Fifty years of creating independence in Ireland

After half a century of giving people with disabilities in Ireland privacy and dignity, Cheshire Homes is looking ahead to more challenges

As the Cheshire Homes celebrate their 50th anniversary in Ireland this year, the organisation is reflecting on the huge changes in ethos and approach in the past 10 years or so.

"Our reputation is to be flexible and respond to people's needs but the thinking and language we use now has changed hugely in the past 10 years or so," says Aoife O'Toole, vice quality manager at Cheshire Ireland.

Central to this change is the emphasis on moving people out of residential centres into supported accommodation in the community. "It's about giving people the privacy and dignity of a home of their own, looking at their fundamental needs in life – whether it's to be a good neighbour, to be treated as a [capable] adult and to connect with people where they live and work," continues O'Toole.

Self-contained apartments
To achieve the goal of moving everyone from so-called "congregated settings" to self-contained apartments, Cheshire Ireland has had to learn how to "unbundle" HSE funding arrangements. "It has been a tough change and a challenge. It is complex work and each person's needs are different," says Maggie Thomas, head of corporate services at Cheshire Ireland.

Moving people with disabilities from long-stay group accommodation to houses has been government policy since 2011.


The Cheshire team has also had to learn how to deal with each resident on their own terms. “Of the 17 people we’ve helped move out of two homes, nobody wanted to go back. We still have about 150 people in nine homes throughout Ireland. It’s a slow process dealing with individuals, families and staff,” says O’Toole.

“We don’t always get it right and we’re honest about this and clear about what we can and cannot do. But, now we know that people [with disabilities] can contribute and live in their own homes with support. After all, we’re all interdependent on each other in some ways.”

Owen Mansfield: 'I can decide my own menu. I get up when I want to. I like my own space and time'

Owen Mansfield asks me if I mind if he smokes while we sit and chat in his self-contained ground-floor apartment in Dublin city centre.

His support worker lights his cigarette and he puffs away until it nears the stub when she removes it upon his request.

Living independently with a roster of support workers of his own choice, Mansfield is one of a new generation of people with physical disabilities who have moved from long-term residential care to living in the community.

An employee at the American Embassy in Dublin, Mansfield has met more diplomats and American presidents than most and he's proud of his work contacts but reticent about sharing any gossip about recent visitors such as Bill Clinton, Barak and Michelle Obama and their daughters.

His job includes booking flights and accommodation for all American dignitaries coming to Ireland.

"I don't travel a lot myself for work – a few conferences in Europe and I've only been to America on [personal] holidays," he says.

A car crash at the age of 18 left Mansfield with permanent spinal cord injuries. He has been a wheelchair user since then.

He moved into the Cheshire Home in Phoenix Park in 1993 and stayed 12 years.

“I started working in the American Embassy from there using Cheshire transport.

“Since I moved into my own apartment, my care assistants drive me to work,” he explains.

Built in 1974, the Cheshire Home in the Phoenix Park was one of the first purpose- built Cheshire residential centres for people with physical disabilities in Ireland.

“There wasn’t huge camaraderie there. I didn’t like having visitors.

“If someone came to see me, it wasn’t to sit down with a bunch of grapes and a bottle of Lucazade, it was to bring me out,” says Mansfield.

He bought and moved into his apartment eight years ago.

“It was difficult to get funding for the package I wanted and I spent one year looking for a ground-floor apartment with its own front door.

“I had to have a ramp built, the bathroom fitted out and a hoist put in to move me from the bath, onto the bed and to the sofa so I can sit down.”

So is he happy with his independent life? He smiles and says, “I can decide my own menu. I get up when I want to and I always have a carer with me when I’m not at work. I like my own space and time.

"It works for me. I do my own thing," he says.

Mary Gaul: ‘I’m more confident and I’d like to inspire other people to live independently as I do’

Mary Gaul shared a room with five other people for more than 20 years of her life. Just over two years ago, she moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Dún Laoghaire. Her life has been transformed since then.

“In the beginning, I was afraid but not any more,” says Gaul, who was born with cerebral palsy and lived at home with her parents, sisters and brothers until she was 17.

“I went to the Enable Ireland school in Sandymount and then to boarding schools in Bray and Baldoyle. I only moved out of home [into residential care] because my family couldn’t look after me any more and that was hard,” she says.

A strong, independent-minded woman, Gaul says life was difficult in the Barrett Cheshire Home on Herbert St, Dublin where she spent most of her early adult life.

“I stayed there until it closed in 2011. By the end, we all had our own rooms but we got up at the same time every day and went to bed at the same time and had our meals at the same time every day,” she explains.

While living in the Barrett Cheshire Home in Herbert St, Gaul was an extra in the Irish film, Inside I’m Dancing (2004).

Like other people with physical disabilities who opted for independent living in the community, Gaul did a “lifestyle project” before embarking on her new life.

"I looked at different places to live and I chose here because it's near shops and a pub. I go out nearly every day now whereas in the 'home', they didn't have the staff to bring me out."

Gaul appreciates the fact that she is her own boss now. She interviewed potential flatmates and the person she chose has shared the rented apartment with her since the start. She also interviewed and chose her support workers and sets their hours herself. The apartment belongs to Cheshire Ireland and her support staff are also employed by Cheshire Ireland.

Apart from managing her home life, going shopping, swimming and taking trips to the cinema, Gaul also partakes in weekly art and music classes and a Zumba class in Enable Ireland in Sandyford.

She shows me paintings of hers that feature in the new Sandyford Artists Calendar 2014 (available from Enable Ireland shops at €5).

“I spent two days there doing my classes and chatting with my friends,” she explains.

Reflecting back on the enormous changes independent living has brought to her life, Gaul says, “I’ve changed a lot since I moved here. It’s the sense of freedom. I speak up for myself more. I’m more confident and I’d like to inspire other people to live independently as I do.”

History of Cheshire Homes In Ireland

The Cheshire Homes are named after their founder, Leonard Cheshire, an English RAF officer who served during World War II. His wife, Sue Ryder, set up the Sue Ryder Foundation.

The first Cheshire Home was opened in Hampshire in 1948. The first Cheshire Home in Ireland was opened in Shillelagh, Co Wicklow in 1961 and the Cheshire Foundation (now Cheshire Ireland) was set up in Ireland in 1963. There are now 17 accommodation centres across Ireland and Cheshire services in more than50 countries.

The services – residential, respite and community support – are mainly offered to people with physical disabilities ranging from progressive neurological conditions to acquired brain injuries. Approximately, one-fifth of service users now live in the community. See also