PATRICIA NOONAN WALSH, NDA PROFESSOR OF DISABILITY STUDIES

A week after UCD officially announced her appointment as Ireland’s first Professor of Disability Studies, Patricia Noonan Walsh talked about her new position with Mary de Paor.

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‘This is the first Chair in Disability Studies in Ireland, and it’s coming at an amazingly exciting time, full of opportunities. I see it as a unified initiative with diverse elements—we’re dedicated to the exploration of all aspects of disability.

[Patricia showed me a massive text, Handbook of Disability Studies (Gary Albrecht (ed.)), and she commented that it was something of a metaphor for how she would like the Chair of Disability Studies to develop]: ‘You can pick up any chapter, open it and get a different vantage on what disability studies might be about.’

‘Disability Studies will offer an inter-faculty degree. That’s a very appropriate place. It’s a “big tent”, as they say in the US, and we’ll welcome people from several disciplines and areas of interest.

We’ll have room for people who want to give their autobiographical experience of living with a disability or with a loved one who has a disability. Often those voices haven’t been articulated or they’ve been suppressed. They need an opportunity to talk about their own life experiences. That’s an important strand of disability studies.

The history of disability is something that particularly interests me—European history in the dark times of the ’30s and ’40s and the outrageous way in which people with disabilities were treated in recent history, as we’ve nowall become acutely aware. There’ve been a few outstanding books and programmes on television, but we haven’t started that task really in a systematic way in Ireland. We owe it to students and to ourselves to become aware of the history of disability in this country.

There is, of course, the strand of developmental disabilities. I hope we’ll continue the quality of our research and teaching in that area, and helping services to look at themselves and develop. We will be joined by our colleagues who have a particular interest in rehabilitation studies and the supports provided for the management of services. They’re going to come into our new domain as well.

There may be other courses in social science, psychology, education—we’ll liaise with them. Several of us affiliated to the Centre for the Study of Developmental Disabilities (CSDD) teach on those courses—so there’s already liaison. That will work in our direction too. There are also some pragmatic improvements we could make in rationalising teaching. Rather than having four lecturers talking about human rights legislation to four different groups on campus at four different times, it would make better sense if we could bring the students from different courses together; it would be a much richer product. The same is true, and we do it already on our Masters course, for research methods—students meet each other, talk about their different work and everyone gains. Wider choices of research topics can also be offered to students.

The Centre (CSDD) is involved in a Socrates grant, a European initiative linking eight universities to develop a European Master’s Degree of Disability Studies. It will probably offer core subjects that everybody takes, but it should also give us the option to send two students to Ghent—they do some things particularly well there, for example, involving people with disabilities in research. We could send students to Exeter, where they have a very interesting social model of education for people with special needs. We could send two students to Trondheim in Norway, and they could send two here—assistive technology is something that they think we do particularly well in this university (and its usefulness applies across all disabilities. A European Masters would be very attractive to students, registered at their own university, but with a month elsewhere doing something like I’ve described. They’d build up a useful network, with friends and email contacts at the other end of Europe.’

[I asked her about the future of the Centre for the Study of Developmental Disabilities, of which she has been Director, in the framework of Disability Studies.]

‘I think that it will retain its distinctive identity, although it will exist in a bigger family. I will have a wider focus, but intellectual disabilities is still my background. It is important to maintain a focus with people with developmental disabilities and their advocates because historically, we (I still feel part of that group) tend to lose out sometimes in initiatives where legislation is concerned. So it would be my understanding that the Centre will continue, within the new framework.

The voice across disabilities is strengthening. What I’ve seen—particularly at the Mansion House [at the anti-Disability Bill meeting on 19 February], for the first time was a feeling that people with intellectual disability were not in the shadows. For the first time, working in this sector in Ireland over twenty-odd years, I had the most vivid feeling that there was a real ‘we’re all in this together’, that we were there to get the best shot for everybody. There was no elitist or hierarchical stance being taken. A couple of people with learning disabilities gave marvellous, punchy presentations.

