Saturday 23 February 2019

This mum was inspired by her daughter to form a support group for Irish adults with intellectual disabilities

While most children with intellectual disabilities get some support, that's not always true for their adult counterparts. Maree O'Connor tells our reporter about her organisation, which aims to bring dignity to this neglected group of people

Maree O'Connor of Inspired with Labhaoise O'Connor, Niamh O'Connor, Denise O'Mahony and Sinead Joy. Photo: Domnick Walsh photography
Maree O'Connor of Inspired with Labhaoise O'Connor, Niamh O'Connor, Denise O'Mahony and Sinead Joy. Photo: Domnick Walsh photography

Joy Orpen

Kerry is often referred to as 'the Kingdom' because it has heart-stopping beauty, an illustrious cultural and political history, and it has the Rose of Tralee.

But very few people know about a special project sprouting in the heart of the largest town in the county; a project that is bringing meaning and purpose to the lives of some very important people who have, until now, been marginalised.

The initiative is the brainchild of Carlow native Maree O'Connor, who moved to Tralee in 1987 with her husband, Donal. They have four children, including Labhaoise, a 22-year-old living with Down syndrome (DS). Maree says her gentle, softly spoken daughter was supported during her school years, but as she approached adulthood, warning bells began to sound. And these resulted in more questions than answers. What did the future hold for Labhaoise? How would she manage in the wider world as she grew older? What work could she do? And so on.

Seven years ago, Maree formed an informal friendship club. The principal members were her son, Fiachra - who was then in transition year - and his friends, as well as Labhaoise and her friends. "Once a week, they would have an activity of their own choosing," explains Maree. "Bowling, pizza parlours and shopping were firm favourites, but the thing they most enjoyed was chatting in a coffee shop."

However, when she was 18, Labhaoise's social life began to fall apart as school came to an end. Meanwhile, her siblings were heading off to college and pursuing their own individual paths. But Labhaoise didn't have those same choices and that saddened her. "People don't realise that those living with intellectual disabilities have hopes, dreams and feelings like everyone else," says Maree. "But there is no recognition of that, and they are not being catered for."

But as a parent, Maree did have options: she could sit back and blame the government for this glaring lack of services, or she could act decisively. And that's what she did. Having identified Labhaoise's particular needs, and those of other people living with intellectual disabilities, she set about creating an organisation that would support them. Someone who was with her from the very beginning was Donie O'Keeffe, who also has a daughter living with DS.

According to voluntary office manager Yvonne O'Brien, "The two of them wore the feet off themselves traipsing around streets of Tralee trying to find the right premises [for Inspired]." Apart from the need to find a building with adequate meeting spaces, affordability was also an important issue, as they rely entirely on donations from the public.

Eventually, Maree and Donie found premises in a quiet street close to the town centre and Inspired was born. According to the centre's brochure: "This is a community development project serving adults with intellectual disabilities in Tralee and surrounding areas."

However, be warned - on entering this modest building, expect to be overwhelmed by the sheer energy, and constant laughter of all involved. Most of the members participate enthusiastically, providing much good-humoured banter along the way. But there are others who prefer to bide their time, saying little, quietly listening. Nonetheless, you can see they too are glad to be part of a vibrant, supportive community, one they can really relate to.

Maree explains why this facility is so important: "When you see someone with DS packing the shelves in a shop, you may think, 'Isn't that great?' But it's actually an illusion, because it's probably only for three weeks; meanwhile, there's another 199 people like them, sitting at home doing nothing."

She says the levels of depression and anxiety among adults with intellectual disabilities is "astronomical". This is not surprising, given that the lack of services and the fact that the fluctuating circumstances at home often cause them to feel abandoned and alone. "Between the ages of 18 and 21, Labhaoise became depressed and anxious because her life was changing," says Maree. "These days, Inspired is giving her, and the other members, a sense of belonging and of purpose."

There are various activities on offer such as yoga, Zumba, photography and life-skills classes. As this is a user-driven initiative, the participants themselves decide which courses should be on offer. The organisers then appoint voluntary or paid tutors to run them.

On the day I visited, high-energy Liz O'Gorman was leading a life-skills session. This module allows participants to discuss, in a safe space, things that bother them. "Bereavement has been an issue recently," says Maree. "Often people with intellectual disabilities feel things very deeply, and sometimes they don't really know what's going on. But here they can see someone in the group who has been bereaved come out the other end, and they learn from that. Sometimes they just need to be encouraged to let go and move on."

Another important aspect at Inspired is helping members find job placements. When Labhaoise expressed an interest in hairdressing, arrangements were made for her to spend one morning a week at Frances McCarthy's Blush 'N' Brush salon in Caheranne. "The first time Labhaoise washed and blow-dried someone's hair [with help] it was like winning the Lotto," says Maree. "She was so thrilled, her self-esteem shot up. We pick employers carefully and rely on Charlotte Dolan to do that, and to support our members in their various job placements."

The members are also encouraged to participate in projects that can enhance their local community. "They get involved in the Tidy Towns competition and Daffodil Day," says Maree. "Right now, we're busy with a tourism research project. Our guys are going to various businesses in Tralee and finding out how to make the town more ability friendly. Once the information has been collated, they will present their findings to Kerry County Council and to the Tralee Chamber Alliance."

Maree says it's important to note that although some members receive services from other State-funded organisations, they are also choosing to attend Inspired.

On June 16, the Ballyroe Hotel will be rocking when 60 enthusiastic models (comprising Inspired members and their families) strut their stuff on the catwalk.

"They range in age from 0 to 50," says Maree. "Every one of them will have a great time. Many local suppliers lend us clothes and support us with services. Normally, Labhaoise is shy. But once she gets on that stage, she shines, as do all the others, every single one of them. It makes them feel so good, so positive and so proud of themselves. Even if we didn't raise a penny, I'd still do this show. Big events in their lives are so rare."

For more information, see or tel: (087) 245-7826

To donate: Bank of Ireland, Listowel, BIC: BOFIIE2D IBAN: IE94BOFI90578279279410

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