It’s the night before the Marriage Referendum. I’ve read articles and stories from both sides and I’m ready, as the slogan urges us, to vote Yes for equality. But being who I am, I can’t turn off my thoughts about the word ‘equality’ and what it means in 2015. And here’s why.
I know that I use this blog to prattle on and on about the importance of disability rights. I am aware of how one-dimensional some of my posts may seem to those of you who know that I am more than my disability and am proud to know Sarah (this isn’t directed at any dads in particular by the way). But here’s the thing: despite being periodically frustrated by my limitations, I have embraced who I am. I know that I try to be understanding, accepting and tolerant of all others, simply because that’s how I expect to be treated, even though it is not always the case. I laugh off the insults, the condescension, the ignorance because at the end of the day, it shouldn’t really matter what people think of me. I am who I am, regardless of the labels people throw at me.
Over the last few months I have listened, watched and read arguments in favour of, and opposing same-sex marriage. You haven’t been able to avoid it unless you live under a rock; it was even on the front page of the Tullamore Tribune this week. Politicians, celebrities and ordinary citizens talking about which way they are voting in the Same-sex marriage referendum. People sharing their experiences of what it’s like to be gay in twenty-first century Ireland. It’s amazing how this referendum has forced people to face such a taboo subject head-on. To examine what it means for people living in shame of who they are. To explore people’s anxieties and deconstruct their misconceptions. To hear both sides argue their cases so passionately.
Ireland has progressed so much, people say. But allowing same-sex marriage won’t stop homophobia or hate crime. And although so much has been done to ensure that Ireland is becoming a more accepting and understanding society, I have to admit I still don’t feel it.
In the last two weeks two separate incidents involving people with disabilities made the headlines. The first was a man who was left on a train when the ramp was not provided to let him off the train. He was let off twenty minutes later, and he commented that never before had his disability made him feel so vulnerable. The second one was a woman who was denied access to a Dublin Bus because a buggy was occupying the wheelchair area. One wheelchair space for fifty-odd seats seems a bit discriminatory anyway. These are not isolated incidents, as I know only too well from working in the disability sector; everyone has a story to tell about public transport in Ireland.
How can Ireland be viewed as being progressive if there are still people in society who cannot even access basic services such as transport? Why are we still highlighting the same issues over and over again?
I thought I was being paranoid, so I decided to do some actual research. According to a report by the National Disability Authority in 2011 on attitudes towards people with disabilities, the number of people who believed that ‘it is society that disables people’ fell from 62% strongly agreeing and agreeing in 2006 to 57% in 2011. Not a significant drop, but a drop nonetheless. Furthermore, there was a decrease in the number of people who think that people with disabilities should be treated more favourably in certain circumstances (i.e. when their disabilities prevent them from doing things that a person without a disability could do) from 80% in 2006 to 68% in 2011.
It occurs to me as I read these statistics that the changes in the attitudes of those who partook in the study may be due to the onset of the recession. Since 2008, funding that was once earmarked for disability services has been restricted and the needs of people with disabilities have had to be prioritised. Every year disability organisations make pre-budget submissions, outlining how further cuts will have devastating consequences for their clients. When you have a disability, you become costly; a report launched by Inclusion Ireland in September 2014 estimates that the extra cost of disability is roughly €207 per week. That’s not even provided through our (means-tested) disability allowance. And because of this people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty; many are caught in a welfare trap, afraid to move into employment in case they lose their secondary benefits such as medical cards and travel passes, and consequently they are either seen as spongers or dependent on the state.
How is this equality?
Tomorrow’s same-sex marriage referendum will come and go, and whatever the outcome, one thing is for certain: this referendum has given so many people a platform on which to relate their personal experiences, voice their opinions, and persuade the people around them of the merits and disadvantages of same-sex marriage. Giving the Irish people the opportunity to vote for same-sex marriage empowers the people and puts the potential of equality for same-sex couples in their hands.
Imagine, this time tomorrow, the right to marry your partner regardless of gender could be a reality.
Maybe, one day, equality for people with disabilities could be a given, too. But in order to achieve this, we need to be more vocal, more visible. We need to make sure that our voices are always heard. Not just around election time but every single day. Only when true equality exists should we fall silent.
PS Yes Equality!