Strategies for Change

Independent Living Movement Ireland

History of Disability

SFC - The History of Disability with Damien Walshe and Fiona Weldon

Our very own Damien Walshe with Fiona Weldon co-facilitated this session. Damien kicked off the conversation with a quote by the Spanish philosopher George Santayana

Spanish Philosopher - George Santayana
The Importance of Understanding Hierarchies

Hierarchies are everywhere, they are part and parcel of every society. They are based on a belief that a system (way of working, organising, thinking & living) can be based on some groups being “betteror superior to others”.

These are based on systems that classify and categorise people based on legal, medical, or “scientific” principles.

They are not only used to rank disabled people but can be used to justify colonialism and imperialism. Racism and disablism can often share some of the same “isms”

Hierarchical ideas and beliefs are used to deny disabled people their rights and were used to justify the theft and murder of indigenous people, and vice versa. 

What Does History Tell Us about Disabled people in Society in the 17/18th Century
  • Disability and “capacity” was a legal term from the 16th century onwards – based on terms such as “idiots”, “lunatics and imbeciles
  • Disabled people were part of their communities, with families, jobs, and they held broader community roles with supports
  • Legal concepts were tied to whether people could understand money or ownership of property – and whether they became Wards of the Court and have their property confiscated (taken away) by the King
  • Cultural works such as stories, plays, jokes, and cartoons all show the visibility of disabled people in society, they were not separate from the community but were part and parcel of it regardless of their impairment label
Architecture of Confinement

The great incarceration, or the architecture of confinement (large institutions) saw the opening of the first of many houses of industry in Smithfield, Co. Dublin towards the end of the 17th century. Its purpose was to “lock up the poor, the destitute and the beggars”. 

These places were supposed to encourage people to provide for themselves (because there was no outdoor relief given – the Poor Laws of 1834) and if they couldn’t, they were put away. When any of these people were seen, (the poor, the mentally ill, and disabled people of all kinds) they were carted off to a house of industry – out of sight and out of mind – they were deemed not able to look after themselves.

Good behaviour was rewarded with a badge to legally beg, and a lot of disabled people (many with an absence of a leg or arm) wore these badges to beg. Disability and poverty were locked together, so those deemed disabled were also deemed poor and this idea encouraged the public to view and see disability – “as poor and destitute” but importantly, not related to any of their impairment labels. 

During this time, we saw the development of:
  • Other large-scale institutions such as Asylums, the Magdalen laundries, and the workhouses – by the 1900 we had 278 of these places on the island of Ireland
  • The Parish system of support – local people could only avail of local services – this is still part of our system today.
What Does History Tell Us about Disabled people in Society in the 19th Century

Our “new colonizers” were the Catholic Church. Lots of different religious orders moved into Ireland but they were not interested in “looking after the mentally ill” – so they were happy with the state provision of asylums. 

The New State were hands-off with regard to supporting disabled people and this was sadly a step backwards because those who lived in the houses of industries / workhouses / asylums, were sent to other, newly established, specialised, segregated institutions, run by the church – “direct move to compulsory institutionalisation”. People who were poor or deemed to be “unfit for society” were locked-up. 

Alongside this there was a new law passed in 1923 that stated if you were a resident of any of the beforementioned institutions your right to vote was null and void.

The realities:
  • Disabled people were to live “apart from everyone else
  • They were “presumed to be dependent on others
  • They were stopped from having intimate relationships – kept separate so they couldn’t have children – the Lunacy act)
  • Parents were advised to give up their disabled children as it was BEST FOR THE FAMILY – needed specialised care from the nuns, and priests – these individuals believed that disabled children were “not compatible with family living
Other Things That Impacted on Disabled People’s Lives

The Industrial Revolution had a detrimental effect on the lives of disabled people. Before industrialization a lot of people (men, women, children, & disabled people) worked from home and produced goods to earn money – e.g., the weavers of the liberties, and those that worked off the land – the Industrial Revolution wiped out this integration of disabled people with the emergence of factories & workhouses – disabled people were deemed unfit – were isolated – abandoned. Households became separate from paid work – people went out to work. This only perpetuated poverty, disability, and the charity and medical model of disability.


Eugenic supporters tried to control certain groups of people who were considered “to be inferior”. Supporters of the eugenics movement argued that disabled people, amongst other groups, were the cause of many social problems and needed to be removed from society. 

Eugenics was used to justify the killing of thousands of disabled people in the Nazi Holocaust. And from the late 19th Century to the end of World War 2, it also underpinned policy and politics in most of the Western world.

This included practices such as forced sterilisation, institutionalisation, human testing, and withholding of medical care in our so-called civilised countries. We now have countries that screen for Down syndrome amongst other impairments and women have the scary option to terminate their pregnancy.

The Commission of Inquiry into Mental Handicap 

In 1965, we saw the Department of Health look into the standard of care within all of the beforementioned institutions. Its findings revealed that those receiving community care had a better quality of life than those living in institutional care – state needed to take responsibility. We also saw international reports, mainly from the UK, highlighting sub-standard institutional settings.

Disabled people had no access to any type of State Welfare Payment up until the 50’s – when a small grant was introduced by the Health Board because of the many soldiers that returned home injured from the second world war – they were granted one pound per week. But it was not until 1986 that we saw the Department of Social Protection introduce a disability related payment.

From the 60’s onwards, we saw disabled people from all over the world gather and mobilise, fighting against segregation, institutionalisation, and the development of the disabled people’s movement and disabled people’s organisations (DPO’s) fighting for rights not charity, equality, and social justice.

From Our History we can learn that we are great at locking people up and sadly we have a passive tolerance to the CONFINMENT of disabled people.
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