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20 years of university for people with intellectual disability

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A South Australian university program that includes people with intellectual disability in regular university topics is celebrating 20 years.

Flinders University’s Up the Hill Project was the first of its kind in Australia and is one of just two programs nationally that support people with intellectual disability to participate in everyday university life.

Participants are assigned mentors – placement students in disability and developmental education or teaching – over the three-year program and celebrate their achievements and improved knowledge, social skills and self-confidence with a formal university graduation ceremony.

Kerri-ann Messenger completed the program in 2017 and found the experience so rewarding she has continued to attend lectures at Flinders University in subsequent topics.

With a long-standing love for research and learning, she chose to complete assessments throughout her program and attained several distinctions while undertaking challenging subjects such as neurological rehabilitation and psychology.

“The program has literally changed her world,” her mother Yvonne says.

“Through the mentor system she has been able to talk to other students, learn how to study and really understand what she is learning.”

Messenger was also the first program participant to undertake an 80-hour work placement, which she completed at a local special education school.

“The lecturers went all out to make this happen for her”, Yvonne says.

“That’s the thing about Up the Hill, they don’t automatically say no if the students want to do something, they do everything they can to make it work.”

Messenger works part-time in an administrative role for a medical insurer and aspires to be an advocate for people with disability. She realised another goal recently, writing a chapter for the book People with Intellectual Disability Experiencing University Life, published earlier this year.

While other participants in the program have also gone on to realise dreams of paid work, volunteering or subsequent study, Dr Fiona Rillotta, who leads the Up The Hill Project and is an acclaimed researcher in inclusive higher education for people with intellectual disability, says the key purpose is to foster self-confidence and social development, and provide opportunities to explore interests and experience a sense of control and belonging.

“Higher education provides immense benefits for people with intellectual disability, but the opportunities for participation are limited,” Rillotta says.

“Universities have a key role to play in promoting diversity and inclusion and we are proud to be leading the way in Australia with Flinders University’s Up the Hill Project.

“We all need support to help us be successful in life and the Up the Hill Project is a fantastic example of giving people a go and enabling them to feel a sense of belonging to a community that traditionally did not include them.”

A diverse student population benefits all students, who gain a broader perspective of diverse communities, deeper empathy, stronger communication skills and a richer understanding of the world.  

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