Round my Hometown

I was born and reared in the Midlands town of Tullamore for nineteen years.

Between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five, I decided to spread my wings and I moved to Dublin while studying in Trinity. I loved Dublin and living independently, and I think my favourite part was being able to get around so easily, whether it was in my electric wheelchair or using public transport (buses and Luases, I mean. The DART is notoriously dangerous and unreliable for people who use wheelchairs or have mobility difficulties). The Luas in particular became my lifeline when I was living out in Rathmines, and I used to use it coming into work in Trinity during the summer. When somewhere is easy to access and get around, it really adds to your quality of life. At one point, I was both working and studying. It was great.

Although I loved Dublin, I knew that I couldn’t afford to stay there after I graduated. So I moved to Mullingar, then Portlaoise before finally choosing to stay in Tullamore. It was great to be in a place that I felt I belonged in and that I thought I could get around easily and independently. And to be fair, I could – until I started using a wheelchair. Suddenly, certain areas of Tullamore didn’t seem so welcoming to me any more.

I’ve always believed that disability is defined by the obstacles that are created by society rather than one’s individual impairment, and I believe that reasonable accommodations such as ramps, clear signage, wide step-free doors and loud signals at pedestrian crossings can go a long way in ensuring our town is accessible to all who use it. In 2014, the Offaly Leader Forum (now the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum), which is a group of people with varied disabilities – physical and sensory – organised and conducted a full-scale accessibility review of Tullamore, the first of its kind in ten years. As people with disabilities, we were the experts in identifying barriers to access in town. The group took the undertaking seriously, taking photographs and compiling reports, and subsequently these reports were compiled into a hundred-and-one paged document, an impressive achievement by any standards. We then presented it to town councillors in Tullamore Town Library (which is accessible, according to our audit) and urged them to see Tullamore through our eyes.

Since making our presentation, the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum has established good working relationships with our town councillors, who we have met with several times to voice our concerns. Through doing this, we are now working together, and we have urged the council to consult us whenever they make changes in the town. And recently we discovered that our annoying persistence is starting to pay off.

Little changes and repairs are taking place all over town, but for me the most significant of these is  the ramps that have now been installed on the top of Main Street and at the Srah Roundabout. I live in Glendaniel, which is ten minutes’ walk from the Town Park, Lidl and Alison’s primary school, Scoil Mhuire, and the installation of these ramps means that I no longer have to proceed beside the footpath on the road onto traffic coming off the roundabout. It’s safer for me, my child and for the poor drivers who I’m sure don’t want to dent their cars on my wheelchair…! And the best part of the repairs is the knowledge that as a group, the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum, were taken seriously and listened to. But then again, we were dealing with people we knew for years, and people who have always supported the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum, for example Eddie Fitzpatrick and Declan Harvey (among many others, of course). Isn’t that the most important thing: being able to truly be an equal part of your community?

Now, more than ever, I’m looking forward to raising our child in a town that means so much to me. The town where I went to school, and developed a passion for writing. The town where I got my first summer job in the Tullamore Tribune, as well as my first ‘real job’ in the Offaly Centre for Independent Living Ltd. The town where my neighbour, who used to live eight doors down us, remains my best friend.

I have to admit, Tullamore always was a pretty great place to live, but with these little changes to our town, it can become a great place for everybody to live independently.

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The Trump Card

Like all of us, I woke up this morning to the horrible news that Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. (Slow clap for those who elected him). Everybody I’ve spoken to so far is absolutely terrified of the wider-reaching implications this will have. Acclaimed author and recently turned television presenter Louise O’Neill wrote a long status on Facebook this morning expressing her fear for all people, including women, children and people with disabilities.

Once I saw the words ‘people with disabilities,’ I knew I had to write something in response.

Being an average Josephine on the other side of the pond, I can’t see what (some of) the people of America would see in Trump. He’s rude, obnoxious, racist, sexist, and every other ‘ist’ you can think of. He’s a modern day Hitler, with a warped vision and he doesn’t care who he has to hurt, sideline or destroy in order to reach this vision. But I have to admit, I wasn’t that surprised he was elected. The vast majority of people want change, but many are afraid of what would happen if it actually came about.

Just look at our own situation in Ireland for a second. We had a general election back in February, and everyone I spoke to about it was adamant that Enda Kenny would not get in again. His government made one of the biggest threats to Personal Assistant Services in the history of the State. Cuts made to welfare allowances, the creation of the giant money pit known as Irish Water… I could go on incessantly. And yet, our only alternative was to vote Independent (which I did) or to vote for Fianna Fail, who led the country into recession in the first place. (Whoever voted for Gerry Adams needs their heads examined).

So here we are again, and what are we going to do about it? Have a good old moan. Rant about it on Facebook. Write a blog.

After all, we can’t change the world, can we? We’re only small, insignificant people. So why bother, right?

This is exactly how I felt in work a year and a half ago. Working in the area of Independent Living for seven years and hearing about how hard people had to work to reach their goals. How many obstacles stand in their way: negative attitudes, inaccessible environments, fear of losing their benefits and their medical cards. I started to wonder how we could change all this, and my head hurt. And the more research I did into the discrimination against people with disabilities, the more disheartened I became.

Whether we are interested in history or not, our personal history, and our wider social history, are the cornerstones of who we are. And for me, as a disabled person (a person disabled by society) it was only when I became aware of this history that I developed a clearer understanding of what I was up against. Hitler’s T4 Projekt, which involved the ‘mercy killing’ of an estimated 700,000 people with disabilities, was a horrific act, but yet people with disabilities continue to fight for their basic rights, to live in their own homes, to do whatever they want whenever they want, to be recognised as equal. Elsewhere across the world, disabled women across the world continue to be forced into sterilisation, for fear that they will inflict more disabled children upon society. This is perceived to be a bad thing, because society dictates that it’s a bad thing.

Now that I know about all of this stuff, I can’t unlearn it. Born during the wrong era, in the wrong country, this could’ve been my fate. Who knows – the way the world is going it still could be.

As many of you know, I’ve been trying to  write a novel for over a year now, and the theme of the novel is exactly what I discussed above. It’s about a woman with Cerebral Palsy who’s been moulded by society’s low expectations of her, about her struggle to express her individuality in a world that wants to define her, and how, like all of us, the past has left a permanent impression on how she sees the world and her thought processes. Can a person ever be separated from their past?

Can our society?

The majority of us want a fair and equal society, but unfortunately this may have to happen in spite of, not because of, those in power. From the moment we are born, we are part of a machine. Some of us are seen as the core components, others merely the decorative extras. Some still are perceived to be the silicone packets that come in handbags – no-one seems to know what they’re for. We still live in a world where physical ability is prized over everything else, where impairment is seen as a weakness, where medical advances and robotic legs seem to be favoured over inclusiveness and equality for people with disabilities.

So Donald Trump is now the president of the US, and I think that instead of tearing our hair out we need to remain strong and calm, be we people of colour, women, men, children, people with disabilities. We need to look to the future and strive to achieve the world we want to leave to our children. We need to stand together, exercise love and understanding, and never settle for anything less than acceptance and equality. Change will only happen when we instigate it

After all, history should be used as a lesson. And if we don’t learn from it, then we shouldn’t be surprised when it repeats itself.