Behind the News: Sarah Lennon, training officer with Inclusion Ireland

Signatories to the “Fool Me Once” petition, handed into the Dáil earlier this week, want the Government abolish the 1871 Lunacy Act

The public petition presented to Dáil and Seanad deputies at Leinster House

The public petition presented to Dáil and Seanad deputies at Leinster House

 

What was once deemed to be a benevolent law has become one that strips away all decision-making powers from people with intellectual disabilities, according to Sarah Lennon of advocacy group Inclusion Ireland.

Lennon was among those who petitioned the Government this week to repeal the 1871 Lunacy Act and replace it with modern human rights-compliant legislation for persons with intellectual disabilities.

“The Government has been promising us for eight years that it will change this law,” says Lennon. “Without changing it, Ireland can’t ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We are one of the last countries in the world to ratify [this convention], even though we were one of the first EU states to sign it in 2007.”

The Lunacy Act was originally part of civil rights legislation that gave people with mental illness the status of patients rather than prisoners, she says. “It allowed them to receive treatment rather than be locked up by making them Wards of Court. But, 144 years later, we’ve moved on.”

Choosing an assistant

Inclusion Ireland is campaigning for assisted decision-making legislation, which would give people with intellectual disabilities the right to choose an assistant who will help them make financial, medical and other important decisions in their lives.

“Most people need some level of support in making decisions,” Lennon says. “The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill, which is currently with the Oireachtas Justice Committee, will give assistants legal recognition for a role many people already play. It will protect everyone and is reassuring for doctors, landlords and members of the public.”

Medical decisions, rental agreements and financial transactions are the most common areas where people with intellectual disabilities need significant support.

“A lot of doctors won’t allow someone else to communicate with a doctor on their behalf,” she says. “And, if a person with an intellectual disability doesn’t have the capacity to enter into a tenancy agreement on their own, their assistant could be a co-signatory on their contracts.

“Assisted decision-making is about the person with an intellectual disability having someone he or she trusts and knows well to help make a decision. At the moment, it can be a staff member in a residential centre or someone on a roster who doesn’t know the person well.”

Element of choice

She says the element of choice is important. “We’d like to see the Guardianship model as the last resort. We are getting concerned about the progress of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill before the general election.”

Age Action, the Centre for Independent Living, the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, Down Syndrome Ireland, the Disability Federation of Ireland and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties all signed the “Fool Me Once” petition, which was handed to members of the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Human Rights on Wednesday, April Fools Day 2015.

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