Joint Committee on Disability Matters | Nothing About Us Without Us - Achieving Equal Rights and Equity for Women with Disabilities: Discussion

9 March 2021

Ivana Bacik

Senator Ivana Bacik:

I welcome all our witnesses and wish everyone a happy International Women's Day. I know we all welcome the opportunity to have a public hearing from such a great array of witnesses. It is nice for us this week to have all the witnesses before us be women. Most of us in the Chamber are women and this committee has a majority of women members but as others have said, unfortunately, that is not the norm across the Oireachtas and the Dáil still has a very low number of women Deputies, 36 Deputies which is 22.5%. The Seanad is much better with 40%, or 24 out 60, which is a huge improvement but a long way to go. Ireland still languishes at 101st place in world rankings of women in parliaments. The message for International Women's Day and this week, "nothing about us without us", is very important for women and, as all the witnesses have said so eloquently, also for women with disabilities or disabled women. We are very grateful to everyone for coming in and for speaking with us today and sharing such an array of experiences, and providing us with such insights into their own lived experiences and many of those they represent.

As someone who was involved in pro-choice campaigns for a long time, it was brilliant for the repeal the eighth campaign in 2018 to have so many important voices of women with disabilities or disabled women coming to the fore on the pro-repeal side. It was most interesting to hear their thoughts on the reproductive justice side.

My questions are on two other issues. Do any of the witnesses have a view they wish to share with the committee on the institutionalisation of women with disabilities? Some of the speakers have touched on how Ireland has had a shameful history of incarceration, of populations who are "disruptive" or seen-as disruptive to the State. We have seen that history with mother and baby homes, Magdalen institutions and so on. However, I am very conscious that there are complex issues around women's choices. Last year, I worked closely with some residents in the Sisters of Charity-run home, St. Mary's home in Telford in St. Vincent's, Dublin 4. Many here will be aware of the situation, which was very public, where the Sisters of Charity were closing the home to the great distress of many of those women within it who had known no other home.

The complexity of institutionalisation, which means it is not always experienced negatively by those who are institutionalised, is an issue on which I would like the witnesses to comment.

Finally, I have a question on the new Government policy and the great expansion of the disability remit in its move into the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. What is the witnesses' view on that? Do they see it as a positive development and how will it impact on their lives and the lives of the women they represent?

Maria Ní Fhatharta:

The issue of institutionalisation more broadly is incredibly nuanced. What happened to the women in the St. Mary's home is entirely not okay. We need to be careful to bear in mind two issues in this regard. One is ensuring that no one else enters an institution, because the system itself is very exploitative. However, we also have to be mindful of our duty of care to those who are currently experiencing the system of institutions and the need to ensure that, as we move away from our institutional past, it is done in a way that puts their needs, will and preferences to the fore. It is crucial that no one is forced into a position with which they are uncomfortable. It is an incredibly difficult issue for people. Many of the women in the system experienced institutionalisation their entire lives. They had no idea what it was to live in a family or community and the idea of doing so at that point in their lives was impossible. Obviously, their voices are the most important things within the system. That was not how it played out but it is how it should have been.

That being said, we need to be very careful that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past and that no one else enters an institution. We have to resist newer forms of institutions. As the Senator acknowledged, we have seen many different forms of institutions in our history and in our present. While we continue to default to the institutional model, whether that be in the form of smaller, more nicely named institutions or institutions for other groups, such as those in direct provision or in homelessness hubs, we need to be mindful that full community and independent living is the solution and the goal.

Selina Bonnie:

We talk about institutions but there is also the issue of young disabled people being involuntarily incarcerated in homes for older people because they have not been given access to the necessary personal assistance hours or accessible housing. There are quite a lot of younger disabled people involuntarily incarcerated in those situations in the Ireland of today. That is one issue that needs to be addressed. Another issue is that there are many people in hospital who are holding hospital beds for, perhaps, five, six or seven months because they will not be released from that hospital until either their home is adapted or they have been allocated personal assistance hours. It is not just the significant issue of the long-term institutions; in today's Ireland, we also have an issue of almost institutionalising people anew in newer settings.