Rehab was founded [in November 1949,] on the radical premise that survivors of TV could regain their economic independence rather than being condemned to lives in passive receipt of charity.
In post-Emergency Ireland, the notion that anyone with a disability could make any meaningful contribution to society was simply not taken seriously. The organisation’s founders, mostly recovering TV patients themselves, received a hostile reception from state officials for their untested concept of rehabilitation through work. With mass unemployment and enforced emigration among health workers, they could see no merit in creating jobs for people who, according to the conventional wisdom, were incapable of real work.
This antipathy in official and political circles was so pervasive that, although Dr Noel Browne personally instigated the setting up of Rehab after he was appointed Minister for Local Government and Public Health in the first Inter-Party government, he was unable to provide it with any financial support from the public purse. The situation had scarcely improved by the time the workshops were opened up to people across the full spectrum of disability almost a decade later.
Nevertheless, out of two rooms in the top storey of a terraced house on Pleasants Street in Dublin’s south city, where its first workshop opened in 1949, Rehab has grown into an organisation which provides services for 17,000 people each year, at more than one hundred centres.
Its tentacles spread as far as Kenya, where Rehab-supported micro-enterprises have benefited more than 8000 women, and the south African township of Soweto where hundreds of children are involved in education projects.
In the last half-century, literally tens of thousands of people with disabilities have received the training they needed to break out of the cycle of dependency, secure jobs and therefore lead independent lives. In that time the struggle to give disability its rightful place on the national agenda has also been transformed from a starting point where the state felt no obligation to address the needs of the sizeable portion of the population with a disability, outside the framework of paltry sick benefit payments, and where the able-bodied public regarded such people merely as objects of pity.
Giant strides have been made by the disability sector on a multiplicity of crucial issues, such as the introduction of realistic state supports, access to both employment and the physical environment, equality legislation and so on. But each of these issues remains a long way from being finally resolved. [but taken out, because it was in previous sentence] Today—nine years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in the US—there is still no legislation in Ireland which would ensure that people with disabilities can become equal citizens of the state, not just in theory but in practice.
Regardless of the disability that an individual might have, it is generally the man-made environment that makes people ‘disabled’. In Ireland people with disabilities are routinely denied the right to use public transport, to enter public buildings, to use the streets or even cross the road. This completely undermines people’s ability to participate in society. For example, there are many people with disabilities who could easily secure a job, but there is no way they can get to work. Only rigorously enforced legislation can remove restrictions, way beyond those caused by people’s specific disability, being placed on just about every aspect of their daily lives.
It is an unfortunate fact that attitudes in some crucial quarters have hardly changed since the day Rehab was founded. Even now, there remains a widespread view among the planners of our economy and the controllers of our manpower that people with disabilities have no significant role in generating wealth in Ireland—that they are solely to be regarded as consumers of social services. This is born out by statistics which estimate that more than 70 per cent of people with disabilities in this country remain out of work in the midst of the skill shortages that have been created by Ireland’s tiger economy.
Meanwhile, one per cent of the disabled population have been able to enter university education and although employment quotas involving people disabilities have been introduced for the public sector, they are not being applied. At the end of 1999 there were at least 20,000 people with disabilities in this country who are able and willing to work, but just like fifty years ago, they are still not considered capable of becoming productive members of the workforce.
In fairness to the government, this is not a situation of their making, nor is it one that they alone can change. To a large extent it is the product of deeply ingrained attitudes in Irish society that people with disabilities simply require charity rather than the right to be judged, like anybody else, on their abilities.
The work that was started with the inception of vocational rehabilitation in Ireland half a century ago remains a long way from being completed. But if we are serious about enabling people with disabilities to participate fully in the social and economic life of the nation, the opportunity that presents itself now, in the midst of our unprecedented national wealth, is one we cannot afford to miss.
(This article first appeared in the Irish Times and The Examiner on 26 November 1999 and has been reprinted with the author’s permission.)