‘I was told I would never go to college. Now, I’m a graduate’

Trinity Centre for people with intellectual disabilities among winners of funding

Margaret Turley at the Trinity Centre for people with intellectual disabilities: now getting work experience at  consultancy firm EY and living away from home.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Margaret Turley at the Trinity Centre for people with intellectual disabilities: now getting work experience at consultancy firm EY and living away from home. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

When Margaret Turley went to a special school for children with intellectual disabilities, all she recalls is being told what she couldn’t do.

“We weren’t encouraged,” she says. “I was told that I would never go to college, that I’d never live away from home and I’d never be able to do anything.”

Today, at the age of 28, she is a graduate from the Trinity Centre for people with intellectual disabilities.

She is completing work experience at the consultancy firm EY. And she’s living away from home.

“My confidence, inclusion and independence improved a lot since I joined college. I now have friends who know my true colours. Trinity gave me the confidence to go to others. There was the ‘you can do it’ mentality that pushed me to challenge myself.”

The Trinity Centre programme is one of 10 innovative projects that was named on Tuesday evening as a winner at a Social Innovation Fund Ireland (SIFI) event.

The €7 million fund is one of the most significant investments of private philanthropy in programmes that tackle educational disadvantage. It is resourced through a combination of philanthropy and State funding.

Other winners include Cork Life Centre and An Cosán Virtual Community College.

SIFI has identified “best in class” education programmes that are delivering a long-term positive impact on their young and adult learners, their families and communities.

These projects, say fund organisers, have strong potential to be replicated across Ireland.

Huge impact

“Education has a huge impact on our later lives; how much money we earn, the kind of job that we can get, and our capacity to support older parents or young children,” said Deirdre Mortell, chief executive of SIFI.

“We believe the Education Fund helps people who have been excluded to get qualifications and build new lives for themselves.”

Michael Shelvin, director of the Trinity Centre for people with intellectual disabilities, says the abilities of marginalised groups are often underestimated.

“The education system operates like tram lines, there is not much moving away from those tracks,” he said.

“When you have special needs, it is presumed you will not be able to do all these other things. Over the years, we have realised it is not actually the case.”

The Trinity programme, he says, is based around the strengths of learners.

“The unique element of our programme is that it is linked to businesses. We have business partners who provide placements in the second year of the programme,” says Shelvin.

“We do not set a limit for what people can do afterwards. We equip them with the skills to navigate society in a much more independent fashion, in a way in which they can be affirmed in their strengths.”

For Margaret, the simply fact of graduating has been a huge achievement in itself.

“I was extremely excited to graduate, and happy that all my family came,” says Turley, who was born intellectually disabled due to a rare condition.

“My friends told me ‘Margaret, you were crying when you arrived to college and now you cry because you are leaving? Do you ever stop crying?’

“ It was quite emotional, I won the ‘student of the year’ award. It was special to have my family see me succeed. It was the best day of my life.”