This is a simple initiative that has been developed in the communities of Killaloe / Ballina on the Clare Tipperary border.
It is called Smile & Bridge the Gap and it was created by Ailis Conacur who is 23. Ailis has a number of disabilities including Autism, Epilepsy & a Visual Impairment.
A key daily challenge she faces is to develop the skills and confidence to interact with people in her community. The social difficulties arising from her Autism leads to huge levels of stress and anxiety for Ailis when she has to try and carry out the simplest of tasks in her community.
As she has matured, she has become more able to explain, in simple terms, what people in the community could do to help alleviate this stress and anxiety.
Essentially, all Ailis was seeking was for people to:
- Say Hello
- Introduce yourself by name
- Ask Ailis if she is OK
How it helped Ailis
These individual elements are simple forms of communication for people in general but they are hugely important for Ailis, and by extension thousands of other kids and adults, for the following reasons:
- Smile – This immediately reduces her levels of anxiety as Ailis reads a “neutral” face as being cross;
- By saying “Hello Ailis” using her name, then Ailis knows that you are speaking to her as she cannot read eye contact and body language in the way people generally do;
- By introducing yourself by name you have now giving the tools to Ailis to try and respond and communicate with you;
- By asking Ailis if she is OK she can, if necessary, ask for assistance to find something in the shop or her place in the queue or some other simple task we take for granted but Ailis can find hugely stressful.
Spread the Word
At first, the initial reaction was that this was so simple that surely it could not make that much difference but it was very important to appreciate that this was Ailis’s own suggested solution.
Ailis’s parents met with members of the community as well as service providers such as shops, churches, hotels, cafes etc.. and outlined the concept. They had cards, posters, window stickers, car stickers designed and printed as well as a small badges that she will wear in her community which acts as a reminder to people of her needs when they see her wearing it.
Ailis and her family were overwhelmed by the 100% support we received across all areas of the community. The support led to positive action and the community has truly “walked the walk”.
Ailis has started to do things she has never previously done, such as walk into the village on her own – baby steps at the moment but huge progress all the same. She has also gained the confidence to walk into shops on her own and pick up her medication from her pharmacy, milk and bread from her supermarket etc.. People are going out of their way to say Hello to Ailis and engage with her and it is wonderful to see the impact that this has on Ailis.
There has to be the potential to be roll this simple initiative out on a National Basis. It is clear that people in communities want to help kids and adults with disabilities but sometimes just don’t know how. The badge informs the people that this child/adult may need help and simple positive engagement either with the person directly or the parent can make a real difference.
Is it too unreasonable to dream of seeing this badge, and its meaning, becoming recognised on a national basis so the thousands of potential wearers can go to any town or city safe in the knowledge that many members of the local community will be there to help and assist.
While the simplicity of the initiative makes it easy to roll out, the real beauty is the cost of rolling it out would be very small. You would be looking at an awareness phase, some badges, some shop window and car stickers, some posters and the badges.