Over the last few years, there have been a number of bizarre occurrences in Ireland, a lot of which coincided with the recession of 2008. Suddenly, what was once one of the most prosperous countries in the world collapsed as housing prices plummeted, and unemployment and emigration soared. Headlines of doom and gloom swept the nation. And in the disability sector where I worked at the time, the most feared words were ‘cutbacks’.
The narrative at the time was that Ireland was on its knees, at the mercy of Europe. Everyone was expected to pay in some shape or form for ‘the good Celtic tiger days’ that the whole of Ireland enjoyed (read: the elite few). That period was almost identical to the dark world depicted in George Orwell’s 1984, where people believed everything that the media told them, where the written word controlled the psyche of a nation, keeping them in fear. None more so than people with disabilities.
It is estimated that disabled people in Ireland have lost 17% of total funding to vital services during recessionary times. The supplementary cost of medicines to medical card holders rose from fifty cent to two euro fifty overnight. The threat of cuts to Personal Assistant Services moulded us into a state of fear, undoing the good work of the activists who had fought tooth and nail almost instantly. It seems that the needs of disabled people are only important when there’s an overflow of money or a photo opportunity to be had by some politicians. (I hasten to add, not all politicians. Here in Tullamore our elected councillors are doing great work with us and bringing about real change).
Today, we live in a country where we don’t trust our elected leaders, where we have been screwed to the wall time and again. We look across the pond and condemn Trump’s behaviour, shocked when footage of him mocking a disabled reporter emerged during his election campaign. We despair at his behaviour and fear that he is creating irreparable divides between people.
But at least he’s open about his controversial policies. He’s not pretending to be a nice guy, conning people with his smarmy charm like Enda Kenny does. At a disability protest nearly a year and a half ago in September 2015, Enda went to ‘speak’ with the protestors and avail of some publicity. Offering Martin Naughton a cup of coffee when Martin was clearly unable to hold a cup independently was a clear illustration of how out of touch this government are with the realities of disability.
Having a disability these days is a little like living in a dystopian novel. We live in a world where we are expected to conform to the ‘norm’. Our voices are either taken away from us, or distorted to make us seem either piteous or courageous. What we are fighting for are equal rights. At the moment we are not equal because we are different; we are the problem. However, the United Nations Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities(the UNCRPD) recognises that our society has a duty to enable us to make a real contribution as equal citizens. Unfortunately, Ireland has not yet ratified this, even as a tokenistic gesture, and the uproar about this is real, but somewhat sporadic.
That’s why when I read this blog about the Women’s Rights Marches and the support it had from so many people that it saddens me that disabled people in Ireland have yet to do the same. Don’t get me wrong – there are so many activists out there who are genuinely trying to change things – but it seems to me that we are all a little fragmented right now. Part of this may be due to the fact that we face our own challenges every day, and sometimes these seem so insurmountable that we forget that others face the same challenges.
Only we have the power to change this depressing narrative. I’m sick of talking about it, and sick of living it.
Our lives matter. We matter. Achieving true equality in Ireland matters. As I wrote in an earlier blog, we have marriage equality, so equality for those with disabilities should follow.
And the time is now. No more excuses.
We matter, and deserve to have our voices heard.