The Early Days

Waterford Centre for Independent Living – the Early Years

Written by Mary Whittle, Co-Manager and Founder of Waterford CIL

The year was 1995.

In a referendum, Irish citizens voted in favour of divorce.
US President Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary visited Ireland.
Riots took place in Landsdowne Road in a friendly soccer match between Ireland and England.
Ebay was launched.
Mississippi became the last state in the US to officially outlaw slavery.

Waterford Centre for Independent Living was launched.

A small group of people with physical disabilities were about to embark on a new experience of life as members of the national and international movement of Independent Living.

Waterford Centre for Independent Living (WCIL) aims to empower and enable people with physical disabilities to take their place in society, with the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. We would campaign and strive for equal access to education, employment, accommodation, socialisation etc. This would be achieved in part by employing Personal Assistants (PA’s) to work with us on a one-to-one basis.

No longer would we be dependent on the goodwill of family and friends for basic tasks taken for granted by the rest of the population.

We would operate the Social Model of Disability whereby the person is seen and supported to engage in all aspect of society unlike the Medical Model which views them as ill, needing care.

August 1995 was indeed a watershed in the lives of the early members of WCIL. Earlier that year we met Martin Naughton and some other staff from Dublin CIL. Their aim was to set up a Centre for Independent Living in every county in Ireland, with the assistance of FÁS Community Employment Schemes.

I gladly agreed to accept the position to set up Waterford Centre for Independent Living, as CE Supervisor with 11 participants. It was planned to recruit nine Personal Assistants, an Administrator and a Leader Coordinator.

The first task was to identify potential Leaders; people with physical disabilities who would direct their Personal Assistants (PAs) in their required tasks.

Networking with the Irish Wheelchair Association, a number of Leaders were identified and I met them to discuss their requirements from a PA. Those early leaders, many of whom have since passed away included Seamus Aylward, Kill; Michael Cunningham, Sunrise Crescent; Kitty Egan, The Folly; Carol Grant, Hillview; John Lynch, Sunrise Crescent and Anthony O’Dea, Ferrybank. We are glad to have Margaret Drohan and Tom Drohan, Dunhill; Edwina O’Leary, Kilmeaden and Francis Roberts, Annestown still with us as leaders 21 years later.

Carol Grant was to go on to play a key role in the organisation as Leader Coordinator.

She was an inspirational woman; talented, brave and quick witted; an unflinching disability activitist. She was the first person in Ireland, with a significant disability to move into her own house and practice Independent Living, many years before the supports of CIL came on-stream.

Initial meetings and interviews were held in the National Rehabilitation Board offices, Gladstone Street on Gladstone Street, where Nora Walls facilitated us at this time. On August 21st with the support of Pat Brophy ESO, FAS Waterford and the team from Dublin CIL, Waterford CIL sprang into action with a small team of participants.

Some of the first PAs included Anne O’Reilly, Andy Aldridge, John Daly and Debbie Finn Toms.

Back row from left: Paula Evoy (ESO), Marie Daly, Eleanor Fox, Anne O’Reilly, Mary O’Connor, Stephanie O’Keeffe, Deborah Finn Front row from left: Breda O’Brien, Carol Grant (Leader Co-ordinator), Breda Casey, Sheila Heffernan (Administrator), Mary Whittle (Programme Manager)

Back row from left: Paula Evoy (ESO), Marie Daly, Eleanor Fox, Anne O’Reilly, Mary O’Connor, Stephanie O’Keeffe, Deborah Finn
Front row from left: Breda O’Brien, Carol Grant (Leader Co-ordinator), Breda Casey, Sheila Heffernan (Administrator), Mary Whittle (Programme Manager)

Debbie is still with us and has clocked up many miles on Vantastic over the last two decades. Patricia Sullivan was employed as the first Administrator, to be followed by Sheila Heffernan, who still ensures that all staff receives their timesheets and payslips.

