Máiríde Woods is constitutionally uncomfortable with the hallowed halls of institutional thinking.


I spent six years in an institution. No, I wasn’t an orphan or a delinquent, but in the 1950s and ’60s many middle-class young people were incarcerated during their teenage years—for their own educational good.

It wasn’t total incarceration—we got out for holidays, we were allowed controlled visitors and letters. There was no outright cruelty—just emotional neglect and odd nunnish practices. I got an excellent academic education, learned the value of solidarity and came into contact with a few sensitive and inspiring teachers. But the main thing I gained was a grim determination to avoid institutions.

I cheer when I hear of places like St Ita’s crumbling. And whenever the whiff of an institution hits my nostrils, I get the impulse to run. I almost rushed out of a Dublin maternity hospital when they told me: ‘Oh, you’re allowed to keep your handbag in delivery’. Innocuous enough, you might think. But for me the main mark of an institution is not high walls and clanging bells, but the regulation of every smallest detail. In the real world, things are haphazard. You have to make an individual judgement on whether it’s safe to keep your bag, or whether you’d better leave it with your husband. Sometimes you make the wrong decision. But even that is better than having things decided by someone else’s rule.

Boarding school life was totally governed by rules—every move was regulated, every moment accounted for. I remember Mother Superior telling me that she would go through fire and water for ‘the Rule’, which was the guiding principle of her life. Nobody thinks like that any more, you’ll tell me, particularly not in disability services. There are small units, individual choice and buckets of consultation. The Rule is dead.

Or is it? Recently I’ve noticed a few places where institutional teeth can be glimpsed under thoroughly modern sheepskin. Health and Safety for instance. It is used in ways very like my old Mother Superior’s rule-book—to iron out individual difference, to achieve organisational smoothness. In many organisations, health-and-safety seems to have taken the place of God; you genuflect when it’s mentioned. Instead of hellfire, it has the spectre of the compensation claim behind it.

Another thing that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Rule is Best Practice. Backed up by experts, it seems unassailable. And yet anyone who has done research knows that there are very few areas where one true ‘best practice’ can be discerned. There are always so many movable variables—like time, place, staff, individual experience. Research can show a diversity of good practices. Sometimes it can pick out one or two things as almost always good, or almost always noxious—but mostly, it depends. The institution that I languished in was considered the Best Practice for educating young girls at the time. I was told it was in my best interests—a phrase still common today. If Oscar Wilde didn’t say something about never trusting what was in one’s own best interests, he should have.

But nowadays organisations have to consult their stakeholders, you’ll say. Which is true. You can certainly put your case more easily than in my old school. But when any change you might want is governed by Health and Safety or Best Practice, room for manoeuvre is small. This type of consultation is very frustrating.

Any era has its dissenters, people who trust their own instinct or experience about what is best for them or for the person in their care. I remember seeing an old Radharc programme where Christy Brown’s mother told how she had kept Christy at home—against the best medical advice of the forties. It took courage then—and it still does. Today’s advice appears less prescriptive and patronising, but the psychological approaches used can be just as disempowering. And the bland and simplistic way young disability workers are told about the recent past would be funny, if it didn’t distort their attitudes. I remember a student instructing me about how, in the fifties and sixties, everyone was ashamed of disabled children, packed them off to awful institutions, and crept around addled with guilt; whereas now—apart from pockets of backwardness—enlightenment rules …. I didn’t like to reveal that I was around in the fifties; I think I mentioned that St Michael’s House was founded in 1954 by parents who disagreed with the institutionalisation of the time. Enlightenment is not a monopoly of any one generation.

In Ireland we like agreed norms—‘All together, girls’, we were told at school, and it’s the same refrain now that we’re to embrace the modern, the rational and the efficient. Such values work well in economics; they’re more problematic in human services, particularly for people with disabilities who are very different from each other, and who are dependent on services in private areas where the rest of us have some individual leeway. Those who are building the new model of service believe that it allows for individual difference—‘the drunkenness of things being various’. But as it gradually becomes standardised—institutionalised?—it may be just as difficult to escape from as my boarding school was.