Election time has arrived again, and the atmosphere is almost electric. Posters on every pole, letterboxes crammed with manifestos, Facebook (and Twitter, I assume) home to pre-election scandal, the most recent being a van used for a candidate’s campaign parked illegally in an accessible parking space. This move caused outrage across social media sites this morning. Being a poet at heart, I saw this a metaphor for how far people with disabilities have yet to go in their quest for equality in Irish society.
Over the last five years, my profession has allowed me to explore and learn about the Independent Living Movement. I’ve studied the history of people with disabilities prior to the Movement and was physically sick after reading about the T4 Project which took place under Hitler’s reign during the Second World War. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this concept, I am talking about a scheme that Hitler himself devised where people with ‘incurable’ disabilities were institutionalised and later gassed or injected with a lethal substance (a ‘mercy death’).
The Independent Living Movement came almost twenty years later, coinciding with other human rights movements. I can imagine the excitement in the air as Ed Roberts, a young man and polio survivor, enlisted the assistance of an ‘attendant’ which enabled him to live away from home and attend university. He and a group of fellow ‘disabled students’ formed a group called the ‘Rolling Quads’ and they established the first Center for Independent Living in 1972. At this stage, the concept of somebody with a disability having control over the fundamental aspects of their everyday lives, such as deciding what time to get up in the morning, where to go, whether to work or pursue leisure activities was a foreign one.
And despite the Independent Living Movement arriving in Ireland in 1992, the physical and emotional freedom of people with disabilities is still in question.
We have to ask ourselves why, twenty-two years since the Personal Assistant Service was made available in Ireland, people in this country are forced to live in residential institutions and hospitals; why people who need the assistance to live independently live in fear of vital services being taking away; and how we got to a point where we say nothing in response to all the cutbacks in recent years in case we ‘rock the boat’, even though many people remain on a sinking ship, waiting to be rescued by a Government who caused us to sink in the first place.
It seems that Government is only interested in helping people with disabilities when times are good. Despite all the studies that have been conducted on the viability of the Personal Assistant Service, people are still living in institutions and hospitals, where they exercise little choice over their everyday routine. Having a disability is an expensive way of life, and yet medical cards are being revoked, housing grants are being refused and household allowances are almost non-existent. These cuts inhibit people with disabilities from participating fully in Irish society and ironically from contributing to society rather than sponging off the State.
So until we stand united and say ‘enough is enough – we want equality and guaranteed access to the services that will enable us to achieve it’, we as people with disabilities will always be vulnerable, passive recipients of services that are reliant on state funding. We need to ensure that in the future, we regain choice and control over our lives. The time for talking is now over; we need to speak louder with our actions.