As the early weeks rolled on, more PAs were recruited to suit both the Leaders’ requirements and their geographical location. In late August, PAs began reporting at their leaders’ homes at the appointed times. A wide variety of work was undertaken including household duties, personal care, diving Leaders for various appointments, chopping wood and gardening, shopping and social escort.

A spare room in Ballinvella became my office, and I enjoyed the new found pleasure of a bulky mobile phone, while I travelled the highways and byways of Waterford city and county in search of Leaders and PAs!

In the following early years, we were joined by PAs Joan Bagge, Joan Coughlan, Suzanne Maher and Geraldine Morrissey, all of whom are still with us. Likewise, Eddie Flynn has been a Vantastic driver since before the millennium. This group of people have done invaluable work over the years, performing a wide range of duties for the people with whom they work, always with a pleasant and positive attitude.

Training plays an integral role in every CIL, for both Leaders and PAs. Meetings were held to ensure that Leaders were fully aware of their roles in working with a PA. A FAS funded training programme devised by Dublin CIL was set in place. The first training day was held in the iconic Ardree Hotel, which overlooked the city at the time. Modules included: Philosophy of Independent Living, Communications, Manual Handling, Wheelchair Maintenance, Personal Care, Disability Awareness and First Aid.

At this stage Dublin CIL carried out the role of scheme sponsor, and in 1997 WCIL’s own committee was set up to sponsor the scheme. This initial committee comprised of Pat Cogan OFM, Michael Greene RIP, Anthony O’Dea RIP, Nora Walls, Sean Walshe and Aidan Walsh. These people were to go on to become the Company Directors when Waterford CIL became a Company Limited by Guarantee in 1999.

The availability of a Personal Assistant is a key component in breaking down many barriers with which people with physical disabilities have to contend. Another is access to wheelchair accessible transport.

From left: Michael Greene (Treasurer), Aiden Walsh (Vice-Chairperson), Mary Whittle (Programme Manager), Sean Walsh RIP (Secretary)

From left: Michael Greene (Treasurer), Aiden Walsh (Vice-Chairperson), Mary Whittle (Programme Manager), Sean Walsh RIP (Secretary)

Back in 1995, there were no wheelchair accessible buses on Waterford’s streets. There weren’t even any accessible taxis suitable to take larger wheelchairs. In 1998, after much planning and fundraising via National Lottery and HSE, WCIL became the proud owners of a turquoise coloured Toyota Hiace, adapted to carry two wheelchairs and three mobile passengers. Waterford Vantastic was on the road! Helen Burke and Eleanor Fox were the first two drivers who carried the ethos of WCIL along the country roads of East Waterford and South Kilkenny, as well as the city.

For the first time many people who had been more or less confined to their homes could experience the new found freedom of accessible transport. In 2002 another vehicle was purchased, our beloved Ford Transit which is still going, just about.

In 2003, the Vantastic service was launched in West Waterford, with the support of James O’Donoghue and Deise Link (now called Local Link). This service covers the entire West Waterford area, keeping the flag of WCIL flying in the west!

During these early years Waterford CIL together with CIL nationally had been campaigning for Personal Assistance to be recognised as a statutory right of people with disabilities. A Direct Payments system of funding, which gives the person with a disability more control is now preferred. This included writing to and meeting with public representatives locally. It also included a number of national campaigns visiting and protesting outside Dáil Eireann.

Members of CILs have spent days and some nights even, outside Leinster House in an effort to publicise and gain support for our campaign. Finally, in the Budget of 2002, for the first time funding was allocated to the Health Boards for Personal Assistance. This was initially a very small figure but it allowed some PAs to be employed directly by Waterford CIL.

21 years on, Waterford CIL has enjoyed many successes as well as challenges. Personal Assistance and Accessible Transport have become available to a large number of people in Waterford city, county, and South Kilkenny.

We look to the future with optimism, and trust that the goal of Direct Payments for All may be achieved in the coming years, thus allowing the true spirit of Independent Living to prevail in Waterford.

Máire de Fuitleigh (Mary Whittle)
WCIL Co-Manager
September 2016