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13. The role of University education in employment and other outcomes for people with intellectual disability

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The right to post-secondary education

Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN, 2006), and has agreed to implement these rights in Australia. The UNCRPD, Article 24, affirms the right of people with disability to ‘access general tertiary education, vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning without discrimination and on an equal basis with others’. Various Australian government policy and legislation echoes this right including the Australian Disability Standards for Education (Australian Government, 2005) that affirm ‘that students with disability are able to access and participate in education on the same basis as other students’ (p. iii). 

What are the post-secondary education options?

There are two main post-school education options in Australia: tertiary or University level education, and vocational education and training (VET) often known as TAFE. However, it is important to note that while these are called ‘post-secondary’, there are opportunities to commence some of these options whilst still undertaking secondary education in mainstream or special schools.  

Universities and higher education providers

Australia’s higher education system is made up of universities and higher education providers. There are 125 registered higher education providers in Australia, including 43 universities with over one million enrolled students (Commonwealth of Australia, Austrade, 2016: 27).

Higher education is open to those over 17 years of age and admission requirements are variable by State/Territory and course. In Victoria they include:

  • satisfactory completion of an Australian or overseas Year 12 program (for example VCE, IB, HSC, or equivalents from interstate or overseas). This includes the satisfactory completion of the VCE and Units 3 and 4 of one of the following English studies: English, English as an Additional Language, Literature or English Language.
  • some higher education providers will consider senior secondary qualifications like Senior VCAL.
  • completion of any part of a tertiary qualification at Certificate IV level or higher. For example, Certificate IV, Diploma, Advanced Diploma, Associate Degree and Degree studies, or overseas equivalents. (Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre

The problem – the low rates of post-secondary education for people with intellectual disability

Young adults with intellectual disability often share the same aspirations as other students without disabilities about attending post-secondary education and gaining skills needed to obtain employment (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010 in Wehman et al. 2018). However, the expectation for students with intellectual disability to attend university/college[1] and other forms of post-secondary education has not been adequately appreciated by families and many relevant professionals (Butler et al. 2016).

This lack of knowledge of the advantages of post-secondary education for people with intellectual disability contributes to low numbers of enrolments. Despite its impact on later opportunities, people with intellectual disability are far less likely than their age peers without disability to move into post-secondary education – both internationally and in Australia (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2008; Davies & Beamish, 2009; Stanwick, Forrest, & Skujins, 2017). While there is no recent data, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that based on 2003 data, the proportion of 20-24 years olds with intellectual disability who participated in post school education was approximately 9%, while for those over 25 years it was less than 5% (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2008).

For youth with intellectual disability, there is a large disparity in education and employment outcomes. A significant body of evidence from the United States shows that among all disability groups, youth (aged 16-26) with intellectual disability have lower rates of preparation for work after high school and lower rates of post-secondary education participation (Miller, Sax & Tucker, 2019). Further, when students do attend post-secondary education, retention of students to degree completion remains a widespread issue (Wehman et al. 2018).

Outcomes of University Education

A range of studies have demonstrated the benefits of a university education. While the components of the education will vary across programs the evidence indicates a consistent range of outcomes:

  • Persons with and without disabilities who have undertaken post-secondary education experience higher rates of employment and income. Data over a range of studies, particularly in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., demonstrates the pattern of increased employment for individuals with intellectual disability who attended university programs (Moore & Schelling, 2015). Education offers a variety of advantages for individuals, with more education resulting in higher rates of employment, regardless of disability (Smith, Grigal, & Sulewsi, 2012; Butler et al., 2016).
  • In studies in the US, employees with intellectual disability who have post-secondary educational experience work more hours and earn higher wages across a wider range of occupations than youth with less education (Wehman et al. 2018; Grigal, Hart & Migliore, 2011).
  • Through inclusive academic coursework and continual opportunities for social involvement on campus, US college students with intellectual disability learn skills needed for employment success as well as communication and self-advocacy skills (Wehman et al. 2018; Rillotta et al. 2020).
  • The building of social capital occurs through involvement in co-curricular activities. Students with intellectual disability enrolled in US colleges experience college life alongside their peers, meet new people and form friendships (Uditsky and Hughson, 2008; Rillotta et al. 2020).
  • Those attending education while undertaking independent living learn and practise  independent living skills – e.g. cooking, cleaning, shopping, paying bills (Ryan, Randall, Walters & Morash-MacNeil, 2019).
  • University participation leads to positive academic outcomes and accomplishment of personally set goals (Miller, Sax & Tucker, 2019; Uditsky & Hughson, 2012).
  • University participation enables the building of self esteem, self confidence and independence in a context where young people with intellectual disability see themselves as similar to their peers without disability (Rillotta et al. 2020).

Ingredients of success: university education for people with intellectual disability

Around the world, there is an increase in targeted post-secondary education programs that have been specifically designed to foster inclusion of people with disability in university education. These programs have been designed to allow young adults with disabilities to gain ‘academic, social, employment, self‐determination and independent living skills’ (Francis et al. 2018, p.278).

