Equality Studies Training: Tackling disparity when it comes to Mental Health, Gender, Age, Disability and Race

By Gemma Creagh - Last update


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Ireland has come a long way in the last three decades. We’ve shifted from being a nation where homosexuality was illegal up to mid ‘90s, to our population gleefully voting ‘Yes’ for same-sex marriage. We’ve stopped exporting jobseekers by the planeload and now boast a culturally and ethnically diverse workforce. As politics across the globe lean a bit too far right, it’s more important than ever to stay vigilant when it comes to making our country an inclusive one. That’s where Equality Studies Training can help. Ahead of her popular course in Maynooth University, we had a chat with expert Angela McGinn about the changing issues facing equality.

An accomplished academic, Angela has worked in this field for almost twenty years. She received a Science Degree in Psychology from UCD, which was closely followed by a Masters in Social and Organisational Psychology. After graduating, Angela lectured in University College Dublin, before the National College of Ireland made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. For five years, Angela lectured in Organisational Behaviour and still managed to find time to get a second Masters in Adult and Community Education.

Angela took on the role of Mature Student Officer for Maynooth University in 2000, which has remained her professional home to date. She initially tutored on a number of courses, but subsequently went on to redesign and deliver the Certificate in Training and Continuing Education and also the Certificate in Equality Studies training programme.

How did you get involved in Equality Studies training?

Going back to when I taught in UCD, I worked on a project with Professor Eunice McCarthy for the joint Oireachtas Committee on women’s rights. It’s extraordinary to think about this now, but back in the early ’90s there was no female representation on boards. Women managers were very unfairly marginalised. We did a piece examining the state sector. We looked at Air Lingus, ESB and Telecom Eireann – that’s how far back that was.

When I moved to the National College of Ireland, I worked on a project for ESB establishing a business case for equality. Again, it’s so hard to imagine, you had to establish a business case for women. Presently, with my role in Adult Ed, I work with various groups. I’ve worked with the travelling community; I’ve worked with people coming out of direct provision; with women, looking at gender issues; and, of course, the area of bringing mature students back to education. People have had marginalised education experiences, and it’s important they are able to access third level and are supported in that process. I do have my background in psychology, but I’ve also utilised a practice-based approach when it comes to Equality Studies.

Can you tell me a little bit about the history of equality in Ireland?

Everything changed for women in Ireland when we joined the European Economic Community. It was because of the EU, or EEC as it was known back in 1973, that we had to bring our legislation in line with European legislation. That was the trigger moment. It resulted in the Equality Act and the Equal Status Acts. Both these prohibited discrimination on nine grounds with gender being one of those. It also resulted in the removal of the marriage bar. This piece of law meant women working in the public sector had to resign from their jobs when they got married, on the grounds that they were occupying a job that should go to a man. Different times when you think about it. Then in 1977, the Employment Equality Act prohibited discrimination on the grounds of gender or marital status in most areas of employment.

There were educational acts in the early ’70s, which allowed for the establishment of secondary schools and vocational schools. This allowed young people to stay in secondary education. Before this, there were schools ran by religious orders, but a lot of people weren’t able to access them because they were expensive. Being able to bring more people, and keep more people in the educational system in the ’70s was a critical step towards equality. We’re by no means there yet.

What are the issues facing people with learning disabilities or mental health issues?

As part of the Equality Studies course, we look at the notion of invisible disabilities, individuals with so-called learning disabilities, individuals with mental health disabilities – and how organisations can be supportive of those. In the first instance, the language relating to these issues has slowly become more inclusive as we understand more fully how people live in and interpret the world. Presently, some of the world’s most innovative and cutting-edge companies, such as Microsoft, actively seek people who are considered to be away from the ‘norm’ on the learning spectrum. Rather than using terms like ‘learning disabilities’ they instead use titles such as learning differences or ‘neurodiversity’. People with learning differences are recognised as an asset to a company because they can often see possibilities that ‘normal’ or neurotypical learners might miss.

Of course, companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook etc., are leading the way of their own volition; however, away from the giant corporations in the private sector SMEs, it’s far more loose. They lag behind the cutting edge and this is where the State, through various pieces of legislation, has its part to play. There is legislation in place in terms of facilitating employment for someone with a ‘disability’ and here I reluctantly include those on the ‘autism spectrum’ as this is currently understood.

These changes require a conversation, but it must be an informed and educated conversation. It’s to be hoped that as a result of that conversation, a new language can emerge that can help to create clear guidelines. Then actions must be put in place to move things forward. We are great talkers. We talk about everything, we agree about most things, but often, that’s where it stops.

How do we remedy this?

We need to start at a societal level and treat mental health the same way we treat physical health. We need proper supports and units where individuals can access help, particularly when it comes to youth mental health. It’s appalling that people have to go through A&E and are often turned away and sent home. In Australia, they have a mental health ambulance service. The NSW Ambulance has a dedicated ‘Acute Assessment’ team, which consists of a specially-trained paramedic and mental health nurse. If you are with someone and they are having a crisis or have come off their medication, you can ring them and they will come. Wouldn’t that be amazing here?

