Sunday 1 May 2016

Literacy course gives new lease of life to those with Down Syndrome

Ailin Quinlan on the success of the two-year Down Syndrome Ireland-backed scheme that originated in Australia

Ailin Quinlan

Published 29/07/2014 | 02:30

Peter Nolan saw a dramatic improvement in his literacy skills. Photo: Ronan Lang
Peter Nolan saw a dramatic improvement in his literacy skills. Photo: Ronan Lang

When Peter Nolan finished formal education at the age of 18, he discovered there were not a lot of options available to him.

Peter, who has mild Down syndrome, originally attended a mainstream primary school and then a special second-level school, but his mum Breege says after that there seemed to be nothing in place for him.

She was concerned - after several years of formal education, Peter, now aged 20, could read and write, but she worried he would gradually lose these crucial skills once he finished school.

"I was afraid they would begin to deteriorate," recalls Breege from Naas, Co Kildare.

Then she heard about the Latch-On programme run by Down Syndrome Ireland through its local branch network. Ireland is the first country in Europe to adopt the initiative, which began to roll out nationally in September 2012.

A two-year literacy programme for adults with intellectual disability, Latch-On was developed at the school of education at the University of Queensland in Australia. Down Syndrome Ireland is running the programmes across all four provinces at 13 teaching sites nationwide.

When Breege heard about it through her local Kildare branch of the organisation around two years ago, she was immediately interested.

"We were invited to a meeting to discuss a broad outline of what was involved," she recalls. "People were interested - it was intended for post-second-level students.

"There is a sad lack in this sector of realistic, challenging programmes for the young people - and this was a two-year programme."

The course began in September 2012 and Peter attended classes twice a week.

"I liked Latch-On because I got to make new friends my own age," says Peter. "We do reading, writing, computers and laptop work, and we also read books.

"At the moment I'm reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I really like it. My reading has also 
improved - it's going very good! I think this course is something other people should definitely do."

Breege has also noticed Peter's literacy skills have developed.

"There is a lot of reading and computer work. He has acquired new IT skills and his literacy has continued to improve," she says. "For the first time ever, he asked for a book last Christmas - he requested a copy of Les Miserables.

"He gets homework to do and he does it - they read articles from the newspaper or online, and he would read the article and come home and do comprehension questions.

"It's very relaxed and he doesn't bicker about doing his homework, he just gets down to it and this is a real plus because his literacy is steadily improving.

"The topics are very interesting, local news, something that is in the paper or on the TV and is topical and current. He graduated from the programme around the end of May."

Breege says Peter also has a new interest in current events and more confidence. "He is more able and has more confidence in expressing his opinions."

Latch-On was a big initiative for a small charity like Down Syndrome Ireland to take on, acknowledges the Programme National Director, Grainne Murphy, but she says it was badly needed.

"We felt we had to do it because of the huge need for post-secondary school options for individuals with Down Syndrome," she explains, adding that parents contribute towards the cost of the programme.

"In this country, education for school-leavers with Down Syndrome comes to an abrupt end following second-level education. We have adults on the programme who had very good literacy skills after school but because they didn't have the opportunity to develop and maintain these skills through further education or meaningful employment, they lost the skills after all that hard work."

Tutor Robert Barry, a teacher with Down Syndrome Ireland in Naas, is one of two teachers providing the programme to different groups throughout the academic year.

Pupils range in age from 18 to 40, and there are only about 11 in each class, the majority of whom have Down Syndrome.

"We teach through a variety of methods - simple pen and paper and the laptop, and we also read newspapers, articles and books, watch the news and listen to radio snippets," he explains.

"Every week I try to keep the students up to date with what is happening - for homework they get quite a lot of comprehensive questions based on newspaper articles."

The students also get to write short books and the lessons are tailored to individual interests.

"For example, if someone has an interest in One Direction - some of our students attended their recent concert in Dublin - we could find an article about the group, they wrote about the concert, and read about it and print out lyrics to the songs," he explains.

All the students in Barry's group, which includes men and women with mild to moderate Down Syndrome, found their literacy skills improved during the programme.

Some graduates from the 2014 scheme are expected to avail of a one-year Post Graduate Programme - Peter Nolan plans to be one of them - which consists of one day a week of the Latch-On Literacy Programme and a second day studying a Political Education Programme.

Called My Opinion My Vote, it looks at how politics effects the individual at local, national and European level.

New Latch-On programmes begin in September all around the country.

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