EXPERTISE AND EXPERIENCE

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In the weeks following the major disappointment of the negative Supreme Court decision on the Sinnott Case, there was an uncharacteristic flurry of summertime activity from government ministers and their departments. Minister Woods announced the creation of the Special Education Council, to take over, from the Department of Education and Science, responsibility for ‘day-to-day’ issues of special needs education. As this is written, the details are still unclear. It would be very naïve to expect immediate improvements, but at least the stated plans can be used as jump-leads to jolt government departments—and, indeed, service agencies and educationalists—into positive action.

The Bacon Report on labour-market requirements for professional therapists was launched by Minister for Health and Children Micheál Martin on 25 July. Imagination and flexibility will be needed to fulfil its comprehensive recommendations—especially in finding ways to create a greater number of clinical placements, which are a vital element in the professional training programmes. Working conditions and cross-professional teams need to be further developed within our services, to encourage newly-qualified therapists to choose a career in learning disability.

The conclusions of the Oireachtas Committee report ‘Vaccination and Children’ were disappointing to many. Despite the universally-accepted need to protect the nation’s children from serious infectious diseases, many families (and some scientists) retain nagging doubts about the safety of the triple MMR vaccine. The medical establishment and health authorities, both in Britain and here, attempt to reassure, but there is a critical need for further objective research. The seventeenth-century era of Leibnitz is long gone—that acclaimed ‘universal genius’ who was corporate lawyer, crafty diplomat, ecumenist, educator, genealogist, historian, librarian, logician, mathematician, metaphysician and philologist and theologian—all in one. Nowadays experts necessarily restrict themselves to a much narrower remit. But they do accept the disadvantages of such fragmented knowledge and their recognise their constant need to liaise with others in the search for holistic solutions

Sadly, too often a significant body of information is unheard and unstudied because of the inability to convert ‘anecdotal evidence’ into objective. Lived experience is not mere gossip or opinion. Many significant medical discoveries have grown from coincidental experience—eg. Fleming’s mouldy petrie dishes and Jenner’s milkmaids. Surely our increasingly complex post-modern age demands the development of ways to integrate experience into research. Expertise (research evidence) and experience (anecdotal evidence) are both vital to improving the lives of people with complex health and learning needs.

Similarly, the expertise of professionals in our disability services is enriched by the experienced input of volunteers. Toward the close of this UN Year of the Volunteer, this issue of Frontline features a Focus on volunteerism and the voluntary sector. Nearly all the Irish disability services were founded by, and many still rely on, the energies of determined volunteers. The best services exhibit a creative partnership which combines professional and voluntary commitment. It is not surprising to read (p.12) that the developing community services in Malawi also depend heavily on voluntary inputs. Professional competence grows from long study and practical training. Volunteers can provide their own insights and perspectives to the service quotation. There will always be tensions between professionals and volunteers just as there are between statutory bodies and the voluntary sector, but healthy tensions can add new energy to service agencies, as long as each group respects the others’ competence and viewpoint.

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