by Mitchel Fleming


Fifty years ago the social order in Ireland was very different to what it is today. Everybody and every thing had its place. The upper classes lived in big houses; the poor lived in country cottages and tenements. Men and single women were paid to work; married women worked at home. Wayward and homeless children went to industrial schools or orphanages. Unmarried mothers were sent to Magdalene Homes or emigrated. People with mental health and complex social problems lived in asylums. Those with intellectual disabilities were placed in institutions. Most schools were segregated according to sex, religious denomination and race. Of course, half a century ago Ireland was predominantly a single-race society—we can only speculate now, whether we would have endorsed a segregated school policy for black and white children, as was then the situation in the United States. While I hope we wouldn’t have, given the Ireland of the 1950s, I suspect we too would have had separate schools for children of different colour if there had been a large number of them here then.

In 1954 a serious crack appeared in the then social order in the US; over time it sent shock waves around the world. In the Brown vs Board of Education case, the US Supreme Court declared segregated education to be unconstitutional and illegal. Psychological evidence presented during the hearing had a significant bearing on the Court’s decision. Drs Clark and Clark, in their ‘doll studies’, found that when given the choice, black children consistently preferred white dolls to black ones. It was concluded that these preferences were due to racial segregation. This undermined the then widely held educational policy of ‘different but equal’. The US Supreme Court decision had a profound impact and, I believe, was the spark that set alight the 1960s civil rights movement in America.

The civil rights movement grew to embrace many minority groups and to affirm their rights. These rights included the right to freedom, which importantly included the right not to be detained without just cause, and the right to equal opportunities and not to be discriminated against on the grounds of sex, religion, disability, race and sexual orientation. While groups varied in what they sought to achieve (e.g., equal pay for women, integrated education, access for people with physical disabilities), all shared a common underlying philosophy and all experienced strong and sometimes violent opposition to their objectives.

The philosophy of normalisation sought to endorse the rights of people with intellectual disabilities. Initially, normalisation sought to ensure that people with intellectual disabilities would live in ordinary houses and would use and have equal access to community facilities. Later, normalisation expanded to include the concept of an enhanced and valued social role for people with intellectual disabilities. According to the philosophy of normalisation it was hoped that people would cease to be detained and ‘cared for’ in institutions but, instead, that services would support people to lead valued lives in their own community. The philosophy, like much of the civil rights movement, was radical and upset the status quo. With time the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities to live in their community and to have access to community facilities became widely accepted. Indeed, this position is enshrined in the policy statement of several of our own government departments and services. Furthermore, the benefits of community living over institutional care for people with intellectual disabilities is supported by a considerable body of psychological research. Few today continue to advocate for the segregation of people with disabilities or for the maintenance of institutions.

While we have seen a change in structural aspects of service delivery, such as where people live, we seem to have had less success in changing some of the fundamental attitudes of the community to people with intellectual disability. Many people with intellectual disabilities have moved to community houses, yet many remain socially isolated from others in their community. It appears that we have had some success with desegregation, but relatively little success with social inclusion.

Several writers in the US have reviewed the effects of the Brown Case after 50 years, and have noted a similar outcome. Legislation was successful is making segregated education illegal in the States, but many of the old attitudes and racial tensions still exist. In practice, many schools and communities are still as segregated today in parts of the States as they were 50 years ago. There still remains a predominance of black people in poor neighbourhoods and schools. Many wealthy white people live in exclusively white neighbourhoods and their children attend exclusive schools.

The civil rights movement inspired the philosophy of normalisation that in turn led to policy, structural and legal changes for people with an intellectual disability. Underlying attitudes are more resistant to change and, while people with disabilities are no longer actively segregated, many still experience difficulties with social inclusion and acceptance. The challenge ahead is enormous. We in Ireland need to fundamentally examine our own beliefs and values—and to decide whether we want to create and live in inclusive communities where all are accepted or exclusive communities where segregation continues.


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