Northern Ireland

Special Me... the truth about turning 18 with a disability

Where to now? Gareth Knox and his parents ponder his future
Image caption Where to now? Gareth Knox and his parents ponder his future

Eighteen is a milestone birthday.

For most young people, it is the beginning of an exciting, new episode in their lives.

But for young people with learning disabilities and their parents, it can be a time of stress, sadness and anxiety.

A new BBC documentary, Special Me, looks into the world of young teenagers with a disability as they close the school door behind them forever.

The programme introduces us to Gareth Knox whose life is about to change beyond recognition.

He has Down's Syndrome and autism and attends Kilronan school in Magherafelt. When he turns 18, he will move from child to adult services.

This will automatically trigger a change in health and social care arrangements including new social workers, new respite arrangements and a fundamental alteration of routine. All that change can be traumatic.

His mother Claire speaks about the dreams and hopes she had for her new born son.

She knew his life was going to be more difficult than most, but they were as proud and as happy as any new parents could be.

"In my head, Gareth was going to be the first Down's Syndrome prime minister, you know, he was going to be the best thing ever," she said.

"We began filming with Gareth seven weeks before he reached his milestone 18th birthday and followed his journey as he made the transition from child to adult services," said documentary director Eimhear O'Neill.

"Reaching 18 was a poignant moment for the family who were delighted to see their son come of age, but they were also fearful of this move as it meant his respite arrangements, a life saver for the family, changed," she said.

"Gareth has not had an overnight stay since leaving children's services in July though his family are hopeful that some overnight respite under adult services may begin later this month."

The film also follows Phoebe Dalrymple, 19, on her last week at school.

We meet her at the school leavers' party which is a highly moving experience, both for the students, staff and parents.

Over the course of the documentary, we rejoin her as she begins part of her next chapter at Alternative Angles in Ballymena - a scheme that teaches new skills to adults with learning difficulties.

David Skelly, 32, who has Down's Syndrome, also features. Since he left school 13 years ago, he has worked in both paid and voluntary employment. David is very proud of what he has achieved since leaving school.

We join him as he volunteers at The Avenue, a cafe run by Stepping Stones in Lisburn. The charity gives adults with learning disabilities the opportunity to take part in accredited training and gain skills for employment.

For director Eimhear, this subject was very close to her heart.

"When I was growing up, I was surrounded by the special needs community in Magherafelt as my mum worked at the local special school," she said.

"Every summer, I volunteered in their summer scheme and I was introduced to an incredibly loving, thoughtful and vibrant community. At the end of each academic year, I would ask my mum: 'Who is leaving this year and what will they do when they leave?'" she said.

"I felt it was very important to invite viewers into the lives of these three very special people and also to the lives of the many individuals with special needs featured in the documentary.

"Like everyone they are confident, scared, hopeful, nervous, funny and brave. We all leave school and move on, but are our post-school options the same?"

Special Me is a Below the Radar production for BBC Northern Ireland. It was broadcast on Monday, 12 November 2012 on BBC One NI.

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