Working to give people with Down syndrome a meaningful job

Adults with Down syndrome are an asset to any organisation, says chief executive of Down Syndrome Ireland Gary Owens, who has made employment a priority since taking over the role

Aisling Coyle works with children at the Jungle Den play centre in Naas, Co Kildare. The 22-year-old does arts and crafts, cleans tables, fills up party bags and setting up the party rooms. Video: Bryan O'Brien

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Giving children with Down syndrome the opportunity to go to mainstream schools, by providing the right supports, is what works best for them, according to research.

But then what?

“Everybody falls off a cliff when they leave secondary school,” says chief executive of Down Syndrome Ireland (DSI) Gary Owens. “It’s such a waste.”

It is why he has made adult employment a priority since taking over the role last August. He cites research by Trinity College Dublin showing that adults with Down syndrome are at high risk of depression, dementia and early Alzheimer’s.

“But the three things that are critical to that is having something meaningful to do – which is work, to some extent; social integration; and the third is physical activity. So, it is exactly the same for them as it is for us.”

Very few within the Down syndrome community in Ireland – about 7,500 in total – are working meaningfully, he says. It is more a matter of “feeling sorry for people rather than giving them roles as part of the employment community”.

Owens has worked with the DSI’s national advisory council of 11 young adults with Down syndrome, hearing about their interests and looking at what careers and jobs might align with those.

“Hospitality is a good area – catering, coffee shops, retails – business administration, hairdressing, social farming, horticulture,” he says.

Now the DSI is putting together a four-year programme, to start from this September, that will prepare young adult members for jobs. It will incorporate some existing strands of training and self-development, along with work experience. He believes there is “huge untapped potential”.

In his former life as an employer in financial services, Owens was involved in outsourcing many routine jobs to Mumbai and other parts of India, with all the language, distance and cultural challenges that entailed.

“We could have filled half of them with people with disabilities. The thought never crossed my mind,” he says. “It would have been much easier to work with a group of people here.”

Culturally, he continues, we have shoved people with disabilities into a corner but integrating them in the employment community not only makes a huge difference to them as individuals, it is also much more cost-efficient for the State.

“Thirdly it can make a huge difference to employers,” as they add “enormous value to the organisation”, he continues. “They are very loyal people – they always turn up; you don’t have the Monday morning blues with them.”

Morale and motivation in the whole workforce goes up, as they help colleagues “not sweat the small stuff – they put a perspective on things”.

Good humour

It is difficult to be in a bad humour when you work with someone with Down syndrome, he explains, because they are always in good humour and would seem to have bigger challenges to cope with in life.

“The Down syndrome community are a very affectionate group. They have definitely unique advantage in terms of the disability groups in trying to place them – provided they can do the work.”

Ensuring they are ready to do the work – and then finding an employer to give them the chance to prove it – is what the DSI is focusing on now.

“The challenges are just getting the funding to do it,” says Owens. Currently, money goes into training centres but with the move towards personalised budgets, the DSI would like to see funds go to the families to pay for post-school training that suits each individual, to foster independent living.

Employers can avail of a small wage subsidy – €5.30 per employee per hour – but only if the individuals are working at least 21 hours per week. There is currently a “grey area”, he says, on how earned income affects disability payments.

The DSI is lobbying for disability income to be paid alongside whatever wages they earn for three years, until a track record of employment is established. Otherwise, the parents won’t agree to it, he points out, understandably fearful that a short-lived spell of work might cause the social-welfare payment to be cut off.

Owens’s working background enables him to take the employers’ perspective – what they are looking for, what fears they would have taking on someone with Down syndrome and how those fears can be overcome. He has no doubt that many of these adults can become assets for companies, adding that, particularly in the case of routine work, “they are very good at what they do”.

Down Syndrome Ireland’s HB Fundays Campaign to raise funds to provide educational supports for children with Down syndrome runs throughout May and June. For more information, see downsyndrome.ie. or phone 1890 37 37 37.

Part 1: Working to give people with Down syndrome a meaningful job
Part 2: ‘I just love my life . . . the job is important for my confidence’
Part 3: ‘It should be the same as for anyone else . . . to be respected as individuals’
Part 4: ‘I love working, because I am a working man’

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