It was with much sadness and regret that I learnt belatedly of the death of Gerry Ryan in October 2017 after a short illness. Gerry was General Secretary of the National Association for the Mentally Handicapped of Ireland N.A.M.H.I. from 1981 to 2001. N.A.M.H.I. is now known as Inclusion Ireland.
I first met Gerry when I joined the association in 1996, as Assistant General Secretary. At that time there was a very small secretariat, and Gerry, running a large national representative group of 156 affiliated members. The office was based in two rooms in a lovely Georgian house at 5 Fitzwilliam Place, Dublin. Gerry and I shared the front room office.
During the five years I worked for Gerry, sharing an office, I had the opportunity to get to know the man and his work at close quarters. Gerry was the best boss I ever had. He was generous, kind, sympathetic, patient, a great teacher and fully committed to making the lives of people with intellectual disability and their families better. Gerry taught me how to listen to people and let them talk, how to approach officials and politicians on their behalf, and all the time not forgetting for whom we worked.
N.A.M.H.I. was founded in 1961 by a group of pioneering people, parents and professionals. Its main aim, as a representative body, was to provide a central forum to enable its members to formulate nationally agreed priorities, which then could be presented to government and influence policy in order to improve and develop services and supports for adults and children. Its membership covered Donegal to Kerry, Galway to Dublin, Cork and everywhere in between. Gerry travelled the length and breadth of the country, meeting people and speaking to local groups. People loved to meet and talk to him after meetings and he gave them a sense of hope and encouragement when it seemed that little was being done. The aims set out in 1961 have not changed radically over the years but language has, along with the way disability is viewed. The medical model is no longer acceptable; the language of rights, citizenship and advocacy is now to the fore.
Gerry was to the forefront in progressing these changes. He listened to people with intellectual disabilities when they told him they were offended by the term “mental handicap” and he put in places the consultation process with members which led to the change of name to Inclusion Ireland. He advocated for people with intellectual disability languishing in large psychiatric hospitals in the 1980s and 1990s. He campaigned for better and new social welfare allowances for people and their families. He encouraged people with intellectual disability themselves to speak and find their voice. He believed in the innate human dignity of each individual and their right to be respected.
Gerry was a modest man who did not seek the limelight. He had a quiet sense of humour and a turn of phrase which relieved the tension at difficult moments. His family was central to him. His wife Carmel accompanied him to Annual General Meetings throughout the country, and was a great support. He was immensely proud of his three sons and his grandchildren. He took great pleasure in travelling around Ireland – the foreign holiday was not for him – holidaying in Rosslare was his choice. Lawn bowls was a passion, and he was an active member of his club in Blackrock. After retirement, Gerry took up wood turning. I cherish a beautiful pen he carved for me a few years ago.
When Gerry retired, I knew I had big shoes to fill but he gave me tremendous encouragement and was always there when I needed some advice or help. I am grateful for the trust he placed in me and the confidence this gave me in advocating for people with disability and their families. Gerry will be greatly missed by many friends and our deepest sympathy is extended to Carmel and his family.