I want to change how people look at the word disability

Stories from Craig Kelly and Jamie Murray from The Ability Board, Ability@Work, Cope Foundation. These adult learner stories are being shared as part of the AONTAS Adult Learners’ Festival 2022. The Festival highlighted how everyone can #LearnYourWay, at your own pace, in your own community. The learners involved spoke at the “Learners as Leaders” event on Wednesday 9th March 2022 to celebrate and promote the value of returning to education as an adult. The Ability Board was also a winning adult learning initiative at the STAR Awards 2022, recognising the amazing work they do in adult learning in Ireland.

"The Ability Board is an advocacy project which is entirely learner led. They proudly describe themselves as ‘the voice for the voiceless’. Before, these people were saying that they wanted to be included and they wanted to be like everyone else but, outside of our small circle of staff in Ability@Work, I felt like the rest of the world wasn’t listening. So, in partnership with the people supported by Ability@Work, we came up with the concept of the ‘Ability Board’. They are on a nationwide mission to break down barriers in education and employment."

- Introduction from Daragh Forde, Ability@Work Job Coach


The Ability Board celebrating their STAR Award 2022
Ability@Work is a supported employment service which aims to bring young people with intellectual disabilities and autism closer to the labour market. I have been working in Cope Foundation for twenty years. The first sixteen of these were spent working with people with severe to profound intellectual and physical disabilities. That was sixteen years coming up with methods and techniques of trying to decipher what people wanted. When a person is non-verbal you need to be creative in understanding what they are trying to say. When I started working with people who could actually speak, I couldn’t get over the fact that nobody was listening. 

The Ability Board want to educate employers and challenge stereotypes and assumptions. They are raising awareness for policy and practice incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities with particular emphasis on Article 27 which is employment and Article 24 on education.

Ability@Work came up with the concept of the Ability Board but the Board ended up educating us. We believed our practices were inclusive and diverse but they opened our eyes. Despite the barriers they faced during all the lockdowns, they have facilitated us to modify our policies and practices, making our service better than it was two years ago.

This project is unique because we empower our learners to be the leaders of their programme. The whole ethos of this project is that it is completely person-centred. The board were democratically elected by their peers and are made up of a President, a Vice President, a Chairperson and seven more Committee Members.

It's so important to give everyone control over their own lives.

Craig and Jamie will both admit to being in a slump and lacking confidence. Look at them now.

It’s amazing what great things can happen when you empower people to be active participants in their own lives. It sounds so simple but it’s not happening for most marginalised groups.

The Board are now naturally progressing from an advocacy group to a social enterprise. They’ll soon have their own business! I believe their empowerment through the Ability Board has given them the courage and confidence to progress even further, while at the same time, fighting for a cause they are so passionate about.

Craig Kelly:

So, Craig you have a very important role. Can you tell us a bit about what you do?

I do! I am proud to say that I am the President of the very first Ability Board. I also have an intellectual disability but that is not who I am. I am more than that. The election campaign really changed my life for the better. It was such an exciting time. It made me feel so powerful and important. The day of the election was one that I’ll never forget!

As president of the Ability Board I want to be the voice for other people with different abilities in Ireland. I know it’s my duty to do this.

I want to change how people look at the word disability. I want to teach people about how you can be part of the change.

I want to make sure that we’re treated as equals and not like children. Even as adults we are often treated like children. People make decisions for us all the time. The Ability Board want to change this.

I think that learning should be inclusive for everyone. Right through from the application form to graduation day. Sometimes a little help or small changes at each step can make such a difference.

People with different abilities can sometimes not even figure out how to apply for the course they want because of difficult forms. Something simple like making applications in Easy Read format can really help. That’s the kind of stuff that the Ability Board are trying to do.

How has adult learning changed your life?

Because of my disability, it took a lot of work to pick back up from the anxiety I was feeling about my future. I just thought I was useless and I’d never be anything. I have learnt now that having a disability is nothing to be ashamed of.

I found school really hard, especially primary school.

I found it hard to keep up with the other people in my class and I had to do an extra year. This was embarrassing for me especially at such a young age. When I finished my leaving cert I went to Doras Training Centre in Cope Foundation. This is where I really felt supported. I struggled so much with things in primary school that I really never thought I’d see myself as a person who would go on to college, but I did!

In my second year in Doras, I registered with Ability@Work to help train to get a job.I received a Level 3 QQI in Employability Skills and a Level 4 in Retail Skills.

The difference between the Craig you see today and the Craig from three years ago is huge. I didn’t even let the COVID-19 lockdown get me down and three years ago I don’t think I would have been able to cope.

People probably looked at me before and thought I wouldn’t be anything. Sure, I thought that myself. Now I’m educating other people about inclusion and diversity. And they listen to me. And they think what I say is really important. I’ve a place in the world now. A really important place.

Did adult learning help you through the lockdown?

I really don’t know how I would have got through the lockdown without the courses I did. I lost my job during the first lockdown so I was feeling kind of lost. At the beginning it was very hard, but we quickly went online and were constantly meeting with our Job Coaches online. To be honest, the lockdown really helped us with our work because being online meant that we weren’t just limited to courses in Cork or speaking to people in Cork. We were able to speak to people all over the country.

What is your Social Enterprise idea all about?

The Ability Board want to talk to the people in charge of Irish companies who can really make change happen in the workplace.

We want to give companies Disability Awareness training with the help of Ability@Work staff. There is no point in giving disability awareness training if you have never had to deal with the barriers we face every day.

The Ability Board want to bring Easy to Read documents to businesses, public places and tourism. Easy to Read documents are made up of short, very simple sentences with pictures that just have the most important messages on them. Easy to Read needs to become something that everyone in the country understands. We want to make this a reality.

Jamie Murray:

How did adult learning start for you?

I wasn’t too happy in school. There was too many in my class and there wasn’t enough support for me to get help. I needed more help with subjects like Maths. Life is too short for maths! Sometimes I just need a little more time or support and then I am able to do my work.

My mum said she has seen a big change in me in the last few years. At Doras Training Centre, I’ve completed a Level 3, an Advocacy Course in MTU, and I have a gold Gaisce Award.

In 2018, I joined Ability@Work and I ran for election for the Ability Board. Nothing can make me sad anymore because things are just going so well for me. I am now working in Mc Donald’s and I love it! My manager, Aislinn, is watching me today. Hello Aislinn! Can I have Thursday off please? J

How important is it for learners to have a voice?

You all probably don’t understand what it is like to have people look at you and think that you won’t be any good at anything or that you can’t make a decision by yourself. That’s how people see me all the time. I am good at lots of things. Everybody should have power over their lives. People say you learn from your mistakes. How can I learn if I’m not allowed try. So what if I make a few mistakes. It’s not the end of the world. If you focus on my weaknesses, you will miss my strengths.

How has adult learning affected your time on the Ability Board?

I’ve done some great courses with the Ability Board. We did the Learners as Leaders ‘Nothing About us Without us’ campaign with AONTAS too. That was one of the first things the Ability Board did so it really kick-started us into action.

I did another course with AONTAS too. It was about Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It was all about making goals to make the world a better place. That was really interesting. I didn’t realise how bad we are to the planet and to each other.

What advice would you give to someone else considering coming back to education?

Go back!!! It’s a great laugh and you will make a lot of friends. It also helps you in your career. I can talk more about stuff now and I have more confidence. I’ve a job now and I love it. I’m so much happier now. My life is just where I want it to be. Well… besides a trip to Miami! 

Find out more about the Ability Board and Ability@Work by clicking here.

Find out more about the AONTAS Adult Learners' Festival 2022 by clicking here