'The Problem of the Mentally Handicapped': statutory policy, voluntary provision and intellectual disability in Ireland, 1947-84
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This thesis is a historical investigation of how the state and voluntary sector responded to intellectual disability in Ireland, from the foundation of the Department of Health in 1947 to the 1984 Towards a Full Life Green Paper. It uses a variety of sources, including statutory records and publications, files from voluntary organisations, newspaper coverage, parliamentary debates, programmes from the state broadcaster RTÉ (Radió Teilifís Éireann) and oral histories, to consider how voluntary groups and the state conceptualised their role in the lives of the ‘mentally handicapped’ and the impact of this understanding on the lived experiences of the disabled. Internationally, the latter half of the twentieth century was characterised by considerable socio-cultural change for the ‘mentally retarded’. This research investigates the evolving approach to intellectual disability in Ireland during this period, which encompassed the introduction of an impairment-based welfare allowance, considerable expansion to residential services, as well as the emergence of community-based facilities like ‘special schools’ and occupational workshops. This thesis aims to understand these developments across the policy and provision landscape, as well as how they affected the lives of the disabled. In doing so, it argues that the needs of the ‘handicapped’ were poorly addressed through a network of services that reflected broader patterns in Irish social policy during the mid-to-late twentieth century. This project explores why that was the case, by charting how and why disability policy documents were implemented within a service landscape that continued to favour voluntary provision and established practices into the mid-1980s. The story of the ‘handicapped’ in Ireland was therefore one of both radical change and striking continuity, set against the (reluctant) expansion of statutory engagement with this group. Through responses to intellectual disability, this research also affords an insight into the cultural construction of the Irish socio-political system and augments existing work on statutory welfare, institutional care, the history of medicine, and social policy. In bringing these strands together, it argues that there was a distinct trajectory visible across Irish approaches to the ‘mentally handicapped’ during the mid-to-late twentieth century, produced due to the state’s conservative social policy philosophy and established political dynamics. It also suggests that closer attention to the experiences of the marginalised can open new avenues for the construction of more nuanced histories of health and welfare reform.
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