Historically, in Ireland within the field of intellectual disability, volunteers, a great many of whom were members of religious congregations, provided a first basic level of service and advocacy for parents and their family members with disability, seeking to remove stigma and advocate for resources. The growth of the Parents and Friends movement in the late 1950s, and particularly from the 1960s onwards, saw a major increase in advocacy at the political level and widespread citizen participation in the struggle to develop better resourced services, as close as possible to international best practice standards.
The voluntary sector at this stage had become the major provider and was dynamic, progressive, vocal in its
advocacy and very much in touch with, and anxious to learn from, what was happening in the wider world—in order to further develop services.
Over this same period, however, the voluntary sector became increasingly reliant on state funding as the cost of provision escalated. Regrettably over this period also, the providing agencies were compelled to adopt in their entirety the conditions laid down by the state and, in particular, the terms and conditions of employment that were operative in the state sector. This effectively transformed these bodies into non-statutory arms of the statutory sector and has led to an escalating decline in the level of freedom available to the voluntary sector to pursue new initiatives that might be in advance of statutory thinking and regulation. This has ultimately led to the current situation whereby users of intellectual disability services are being forced to select from a very limited predetermined menu of rigidly defined service options—residential, day or respite.
While few could dispute that there has been significant investment into intellectual disability service provision over the past half century, and in particular over the past decade, one cannot but question whether in fact this investment has been targeted in the most appropriate way to meet the real needs of the citizens who should be the primary beneficiaries.
Within the Voluntary Sector, and indeed the wider community, there is a growing appreciation that what is currently on offer is not necessarily in the best interests of those citizens we claim to serve. There is significant conflict between current provision practice and the laudable rhetoric. While the spirit of recently enacted and emerging legislation is increasingly supportive of the concepts of person-centredness, practice is sadly at considerable variance with this.
Michael Kendrick’s paper provides a further insightful perspective for stakeholders to consider in light of Ireland’s growing political interest in, and emphasis on, the promotion of active citizenship. The intellectual disability sector should reflect on his perspective on innovation when revisiting its understanding of its role in a participatory democracy. The document could also prove helpful in a state examination of the extent to which it assists or hampers citizen participation.