BOOK REVIEW: MOVING ON

Reviewed by Mike Power

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An account from the inside, this is a remarkable book from a remarkable person. ‘Insider’ documentaries always hold a fascination, and Moving on provides a unique insight into the reality of living life as someone with a learning disability. How many personal accounts of learning problems (or disability in general) have been written ….? Christy Brown’s Down all the days, or Paddy Doyle’s The God squad do represent the genre, and Rita Lawlor’s recent book is a very welcome addition to this literature.

Born in 1957, Rita’s life as a ‘special’ person spans the period that has seen revolutionary changes in both service provision and public attitudes towards people with learning problems. In fact, her experiences provide a salutary ‘bird’s-eye view’ of what life was like for her as a consumer/recipient of social services. From her early years in boarding school to her independent life in her own flat, Rita’s story takes us along the many twists and turns of her life, a life that can be best described in one word—achievement. From obscure beginnings to the position of a global messenger for the Special Olympics, Moving on is certainly the autobiography of an exceptional human being.

The book threads the story of Rita’s life along with observations about her personal experiences and reflections on the experience of learning disability generally. Part One deals with her early life. Born with a learning impairment in Naas, she follows the path typical of any child who is ‘different’—a special boarding school in Dublin, training in manual skills, workshop and hostel accommodation. While living in a hostel in Templeogue, Rita began an activity that was to change her life—gymnastics. Clearly a talented sportsperson, she won many medals and awards in the Special Olympics.

Part Two follows her career—travelling to Australia, progressing to life in an independent hostel and changing her job. From this experience Rita got a job in the Gresham Hotel where she still works very successfully, enjoying her work and relishing the opportunity for social contacts.

Part Three widens the scope of the book beyond that merely of a narrative. Rita was a founder member of a self-advocacy group for people with learning disabilities. Around this time, the Forum of People with Disabilities also began its work. Perceptive and prescient, Rita has continued her work in the vanguard of the movement for basic human rights for persons with a learning disability. An articulate champion for her cause, she regularly contributes to public debates around disability issues and, in September 1998, she was uniquely voted among the top one hundred Irish women by Irish Tatler magazine! Not content to limit her accomplishments to these shores, Rita has personified the capabilities of people with learning problems by worldwide travel. As a global messenger for Special Olympics, she has been feted at the White House, met people like Muhammad Ali and Stevie Wonder, and facilitated participation by many other Irish athletes.

This book is a significant document in the whole movement towards according ‘special needs’ groups their inalienable human rights and dignity. T. Zeldin (An intimate history of humanity (Vintage, 1998)) has written that the new millennium will be the era of individuality, with various groups in society strongly asserting their rights to their unique lifestyles. Self-advocacy, self-determination and self-assertion by people with learning problems are all facets of this global trend.

Moving on is the inspiring record of one woman’s experience of being ‘different’ in Ireland. The book deserves a wide audience of professionals, service managers, planners and, indeed, general readers. Eminently readable, the text is tellingly illustrated by Rita’s own drawings and has short sections on self-advocacy and integrated living. While her book deserves a place in all our libraries, Rita’s message to all who work with those with a learning disability is even more compelling: ‘Wake up—we want to be heard!’

MOVING ON, by Rita Lawlor. Marino Books, Dublin (1999) ISBN 1 86023 104 7, IR£6.99.

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