of which were delivered in a health setting by care staff.
  • Only 16% of teenagers with Down syndrome say they would like to attend a day service after leaving school.
  • 71% of adults with Down syndrome are attending a HSE day service.

Further and Higher Education

Down Syndrome Ireland has been successfully delivering adult education through our local branches for more than a decade, seeing approximately 500-600 learners progressing through our courses, as part of the Ability Programme. Our Ability Programme breaks down barriers and provides adults with Down syndrome access to meaningful further education and employment opportunities. Many study more than one course, demonstrating that as long as we keep teaching, people keep learning.


Eight years ago, Latch On; a Literacy and Technology course was introduced and has been delivered via Down syndrome Ireland branches ever since. Down Syndrome Ireland later introduced a politics and advocacy course called My Opinion, My Vote and most recently a Work Skills course. These modules all form part of our Ability Programme.

Comments from parents of students who have studied our Ability Programme’s Latch

The benefits are written all over him. He will try things and is very good at doing bits and pieces for himself and that he didn’t do before.

Travelling back and forth with that sense of purpose about him has done the world of good to him. Much more independent in himself.

If someone told me on the day she was born that we would be talking about poets and unpublished work; it would have made a difference.

He is alive for the first time in years.

She has a new sense of purpose, almost a new identity….one she is proud of!

During the pandemic, Down Syndrome Ireland developed and delivered Ability Online courses remotely and students with Down syndrome embraced online learning. Since October 2020, 133 students have studied online with Down Syndrome Ireland.

Comments from students who have studied with Down syndrome Ireland

I reached my goals for Latch On. I can now read more quickly and I write poetry. I am going to write a poem for my brother’s birthday. I worked hard for two years.

I liked meeting new friends. We ring each other on the phone. I like writing names and copying words.

I liked learning about working in a restaurant. I pretended to be a waitress in our class role-play. That was my favourite part of Latch On.