By Patricia Frayne
The project started as a result of discussions between teachers responsible for the coordination of the Gaisce project within the Midlands Prison Education Centre and myself as a director of Midlands Down Syndrome Centre. The objective of the exercise was to plan and coordinate a project between both groups.
I met with the Gaisce participants for an initial discussion as to the structure the project would take. I explained what Down syndrome is and the typical characteristics of the syndrome. We discussed the ideas they had and explored what would work or not. It was decided that the participants would structure activities and games suitable for a number of children with Down Syndrome who would come into the prison for an afternoon with their parents/guardians.
The Gaisce Gold participants had put a lot of planning into my initial meeting with them and I welcomed all their thoughts and questions. I explained to them that some of the children coming might have levels of speech delay and gave them a handout of Lámh signs which they could use to aid communication with the children. (Lámh is a form of sign language used to help children whose speech is delayed). We also talked about the importance of using ‘Person First’ language at all times.
Our discussions turned then to the different types of activities that the children might enjoy and we decided on some musical games and other fun challenges. We also discussed giving the children some snacks and treats and the Gold participants asked me to check if the children had any food allergies. I was really impressed with the level of thought and planning that they had given to the event.
On the day itself, six children with Down Syndrome and their parents/guardians came into the Midlands Prison Education Centre. Their ages ranged from approximately one year to nine years – so all were at very different stages of development. All the Gold participants interacted so warmly with the children and their parents. Lots of games were played e.g. skittles, football and hide and seek; and the children enjoyed playing with all the musical instruments too! The parents really enjoyed getting an uninterrupted cup of tea and a biscuit while the children were having lots of fun. All too soon the afternoon had come to an end and it was time to pack up and say goodbye to the Gaisce participants.
On behalf of Midlands Down Syndrome Centre I would like to thank all the Gaisce participants for their enthusiasm and warm welcome to the group. I would also like to thank the teachers from the Midlands Prison Education Centre for helping to organise the events and food and also the Governor and staff of the Midlands Prison who facilitated the event. Most of the parents (and children!) had never been inside a prison prior to this event and were somewhat apprehensive about being part of the project. It is fair to say that the stigma that can attach to disability can also attach to prisons and prisoners.
Holding this sort of event proved to be beneficial to both groups- certainly the feedback from the parents who brought their children in was extremely positive and helped dispel lots of preconceived ideas that they might have had about the prison system. The interaction and chats that they had with the Gaisce Gold participants meant a lot to them and will certainly remain with them in the future. We hope that learning about Down Syndrome and meeting the children will have helped dispel the fear of disability that sometimes exists. We hope that the experience was a positive one for the participants and we would like to wish Thomas, John Paul and David all the best in the future!