by Kathy O’Grady Reilly, Sisters of Charity of Jesus & Mary Services, Mullingar


The First British Institute of Learning Disability International Conference to be held in Ireland took place in Rochestown Park Hotel, Cork, on 10-12 September 2001. The conference was organised in association with a number of Irish and UK disability services and research bodies and was supported by Partnerships in Care, The Department of Health and Children and the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies. Over 300 delegates attended the conference sessions and took part in round-table discussions on inclusive education, opportunities for women with learning disability, forensic services, advocacy, vulnerable adults and the needs of families. Equal citizenship emerged as the major theme of the conference.

Roy McConkey, Professor of Learning Disabilities in the University of Ulster, gave the keynote speech which was entitled From staffing to supporting” by Dr. Roy McConkey, Professor of Learning Disabilities in the University of Ulster. He drew inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s polemic work Under the eye of the clock, and quoted an extract describing his childhood experience: ‘All hands joined in forces to help Joseph swim and float… he felt totally relaxed and safe in their hands, and through their efforts he sampled the joys of the able-bodied.’ Professor McConkey contrasted the support given to a person in ordinary endeavours with professional/staff regulation in the life of a person with disabilities. He summaried the themes prominent in recent decades:

  • During the ’70s the focus was on education and training
  • During the ’80s the focus was on ordinary living
  • During the ’90s the focus was on advocacy, self-advocacy and person-centred planning, and
  • Now in the ’00s the focus is on rights and opportunities.

The key features of services are now choice, with emphasis on individual needs; inclusion, with an emphasis on mainstream services; and entitlements, with an emphasis empowering individuals to make decisions.

But Professor McConkey questioned whether this rhetoric hides the reality. Statistics derived from the Intellectual Disability Database annual report show that most children in education attend special schools (67%) or attend special day centres (91%), that most adults live in congregated settings (92%), that most have few friends (60%) and do not marry or have sexual partners (95%).

We are still faced with the dilemma of whether we view people as disabled or as fellow citizens. If our core belief is the former, then services are planned accordingly. If individuals with intellectual disabilities are viewed as citizens, then they should be supported in their vision of a dignified life. This dilemma takes its toll on service providers too, resulting in a stressed work force, low job satisfaction, and high rates of staff turnover

Roy quoted Tennyson: ‘The shell must break before the bird can fly’—markers for breaking the shell in learning disability are:

  • a break from service settings—away from centres to people’s homes or mainstream settings,
  • the deployment of support workers, host families and mainstream staff because of their abilities to do the job, rather than only because they have had formal training,
  • service organisations which thrive on leadership, rather than ‘management’,
  • re-alignment of training priorities—beyond health-and-safety and manual handling—to problem-focused coping, realistic risk assessment, decision-making and negotiation, person-centred planning, team-building and skills, understanding communities etc.

Professor McConkey acknowledged the confining factors of institutional systems, financial limitations, the costs of citizenship, the break-up of traditional family structures and the loosening of traditional communities. He ended on an optimistic note—change comes from within. To effect change service providers must build on their expertise, knowledge, understanding and alliances.