These three pioneering young women are among the first graduates of a groundbreaking new third-level course designed specifically for people with intellectual disabilities.
The Speaking Up for Yourself course at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) has given them new confidence which they said will help them “step out of the shadows and take back the power”.
“A lot of people are ignorant. They just see us as shadows. We are always in the background,” said Cope’s first lady mayoress Noreen O’Driscoll.
“But completing this course is like us taking one step to the moon.
“Our message is: ‘Look at us, we’re coming, beware! We’re here, listen to us, see us, don’t push us to the back’.”
Cope Foundation supports more than 2,300 children and adults with intellectual disabilities or autism through its network of 65 locations across Cork City and county.
In 2013, it established a working group of its clients, managers, and frontline staff to examine the whole area of advocacy and how it could benefit its clients.
“For a long time people with intellectual disabilities have been helped and cared for, but have rarely been empowered to take control of choices and decisions that affect their daily lives,” Cope spokesperson Julie O’Leary said.
“Cope wanted to change this for the people it supports and wanted to strengthen their voice within the organisation.
“Advocacy can have a profound impact on the life of a person with an intellectual disability.
“Often for the first time in their life, a person can feel empowered and heard by others.
“Feeling heard and knowing your voice is important has a significant effect on a person’s self-esteem and confidence.”
The foundation collaborated with CIT to establish a pilot workshop on developing self-advocacy skills.
And last February and March, 11 people — Noreen O’Driscoll, William Irwin, the first lord mayor of Cope Foundation, Alice O’Donnell, Fergus O’Donovan, Joseph McCarthy, Leigh Griffin, Marguerite Darcy, Brendan O’Sullivan, Sharon Lane, David Leland, and Miriam Creagh — successfully completed the Speaking up for Yourself Advocacy Workshops.
The group attended CIT as part of the main student body. For all of them, it was their first opportunity to experience student life on a college campus.
They attended lectures and workshops over three Fridays, exploring topics such as empowerment, assertiveness, autonomy, resilience and speaking up with confidence in real life.
All 11are now champions of advocacy in Cope Foundation, speaking up for their fellow clients, and feeding information directly to Cope CEO Colette Kelleher, and her senior management, at regular monthly meetings.
Noreen, who lives independently in Blackpool, said she jumped at the opportunity of doing the course.
“It’s changed my life. I got more confidence. I could be myself. I could talk and people would listen,” she said.
“We learned to stand up for ourselves, and how to say no when we have to. It’s like I’m a new person.”
The skills she learned have already helped her in the wider community.
She recalled a recent incident as she tried to return a top to a city centre shop when she felt the shop assistant was dismissive of her. She decided to draw on the skills she learned at CIT and spoke out.
“I told her I’m a customer and I have rights. And she took the top back. I was very proud of myself and gave myself a pat on the back,” Noreen said.
Special Olympics soccer player, Sharon Lane, who underwent a kidney transplant about a year ago and who is supported at the QDS workshop in Togher, said she learned about equal rights, fairness, resilience, and “taking back the power”.
“Before, if I saw something wrong, I’d do nothing about it, just keep it in my head,” Sharon said. “Now, I tell them I’ve been sent on a course to stand up for myself and others, and you’re going to have to listen.”
Miriam Creagh, who is supported in Cope’s Glasheen complex, said the course taught her to talk up for herself and for other people who can’t talk up for themselves.
“If they can’t speak up for themselves, they can talk to me, and then I talk for them,” she said. “If I see anyone in trouble, I talk to the staff, and they will sort things out.
“Before, I didn’t think my voice would be heard. Now I feel I’ve got my voice back.”
The group won the Inclusion Ireland Advocacy Award earlier this year.