My chair is endowed by the NDA; my title is ‘NDA Professor of Disability Studies’. But UCD is my employer and my work is to teach and examine students, to do research and to serve the wider community. We will consult with the NDA—who are, of course, people we’ve known for many years and who represent people with disabilities and the people who work with them. They may request some areas of research—I understand they will have some research funds available, and I will welcome that with open arms.

Some of my areas of special interest, as I’ve already mentioned, are advocacy, the history of disability and its impact on families. I’m also very interested in the subject of positive health and promoting healthy ageing. We have people, as we know, into their 60s and 70s—but some aren’t as hale and hearty as they could be. I’m not sure that people with disabilities get those regular checks that the rest of us are all dragooned to have every year. And the whole issue of fitness and health—it would save so much in terms of people’s well-being and their energy, daily activities and how they look and feel about themselves. Health gain and social gain—we’re actively seeking research funding to explore that in more detail.

I think there’s a great excitement in academe finally coming out and saying, yes, we’re going to engage in disability studies, promote research and teaching in this area. There is still a lot of controversy about what disability is within the field. A group, particularly among our UK colleagues, have developed the ‘social construct’ model of disability. I neither embrace nor dismiss that—of course it’s important to look at how the rest of society’s attitudes and expectations add to the difficulties people experience. But the debate is varied, and particularly people with intellectual disability feel that they aren’t part of this discussion on the social model. Many say that, yes, they do have an impairment or a great difficulty physically. Ultimately, we’ll come to a balanced view, I think, that there is a social construct that we put on disability, undoubtedly, but that people’s real experiences are something equally valid and we mustn’t dismiss these.

[I asked Patricia where Disability Studies would be located.]

I know we’ll be in Belfield, on the main college campus. I daren’t say specifically where, just yet, but ‘a Chair’ is being prepared. We’re grateful to the Dean of Arts for providing the Centre with its present accommodation [in the arts annexe building] for the past four years. Space is at such a premium in College …. [I asked if she had architectural drawings in her bag, and she laughed..] ‘The new ‘Institute’ that I’m going to have? No, I think you’ll need to give me a few years for that! Actually, I don’t know anywhere that has a dedicated building for disability studies. In Chicago it’s in the Department of Human Development and Disability—humanities at one end, occupational and physical therapy on the ground floor and developmental disabilities upstairs. They all sit around the table; they have fierce discussions, but they’re offering a single doctoral degree in disability studies, with a variety of strands to get there—that’s the important thing…. Yes, we will need more space…. “Watch this space”… wherever it is.’

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Many Frontline readers will be old friends of Patricia Noonan Walsh. She was, after all, a member of the founding Editorial Board of this magazine! Patricia was born in New York, studied in Boston and taught in mainstream and special schools in the US before coming to Ireland. She trained as a clinical psychologist at Trinity College Dublin and worked with the Eastern Health Board and with St Michael’s House, where she was Director of Research for seven years. She has lectured in the Psychology Department of UCD since 1995; she became Director of the Centre for the Study of Developmental Disabilities in 1997. Patricia has travelled very widely—as far as Vietnam and Mexico; she has an impressive network of colleagues and friends in disability studies and a prodigious publication list. She has served on a number of study groups for Inclusion International and the UN. May 2002 will see the publication (by Blackwell Science) of Health and Women with Intellectual Disabilities, edited by Patricia Noonan Walsh and Tamar Heller.

The Chair of Disability Studies now established at NUI Dublin (UCD), was announced by An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in June of 2000, in his speech launching the National Disability Authority and Comhairle. ‘In recognition of the additional need to build up centres of excellence in disability research, I am very pleased to announce the Government’s intention to provide a £½ million endowment to establish a Professorship in Disability Studies. Subject to certain details which have yet to be fully finalised, the Professorship will be based here in UCD in recognition of its long commitment to opening up access for people with disabilities and researching disability-related topics. I would further like to say that I have asked Minister Michael Woods to consider additional ways in which we can assist the development of disability research in higher education.’

Those ‘certain details’ seemed to take a very long time, but the professorship was eventually advertised last summer, and after interviews and the many necessary academic procedures, the appointment of Patricia Noonan Walsh was announced on 19 February 2002. Congratulations and best wishes, Patricia.

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