Arts take centre stage for people with intellectual disability
Social entrepreneur Liam Redmond wants to build a network of clubs for people with intellectual disabilities to learn the arts
Liam Redmond of HeadstARTS at the club for people with intellectual disability with some volunteers at DCU. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
It’s a chilly evening and I’m at Dublin City University, trying to find where I should be. I follow the sound of laughing and good-natured shouting and it leads me to a room where people are pretending to have superpowers – one is invisible, another shoots lasers from her eyes – and they are acting out their chosen roles.
Just down the hall, a slightly quieter but no less engaged bunch are working on pieces of art. An hour later, the groups have reassembled, either to learn new dance moves or to sing pop songs accompanied by volunteers playing a guitar, a ukelele and a bodhrán.
I’m at a session of HeadstARTS, where about 30 people with intellectual disabilities are exploring their creative sides in a sociable atmosphere. Volunteers from the dance, music and social enterprise societies at DCU are helping with the classes. There are no wallflowers; everyone is getting involved.
The whole endeavour is the brainchild of Liam Redmond. “At its simplest form, it’s a club for people with intellectual disabilities,” he says. “We have a curriculum for art, music, dance and drama. And we do have goals but we go with the flow; it’s very much what the members want to do.”
Taylor Swift songs are favourites for the singing and dancing, he notes, and the volunteers have just as much fun as the members. “That is important too,” he says. “We want our volunteers to come back every week, so we have the continuity there, and the members get to know them.”
Fun beyond sport
Redmond came up with the idea when he was a volunteer with Special Olympics Ireland. He could see the enormous benefits for the people involved, who were developing skills, having fun and competing. But what about people who weren’t interested in sports?
“I don’t have a sporting background, I haven’t really an interest in sports at all,” says the Wicklow native, who nevertheless spent many years volunteering as a basketball coach. “The people I was coaching could run rings around me, but I kept going back because of the sense of community and the craic and seeing their development.”
Redmond figured that people with intellectual disabilities could benefit from more arts-based activities, too. “We develop and learn so much more when we engage in activities that we find interesting,” he says.
“So I thought there should be something for people with intellectual disabilities to do if they have no real love of sport. I thought, there has to be a way for them to build up confidence and spend time with a community of people who have similar interests.”
Social clubs for people with intellectual disabilities in Ireland is not a new idea, but HeadstARTS puts the focus squarely on the arts, explains Redmond. “The main goal is to provide classes for people who have a particular interest,” he says. “Then the social side and the sense of community develop almost as byproducts of that.”
He parked the idea when he first moved to DCU to study business and Irish, but for an assignment during the final year of his degree he needed to develop a business plan, and he went to supervisor Dr Emer Ní Bhrádaigh with the kernel of HeadstARTS.
“I told her I had wanted to do this for ages, to set up arts clubs for people with intellectual disability,” he recalls. “She thought it was brilliant and she started coming up with suggestions.”
Redmond went on to develop the business idea in DCU’s student start-up programme, UStart, and he got involved with Enactus, where students work with businesses and academics to create social enterprise. As a result, HeadstARTS represented Ireland in the Enactus World Cup in Cancún, Mexico, in 2013, and Redmond now works for the Enactus Ireland organisation.
Building the enterprise
Meanwhile, Redmond started to develop the HeadstARTS classes, and part of the business model is that members pay to attend the sessions.
“It makes everything more sustainable that way,” says Redmond. “And if you put a price on something, it gives it a value for the members; if they have paid money out of their allowance to go, it’s empowering them. They are choosing to do it, instead of being told, and they will want to turn up.”
Redmond has seen first-hand how some club members have come out of their shells.
“There was one young woman and when she came in at first she could not make eye contact – she kept her head down, she was at the back of the class,” he recalls. “But after three weeks, she was directing everyone, telling people what to do. To see that is amazing.”
With sessions now up and running in DCU, the members have staged showcases and exhibitions, including a Christmas event at the Helix last year. “It may sound clichéd, but the most rewarding part of this is seeing the difference the organisation has made in the members’ lives,” says Redmond.
“We have had people come to us who would initially only speak a sentence or two, and now they are taking the lead role in dramas.”
The next step is to set up new branches of HeadstARTS: one is planned for south Dublin later this year, and Redmond would like to see the initiative expand throughout Ireland.
“We have made this now and we want to do carbon copies and spread it out,” he says. “This is about enabling people with intellectual disabilities to do what they want to do creatively, and choose how they want to stand out.”