Mary de Paor on an innovative course at DCU that brings three disability stakeholders together for service change

DCU course members

Issue 88 of Frontline (Autumn 2012, pp.18-19) included an article by Deirdre Corby in Dublin City University’s School of Nursing and Human Sciences, in which she described the development of an innovative course module enabling ‘three ordinary stakeholders of an intellectual disability service’ to bring about service change/improvement. This article offers a short account of the DCU course, from the perspective of a participant this year.

My son lives in his own studio apartment and works part-time in a hotel. He accesses job coaching and social support from STEP Enterprises/City Gate (St John of God Services). Last September, I was invited by City Gate to join a woman who is supported by the service and her keyworker to form a ‘trialogue’ team on the DCU course. Our staff mentor introduced us to each other and briefly explained the course; we filled in our application forms, and the following week we were sitting in a DCU School of Nursing and Human Sciences classroom. (Both my mother and sister were career nurses, and I chuckled that fifty years after my own college days, I would be studying in a nursing school!) This was my colleague Tanya’s first experience of college and we both welcomed an opportunity to use our energies and ideas for the good of City Gate. Too often, service users and family members are left out of the equation, but (mixing several metaphors) it seems logical that all stakeholders in a service should sing in tune, and from the same hymn sheet.

On the first day of class, we met three other teams, from a training centre service and a residential service provided by St Michael’s House, and from a St John of God day service in Co. Kildare. I think we all felt excited, but unsure about what was ahead. Deirdre Corby, who directs the course, told us that the module would involve ten days of classes between October and May. She and three team-teaching colleagues (Therese Danagher, Richard Jackson and Orla O’Reilly) would give us lectures and lend support as we formulated the projects we would undertake. We were presented with full DCU student cards for the academic year, luring us with the prospects of library and sports-centre use and shop discounts.

By November, our four groups had chosen projects that we thought were appropriate to our individual service settings, and which we hoped would add value to the experience of those using them. The four projects in the current year’s module are described below—but, first, a bit more about how the course was organised. Our class days began at 10-30, enabling most of us time for a quick coffee in the canteen beforehand. This, as well as our full hour lunch break, helped us to get well acquainted. Indeed, the twelve of us were soon a friendly group and we were able to pool bits of information among ourselves. The informal lecture style of Deirdre Corby and her colleagues helped too, as we discussed the development of disability services in Ireland, recent policy documents, as well as concepts of leadership, teamwork and reflective practice. Much of our course work was necessarily done outside of the days at DCU, when we met on our own, or with our service mentor, and worked on our projects.

The Improving Service with Cooperative Learning course, a stand-alone module, includes two options—to attend the course without formal assessment, or to seek NFQ (Level 8) credit by means of a continuous assessment portfolio. Most of us chose the latter, wanting all the credit we could get! But it was a new concept for some of us—certainly I had never before been asked to contemplate, evaluate and reflect on what I was learning during a course. Thankfully, we were helped to ‘get our heads around’ our learning plan and evidence of engagement, and we were encouraged to use the DCU library and the computer labs in our work.

Over the months we talked together about each of our projects, each group with the liaison of one of the teaching team. Our final day in DCU was on 14 May 2013, when each team made up of a service user, family member and staff member gave a PowerPoint presentation of our projects to members of the steering group for the course, our service provider mentors and a group of service users.

In her previous article, Deirdre Corby invited Breda Pierse to describe the social farming scheme and weaving programme that her team had developed during last year’s DCU course. Here is a summary of this year’s projects.

Public transport training

Talking with the people who attend the St Michael’s House training centres, Santry Hall and Omni Training and Employment Centre, Joseph, Annette and Claire realised how many service users could not avail of public transport, and how that restricted their daily lives, social opportunities and community involvement. The provision of buses and taxis also represented a considerable cost to the service, at a time of severely limited resources. The team did their homework, determining the number of service users who could realistically be expected to achieve independent travel, consulting with Roger Flood, Travel Assistant of Dublin Bus, and researching existing travel-training systems. A member of another of our DCU teams was able to recommend New Horizon’s Independent Travel Training and Road Safety Awareness programme, sourced from Northern Ireland, and that package was chosen. Already a member of staff has received trainer-training, and a pilot programme is being prepared. The team is engaging with staff and families to familiarise and reassure all stakeholders of the value of the programme, which is bound to enhance the lives of the people using the day-service.

Involving siblings

Jessica, Bernadette and Anne Marie come from a ‘time share’ service in Portmarnock, Breaffy House, where most of the adult residents spend three-four days of each week. Bernadette’s brother Jimmy considers Breaffy House as his home, and she wanted to get to know the other people in his new family. The team were sure that mutual benefits could come from a network of siblings, parents and friends. They sent out invitations to attend a theatre outing, as a getting-to-know-you event. The response was, honestly, demoralising. But they refused to be defeated and returned to the drawing board. Realising that people probably needed to become more familiar with Breaffy House, they decided to develop their ideas one step at a time. They have launched a newsletter for residents and their families. And, of course, once the newsletter has opened the door more fully, they will help people to engage socially.

Things to do, places to go, people to meet

Tanya, Elaine and I represented City Gate which supports people with mild intellectual disabilities, most of whom live independently. We know they value that independence, and having their own ‘front door’. But we also know that living alone can sometimes be lonely. We wanted to help people to participate more fully in their community, to join in activities which interest them, and to get to know their neighbours. We decided to put together a guide to venues, events and activities in the areas where the people in City Gate live. Elaine set up meetings for us with other social support staff, and with the STEP/City Gate Advocacy Group. Then we began to accumulate information—lots of it. In fact there is a lot more to be added before we are ready to publish our directory. We hope it will be an interactive tool for people to use together, and with their keyworkers, to consider what they want to do in their free time, where they can access classes or events, what volunteer activities they might like to join.

Exploration of music

The first thought of the team from Seasons, in Celbridge was to ask the service users what they would like. Their brainstorming session threw up the fact that everyone there loved music and they wanted more. So Elizabeth and Seán and his sister Edel set about filling Seasons with music—in several different ways. The people in Seasons went to a concert, and they will do that very soon again! They invited family members to a very successful in-house seisúin—each resident had a guest with a song or an instrument to play. This looks promising for future musical events, as well as encouraging family members to form a closer network. They have also had one music therapy session (and an application has been lodged for a grant to organise more of them). This project is full of good vibes, and it has been kept fully in tune by Elizabeth, despite several serious hiccoughs for the team along the way. Most unfortunately, Seán became ill soon after Christmas and he and Edel missed several of the DCU classes. All of us were delighted that they were able to take part in their team presentation last week, and we wish Seán a full recovery.

Any services interested in nominating a team to take part in next year’s ‘Improving Service with Cooperative Learning’ course can get all the information necessary by contacting Deirdre Corby (Tel: 01-7008524; email:


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