With levels of education and employment among people with disabilities significantly lower than they are among the rest of the population, one of the Enactus NUI Galway projects hopes social enterprise can make a difference.

According to the most recent Central Statistics Office (CSO) census figures (2016), unemployment rates for those with a disability are much higher than they are among the rest of the work-age population – at 26.3%, unemployment among disabled people was more than double that of the population as a whole (12.9%).

Not only that, but education levels are consistently lower as well: 13.7% of 15 to 50 year olds with a disability have no more than a primary-level education, while just 4.2% of the general population is in the same boat.

Identifying the root causes of these discrepancies is beyond the remit of the CSO, and it is impossible to speculate accurately, but it’s not outside the realms of possibility that much of this is related to attitudes within schools and businesses towards those with disabilities.

Enter Understanding Le Chéile, an NUI Galway project in the Enactus 2018-2019 cohort. The team – Paul Byrne, Sean Croke, Cullen Gibbons and Ronan Lavin – have developed a social enterprise that aims to create a better awareness of autism among students and businesses.

Here, Ronan talks all things social enterprise with Kirsty Tobin, in an interview conducted in collaboration with Enactus.

Can you tell us about your project?

Understanding Le Chéile is a social enterprise that conducts Autism Awareness workshops, with the aim of teaching a fundamental awareness of autism to second-level students and businesses around Ireland.

What social need does your project address?

Promoting Autism awareness and harnessing the rights of persons with disabilities.

What first stirred your interest in this area?

Meeting Paul, one of the autistic people we work with, really got me interested in creating a world with a greater understanding of autism and how those on the autism spectrum can be of great benefit to society.

What prompted you or inspired you to get involved with Enactus?

I wanted to join a society that does some good in the world while also fuelling my passion for business, and I found that Enactus was a perfect blend of both.

What have you learned about social enterprise and community-focused entrepreneurship since starting this project?

I have learned a lot, personally, since starting this project. There can be many lows, as there are when creating any business, but I found that the reward of creating a world that Paul and Cullen (our autistic facilitators) felt more accepted in was worth all the hard work we all went through.

Why do you think social enterprise matters?

Because it helps to solve problems in our society that would otherwise go unsolved.

Do you think you’ll work to develop social enterprises after graduation, or even continue to grow your Enactus project?

I would like to think that Understanding Le Chéile would grow into a social enterprise that I could help run, and that it could become successful in creating a world where people on the autism spectrum are better understood by society.

What advice would you give to students considering developing an Enactus project in the future?

Do it! The best thing I have ever done was join Enactus. Not only have I made lifelong friends, but I would like to think I’ve helped to make the world a little bit better to live in.

Interested in reading more about the state of Ireland’s community development sector? Check out our latest issue.