A local group has been awarded funding to hold Northern Ireland’s first ever Learning Disability Pride Day next year.
Carrickfergus Senior Gateway Club, which holds weekly meetings and activities for people with mild to severe learning disabilities throughout the East Antrim area, is to receive £5000 from the Big Lottery Fund’s Celebrate programme.
The funding will enable the group to hold a march through Belfast next August, followed by a concert and information stalls at City Hall.
Club Leader Thomas Haighton said that he was motivated to organise the event after taking part in Disability Pride Day.
“The first ever Disability Pride Day took place in Belfast a couple of years ago and we attended as a club, but I found that it focused more on physical disabilities,” he said.
“There are just over 33,000 people in Northern Ireland with a learning disability and I thought, ‘Why not have a Learning Disability Pride Day?’
“It’s a celebration of the contribution of people with learning disabilities to Northern Ireland.
“Things have improved vastly but there are still negative attitudes to people with learning difficulties.
“People think they can’t do as much but we are saying they need support but they can do as much if not more than other people.
“We hope to raise awareness and to say to people: ‘We are people and we are able!’”
Thomas says he wants to see as many people as possible turn out to support the event.
“We want to see thousands of people with learning disabilities, their carers and families, and anyone who supports people with learning disabilities to come out and march to show they are proud of them and their contributions to society,” he continued.
“That includes other clubs, adult centres, special schools and charities.
“We are planning to meet in Belfast, march through Royal Avenue with posters and banners and finish at city hall with a concert in the grounds as well as information stalls on help for people with learning disabilities.
“We are hoping to secure more funding so we have around £10,000 to make the event even bigger.”
Although attitudes are changing, Thomas believes more should be done to support people with learning disabilities in Northern Ireland.
“There is a lack of resources for people with disabilities, they could be doing more if there was more support for them,” he explained.
“I think a quota system should be imposed by Stormont where businesses have to employ people with learning disabilities.
“More employers are offering more opportunities for work experience but for some people the criteria are stopping them, it is more for people who are physically disabled, not those with learning disabilities.”
Social isolation is another challenge which Thomas says many people with learning difficulties have to confront.
Carrickfergus Senior Gateway Club, which has been running for 46 years, hosts a range of activities for its 100 members with conditions ranging from Down’s Syndrome to Autism.
“Some people who are socially disadvantaged don’t get out, so by coming to the club they get out and make friends and it also provides respite for parents and carers,” Thomas continued.
“We meet on Wednesdays and we have a leisure club, they can go swimming and play sports, go to a cafe and we plan outings and events so there is a great social aspect.
“Our members come from Carrick, Larne, Whitehead, Ballycarry and Greenisland and quite a few of our volunteers work in health and social care or want to get into it.
“We believe that people with learning disabilities are equal and they deserve an equal place in society.”
For more informationon the club’s activities visit www.carrickdistrictseniorgateway.org, check out the group’s Facebook page or ‘like’ the Learning Disability Pride event on Facebook.