Martin Naughton: A passionate campaigner for the rights of disabled people

Obituary: He became active in the Irish Wheelchair Association and the Muscular Dystrophy Association and helped found the first Centre for Independent Living in Ireland

Martin Naughton: March 16th, 1954-October 13th, 2016. Photograph: Alan Betson

Martin Naughton: March 16th, 1954-October 13th, 2016. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Martin Naughton, who has died aged 62, was a lifelong campaigner for the rights of the disabled. From early in his life, he became determined to change the historic culture that existed in Ireland that a disabled person was, in his own words, “more someone to be cared for than cared about”.

“He dared people with disabilities to dream. He also invited them to determine their own destiny with dignity and respect, making choices most citizens take for granted,” said his friend and fellow campaigner, Donal Toolan.

A native of An Spidéal in the Connemara Gaeltacht, he was diagnosed in childhood with muscular dystrophy and at a young age, he and his younger sister Barbara, who had a similar condition, moved to live in a residential hospital for disabled children, St Mary’s in Baldoyle, Co Dublin. It was common at the time for disabled children to be moved from their families and communities.

His leadership qualities soon emerged in his new surroundings and he started to work as a youth leader and coach. Among his roles was training young people with disabilities to participate in sports, such as swimming; some of these went on to take part in Paralympic competitions.

He also wanted these young people to have as normal a social life as possible and to achieve this goal, he got people from the wider Baldoyle community to become involved in the lives of their disabled neighbours. Lasting friendships resulted from this integration of the lives of those in the residential hospital into the family and social life of the broader Baldoyle community – a reflection of Naughton’s pioneering vision.

“Once he tasted what choice felt like, Martin committed his every fibre over the next five decades to end the institutionalisation of disabled people through the provision of personal assistance and other supports, so that they could exercise their most basic human rights,” said Donal Toolan.

He became active in organisations such as the Irish Wheelchair Association and the Muscular Dystrophy Association and in 1990 helped found the first Centre for Independent Living in Ireland. This established the first personal-assistance programme here, which supported people with disabilities to live in their communities rather than being confined to institutions. More than 2,000 disabled people now avail of this support in the Republic. He also established Vantastic, a door-to-door accessible taxi service and had the satisfaction of seeing it spread throughout Ireland.

In 1995, he received a People of the Year Award and was later made an adjunct professor the Centre for Disability Law in NUI Galway. He continued to help lead the Disability Federation of Ireland.

His dynamic approach influenced the choices of thousands of disabled people throughout Europe, according to Donal Toolan. During the conflict in former Yugoslavia, he helped many young people to come here from Bosnia; many settled here and worked as personal assistants, while many others returned to support disabled people in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He also organised the first “Freedom Drive”, bringing disabled people from across Europe to the EU Parliament in Strasbourg. This has become a biennial event.

Last year he retraced the path in Alabama of the five-day Selma to Montgomery march which Martin Luther-King (one of his heroes) had led 50 years before; for him it showed the shared journey those who have had to claim their rights have taken and how their histories are connected by a common desire to be free.

He always cut a very distinctive figure in public, with his long flowing hair, often wearing a poncho and above all with one his many distinctive taqiyah-style hats.

He is survived by his sisters Chris, Mairéad, Cáit, Bernie and Barbara.