Mencap NI has launched a Family Support Programme to help families and improve outcomes for young children with a learning disability across Northern Ireland. 

The charity says children with a learning disability are more likely to grow up in poverty, have poor educational attainment and a greater risk of mental health difficulties. There are 5,000 children with a learning disability under the age of seven in Northern Ireland, with two children being born every week with the disability, Mencap NI are calling for more services to be developed to support families in every Health and Social Care Trust. 

Mencap NI announced the new service at the charity’s ‘Creating Brighter Futures’ Seminar at the Long Gallery at Stormont on Thursday 18 January attended by 120 civil servants, health and education professionals and learning disability organisations.  Speakers included Koulla Yiasouma, NI Children’s Commissioner and two leading academic experts in the UK, Professor Richard Hastings from the University of Warwick and Dr Nick Gore from the University of Kent.

Margaret Kelly, Director of Mencap NI said: "Every young child with a learning disability should have access to early intervention services that support their development from birth. Families of children with a learning disability need access to family support services in every Health and Social Care Trust. We are launching a programme of support that wants to ensure every child has the best possible start in life."

The Mencap NI family support service will provide support programmes to help parents from the birth of their child until the age of seven, providing support programmes, peer support and training to help their child’s development and improve their outcomes in life.

Aileen Hamill, from Ardglass, whose Daughter Nicola was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome 15 months ago said: "Nicola had so many medical problems when she was born, at one stage we did not think she was going to make it, it was one of the worst times of our lives. Then she improved medically over time and we could take her home, we were so consumed with keeping her alive, that we never worried or had a problem with the Down’s syndrome. It was a shock, as after you are signed off medically you are on your own and we had no idea how to deal with all the issues and problems with a child with a disability. Mencap has been a life line in supporting my family through this time, providing courses, information and advice and now we see a future for our child."

Mencap is currently piloting the E-PAtS (Early Positive Approaches to Support) family caregiver programme, developed by Dr Nick Gore at the Tizard Centre, University of Kent. The group-based programme supports caregivers at an early stage with sensitive, emotional support, information and practical skills to improve wellbeing and quality of life for children and families, support positive development and reduce the risks of behaviours that challenge. The programme is routinely facilitated by trained professionals and family caregivers working in partnership and has already been delivered to over 60 families in the Belfast and Omagh areas.  

Working in partnership with the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, the Mencap Children’s Centre in South Belfast already provides a unique specialist learning environment for 52 children a year, aged two to three years of age and supports parents on an individual and a group basis.

Professor Richard Hastings of the Centre for Educational Development Appraisal and Research (CEDAR) at the University of Warwick said: "Children with learning disabilities and their families are at risk of poorer outcomes, but early intervention policy and practice in the UK is often not inclusive or specific to their needs. Families that need the most help and support to ensure their children reach their full potential, often don’t receive that help and have to fight every step of the way. I am delighted that the Tizard Centre and CEDAR are working together with Mencap NI to develop an effective programme that can make a difference."

Parents have reported gaps in service provision and problems facing children with a learning disability and their families in Northern Ireland. Most services cater for children requiring a higher level of support, while mainstream settings often can’t meet mid-level needs and children with specific additional needs are poorly provided for in the early years, especially for three to five-year-old children, who are not accessing early education.  

Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, said: "We cannot underestimate the difference early intervention can make to the lives of children with disabilities. If, as a society, we are serious about every child having the best start in life then support must be available to all children and young people as and when they need it and this of course includes children with a disability. Inclusive early intervention policies and services are a clear indication of the implementation of the rights of our children with disabilities.  


You can view our Creating Brighter Futures Report by clicking here.