As outlined above, research has evidenced positive outcomes of these programs targeting people with disability including increased employment and independent living skills (Francis et al. 2018). Research has also identified some of the key components of these programs for people with intellectual disabilities. Without these components, students’ experiences can be less positive, especially where they have inadequate support, are subject to low expectations, and experience non-inclusive practices on campus (Rillotta et al., 2020).

According to a study by Uditsky and Hughson (2012), authentic student experience unfolds in at least five contexts that weave together to encourage belonging, learning, identity, and contribution:

  1. ‘Academic: Students pursue a coherent program of study in course-related activities that develop their capacities.
  2. Social: Students make friends, connect with social networks, and pursue a social life in company with fellow students.
  3. Associational: Students join and participate in organizations that reflect their interests and concerns.
  4. Employment: Students explore their options for work through internships, career guidance, and part-time and summer jobs.
  5. Family: Students assume a new place in their families as their competence, confidence, and autonomy grow and new possibilities emerge’ (p.299-300).

There must be conscious, systematic, creative, collaborative efforts to minimize the differences that can pull students away from these typical and valued pathways (O’Brien, Bowman, Chesley, Hughson and Uditsky, 2009; Uditsky and Hughson, 2008).

Further key components of university/college programs identified as important for the experience of young people with disability include:

  • Provision of extra instruction, academic support and coaching (Grigal et al. 2012; Moore & Schelling 2015; Thoma et al. 2011; Ryan, Randall, Walters & Morash-MacNeil, 2019).
  • Career-related preparation including:
    • career discovery practices to identify the unique strengths and interests of individual students (Scheef, 2019)
    • vocational experience through networking and internship/job placement (Gilson & Carter, 2016; Skellern & Astbury, 2012; Ryan, Randall, Walters & Morash-MacNeil, 2019)
    • employment officers and job coaches to support students in accessing employment opportunities (Skellern & Astbury, 2012; Ryan, Randall, Walters & Morash-MacNeil, 2019)
    • open days and job shops (Skellern & Astbury, 2012; Scheef, 2019).
  • Access to support to meet daily mental and physical needs, such as via classmates and personal carers (Uditsky & Hughson 2012).
  • Scholarships and grants availability to students and families who do not have the financial resources to cover these costs (Uditsky & Hughson 2012).
  • Flexibility in the schedules of students and staff (Scheef, 2019).

Programs and Evidence

There are three main models of university education for people with disability:

  1. Fully inclusive models (with individual support):
    Students with intellectual disability attend mainstream college courses, including certificate or degree programs (for audit or credit), participate in mainstream on campus social activities and may engage in career and employment related activities.
  2. Mixed or hybrid models:
    Students with intellectual disability can attend mainstream academic classes (for audit or credit) and/or social activities on campus, while also participating in life skills or transition classes with other students with disabilities.
  3. Substantially separate or segregated models:
    Students with intellectual disability only attend classes with other students with disabilities (i.e. life skills or transition programs). Career development and work experience may be included (Rillotta et al. 2020).

Since 2008, the United States has been implementing Transition and Post-Secondary (university/college) programs for students with intellectual disabilities, using inclusive and hybrid models:

What we know thus far from the relatively recent emergence of these postsecondary educational programs is that college experiences provide a viable and unique pathway to CIE [competitive integrated employment] … and that participation in postsecondary education significantly increases the odds of successful employment for students with IDD [intellectual and developmental disability] (Wehman et al. 2018, P.137).

The ‘Think College’ project in the United States has been operating since 2010 and promotes the inclusion of people with intellectual disability in college based programs. Higher education colleges receive funding to create, expand or enhance higher education programs to include students with intellectual disability (Grigal et al. 2019), utilizing all three models above. In 2018, 57 colleges and universities across the US participated with 981 students with intellectual disability enrolled (89% between 18-25 years, though ages ranged to 45 years of age). Programs include enrolment in mainstream higher education courses (58% of enrolments are in these) as well as specialized programs (usually related to life, social and career skills) open only to students with intellectual disability (Grigal et al. 2019). Students selected different types of credentials from their experience: 29% of students with intellectual disability enrolled in standard courses; 28% enrolled in non assessed courses, and 34% had a special credential created as part of the Think College program. In 2018-2019, 37% of students had paid employment while they studied, with this figure increasing to 57% when also including those in paid work-based experience programs. 52% of students had a paid job at or within 90 days of exiting the program, and 64% of past graduates had a paid job one year after exit. This outcome data is compelling when compared with the national employment average of 18% of people with intellectual disability in the US (Grigal et al. 2019).

Research on similar programs in the US where students with intellectual disability experience inclusive higher education reports that such programs show a rate of employment for completing students that exceeds 70% (Uditsky and Hughson, 2012).

In Australia, there are two inclusive programs for students with intellectual disability in universities: ‘Up the Hill project’ at Flinders University and the ‘Uni 2 beyond’ project at University of Sydney.

