A Tribute to Martin Naughton: Activist, Campaigner, Friend

I woke up with a start this morning, the darkness threatening to suffocate me. My sleepy brain told me that I had woken up in a world that was different than the one I opened my eyes to yesterday, which was the thirteenth of October, 2016.

Then I remembered. I felt my stomach close in on itself as the events of the last twenty-four hours rushed back to my memory: Martin Naughton, prominent disability advocate and all-round good guy, passed away yesterday aged sixty-two, following a short illness. There is nothing worse than hearing the news, via social media (so tacky), that someone who made such a huge impact on your life has died. At first I thought (hoped) it might have been a hoax, a rumour, but as the Independent and RTE published their stories, the reality of our loss hit home.

Everyone in the disability world knows Martin. He’s our representative, our ‘go-to’ guy. If the Independent Living Movement was a mafia, he’d be our Don; he was always trying to think of new and seemingly radical ways of equalising the playing field for people with disabilities. (such as giving us full control over our lives in the form of Direct Payments – I know, outlandish, right?!)

Martin had an impairment called Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and spent his childhood in St. Mary’s Hospital in Baldoyle, where he developed a strong stance against the institutionalisation of people with disabilities.  He became a youth leader and coach there, and became a strong advocate for people with disabilities. When he went travelling in the US, he saw the disability movement in action first-hand and on his return to Ireland, immediately set about bringing Personal Assistance here. This began with ‘Operation Get Out,’ a programme designed to move people who had been institutionalised back out into the community and culminated in the development of Ireland’s first Center for Independent Living in Dublin.  There are now around 25 CILs across Ireland today, thanks to Martin.

Martin dedicated his entire life to trying to achieve equality for people with disabilities, but the first I ever heard of him was in 2005, when I was looking for a summer job in Dublin. My Personal Assistant arranged for me to have a job interview with him in Chief O’Neill’s in Smithfield. She didn’t know much about him, so I’d pictured a stern-looking man in a suit, wielding a pen and ticking boxes as I spoke. As it turned out, I didn’t do a lot of talking during that interview, but I’ll never forget it. Martin’s kind, soft features put me at ease as he spoke passionately about the need for Leaders (people with disabilities) to take full control of their own lives and to have a platform from where they could voice their concern about their Personal Assistant Services. This platform was called a Leader Forum and it was my job to help him put it together. This experience later enabled me to help establish forums in Laois and Offaly. I could see that this was a man with a rare combination of passion, vision, and stubbornness. He would not rest until he realised his goals.

That September, Martin would lead the biannual Strasbourg Freedom Drive for the second time, and although I couldn’t go, it awakened in me an awareness that issues facing people with disabilities in Ireland are commonplace across Europe. During this Freedom Drive, people with disabilities across Europe convened at the European Parliament with key demands, which invariably included the deinstitutionalisation of people with disabilities and the recognition of the Personal Assistant Service as a basic human right. The slogan for the event was ‘Nothing About Us Without Us.’

I started working with Offaly Centre for Independent Living Ltd in 2008, and thanks to Martin, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to achieve. However, I soon discovered that it wasn’t as easy to motivate others to fight for equal rights. During the recession (that we’ve apparently come out of), a time when ‘cutbacks’ instilled more fear in people with disabilities than any other word, Martin was actively protesting against these cutbacks. He and other activists took the drastic measure of camping outside Leinster House, and their perseverance was worth it when the cuts were reversed.  Just last year, in September 2015, he organised another three day protest outside the Dail where he expressed his disappointment to our Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, on hearing that investments were going to be made into residential institutions.

Martin is a celebrity, and we all loved to see him coming to Offaly. In 2010 he agreed to be filmed as part of a promotional DVD Paddy Slattery and myself made for Offaly CIL Ltd, called ‘My Life with Me in It,’ in which he explained how he established the Independent Living Movement and how he helped Michael Nestor establish Offaly CIL. In October 2011, when prominent US advocate Judy Heumann came to visit us in Offaly, Martin came to meet her, noting the many similarities in the struggles for independent living for people in the US and in Ireland. That day, he introduced me to Judy as a hard-working Trinity Graduate who was passionate about forwarding the Independent Living Movement. It was the highlight of my seven years’ service with Offaly CIL. Despite the fact Martin met so many people every day, he had still taken the time to get to know me as a person and believe in me as a person. I’m crying just remembering that moment!

And in spite of his many achievements, Martin always strove to achieve more. The Offaly Leader Forum (now the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum) organised a celebratory event in September 2015 to mark twenty years of Independent Living in Offaly. While other speakers were maudlin about the past, Martin focused instead on the future, warning us that must never become complacent in our pursuit of equality. Before his passing, he was actively campaigning for the introduction of Direct Payments, insisting that we must believe in our ability to take control of our lives and to achieve our potential in everything we do.

Nobody could accuse Martin of not achieving his potential. And now that he has passed from this world, we have to ensure that his legacy lives on, never for a moment doubting that we deserve anything less than to live with dignity, respect and choice in our own communities.

Codladh go sámh, a chara. You will be missed, but never forgotten. Thanks for everything xx

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