Sitting your Leaving Cert, moving away from home, going on to further education, being named student of the year. These are all major milestones, but especially so when you have Down syndrome. Not that that stopped one inspirational student, writes Vicki McKenna
NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD student Róisín De Búrca has had a busy year. One of the few people in Ireland with Down syndrome to have completed a full Leaving Certificate last summer, she then became part of an even smaller group by proceeding on to further education. On top of that, De Búrca recently won Bank of Scotland’s student of the year award. “I felt proud of myself, something I can accomplish in life, something that belongs to me alone instead of the family,” she says.
De Búrca has just finished a Fetac Level 5 course in Business Administration at Galway Technical Institute (GTI). She chose this course because: “I wanted to see how the business environment worked and wanted to see if it was the subject I wanted to get into.” As a native Irish speaker, she spent two weeks on work experience in the office of an Irish-speaking creche, based in Muintearas in Leitir Mór. “It was easier working there because everyone knew me there and I was able to communicate through Irish because it is an Irish-speaking organisation,” De Búrca explains.
This work experience involved administrative functions, counting cash and bagging it for lodgements, filling in forms, including menus and Garda clearance forms.
De Búrca has a confident, easy going personality and loves creative writing, a pursuit she devotes much of her spare time to. "I usually write about love and death. I just want to do something to take my mind off things. Now, I am hoping to do a script for a play," she says. "My favourite novel is Twilightby Stephanie Meyer. I just love vampire novels, that is what I am trying to do with my book to bring vampires in as a plot towards the start."
English and Irish were her favourite subjects in school, and she mentions her particular love of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, King Learand Macbeth.
She also has a keen – and varied – interest in music, listing favourites including Luke Kelly and the Dubliners; sean-nós singers including Nan Tom Teaimín; Irish country singer John Beag; popstar Hannah Montana; and folk giants Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
THE CONSIDERABLE SUPPORTDe Búrca received helped open the world for her and has enabled her to live independently, says her mother, Eileen Kenny. "It is very important that people with disabilities get the help they need.
“Róisín’s level of achievement is exceptionally high, and that’s partly because of the level of opportunity she got. If she had never been put in for the Junior Cert, then she wouldn’t have achieved it. Likewise, the school could have put her in for the Leaving Cert Applied only, but they didn’t; they offered her the full Leaving Cert. Children with disabilities are often as much handicapped by the low expectations of their carers and those around them as they are by their disabling condition. Roisin has been lucky.
“The opportunities always came from the school. Anyone that did help her – teachers and the education psychologist – have always been impressed by her abilities. She had to work harder than average to achieve the same result, so she was very tired at the end of the day. She is very diligent and hardworking, so she was prepared to put in the necessary time.”
De Búrca’s secondary school principal, Máire de Bhaldraithe, says, “Róisín had drive and enthusiasm for learning from day one in Scoil Chuimsitheach Chiaráin. Her confidence and single mindedness won the hearts of her fellow students and of the staff.”
Gráinne Murphy, independence officer with Down Syndrome Ireland (DSI), notes that De Búrca’s achievement broke new ground because she did “a full Leaving Cert and passed six subjects”.
“She would have been in the minority of people with Down syndrome in her age group to attend secondary school.”
From a family of five brothers and one sister, De Búrca credits the support of her family with helping her on her journey through mainstream education.
Of her move away from the family home, she says: “Once you get into the rhythm of living in Galway away from your parents, I found it relaxing. There is a great student life here.”
It is vital to have support systems in place for people with Down syndrome, DSI president Claire Leonard says. “I would be very much in favour and I would always encourage parents to try mainstreaming, but if the classes are very big and if they do not get enough support, then they are going to get lost in the system,” she adds.
“The earlier you get stimulation and the earlier you get intervention going, the better their prospects for later on.”
There are far fewer people with Down syndrome going into secondary school than primary school, Leonard, says. “I think a lot of them going would tend to veer towards special schools at that stage,” she explains.
FOR THE STUDENT OFthe year award, De Búrca won a €1,000 scholarship from Bank of Scotland Ireland.
Explaining the reasons the bank selected De Búrca for the scholarship, Rhona O’Connor, charity manager for Bank of Scotland says: “I met Róisín at the Down Syndrome World Conference in Royal Hospital Kilmainham last August where I was terribly impressed by her achievements and personality. She was not bigheaded and was modest in her success.”
“I was very proud of her,” her mother Eileen says, “particularly as it was not an award restricted to people with disabilities. I was glad that the amount of effort she had put in was acknowledged.
“I also feel that Róisín is breaking new ground for people with Down syndrome and therefore increasing the opportunities for people who are younger than she is.”
Down syndrome explained
Among the most common characteristics of Down syndrome are developmental disabilities, where motor skills can be a problem and there is a slowed and/or incomplete mastery of physical coordination.
Down syndrome is a set of mental and physical symptoms that result from having three copies of chromosome 21 instead of two copies. That is why Down syndrome is also referred to by the name Trisomy 21.
Symptoms of Down syndrome can range from mild to moderate to severe/profound. Róisín De Búrca has Standard Trisomony 21.
Between 90 and 95 per cent of all Down syndrome is Standard Trisomy 21.