AONTAS members work to ensure inclusion remains a priority during COVID-19

14 Oct 2020
On Wednesday, 16th September, Marian Hennessy of AONTAS member organisation and AONTAS STAR Award winner 2020, the Cope Foundation, delivered a presentation at our weekly membership update and engagement webinar on how they have continued to support their learners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marian’s presentation focused on the Ability@Work programme in Cork which is delivered by the Cope Foundation. Ability@Work is a specialist employment service which links employers to people (aged 18-29) with intellectual disabilities and/or autism. In March 2020, Ability@Work won an AONTAS STAR Award in the category of Sustainable Employment (Large Organisation). Watch the short video below featuring the team during the awards interviewing process.



Marian gave a brief overview of how the Cope Foundation was established in 1957 during the spread of Polio (Poliomyelitis) in Cork. The Cork Poliomyelitis Association (“Cope”) was founded to provide services to local people for whom the disease impacted. Reflecting on the situation we find ourselves in today, with a separate health pandemic, Marian went on to describe how the Cope Foundation, and specifically the Ability@Work programme, strive to ensure the inclusion of people with disabilities in Cork today. Online you will notice the hashtag #MakingCorkTheInclusiveCapitalOfIreland which captures the fantastic work being done to uphold the interests of people with disabilities by challenging the wider community, including business, to develop positive, inclusive recruitment practices. Ability@Work has established relationships with companies such as Lidl Group to arrange employment for participants. Marian described how this programme provides a person centred service with each participant meeting a job coach and receiving continued support for education, training and employment. To learn more about this process for employers and job seekers, visit

Marian highlighted how the closure of offices and businesses due to the COVID-19 restrictions has impacted on both the team’s ability to develop new relationships with employers and the programme participant’s employment which has been impacted by business closure as well as health and safety measures such as cocooning. However, the team has adapted and found creative solutions to continue their work.

Supporting Participants during COVID-19

Overnight, the Ability@Work team reinvented the programme to ensure the continued delivery of a person-centred service, taking up the challenge of working online. Explaining participants’ dependence on the social interaction the programme provides, Marian moved on to describe some inventive ways they’ve kept in touch and continued online learning where relevant. Some examples of how participants have kept in touch during the COVID-19 restrictions include creative initiatives like “Ability to Cook” and “Friendly Fones” which encourage peer-to-peer support. As is the case with AONTAS members nationwide, Ability@Work placed the safety of participants as the top priority. Recognising the different living situations of participants, Ability@Work drew on the ideas and recommendations of companies and groups in the voluntary sector to rise to the challenge of online learning and communication.

Preparedness is Key

Marian’s closing reflections highlighted the importance of preparedness for organisations in the sector. Laying the groundwork with online activities like those previously described, places the organisation and learners in a less fearful position in case of a second lockdown or increased COVID-19 restrictions. AONTAS members reiterated this point in breakout room discussions, reflecting the conscientious approach adult education organisations across Ireland have taken when planning the re-opening of their programmes and centres. Members further highlighted the silver linings they’ve noticed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic including the development of digital skills. Pre COVID-19 people with disabilities where seen as the ‘other’ and now we are all in the same situation - we all now must try to learn new skills we’re unfamiliar with to adapt to a new way of working and learning. As always, members were keen to share creative ideas about engaging with learners online.

Find out more about Online Teaching practices and ideas by reading our recent blog post, “AONTAS Membership Webinar Focuses on Best Practice in Online Learning” for additional information.


For more information

If you have additional questions about the Ability@Work programme, please email Marian at:

To register for future AONTAS membership update and engagement webinars visit our Events page.