In this issue of Frontline, we hark back with a great deal of admiration at the voluntary commitment of Sylvia Dawson and Patsy Farrell, who spearheaded two of Ireland’s early learning disability day services. . Neither of them acted because of their own family’s needs; they were responding to the needs of others. Several other organisations were founded in the 1950s or 1960s by similarly brave and insightful individuals who identified the great need for local day services, rallied the support of like-minded persons, found premises, fought for staff and funding, and nurtured projects as they grew into the strong professional multidisciplinary services we know today.

That was then–advice from the local GP, materials provided by the local builder, a roster of mums to cook, coffee mornings, sales of work … And this is now–health board funding contracts, Q-marks, burgeoning middle management positions, special interest groups across the healthcare professions. With public funding and growing professionalisation, Irish services have indeed developed impressively. But individual and group effort remains an essential component, whether or not we still use the term ‘good works’.

Ironically, this is a time when organisations that rely on voluntary effort–youth clubs, counselling services, the scouts–are experiencing increasing difficulty finding members with sufficient free time and energy to ‘donate’ to such activities. Irish life has changed dramatically–many more women work outside the home now, people travel greater distances to their place of work, and there are ‘so many things to do’. Perhaps it is too late to talk about the value of voluntary effort!

But we are all volunteers. Whether or not we are paid for our effort, the contribution we make in the workplace, in our community or to learning disability services is a voluntary commitment. No frontline worker can be forced to be conscientious in their work, to take clients on outings with enthusiasm, to deal with parents genuinely as partners. On the service recipients’ side, parents have to be willing to attend the open day, to discuss the advisability of a behavioural programme, even to take part in fundraising (no volunteers?!).

An up-to-date example of effective volunteerism is Inter-action, a ginger group from several agencies in the Dublin area which has organised projects to broaden opportunities for persons with learning disabilities–through Project Interact at Trinity College Dublin, a recent arts project at IMMA, and informational and networking courses for parents.

After many months of political rhetoric (mainstreaming, in from the margins, equal citizenship), the NDA and Comhairle have arrived! Through complex negotiations and planning within the relevant government departments, the NRB and NSSB, the new structures are at last in place. It’s early days–we can’t expect everything to be ‘Oxo’ when we come back from the summer holidays! People working in disability services, and clients of those services, have all advocated for these changes (or nearly these changes. Fear, scepticism and even cynicism are all travelling companions of change. However, in the real world there is no magic wand. The new responsibilities of the NDA and Comhairle, and the health boards and will take considerable time to ‘gel’. It is up to all of us to make the new structures effective–frontline and back-room staff bringing enthusiasm to their new responsibilities and work-links, advocates supporting and insisting on the improved services that have been pledged. All of us as stakeholders/volunteers must give of our best–whether our contribution is through the day-job, the life-long parental role, or the role of ‘next friend’. As Sylvia Dawson puts it: ‘Once you put your shoulder to the plough, there’s no going back.’


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