23 March, 2023 | Posted by Marguerita Magennis

World Down Syndrome Day: “With Us Not For Us” - A Rights-based Approach to Education and Inclusion

Down Syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects approximately one in every 444 births in Ireland, and it is currently estimated that around 7000 people in Ireland are diagnosed with Down Syndrome (down syndrome. i.e. 2022).  Down Syndrome can cause intellectual disability and developmental delays of different levels. Individuals with a diagnosis may also require additional support and accommodations in various stages, including education and early education.

This blog post was written by Dr Marguerita Magennis, Course Coordinator of Masters in Early Childhood Studies and Masters in Inclusive Education and SEN.

World Down Syndrome Day is celebrated annually on March 21st and is an opportunity to raise awareness about the capabilities and rights of individuals with Down Syndrome.

The capabilities approach has long since been a framework that raises awareness of the importance of understanding how children and young people can achieve their full potential and gain the capability to live a life they value (Amartya, 1980).  

This particular approach is relevant when it comes to education and early education, as it emphasises the importance of enabling children to avail of and engage with resources and activities alongside their peers to ensure they achieve their full potential based on their human right to do so. 

Inclusive education is a fundamental right and an essential strategy for promoting social inclusion and reducing discrimination.  

This year World Down Syndrome Day promotes the theme of a rights-based approach, and this blog considers a rights-based pedagogy through a capabilities framework – thus ensuring a suitable education for all. 

A rights-based approach to teaching is crucial for individuals with Down Syndrome, as it recognises their inherent dignity and worth, ensuring that they can access and utilise the same opportunities as their peers, encouraging educators and peers to work with each child and highlight their potential (Broderick et al. 2017). 

This approach acknowledges that each individual has the right to quality education, which means education at every age and for all abilities – i.e. Early Education, Primary, Post-primary, and further and higher levels – that meets their unique needs and supports their development to their full potential. It further recognises that education is not just about acquiring knowledge – as in academic learning. Still, it also values the importance of gaining transferable skills, developing social and emotional competence, self-esteem and a sense of purpose and belonging, and well-being and empathy, all considered during the early years (Dixon & Nussbaum, 2012). 

As practitioners and educators at this early stage, the capabilities approach provides a useful framework for understanding how we can offer and ensure a rights-based pedagogy to support the education of young children diagnosed with Down Syndrome.  

This approach is particularly relevant to the education of children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), including those with Down Syndrome, as it focuses on working with the individual to recognise their capabilities rather than simply addressing their limitations.  

This rights-based approach holds that the goal of social policy should highlight the capabilities of children, defining these as providing opportunities to achieve valued outcomes, such as health, education, social relationships as well as other aspects of life, rather than focusing on resources and outcomes; emphasising the importance of freedom of choice, the right to pursue their own goals, likes and interests, and ultimately through this approach we ensure that every child is given a voice (Borkett, 2021).

For example, if we consider a child with a diagnosis of Down Syndrome, they might have difficulty with certain academic aspects of education; however, they may excel in other areas, such as music, art, poetry, swimming and drama, as was evidenced recently when James Martin won an Oscar for his role in “An Irish Goodbye”.  

It is by providing a range of activities that cater for these individual strengths that we as educators can ensure children with Down Syndrome and other additional needs are provided with opportunities to develop their skills and interests and pursue their own goals and dreams.

By applying a capabilities approach and ensuring we provide a rights-based pedagogy within early education, we are supporting an Inclusive environment for all children in Early Education (Broderick et al., 2017).  Inclusion is essential for the well-being of children with Down Syndrome, as when a child feels included and accepted, they are more likely to be happy, confident, and have a positive self-image.  However, when a child feels excluded, segregated or isolated from their peers, they are more likely to develop low self-esteem, anxiety and even, at times, depression.  

Providing a suitable Early Years environment that demonstrates an awareness of Capabilities and rights-based education means providing a welcoming, supportive and accommodating classroom. 

One where Teachers and caregivers should be trained to understand the unique needs of children with Down Syndrome and be able to work with each child to provide appropriate support and accommodations to meet those needs; without undermining the voice and choice of any child.  

This also means recognising that a child with Down Syndrome should not be segregated or separated from their peer; instead, we need to work to ensure integration into the same classroom as their peers and provide equal opportunities to learn and participate in activities that reflect their interests and capabilities. 

This practice helps to foster a sense of belonging and encourages positive relationships between all children in the classroom and highlights respectful and caring attitudes amongst all children.  

Providing a capabilities approach to education ensures that those children with Down Syndrome when exposed to diversity, develop a greater understanding and acceptance of differences, reduce prejudice and misunderstanding, and promote a much more inclusive society. 

All children in the classroom develop empathy for each other, compassion, and understanding that some people have unique challenges, but that does not mean they should be excluded.    

Of course, it is important to remember that Inclusive Education for children with Down Syndrome is not restricted to the classroom environment, it is also something that needs to be given greater consideration within the wider community. Families, caregivers, and community members should all be involved in creating and ensuring that a rights-based approach is provided to ensure accessibility to facilities that help promote a positive attitude towards disability in general. 

Further Reading and References:

Broderick, A., and Quinlivan, S. (2017) The right to Education: Article 24 of the CRPD, in C. O’Mahony & Quinn, (eds) The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Comparative, Reegional and Thematic perspectives, Dublin: Clarus Press. 

Borkett, P. (2021) Special Educational Needs in Early Years, A guide to Inclusive practice, London: SAGE.

Dixon, R., and  Nussbaum, M.(2012), Children’s Rights and a Capabilities Approach, in Chicago UnBound. 

Sen, A. (1980) Equality of What?  Tanner lecturers on Human Values, McMurin, S. (ed) Cambridge University Press.

About the Author 

Dr Marguerita Magennis, Course Coordinator Masters in Early Childhood Studies & Lead Lecturer BA Hons degree Early Childhood Studies at Portobello Institute. Read her blog, Dr M's Thoughts here.


Did You Know?
At Portobello Institute, we help you to follow your passion and fulfil your potential to achieve the career you want.

We have a range of courses commencing in Spring 2023 that will further your knowledge and career in the early years sector.

Interested in our MA Inclusive Education Programme?  

If you are interested in finding out more about our upcoming intake for the MA in Inclusive Education, you can reach out to our Early Years Admissions Advisor, Jennifer Matteazzi, who will answer any questions you may have. You can book a 15-minute free consultation call with Jennifer at a time that suits you here. Or you can email jennifer.matteazzi@portobelloinstitute.com or call her directly on 01 892 0031.  

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