We must change approach to intellectual disability

I WELCOME Deirdre Carroll’s call for an inspectorate of intellectual disability services (September 4), a call that has been made repeatedly in recent years by advocates for people with intellectual disabilities but which has unfortunately been greeted with repeated inaction on the part of the Government.

The State’s promise of “unannounced visits” must, however, be viewed sceptically, especially in consideration of their appalling record in honouring the human rights of these people, a record that can be traced back before the foundation of the State to the mid 19th century.

History reveals that throughout those years, people with intellectual disabilities were marginalised and excluded by society and exposed to subhuman conditions.

Ms Carroll alludes to a number of examples of such conditions; these could be recounted by many people with intellectual disabilities across the State.

They are, however, only the tips of a societal “iceberg” under the surface of which there is widespread evidence of dehumanisation.

It has been seen in history that dehumanisation of various groups has often been associated with removal of rights and adoption of approaches that would otherwise be considered unacceptable for human beings.

This is the situation of many Irish citizens with intellectual disabilities who are not afforded the rights and protection promised them in the constitution. It is clear something is fundamentally wrong.

Throughout the history of Irish intellectual disability service provision, a health-related approach to “care” of persons with intellectual disabilities has prevailed, embodied in the continued location of intellectual disability funding in the Department of Health and Children – a situation that many countries have rejected.

After 25 years as an intellectual disability nurse and lecturer, I am convinced there needs to be a reconsideration of this model, for it is obvious from the reports of people with intellectual disabilities that the current approach, which continues to stigmatise them, is seriously flawed.

This is not just a service issue, though. It is also a societal one. What type of society can ours be when we can ignore the fact that people with intellectual disabilities routinely have their human rights removed?

What type of people are we when we can accept the verbal, physical, societal and/or situational abuse of a group of more than 27,000 citizens because they are “different” from the rest of us?

Something is fundamentally wrong and needs to change. But this change cannot come from the society that has rejected these people.

It is vital that people with intellectual disabilities be central to such change and that their voices are heard.

Dr Fintan Sheerin

Lecturer in Intellectual

Disabilities Nursing

School of Nursing & Midwifery

Trinity College

Dublin 2

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