Australia: Uni 2 beyond

The ‘Uni 2 beyond’ program at University of Sydney, established in 2012, enables students with intellectual disabilities to take one to two units of study with no assessment. The program is based on evidence that:

A successful university experience can be measured in many ways apart from grades, including increased learning, independence, self-determination, and positive social experiences (Centre for Disability Studies, 2016).

Students are paired with peer mentors and have access to one to one tutoring as well as facilitated social inclusion supports to engage in campus activities and internship opportunities (

Australia: Up the Hill

The Flinders University ‘Up the Hill’ program has been running since 1999 and operates using a similar model where students with disability select areas of study to attend but are not assessed. A certificate of recognition is awarded on completion of six academic semesters (3 years) as part of standard graduation ceremonies. Participating students have ranged in age from 19-66 years.


Australian Government (2005). Australian Disability Standards for Education, Department of Education and Training. Available at:

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2008). Disability in Australia: intellectual disability. Bulletin no. 67. Cat. no. AUS 110. AIHW, Canberra.

Butler, L. N., Sheppard-Jones, K., Whaley, B., Harrison, B. & Osness, M. (2016). Does Participation in Higher Education Make a Difference in Life Outcomes for Students with Intellectual Disability? Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 44, 3: 295 – 298.

Centre for Disability Studies (2016). Providing a university experience for persons with intellectual disabilities, Innovative Practices 2016 on Education and ICT,

Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade). (2016). Australian Education technology: Education of the Future Now, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Crosbie, J., Murfitt, K., Hayward, S. M. & Wilson, E. (2019). NDIS Participant Employment Taskforce Literature Review: Employment and Economic Participation of People with Disability, National Disability Insurance Agency, Geelong.

Flinders University (2020) Up the Hill Project,

Francis, G., Stride, A., & Reed, S. (2018). Transition strategies and recommendations: perspectives of parents of young adults with disabilities. British Journal of Special Education, 45, 3: 277-301.

Gilson, C.B. & Carter, E. W. (2016). Promoting Social Interactions and Job Independence for College Students with Autism or Intellectual Disability: A Pilot Study, Journal of  Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46: 3583–3596.

Grigal, M., Hart, D. & Migliore, A. (2011). Comparing the Transition Planning, Postsecondary Education, and Employment Outcomes  of Students With Intellectual  and Other Disabilities, Career Development for Exceptional Individuals 34, 1: 4 –17

Grigal, M., Hart, D. & Weir, C. (2012). A Survey of Postsecondary Education Programs for Students With Intellectual Disabilities in the United States, Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 9, 4: 223-233.

Hughson, E. A., Moodie, S., & Uditsky, B. (2006). The story of inclusive postsecondary education in Alberta: A research report. Alberta Association for Community Living, Edmonton, Canada.

Miller, S. C., Sax, C. L. & Tucker, M. S., (2019). Examining Associations between Postsecondary Education, Earnings, and Provision of College and University Training Related to Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Served by Vocational Rehabilitation, Journal of Rehabilitation, 85, 1: 22-34.

Moore, E. J. & Schelling, A. (2015). Postsecondary inclusion for individuals with an intellectual disability and its effects on employment, Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 19, 2: 130–148.

Rillotta, F.; Arthur, J.; Hutchinson, C; & Raghavendra, P. (2020). Inclusive university experience in Australia: Perspectives of students with intellectual disability and their mentors, Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 24, 1: 102-117.

Ryan, J. B., Randall,K. N., Walters, E. and Morash-MacNeil, V. (2019). Employment and independent living outcomes of a mixed model post-secondary education program for young adults with intellectual disabilities, Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation 50: 61–72.

Scheef, A. R. (2019). What and Who Works: Strategies for Facilitating Work Experience Opportunities for Students Enrolled in Postsecondary Education Programs, Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 16, 3: 223–231.

Skellern, J. & Astbury, G. (2012) Gaining employment: the experience of students at a further education college for individuals with learning disabilities, British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42: 60-67.

Uditsky, B., & Hughson, E. A. (2008). Inclusive post-secondary education for adults with developmental disabilities: A promising path to an inclusive life. Alberta Association for Community Living: Edmonton, Canada.

Uditsky, B. & Hughson, E. A. (2012). Inclusive Postsecondary Education—An Evidence-Based Moral Imperative, Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 9, 4: 298–302.

UN (United Nations), Division for Social Policy and Development Disability (2006) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre, (2020).

Wehman, P., Taylor, J., Brooke, V., Avellone, L., Whittenburg, H., Ham, W., Brooke, A. M. & Car, S. (2018). Toward Competitive Employment for Persons with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: What Progress Have We Made and Where Do We Need to Go, Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 43, 3: 131 –144

The authors would like to acknowledge the usefulness of Crosbie, J.: Murfitt, K.; Hayward, S. & Wilson, E. (2019), NDIS Participant Employment Taskforce. Literature review: Employment and economic participation of people with disability, Burwood, Deakin University, as a review of similar literature that provided initial guidance.

[1] Some of the studies referenced throughout are based on research in the US and tend to use the term ‘college’. While there are distinctions in relation to course structures, ‘college’ and ‘university’ are frequently interchangeable and simply refer to education at the tertiary level.

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