Inclusive program celebrates 20 years of changing lives

A trailblazing inclusive university program that supports people with intellectual disability in regular university topics has celebrated 20 years of transforming lives.

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, giving an emotional thank you at the celebration event (with Dr Fiona Rillotta)

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, Kerri-ann 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,” Kerri-ann’s 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.”

Kerri-ann 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.”

Kerri-ann 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, co-writing a chapter for the book People with Intellectual Disability Experiencing University Life, which was published earlier this year.

Kerri-ann Messenger with her mother Yvonne and father John at her graduation in 2017

Other participants have also gone on to realise dreams of paid work, volunteering or subsequent study, but 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 this is not its key purpose. Rather, the program aims to foster self-confidence and social development, and provide opportunities for participants to explore interests and experience a sense of belonging and feeling valued as a university student.

“Higher education provides immense benefits for people with intellectual disability, but the opportunities for participation are limited,” Dr 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 enabling people with intellectual disability to feel a sense of belonging to a community that traditionally did not include them.”

John Grantley, Founding Director of Up the Hill Project, presents at the 20-year celebration

The 20 years celebration event, held on 18 June 2019, was attended by past and present students, mentors, family members as well as staff working in the program and special guests in the disability sector.

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.

Left: Jenny Widdop (left) and Dr Fiona Rillotta (right) celebrate a successful event and 20 years of a life changing program; Right: Up the Hill Project participants with their peer mentors

Congratulations to Dr Fiona Rillotta, one of Flinders Early Career Researchers who this year received Impact Seed Funding for her research project: ‘Further Up the Hill’ – 20 years of inclusion of people with intellectual disability at university: Where to Next? This research is looking beyond the program to understand how it is received by the wider University community and how that might translate to life beyond Flinders and into the workforce.

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