'People with an intellectual disability have a right to education, to work and to be included'

COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to to new CEO of Inclusion Ireland, Derval McDonagh, who has lived in Cork for the past 17 years, and worked in many roles including with the COPE Foundation
'People with an intellectual disability have a right to education, to work and to be included'

Cork-based Derval McDonagh, CEO of Inclusion Ireland.

THE newly-appointed CEO of Inclusion Ireland was drawn to working in the intellectual disability sector because of her uncle Pat.

Derval McDonagh, from Galway but living in Cork for the past 17 years, says her uncle has an intellectual disability.

“Within my family, I’d have grown up knowing Pat really well. I saw for myself his amazing capability as a person. My dad’s family have a pub in Tuam and Pat worked there his whole life.

“People with an intellectual disability have a right to education, a right to work, and to be included. So that’s where my interest stems from.

“My dad would have been very involved in supporting organisations in the west of Ireland supporting people with intellectual disabilities. My work is because of a natural inclination.”

Derval qualified as a speech and language therapist at Trinity College Dublin and worked in early intervention and early school years. What brought her to Cork was a job with the COPE Foundation, a service provider supporting children and adults with intellectual disabilities and/or autism. She has had senior management roles with the foundation since 2013 and co-ordinated the transformation of services towards community-based, person-led supports.

While the headquarters of Inclusion Ireland are in Dublin, Derval will mostly work from Cork, making regular trips to Dublin as and when they are needed.

Inclusion Ireland is a national rights-based advocacy organisation that works to promote the rights of people with an intellectual disability. It campaigns for changes in services and legislation that will improve the quality of life and the participation in society of people with intellectual disabilities, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

At university, Derval met people committed to the power of communication for people with disabilities.

“It is certainly something that has stuck with me throughout my entire career, even though I don’t practise as a speech and language therapist anymore. 

"The power of accessible information and communication is something I bring with me in every role that I have.”

Derval says her initial focus as she settles into her new job is to get to know “the fantastic team of advocates working across the country and our members who are the people we interact with on a day-to-day basis.

“I want to understand their concerns, their priorities and where we’re at as an organisation.”

Her goal is to see people with intellectual disabilities “taking their rightful place in our community and make sure their voices are heard when it comes to decisions that affect them.

“I’d like them to have a chance to influence policy and to have the kind of life that everybody takes for granted in our country. That includes the right to access housing and education.”

It is, says Derval, very challenging for people with intellectual disabilities to be heard.

“I suppose people with an intellectual disability need to have information provided to them in ways they can understand. Inclusion Ireland is about making sure that information is provided in plain, easy-to-read English so that people can actually understand what policies affect them and are able to speak up for themselves.”

Inclusion Ireland has recently received funding from IREC (Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission) which is going to help support a project around people with intellectual disabilities speaking up for themselves in the media.

“We will be running that project over 2022 and what we’re hoping is that there will be a number of spokespeople with intellectual disabilities who’ll receive media training and training around human rights. They will be in a position to speak up for themselves publicly in the media.

“We also hope to create a media guide for journalists that will support them in how to engage with people with intellectual disabilities.”

It’s not just journalists who need guidance in this area.

“It’s about valuing each person as a human being and meeting people as they are and supporting them to have their voices heard - whether they have an intellectual disability or any other individual. At Inclusion Ireland, it’s about valuing people.”

As a society, Derval says we have a long way to go in terms of the realisation of people’s human rights. 

“In our pre-budget submission this year, we surveyed all of our members. People came back to us with a very stark reality around the lived experiences of people with intellectual disabilities. For the next year, we’re focusing on education, housing and the cost of disability.”

Housing, says Derval, is a particular concern for people with intellectual disabilities.

“Accessing affordable and suitable housing is a major issue for people in Ireland today. For people with intellectual disabilities, it’s not just as simple as getting a house.

“It’s also about getting access to the supports to live in that house, to be independent and to be part of the community. So we are calling on the government to work in a cross departmental way, to work with the HSE and the housing department, to look at how we can support people with intellectual disabilities better.”

There was a time in this country when people with intellectual disabilities were shunted off to residential institutions.

“That is a legacy that continues. There are, across the country, quite a number of people still living in large groups in homes. Inclusion Ireland has to be very clear on the need to focus on these individuals.

“All the research shows that living in smaller homes where you have choice and control over your life leads to a better quality of life.”

See www.inclusionireland.ie for more information

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