Background to voluntary organisations providing services to people with intellectual disability in Ireland

(03 Oct 2012)


Voluntary organisations have a long and rich tradition in the provision of services to people with intellectual disability in Ireland, in some cases dating back to a time prior to the foundation of the State. Voluntary organisations are typically an amalgam of members of local communities, parents, friends, people with an intellectual disability and staff, who come together with the common objective of responding to local need by providing the best possible support to people with intellectual disability in their communities.

Over the decades services have developed to the extent that they are now internationally recognised for both the range and quality of supports provided. Voluntary organisations are to the forefront in promoting quality within services and, following work done by the National Federation’s Quality Sub Committee during the 1990’s, took the initiative in developing quality systems. A recent survey of our member organisations confirmed that the majority have achieved international accreditation as high quality providers of services to people with intellectual disability.

A unique characteristic of service provision in Ireland is the high number of organisations which were founded by parents and friends of people with intellectual disability. These organisations, established on a voluntary basis, were born out of local communities and therefore have very strong ties and affiliations with the communities in which they are embedded. Parents have a strong role in their governance as evidenced by the number who are members of the respective Board of Directors. The parental voice is an essential and valued perspective and the Federation is committed to ensuring that this voice is heard. To this end, we are organising comprehensive briefings for parents on the implications of funding cuts in October 2012.

Being closely identified with local communities also gives voluntary organisations access to significant voluntary input, which has evolved from fundraising activities to include befriending programmes, policy development and supporting people with intellectual disability to enjoy meaningful lives.

Voluntary organisations have always been in a situation where demand for services exceeds supply, within a context of finite resources. The focus has always therefore been on the efficient and effective use of the resources available. There has been a constant drive to innovate, to develop newer and better solutions to meet the diverse needs of the people we support. This focus is particularly sharp in the present economic climate. For example, in the current year the needs of over 650 school leavers were met through the development of a series of innovative solutions in the absence of any additional resources. Voluntary organisations engaged fully with the recently published Value for Money & Policy Review and look forward to working closely with the HSE to implement the recommendations.

We are now facing unprecedented challenges. Over the past four years, funding for disability services has been reduced by approximately 15%, at a time when demand for services has been increasing rapidly and changing needs for people already in services has never been greater. Many organisations are struggling to stay afloat and have incurred financial deficits in order to maintain essential services. Many are registered companies limited by guarantee whose Boards are concerned that they may be in breach of the Companies Acts by trading recklessly. Board members are worried about the implications of this for their organisations and for themselves personally.

There is also serious concern within the sector about the unravelling of much of the progress that has been achieved over recent years. As a sector, that was in the vanguard in promoting quality, we are worried now about the diminution of quality within services. In the face of the funding cuts there is evidence of re-institutionalisation at a time when government policy is to achieve the opposite. People with intellectual disability and their families rightly expect no diminution in either the quantum or the quality of the services they receive. Similarly, the political system expects that despite funding cutbacks, essential services will be maintained and indeed, new services will be developed for example to meet the needs of school leavers as in the current year.

Demographic trends in Ireland are placing greater demands on services and supports than ever before. Waiting lists for services will inevitably grow and a population which is growing older will place greater demand on the sector in terms of meeting changing needs. As parents age, their ability to care will diminish. The economic crisis which is likely to be with us for years means that the drive to do more with less resources will continue unabated and the urgent need for us to innovate and do things in a radically different way will continue.

It is imperative that we protect people with an intellectual disability from any diminution in the quality of services or indeed a reduction in services as we struggle to continue to meet all needs with significantly reduced resources. As a voluntary sector, we must avoid at all costs a dumbing down of the services which have been so assiduously built up over the years. As a sector, we are fortunate in having staff who are highly committed to the individuals they support. The challenge for us is to achieve an appropriate mix of people who are competent and skilled with the right knowledge and expertise to support people with intellectual disability to have meaningful lives.

This challenging landscape also presents exciting opportunities to do things differently in more creative ways. The disability policy framework has never been more comprehensive. Publication of the reports on Congregated Settings (Time to Move on from Congregated Settings), Adult Day Services (New Directions) and the Value for Money and Policy Review of Disability Services present exciting pathways to develop services and supports more in line with contemporary thinking, with service users having more choice and more control in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Voluntary organisations have been at the forefront in driving and shaping these policy developments. As a sector, we want to be proactive in embracing the change agenda. We are encouraged by the participation of so many of our member organisations in our Next Steps Project, which seeks to support organisations in the transition to more individualised approaches. In moving to new ways of doing things we are committed to working in collaboration with the people who we support, their families, our staff, the HSE and with Government.

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