When I joined the team working on the Choices programme three years ago, I had 25 years’ experience in education and I felt confident in my role. However, on that first day I felt very nervous—teaching adults with intellectual disability was a new venture for me and I had no idea what to expect. When the introductions to service users were finished I was left alone with a group of people who regarded me with suspicion, and some interest. Feeling unsure how to proceed and overwhelmed by my class’s disability, I wondered should I stay or should I go? Mustering my courage and encouraged by the warm welcome, I asked the group, ‘What do you want to learn?’ As I positioned myself at the flip chart with my marker poised, there was silence and looks of puzzlement. After a little hesitation, ideas and suggestions started to trickle—and gradually they came flooding, making me regret allowing my shorthand skills to lapse. On studying the wish list of the group, it became apparent that people were asking to learn history, geography, environmental studies, politics and art. They wanted to learn about the world around them. Someone ventured ‘we are like explorers wanting to see new things and places.’ This sentiment hit a meaningful note for everyone. It was then that the group’s name was born – Explorers.
One morning a week is devoted to the Explorers Project. Two volunteers ably support the programme facilitators, John MacManus and myself- Active learning driven by service users requires a considerable amount of time devoted to administration, fostering links in the community and preparing workshops.
The twelve people who form the group range in age from early-twenties to mid-forties; they have mild to moderate intellectual disability and little or no literacy skills. They work part-time in supermarkets, hotels, crèches and nursing homes. In the programme we draw on and value the experience each individual brings to the group.
There are no suitable textbooks available and the majority of the service users need visual materials to aid learning. All field trips are recorded through photographs and video–essential tools when service users are evaluating past activities. Before an outing the group does its groundwork; afterwards observations and impressions are documented. A meaningful and well-planned programme includes visits to lots of places and meetings with lots of people.
In the political module of the course, service users have studied Europe, central and local government. Before the last General Election the group prepared an agenda of issues important to them before they met the then-Minister of State for Children and Health, Mary Hanafin TD in the Dáil. With the help of the Active Citizenship course run by the Vincentian Partnership, they were well informed when the time came to casting their votes—some people exercising this right for the first time. They have discussed local issues with the Cathaoirleach of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. With the upcoming European and Local Elections, research and information gathering has already begun. Candidates will need to have done their homework, because the Explorers are on the way to ask all those awkward questions!
Love of the environment has been nurtured through studying the seasons in Knocksink Wood, near Enniskerry. On one visit to the wood we collected nuts and seeds and planted them in pots when we returned to base. Service users are witnessing the growth of trees from seed and are very excited to know that these trees will eventually find a home on Killiney Hill. A litter survey undertaken by the group of the Sallynoggin and Glenageary area earned first place in the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council Environmental Awards. This project has spawned a highly successful Green Group, which organises the recycling of paper, cans, batteries and mobile phones in Carmona Services. A wormery deals with organic waste. This year Water is the theme of the Environmental Studies module. The group has fed fish to seals in Dún Laoghaire Harbour and was present as the Wicklow Seal Sanctuary released a seal into the Irish Sea. During the month of October the ENFO Seal Exhibition was on view in Dunmore House.
Meetings with local historians and visits to the Dún Laoghaire Heritage Centre have fostered an interest in the past and a pride in the present. Walking around the neighbourhood, we carry out detective work to find evidence of the past. The study of old maps and photographs never ceases to fascinate. People now have a sense of place and a feeling of being part of their community. The social aspect of the programme has further nurtured this feeling.
I still remember that first day, when a look of panic crossed one service user’s face, and she exclaimed. ‘Where will we have our coffee break?’ Suddenly, the room was gripped by a communal panic attack. Then one knowledgeable person suggested that we could go to a coffee shop. Abruptly, the crisis ended. This obligatory morning break has seen shy, unsure people develop into socially confident members of society who now blend in with the other tables as they chat with friends in the cafés of Dun Laoghaire and Dublin. It’s hard to recall that three years ago the same people huddled together waiting for a staff member to order for them and sort out their bill.
Now, three years later, the Explorers Project continues to be popular. Participants on the course decide what they what to learn, how they want to learn, and they have the opportunity to evaluate the programme as they go along. They have a voice and feel empowered that they have taken control of their own learning. Education is fun and exciting and the world in which they live is a place offering wonderful opportunities. The fear of the unknown has been replaced by the joy of adventure and exploration. Working on the Explorers Project is an exciting journey of discovery for me as an educational facilitator. The curiosity and enthusiasm of the men and women who form the group is inspirational. I wonder at and admire their abilities and capacity for life-long learning. The other day a member of the group, a middle-aged woman, said to me, ‘I never knew learning could be fun, why didn’t somebody tell me before?’