PARENTS of mentally handicapped children across Ireland are demanding equal rights for their offspring.
Organisations like Mencap in Northern Ireland and the National Association for the Mentally Handicapped of Ireland in the Republic provide invaluable services to people with learning disabilities.
But in the Republic there is no appropriate legislation dealing with the rights of mentally handicapped people.
This led Dublin mother Annie Ryan to start a campaign with other parents to improve conditions for their children.
Annie was appalled when she discovered the conditions in St Ita's Hospital in Portrane, the largest psychiatric institution in Dublin and the place where her 35-year-old son Tom was staying.
She set up St Joseph's Association for the Mentally Handicapped with other parents and compiled a damning report which they presented to a United Nations human rights committee at the end of last year.
"We are just a small group of parents who are demanding that our loved ones' human rights are respected," explained Annie, who has since written a book about her campaign called Wall of Silence.
"I met a solicitor in 1996 who had an interest in human rights issues. I told her about the situation in Portrane and she suggested I compile a report on it for the UN's Social and Cultural Rights Committee.
"There is a lot of talk about civil and political rights, but economic, social and cultural rights are far more important to someone who is mentally handicapped.
"So myself and other parents set up the association and compiled an oral submission which we presented to the committee in Geneva at the end of last year.
"I played a tape of a radio show which was recorded by a presenter when he visited St Ita's. I also showed the committee photographs of the place and they were absolutely horrified.
"At that time the physical conditions at Portrane reflected the general neglect shown towards mentally handicapped people in society.
"At that time, voluntary facilities for the mentally handicapped received far better funding from the Department of Health than its own statutory facilities.
"It was impossible for anyone living at St Ita's at that time to have any quality of life. Most of the people sat in the same room all day with maybe two nurses watching them.
"There was a total lack of therapy and stimulation. The walls and plasterwork were decaying and there was a pervasive smell of urine.
"But the staff maintained a high standard of work in inadequate and under resourced conditions.
"Basically the living conditions were totally unfit. I also told the committee that there was no legislation to protect mentally handicapped people here.
"The care of mentally handicapped people is still in the hands of voluntary bodies who provide an excellent service but only to a certain amount of people. The rest are cared for in their own homes or in mental institutions.
"That's why the committee in Geneva were so shocked and made immediate recommendations that proper legislation was introduced and the human rights of mentally handicapped children were acknowledged."
Annie's son is currently living in a residential complex which was opened by the Eastern Health Board several years ago.
"The difference in Tom since he moved to the complex last month has been amazing," she said. "His table manners have improved dramatically.
"Tom was …