Living with a learning disability can be difficult but Derry man Darryl McDonagh has been proving an inspiration to many - having visited schools throughout the city and spoken to over 500 pupils to raise awareness of living with learning dfficulties.
Now aged 27-years-old, Darryl is a confident, friendly man who has no problems talking to P7 children about his experiences through the ‘Our Community Lessons’ project. But it wasn’t always so. As a child, he suffered bullying and spent years overcoming the prejudices of others.
“I’ve been doing the talks around schools for a couple of years now,” Darryl from Hazelbank told the ‘Derry Journal’ this week. “My mother set up a group called Disability Equality Action and I go around talking to young people about my experiences and what its like to have a learning disability. At the start I was nervous but my confidence grew.”
Darryl speaks to groups of up to 60 young people at a time, followed by a question and answer session.
“When I go to schools, I tell them my name is Darryl and I am 27-years-old. Then I explain about how I was subjected to bullying when I was at school. A guy punched me one day and when I came home really upset, my mother knew something was wrong. She spoke to the Principal at the time and the bully was suspended.”
From that day on, Darryl gradually became more assertive. “People listen when you stand up for yourself,” he says.
“I have a sister who also has a learning disability and we were both in a shop one day when someone said “you’re sister is a handicapped so and so” and I said to him “you better take that back” and he apologised. I think he was embarrassed, so I’m glad I spoke up.”
Another issue that once upset Darryl was the lack of paid work on offer. Thankfully, he now has a job that he loves.
“I work in the City Hotel as a kitchen assistant, helping the chef and the porters, I’ve been there six years and I enjoy it. But when I do my talk, I tell people how I was treated when I was growing up and trying to get a proper job. I did a lot of placement and work experience around the town but none were prepared to pay me a proper wage until I came to the City Hotel through Mencap. This is the first job to pay me a proper wage and it’s great.”
Darryl is now hoping to move up the career ladder. “I’m actually training to be a chef,” he reveals. “I’ve already done my Level One through the Tech (NWRC) and I’m planning to go back and get my Level Two now.”
As well as working in the City Hotel and training to be a chef, Darryl also volunteers at the Cosy Club (Citizens of Senior Years Club) and is a Director of Destined, a Derry-based support group for people with learning difficulties. “I love being busy,” he smiles.
Ideally, Darryl would like to speak to as many schools as possible to raise awareness of learning disabilities and, in particular, his old school, Belmont. The message he conveys is a valuable one: “I wish young people would respect people with learning difficulties and treat them with dignity, same as everybody else. I don’t care what the disability is - people deserve to be respected.”
The ‘Our Community’ project is an initiative facilitated by the Housing Executive’s Social Education Project, in partnership with the PSNI, Derry City Council and Habinteg Housing Association among others.
Patrick Duddy, Housing Executive Social Education Officer, who helps organise the project, is full of praise.
“Darryl really adds something extra to the Our Community Lessons as he is telling his own story, he is very open and honest with the pupils – and happily answers any questions they want to ask.”