Having interviewed over 600 people, been a guest lecture at more than 30 colleges and having their exhibitions in galleries throughout Ireland, the UK and New York, and being an expert violin and fiddle player Fionn Angus Crombie and his father Jonathan Angus created Fionnathan Productions to promote Diversity and Inclusion by showing that someone with Down Syndrome can be successful at running their own business
- What is Fionnathan Productions? How did it begin and what has it grown into now?
As a son and father, we are a great creative team, and between us, we have tons of ideas, most of which never see the light of day. So, in one sense, it’s kind of amazing there even is a Fionnathan Prductions, or that it’s grown to have the influence that it has, with such an inclusive business model.
The founding of Fionnathan (Fionn + Jonathan) came about when, finishing secondary school, Fionn was offered a Day Centre placement designed for people with learning disabilities. Fionn said “I want to learn to play my violin, I want to learn to be a film maker, and I want to develop expertise about wildlife. Will you create a programme that focuses on those things, and change it when I want to change the focus to something else?”
They were speechless at their inability to meet such a reasonable request for choice and control. So we decided to do it ourselves. And, since we knew that every person with learning disability has their own version of that question, we realised we should share what we learn along the way. A unique social enterprise was born.
- What have been some of the highlights of your social enterprise to date?
We have travelled around the world (eastward – maybe we’ll make the loop the other direction next time). We’ve worked with local communites and witnessed natural spectacles from the Amazon to Zanzibar. We’ve been blessed to work with thousands of children, around Ireland and internationally. People with Fionn’s learning style are generally not welcome to enrol in third level education, but he has been paid to lecture at 30 colleges. Ironic, isn’t it?
- You’ve done more than 600 interviews, asking the same question. What’s your favourite answer?
It’s hard to say, because, although the seven word question we ask is so simple, the answers are often so profound. About 100 of the interviewees are famous enough in their various fields that they have Wikipedia pages devoted to them, which means that 5/6 are just ordinary people like you and us.
The most common answers that people give have to do with family, whether birth family or chosen family. That seems to be the one area that people go to most often when asked what they love about their life.
- What have been some of the highlights of your exhibitions or speaking engagements?
We are musicans and visual artists, so, of course, being able to perform on RTE telelvision and at iconic cultural spots around the world has been wonderful, as has having our artwork show in New York City and London.
One spontaneous speaking opportuity came when Tim Shriver, the nephew of John F Kennedy, was here in Ireland to launch the UNESCO Chair of Inclusive Sports in Tralee. We had been invtied down to perform some music, and Fionn got to interview Tim. He was so impressed that he later asked Fionn to co-present the after-dinner speech. The invitation only came during dinner, so there wasn’t much time to prepare, bu the two received a standing ovation.
- Your education courses have been hugely popular. How did you go about developing and gaining new customers for these?
We knew that our story was an important one for professionals who support people with disabilities to consider, so as well as social care courses, we offer to speak at international research conferences. Initially we might get a paper presentation accepted, which meant we’d have to pay to register for the conference, as well as flights and hotels. Most attendees have a budget supplied by their university to cover costs, but we invested our own meagre funds. And our presence made a powerful impact. Before long, we were being offered key note engagements, where an honorarium plus all expenses is standard.
And for individuals and families who want us to listen to their story and give advice, these consultations we do free of charge. One might say that’s a funny business model, but it works for us.
- What do you want to achieve with the business in the next 5 years?
Who can say? A podcast about people and animals called Zoosophy? Publising the best of our interviews as a book series? Lobbying the UK government to create a Down Syndrome Act, and initiative a worldwide Down syndrome leardership campaign? Working as trustees on a charity that empowers impoverished women to lead projects to improve their communities in rural Utta Pradesh? All these are already in progress, and more besides.
- Have you won awards since the business began?
Mostly not. We’re small fry, and that allows us independence. An honorary doctorate or two would be nice, though.
We loved giving the keynote address to the first Global Happiness Conference, bringing together teenagers from seven countries. Being recognised as Happiness Experts – how cool is that?
- How did the pandemic affect your services?
Although a lot of our engagements were cancelled, we arranged lots of other work online. We could continue to do lectures and workshops (and music and comedy performances) from our living room, and never venture out again. And, like most of you, we’ve attended events bringing people together from all around the world. But an internet connection doesn’t hold a candle to people coming together, face to face.
On the other end of the spectrum, instead of traveling to distance lands to observe nature, we’ve seen it within walking distance of our home. It’s been amazing to watch the seasonal changes in a few little woodlands and a short stretch of seashore.
- What would you say to others with a learning difficulty and may want to start their own business but may be too intimidated?
Find allies, plan big and be bold. Inventory your natural assets, and those of your family and community. You have a unique way of seeing the world – use that to your benefit. Collaborate
- Are there any other companies, people or organisations in Ireland that inspire you?
Only a few. We’re most inspired by the ambitious failures of the past, and the projects that haven’t been started yet.