As announced in our earlier publications, the ENIL 2017 Freedom Drive March will be dedicated to the Heroes of the Independent Living movement – past, present and the future. In the coming months, up to ENIL 2017 Freedom Drive, the ENIL monthly newsletter will highlight the great individuals who have committed their lives to advocating for the Independent Living philosophy and equal participation of disabled people in society.
In this month’s publication we celebrate the life and work of one of the most iconic figures in the European disability rights movement, a passionate advocate for the rights of disabled people, a true Independent Living Hero, and the founder of the Europe-wide Freedom Drive campaign, Martin Naughton.
Martin Naughton was born in 1954 in a tiny coastal village, called Spiddal, in western Ireland but in a few decades his name would become known internationally as one of the leaders of the disability movement in Europe. Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a child, Martin was forced to soon move to a residential hospital for disabled children in Dublin, as many of his disabled peers.
During nearly 20 years of his residency at St Mary’s Hospital in Baldoyle, Martin Naughton experienced first-hand the widespread segregation of institutionalized living disabled people were subjected to at the time. It was this experience that informed his life-time dedication and tireless advocacy for empowering disabled people and giving them the opportunity of living a full independent life within their communities. It was also in Baldoyle where Naughton first demonstrated his leadership skills, as a youth leader and swimming coach for young disabled people. Interestingly, not being able to swim, Naughton successfully coached young people, some of whom went on to take part in Paralympic competitions. In doing so, Naughton inspired young disabled people to have goals and aspirations, which society had robbed them of, and to take back the control over their choices and lives. Because of that he was often criticized for creating expectations, but he remained unapologetic and determined to his ideals throughout his life. As his friend and colleague Donal Toolan put it: “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.”
Drawing inspiration from the American Civil Rights Movement and the Independent Living Movement in the US, Martin Naughton strived to change the societal perception of disabled people, which in his words saw disabled people as “more someone to be cared for rather than cared about”. As one of the founders of the Independent Living Movement in Ireland and Europe, in the early 1990s he co-founded the first Independent Living Centre in Ireland and made Personal Assistance a reality in the country. Additionally, he established an accessible taxi service called Vantastic, which in a short period of time began to thrive throughout the whole country. Actively involved in the work of organizations such as Disability Federation Ireland, Irish Wheelchair Association, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Naughton and his colleagues organized a number of successful Independent Living events, which helped bring together the supporters of the philosophy and strengthen the solidarity and cooperation much needed for the struggle for the rights of disabled people throughout Europe.
This decades-long activism resulted in the founding of the European Network on Independent Living – ENIL by Naughton and his peer activists, establishing the first Secretariat in Bray, Co. Wicklow, south of Dublin in 1998. One of his long-time goals and greatest achievements was of course now the well-established Freedom Drive, which he initiated in Strasbourg in 2003. Since then, the campaign event has become a major success, taking place every two years and bringing together disabled people, disability rights activists and allies to Strasbourg and in recent years to Brussels, to celebrate Independent Living but also to make their voices, needs and demands heard by European policy-makers.
Throughout his life, Martin Naughton received numerous awards and recognitions, as well as the great respect and appreciation of his peer activists, disabled people, and state leaders.
In 1995 Naughton received People of the Year Award in Ireland. He was described by the president of Ireland Michael D Higgins as an “indefatigable advocate for human rights” and as a political activist, who had “the vision, skills and determination to build solidarity between all those who strive for equality, dignity and the fulfillment of human rights for all groups in society, making him a valuable ally for a multitude of social justice groups.” Pioneer of the Independent Living movement in Europe, ENIL Advisory Board member and Martin Naughton’s friend, John Evans, remembers Naughton as ‘one of the most inspirational, dynamic and charismatic leaders of the European Independent Living movement’, whose life achievements are impossible to do justice.
Martin Naughton’s legacy will live on through the coming generations thriving for human rights and equality for all, and the biennial Freedom Drive is testament to that.