Once every four years, just like the Olympics, world experts on learning disability meet to share knowledge and pool information on innovations, breakthroughs and best practice. Seattle was definitely the place to be at the beginning of August to hone in on the study of intellectual disability, whether from a very discrete area of interest or a very broad platform. Approximately 1300 delegates from the seven continents attended the congress; there were 21 parallel sessions and over 1000 papers presented. The topics echoed lifespan development–from prenatal/prevention to the ‘Fourth Age’ and dying with dignity. Sessions also focused on particular conditions such as autism, Fragile X, ADHD, language and communication disorders and rare syndromes/behavioural phenotypes. Papers on ‘issues’ covered advocacy, self-determination, supported employment/living, inclusive education, challenging behaviour, assistive technology, ethics and quality of life.
Was any one symposium better than the others? That’s too difficult to answer–there was so much going on! There were study tours, breakfast workshops, poster sessions and evening plenary sessions. (Not that I’m biased or anything, but many people regarded the 25+ Irish papers as the absolute best!)
Other Irish persons featured at the congress. Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, gave the keynote address at the Kennedy Foundation International Awards dinner an Wednesday evening, 2 August. She highlighted the basic civil/human rights for equality, paid tribute to the USA for its legislation and encouraged the Irish, as Europeans, not to settle for anything less than full inclusive legislation to guarantee equality and ‘fair play’. Another eminent proponent of equality and human rights, John O’Gorman was granted the IASSID’s Distinguished Achievement Award for his long-standing contributions to intellectual disability on the international scene.
Despite the many universal concerns, there were some differences in focus in certain regions. The African countries were understandably most concerned about prevention of disability through health and social policies, and the reduction of poverty and malnutrition. ‘You can’t imagine how desperate it makes you feel when a baby is diagnosed with PKU and you have no way of ensuring that the child will have enough to eat, never mind stay on a gluten-free diet.’
The Americans were embedded in the human and civil rights agenda that has fired legislation and spurted on agencies to tender for work to ensure that individuals with disability have equal opportunities. Examples were ‘Total Living Concept’ (TLC) and ‘Whatever It Takes’–an agency committed to supporting people in continuing to live in their own homes.
The Europeans–particularly those from the UK, Belgium, The Netherlands and Ireland–seemed to draw the best from the American ideology and copperfasten it with examples of best practice.
Despite regional emphases, there was a consensus that the singular objective revolved around issues that span the Quality of Life domains–which everyone is striving for in our service settings.
And that’s what delegates experienced in the wonderful atmosphere of the beautiful Pacific Northwest ‘Emerald City’ of Seattle–home of Starbucks Coffee, views of Elliot Bay, Puget Sound and Mount Rainier!
The best parts of the congress, for me, were:
- meeting inspiring authors in the flesh–like Robert ‘Bob’ Shallock
- touring the University of Washington’s Centre for the Study of Development and Disability
- Mary Robinson’s keynote address at the Kennedy Foundation International Awards in Mental Retardation ceremony
- Sampling the culinary delights of fresh Pacific salmon, microbrewery beers, exotic fruits from Pioneer Square and Pike Street Market (e.g. ‘plum tots’ which are a cross between a plum and a tomato, with the texture of the former and the juice of the latter).