Voluntary organisations have provided services to persons with an intellectual disability in Ireland since 1868. They now account for approximately eighty per cent of intellectual disability services within the Republic. The voluntary sector has played a pioneering role in the development of services and has been innovative in responding to changing needs. The 49 voluntary service providers who are members of the National Federation are organisations which are non-statutory, self-governing, of benefit to the public, and not-for-profit (as differentiated from the private sector). Some members are religious organisations, others are incorporated by charter or under companies legislation. Most of them include the involvement of parents, with volunteers as an important element of their make-up.
What makes voluntary organisations different? Firstly, our Federation members are single-focus organisations. Health boards have a wide brief to deliver a vast range of services to the public. Our member organisations focus solely on the provision of services for people with intellectual disability. This single focus has inevitably meant that a great deal of expertise has been built up which is widely shared among our members. We are innovative in our approach to the design and delivery of services. Our services are more labour intensive than hospital services; this is reflected in a strong commitment to staff training and development.
Many of our activities retain a voluntary nature. In my own organisation, for example, the Board of Directors (a widely representative group composed of parents, friends and community representatives) provide their time and input to the organisation free of charge and they ensure the highest standards of corporate governance. Volunteers actively participate in many elements of our service provision—swimming, horse riding, social outings, befriending, etc. A third strand of voluntary activity is fundraising—notwithstanding the increase in exchequer funding made available to agencies over the past few years, many projects still depend on fundraising activities for seed capital or top-up funding.
The Federation has been in existence since around 1970, but the negotiations arising from the implementation of the 1994 Health Strategy galvanised the membership into a much more cohesive group. We have developed good working relationships with the Department of Health and Children and with the health boards (although we would wish for speedier implementation of the recommendations of Enhancing the Partnership, particularly in relation to the Consultative and Development Committees). We have engaged in discussions wit NAMHI and the National Parents and Siblings Alliance, with whom we have launched media campaigns to highlight the need for additional revenue and capital to put services in place for those who are without them—much remains to be done. A new Health Strategy is due to be launched this summer. We expect that the document will reinforce the commitment to the voluntary sector and acknowledge its achievements and plans for better services and the elimination of waiting lists.
The nature of our work makes partnership imperative to its success. Our first partnership is with those in our care. Unlike the hospital sector, the relationship of a service provider in the intellectual disability sector with a person who is referred to it is likely to be a lifetime relationship. If a child is referred to an agency at perhaps five years of age, that individual may well be availing of services from the agency for up to sixty years, or even longer. The relationship with that person and his family is key. Naturally, our relationship with the funding agency is also key. There has been a considerable improvement in the understanding of the health boards of the type of services provided by voluntary services; this was not always the case.
One of the challenges facing National Federation member is to renew and reinvigorate the voluntary ethos of our organisations. This is the International year of the Volunteer, but it seems obvious that our volunteers are a greying population. The pressures of modern society mean that a great many couples are both working outside the home, and this puts pressures on the time available for volunteering. Religious communities have diminishing numbers and these orders face a new challenge to deliver on this mission within the intellectual disability sector. However, there is a genuine energy and enthusiasm within our sector to try and improve the range and quality of services available to people with intellectual disability.
Our sector has also engaged in pioneering work abroad—a practical example of this is seen in the work of John O’Gorman in Bulgaria, with the enthusiastic assistance of several Irish voluntary service providers and their staff. This is an element of volunteering which is not widely publicised; it has the central guiding point of the dignity of the human being.
Reform and change are central to the mission, ethos and values of the voluntary sector in intellectual disability services in Ireland.