We all have a right to love
CPN members Phil Davy, Grace Kelly, Ryan Johns, Michael Feely and Claire Adams. photograph: brenda fitzsimons
'I am more of a social person': Claire Adams with her mother Monica. photograph: brenda fitzsimons
One group is helping to erase the stigma attached to relationships for those with intellectual disabilityLike any mother, Monica Adams wants her daughter Claire (24) to have somebody special in her life. But, she admits, it took her a while to come around to that view because Claire has an intellectual disability.
“As a parent I would be afraid that somebody would take advantage,” Adams explains. “I probably feel I am always going to be around and that I am going to mind her – but that’s not going to happen.”
She acknowledges that her daughter does not like being on her own. “I would hate her to be lonely,” she says.
“I am more of a social person,” agrees Claire, who says she has had two relationships since she started attending her service, Prosper Fingal, in north Dublin.
“Claire’s choices weren’t great and we just had to keep an eye on it,” says her mother. “It was really hard for us; I really wanted to say ‘no, it is not happening’.”
Monica’s outlook had shifted as she watched Claire’s involvement with the Connect People Network (CPN), an independent organisation led by people with extra support needs which promotes their rights around friendships, relationships and sexuality.
After attending some meetings organised by the CPN and talking to other parents, Monica realised Claire was entitled to seek the same sort of fulfilling emotional life that her older three siblings have.
Monica’s enlightened attitude, which is shared by her husband Jimmy, is still relatively unusual in Ireland, where outdated legislation sets the tone for a society in denial. People with intellectual disabilities are not seen as having the same feelings and desires as others, so there is no recognition of their need to form relationships, says Siobhán Kane of Inclusion Ireland, an umbrella group that represents people with intellectual disabilities.
“There is a massive fear. When you say to somebody, an adult with an intellectual disability should be supported to have a relationship, there is a big red flashing light in front of their eyes that says ‘sex, sex, sex’ and people are terrified by the implications of that.”
Kane recalls how, at an advocacy conference for people with intellectual disabilities, there was a “wish wall” for participants.
So many people wrote about wanting a partner or to be married that it made her think a lot about the companionship and intimacy they miss out on when they are either not facilitated in or actively discouraged from having relationships.
Ireland signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007 but falls far short of its requirement to take “effective and appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against persons with disabilities in all matters relating to marriage, family, parenthood and relationships . . . ” Laws will have to be changed before we can ratify the convention.
For a start, the 1871 Lunacy Act still governs consent issues. “In Ireland you either have 100 per cent capacity to make decisions or you have no capacity whatsoever and the court makes all the decisions about your life,” explains Kane.
“There is no in between. In other countries there have been pieces of legislation since the 1870s, which moved towards supported decision-making – where there is a group of people to help an individual.”
The drawing up of a Mental Capacity Bill was proposed in 2008. Five years later, it has still not been drafted but what is now called the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill is in the pipeline.
The much more recent Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 would also have to be changed. This makes it an offence to have sexual intercourse with a “mentally impaired person” outside marriage.
Inclusion Ireland points that on the one hand it does not go far enough to protect people from abuse because it only stipulates intercourse – oral rape, for instance, is not covered – and, on the other hand, it criminalises consenting adults.
With this legal backdrop, it is no surprise that people with intellectual disabilities encounter both practical barriers and societal disapproval of them having a love life.
Re-energised within the past year, CPN now operates on five different fronts to address issues faced by people with extra support needs – a term carefully chosen by the peer group that leads the organisation, serving as equals with support volunteers on the committee.
“Everyone has a disability in one way or another – there is none of us perfect,” points out Claire, as she sits in a meeting room in the Carmelite Community Centre in Dublin on a recent Saturday morning with members of the CPN committee.