21 Faces: three years of celebrating uniqueness

Campaign aims to encourage people to see the personalities, not just the syndrome

The 21 Faces campaign has a very simple goal – to celebrate the uniqueness of children with Down syndrome.

Now in its third year, the campaign – which includes displaying 21 beautiful portraits on buses, billboards and shopping centres – is run by the Down Syndrome Centre and encourages everyone to look beyond the condition and see the individual personalities of the children.

"We ask the families to give testimonials and updates each year about the children's likes, dislikes and hobbies. We also ask parents, special needs assistants and therapists to talk about how the children are progressing and the challenges they face," explains Lorraine Murphy from the Down Syndrome Centre in Cabinteely, Dublin.

The photographs are taken by photographer Conor Healy who also creates the annual "I'm able2" calendar for the centre which offers subsidised therapies for children with Down syndrome as well as support to their families.

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Great strength

Murphy says there is a great strength in seeing all 21 photographs together, as well as seeing how the children change from year to year. “For many people, the first thing they recognise is Down syndrome, but we want to personalise the discussion, create conversations and break down barriers so that people see each child with their likes and dislikes,” she says.

In 2017, the campaign introduced family photographs and videos too to each child's profile on downsyndromecentre.ie.

Dee and Aidan Gibson’s son, Donnchadh (4), is one of the 21 Faces. “I think it presents a different image of children with Down syndrome. They are not always happy and cute with almond-shaped eyes,” she says. Gibson says Donnchadh has changed a lot in the past year. “The first year of his life is a complete blur as I [struggled] to accept his diagnosis. The only thing I knew about Down syndrome was from seeing walking groups of older adults who were overweight and had bad posture. Now, I see my son is just a normal boy with some hearing issues. He is a boisterous little fella. He wrestles with his brother and has so much energy all day long.”

The Gibson family have all learned the Lámh sign language [a simplified sign language for children with learning disabilities]. “We started using it when he was six months old. His older brother, Danann (7), loved learning it. Donnchadh signed back when he was two and he speaks, signs or gestures now so we all understand him,” explains Gibson.

Social media

Dee Gibson says she shares the 21 Faces campaign a lot on Facebook and her family and friends have read the stories of all 21 children. "People tell me they've seen Donnchadh's photo on buses and it also helps raise awareness of all the services offered by the Down Syndrome Centre," she adds.

The Down Syndrome Centre is a separate organisation from Down Syndrome Ireland and is run completely on donations and fundraising efforts.

Therese and Rory Coveney’s daughter April (7) is another one of the 21 Faces. Therese Coveney says the campaign allows people to stop and look with curiosity. “It’s already so interesting to look at the children’s faces over the three years and it gives parents a chance to say something about how their child is doing. It will be very interesting to watch how they develop as teenagers,” says Coveney.

In 2016 when the campaign – which is supported by Dunnes Stores, RR Donnelley and Dublin Bus – began, the children were aged between 9 months and nine years.

Coveney says April has a great life at the moment. She is in senior infants class at her local national school and partakes in gymnastics, swimming and football with the Special Olympics programme. “She loves school and she loves weekends and holidays more. She’s a very happy child and is mad about her older brothers, Ollie (10) and Thomas (9), but I’m aware that things will change as she gets older and I want to have a plan for her when she gets to 18,” says Coveney.

Movement breaks

In her school, April gets time out with her special needs assistant for “movement breaks”. These times – playing a drum or kicking a football – help her to transition more easily between desk-bound activities. “She needs different forms of stimulation and then she can come back and re-engage. It’s a healthy way to get her through the school day,” Coveney explains.

She says many parents of children with Down syndrome focus on school, therapies and sport. “I understand that but I’m conscious that not every child with Down syndrome will be a trail blazer. There is room for the stars but there are also children who have a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism and it’s very hard to find a future for them,” says Coveney, who is also the project manager of the young adult services of the Down Syndrome Centre.

“A positive future needs to be created for all children with Down syndrome,” she adds.

There are Down Syndrome Centres in Dublin, Cork and in Portlaoise, Co Laois. More information on 01 661 8000, downsyndromecentre.ie @Downsyndromecen.