WALKing the Walk: One Student’s Journey to Achieving His Potential

Mick Teehan introduces us to one college student who is realising inclusion and achievement in education.

Stephen Lyons is an active and popular student who has an intellectual disability in Tallaght.
Most peole take for granted that college is their right but for Stepehn and people like him things aren’t so easy.
Film-making is his passion and he hopes to learn as much as he can about the industry to improve his skills.
Stephen has a mentor called Lucy who supports him in class.

Meet Stephen Lyons, a student at the Institute of Technology Tallaght (ITT) who has travelled his own unique and difficult path towards achieving his goal of attending college and further developing his passion and skills in the area of Creative Digital Media. Stephen is highly regarded by his fellow students and lecturers alike and is described as being an active, contributing and popular student. However, his presence on campus is unfortunately the exception rather than the rule, due to the fact that Stephen has an intellectual disability. It is as a result of his diagnosis that Stephen has had to overcome a myriad of obstacles placed in his way, a fact that is not lost on his non-disabled peers, most of whom assume third level education to be a fundamental right afforded to all citizens.

At present in Ireland, less than 5% of individuals with a mild intellectual disability under the age of 35 have any type of formal educational qualification at all. Compare this with over 80% of the general population who, upon completion of their Leaving Certificate, will access either higher education or further education institutions. It has long been the case in this country that when individuals with an intellectual disability reach the age of 18, they are fast-tracked into a life within the confines of an increasingly overburdened health system. The fundamental right to access third level education, vocational training, adult education and lifelong education (as enshrined in Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) is denied  to this already marginalised demographic.

It is internationally recognised  that lifelong learning is an essential requirement if the full participation and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities is to be achieved. There is considerable international evidence to suggest that outcomes are greatly enhanced for people with intellectual disabilities who attend third level education. These can include significantly increased social networks, attaining paid & meaningful employment, enhanced self-esteem and self-identity, as well as the obvious improvements in an individual’s quality of life that the attainment of a formal qualification brings.

Upon leaving school at the age of 18, Stephen attended WALK’s Real Life Training Programme. This programme supports school leavers with intellectual disabilities to build their capacities within their local communities across the key areas of education, employment and personal development so that they may achieve their own self-determined objectives across these three domains. Real Life Training students such as Stephen are supported to develop and enhance their talents & opportunities for personal growth across a four-year individualised programme, which culminates in their transitioning out of the Health system and transferring either to paid employment or further education. The core elements of Stephen’s own transition plan was to develop his skills in the area of film making so that he can achieve his ultimate goal of securing employment in the film industry.

Stephen has long identified film-making as his passion and it is his dream to forge a career in this exciting but extremely competitive sector. He was supported in identifying a third level education as the obvious route towards enhancing his employment prospects, as well as developing his already considerable talents into genuine expertise. ITT’s Creative Digital Media Degree course appeared to have the ideal mix of practical and theoretical elements that would enable him to harness the knowledge and skills necessary to determine his own future.

Speaking of his time so far at ITT, Stephen says that he has really enjoyed meeting lots of new people who have been extremely welcoming and friendly. Regarding his upcoming enrolment on ITT’s Creative Digital Media course, Stephen adds “I’m hoping that I’ll learn some great new movie making skills. I hope to learn about green screen techniques and stuff like that as well as learning more about editing and sound so that I can use these skills to develop my movies”. Stephen adds that next semester he will be joining the drama society in ITT – he’s hoping to develop even more friendships through his involvement in this aspect of campus life.

WALK (http://www.walk.ie/), based in Walkinstown, Dublin 12,  is  an innovative, forward-thinking organisation whose mission is to empower adults with intellectual disabilities to live meaningful and self-determined lives within their community. WALK have developed their own approach to service delivery through their PEER mentoring programme. Peer-mentored support ensures that students such as Stephen can be viewed as pioneers that raise expectations, smash preconceptions and encourage other students with intellectual disabilities to achieve much more than was previously thought possible.

Sian Thompson from WALK, who supported both Stephen and his PEER mentor Lucy highlights the value of this model of support:

“When Stephen started at ITT he was nervous as he had no experience of higher education and wasn’t sure what to expect. Stephen’s nerves were quickly reduced by the excellent support he received from the outset from Lucy”. Sian adds that “Lucy supported Stephen on exactly what he needed to get to grips with the course (mainly note-taking), and supported Stephen to get to know other students in the class.

“Being a student from the College herself, other people from the course saw Lucy as a student, as opposed to a Support person. Lucy was also well versed in note-taking during lectures – so provided highly effective education-based supports too. Lucy’s support was invaluable in enabling Stephen to get to know and make friends in his class, to get involved in the broader life of the College, and to succeed in his first module within the College. Collectively this support has also enabled Stephen to gain in confidence, to build his skills to navigate the College campus, and the skills to follow his College timetable”.

Margaret Fingleton, Lecturer and Placement Coordinator at the Department of Humanities in ITT underlines the broader benefits of the programme:

“It was a very progressive piece of work to be involved with. As the placement supervisor for Social Care Students, I see this type of work an indication of where social care is heading and how important this type of learning is for the students. The piece of work that the student ( Lucy) undertook is underpinned by the social model of empowerment, inclusion and rights-based practice. The benefits were far-reaching, in that the college benefitted from having Stephen attend, students were open to supporting Stephen being part of the college community, staff were challenged in how best to support the initiative and the student that supported Stephen got the opportunity to be involved in a new and exciting piece of work”.

It is widely agreed that the fundamental right of people with intellectual disabilities to access third level education is a burning issue that can no longer be ignored. Both ITT and WALK share the same core values of developing inclusive, innovative services that ultimately support and empower individuals to be the best that they can be.  Both organisations recognise that the requirement for an inclusive model of Third Level education is gathering pace, and are working towards that.

Mick Teehan is Day Services Manager at WALK.


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