Independent Living Movement Ireland

This week’s strategies for change session

In this week’s strategies for change session, we learned about the history of disability.  Our very own Damien Walshe with Fiona Weldon co-facilitated this session. Damien kicked off the conversation with a quote by theSpanish philosopher George Santayana.

Strategies for Change Zoom Session
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 “better” or superior to others”. These are based on systems that classifies 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 – see (What is colonization?).  Racism and disablism can often is share some of the same “isms” – see (Racism and Ableism).  

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 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 – see – (Discovering the history of learning disability & – Those They Called Idiots by Simon Jarrett (Book & article) – The idea of the disabled mind from 1700 to the present day).
Architecture of Confinement

The great incarceration or the architecture of confinement (large institutions) seen the opening of the first of many houses of industry in Smithfield in 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 (the poor, the mentally ill, and disabled people of all kinds) when seen 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/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 seen 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 house of industrys/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 resident of any of the beforementioned institutions your right to vote was null in 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” see – A Bit Different (book) by Pauline Conroy –  A Bit Different: Disability in Ireland (Available Kindle Edition on Amazon) for lots more interesting facts.
Other Things That Impacted on Disabled People’s Lives

The Industrial Revolution had a detrimental effect on the lives of disabled. 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 – see (Disability and the Rise of Capitalism). 


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 have now countries that screen for down syndrome amongst other impairments and women have the scary option to terminate their pregnancy – see – (Debating Darwin Programme 2 & Genetic Screening – ‘Disease’ vs. ‘Difference’: A Question of Eugenics?). 

The Commission of Inquiry into Mental Handicap 

In 1965, we seen the Department of Health – see ( – Dáil Éireann debate – Tuesday, 1 Jun 1965) 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 seen international reports mainly from the UK highlighted sub-standardin institutional settings – see – – Hunt a critical condition.pdf) & ( – Allegations of abuse of disabled residents in 2017) – sadly there are lots and lots more of these lived experience stories.

Disabled people had no access to any type of State Welfare Payment up until the 50’s – there was a small grant was introduced by the Health Board because of the many soldier’s that returned home injured from the second world war – granted one pound per week. But it was not until 1986 that we seen the Department of Social Protection introduce a disability related payment. From the 60’s onwards, we seen disabled people from all over the world gather and mobilise, fighting against segregation and institutionalisation and the development of the disabled peoples movement and disabled peoples 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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