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Opinion: Support is needed to help people with Down syndrome return to work

96% of employees on Down Syndrome Ireland’s Ability Programme were temporarily laid off due to Covid-19.

Aoife Gaffney Down Syndrome Ireland

EVERYTHING CHANGED FOR the adults with Down syndrome that we support, with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Face to face teaching came to an abrupt end and 96% of employees that were on our Ability Programme were placed on temporary lay-off.  

Down Syndrome Ireland’s (DSI) Ability Programme has been working to break down barriers and provide people with Down syndrome access to meaningful employment opportunities.

We do this through a mixture of bespoke adult education and direct links with employers around the country. Partnership initiatives aim to secure long-term employment for adults with Down syndrome across a broad range of sectors.

  • Read more here on how you can support a major Noteworthy project into the impact that the pandemic will have on jobs for people with disabilities.

Our programme was going from strength to strength at the start of this year, with over 60 people in employment. We had a vast amount of plans, huge employment opportunities & partnerships in the pipeline.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 changed all of that. Not only were the majority of our students temporarily laid off, the pandemic also had a huge impact on fundraising which is affecting long-term planning for the future of our employment programme. 

Return of office-based employees

Linda4 Linda Dunphy works in the mailroom and facilities Source: Down Syndrome Ireland

Thankfully, it hasn’t been all bad news. Over the past few weeks, I have had some really positive and encouraging conversations with current and new employers.  However, most participants we have gotten back to work have been in office-based industries. 

One participant who is back at work is Linda Dunphy. She works in Walkers Global Law Firm on the mailroom and facilities team. She told me recently that she loves working there: “The staff are so nice. I really have found my dream job!”

Her supervisor Richard Murphy welcomed Linda when their office recently reopened following Covid-19 restrictions. He told me:

We are delighted to have Linda back in the Exchange building doing what she loves while also helping us at Walkers to feel a sense of normality returning to the office through her engaging and fun ‘socially distant’ interactions.

Possible job losses 

However, due to the nature of the pandemic and the impact it has had on the hospitality and hairdressing industries, our participants with Down syndrome who were previously employed in hotels, cafes, restaurants and hair salons have been more delayed returning to work with possible job losses on the horizon.

In June, we sent a survey to all participants on our Ability Programme who had been in employment prior to work closures and the pandemic. We wanted to gather information and gauge how our participants felt about the possible return to work. 

Conor2 Conor Byrne at work in Swan Leisure Source: Down Syndrome Ireland

We were really surprised to see that every single one of the participants who answered our survey wanted to return to work.  They missed the social interaction of working with their colleagues, of having something to do in their week, and were very eager to return.

Conor Byrne, a programme participant, is looking forward to returning to his job. He has been working as a leisure centre assistant at Swan Leisure for over two years and is due back this month. 

Conor told me recently that he loves “having work buddies to chat to” and “would advise someone with Down Syndrome to get a job because you will learn new skills and responsibilities”. 

Everyone deserves an opportunity

That is what we are aiming for everyone with Down syndrome who takes part in our programme. But to do this, especially in light of the pandemic, we need long-term sustainable funding for key posts to support our programme and are calling on the Government for help.  

Our programme is funded by Pobal, who manages social inclusion programmes on behalf of the Government, as well as the European Social Fund, but this funding is running out. 

We want the Government to work with us, to provide accessible further education in mainstream settings such as Education and Training Boards (ETBs) to help people get the skills they need to enter the workplace.  

Incentives for employers to employ adults with Down syndrome would also be welcome in the current climate, separate to the wage subsidy scheme that was previously in place.

We want to ensure everyone is given the opportunity to have meaningful employment. Without this extra support, people with Down syndrome will continue to miss out on the social interaction that was absent over the past few months as well as earning a wage and contributing to society, well after their colleagues have returned to work. 

Aoife Gaffney is head of employment for Down Syndrome Ireland and co-manages its Ability Programme.  She also works hands on with adults with Down syndrome, delivering intensive pre-employment training, prior to them beginning work, and providing ongoing support while at work. 

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SHUTTING THE DOOR Investigation 

Do you want to know if the pandemic will make it even harder for people with disabilities to get jobs in Ireland?

The Noteworthy team want to do an in-depth investigation into whether recommendations made by joint Oireachtas committees two years ago have been implemented, how Ireland differs from our European neighbours in terms of supports and the impacts the ‘new normal’ will have on vulnerable groups.

Here’s how to help support this proposal>

About the author:

Aoife Gaffney  / Down Syndrome Ireland

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