National Advocacy Conference calls for closure of institutions

by Liza Kelly, Advocacy Officer, Inclusion Ireland


The Brothers of Charity Services’ National Advocacy Conference in Clonmel has highlighted the wishes of intellectually disabled people to live full and independent lives as active members of their local communities. The conference, which had as its theme ‘Close the institutions: A life In the community for everyone’, took place over two days at the Clonmel Park Hotel and was attended by over 300 people with intellectual disabilities. During the conference, delegates heard from other people with a learning disability who shared their stories and experiences of living both in institutions and in communities.

The conference was opened by Dr Jimmy Devins, TD, Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with special responsibility for disability and mental health. He spoke about the importance of advocacy for people with disabilities who need support from time to time to voice their opinions. This, along with the need to close the institutions, was a theme that ran throughout the conference, with service users reiterating that they want to be heard and have the right to make decisions about their own lives.

Brian McClean, Principal Clinical Psychologist with Brothers of Charity Services Roscommon, and John Caslin, who is supported by Brothers of Charity services in Roscommon, together presented a film John had made as he revisited the various institutions where he had lived throughout his life. During his introduction, Dr McClean highlighted the extent of the problem of institutionalising people in Ireland: according to a recent study, 49 per cent of Irish people with intellectual disability who currently live in residential services are in large residential centres. In England, Scotland and Norway, all such institutions have closed. Dr McClean pointed out that in England, people with intellectual disabilities and their families prefer residential care in small houses, as it allows people to live within a community and to benefit from the wider social networks. In was also found in England that more medication was used in large institutions, where the treatment is less personal and more routine-based.

During the conference, the delegates heard from many people with a learning disability about their experiences, and how they can become active citizens and self-advocates. Among the presentations was one by Larry O’Bryan, who receives supports from Brothers of Charity Services (Clare). Larry moved to his house in Kilrush from Bristol in the UK. Larry, who has autism, used to live in big institutions in the UK, which he described as ‘sheer hell’, before moving to smaller residential care in the UK. After visiting Ireland on holiday, he decided he wanted to live in West Clare.

Although he does not communicate verbally, Larry is now happy living as part of the local community in Kilrush and Kilkee, where he is a member of the church choir and the Clare Poets Circle. As Larry spelled out on his keyboard: ‘There is a light at the end of the tunnel for me when people listen.’

The Conference closed with a question.and-answer session chaired by RTÉ chat-show host, Ryan Tubridy. The panel included Winifred O’Hanrahan, National Director of Services, Brothers of Charity Services Ireland; Carol Moore, HSE South; Niall Byrne, Cheshire Ireland; Cllr Richie Molloy, Mayor of Clonmel; Derek Watson and Timothy O’Connell, Seasamh Parliament; Claire Maher, joint Chair of the Regional Advocacy Committee; Mary Meaney, NDA, and Brian O’Donnell, National Federation of Voluntary Bodies. They answered questions which had been submitted by service users ahead of the conference. Ryan Tubridy gave the audience an opportunity to ask questions directly to the panel. The questions served to demonstrate how passionately service users feel about institutionalisation and advocacy. They sought information about when all institutions in Ireland would be closed, why some community houses are almost like institutions, when service users will be paid a fair wage for the work they do, and how to get people to listen to their opinions and make changes.

Those attending the conference were told that one step towards getting the opinions of people with intellectual disabilities heard was by forwarding the lobbying cards supplied at the Conference to the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, calling for an end to institutions. Cabríní de Barra, Advocacy and Evaluation Training Officer with Brothers of Charity Services South East, said:

‘The conference was a great success and once again goes to show that people with intellectual disabilities just want the same opportunities, rights, and access to service as everyone else. The conference is also a great way for our service users from around the country to meet together and swap ideas, experiences, and hopes for the future.’

The Brothers of Charity Services continue to strive towards supporting people with a learning disability to live full, independent lives as active members of the community. ‘Ending the institutional practices, structures and supports in Ireland would create an opportunity for people with disabilities to live ordinary lives where they can contribute to the life of local communities,’ Cabríní de Barra said.