It certainly would. Are there any employers who get things right when it comes to equality and mental health?

There are models we can learn from. Again as said previously, in the case of ‘neurodiversity’ multinational organisations handle mental health and wellbeing issues quite well. And this comes down to how they manage people and systems and what structures they have in place – and how, very importantly, issues surrounding mental health are destigmatised there. People need to know that in their workplace they will be supported. They need to know they are not going to lose their job when they go on leave because of depression.

But for small to medium-sized enterprises, we also need to consider the difficulty of losing staff due to extended sick leave or losing staff full stop. They don’t have the resources to manage that and bounce back. That’s where we need to look at policy initiatives that provide support to these companies so they can pass that support on to their employees. We need to have a more social model of responsibility with regards employment, yes, but this comes right back to the problems with our health service.

There are a number of equality issues in terms of access to health care; if you have health insurance, if you can finance it yourself, you’re fine. However, figures released the other day show that there are more than 997,000 people on waiting lists across the health care system. Almost a quarter of our population are waiting to access treatment. The problem needs to be fixed at the source, and hopefully, this will radiate out. This is a conversation people are having across a host of areas. As I said before, we are great at conversations; it’s the action we have a problem with. It’s far better to meet those challenges before they happen than to stick a plaster on them afterward.

Which industries are the worst offenders when it comes to equality issues?

The best companies, obviously, are the multinationals, because they are used to dealing with a wide variety of jurisdictions, and they are large enough to have employees, systems, and programmes in place. There are great companies in this category too, but often the worst offenders are small firms. Sometimes this refers to family firms, as family members aren’t covered by our equality legislation. There are individuals and employers who don’t have the knowledge of what is acceptable or even current legislation.

It’s very important to know the industrial relations mechanisms in Ireland with regards what you can do and what you can’t do. We read about cases every day going to the workplace relations commission and you marvel! How does someone in 2018 not know you can’t dismiss a woman because she’s pregnant – or you can’t dismiss somebody because they are suffering from depression? That’s ignorance in many cases. On the flipside, it’s financially very difficult for small organisations to cover staff when they’re absent. We need to look at getting support for those companies, and we need to look at putting education in place for people to inform themselves.

A course like the Certificate in Equality Studies does that, it covers so much more than gender and employment law. It gets people thinking about issues for the elderly, the work/life balance, problems facing non-Irish nationals, and disability issues – we also look at men’s issues. Nobody is left out. It’s an equal equality course.

Who would benefit from this training and what’s the profile of people who take that course?

We get a mixture. We always have a couple of people who’ve come through the direct provision process and who are now working and advocating in various areas. Usually, we’ll have one or two non-nationals, be they African or Eastern European by birth, which adds so much to the class. They are able to speak first-hand about their experience, from their country’s experience, as well and their religious experience. We get very good debates going. Generally, we have individuals from the state or semi-state sector, from health care, welfare, or the various country councils.

We also have private students. That could be someone with an interest in the area who is doing it for self-development. We also have people from the community sector. They need this knowledge in order to be able to train others. Everybody’s welcome, and from my perspective as a tutor on this course, the more diverse the group, the more everybody gets out of it.

What aspects do you tackle in the programme?

The course begins by doing a complete sweep of the structure of Irish society. We look at the census in detail and at the national breakdown in access to education. We study the psychology behind equality issues, behind discrimination, and how attitudes are formed – and changed. What are the implicit, unknown attitudes we hold that govern the way we think about other people? We all have unconscious biases, every single one of us. I’d like to think that as a tutor in equality studies, my mind is fairly open, but it isn’t. I have implicit biases, gender biases, and implicit race biases too. Everybody does. That’s a product of our education and upbringing. Once you name them, you know them; then you can adjust your thinking to take them into account. Attitudes are resistant to change but we can work around that.

One of the topics we cover is race. We look at direct provision, at individuals who come to Ireland from an economic perspective to work, as well as people seeking refugee status. During the programme, we examine the different models of multiculturalism and interculturalism. The pathway that Europe took was a multicultural approach, and that isn’t helping. From a thought perspective, Interculturalism seems a far better approach to take; this would focus on integration as opposed to the alternative which is essentially ghettoization. When you look at American cities that have, say, an Italian quarter, an Irish quarter and a Chinese quarter – they’re little nationalities within a larger one. We need to look at ways of integrating individuals more, and supporting that whilst respecting their religion and culture.

It’s a huge debate, and I don’t have any answers. I throw it out to people, we look at the research, and we talk about it. This course, it’s a great year; it raises so many issues for people. People become aware of things they’ve never even thought of before. And they hopefully by the end, they are able to have a conversation about these issues with confidence.

Find out more about Equality Studies Training at Maynooth University or speak with a member of their team in person at our next free Education Expo Event. 


Gemma Creagh

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