This week (12-18 June) marks National Carer’s Week, which is an initiative designed to give recognition to the estimated 180,000 unpaid carers across the country. These people are hailed – and rightly so – as heroic. Many carers have given up dreams of marriage, having a career, maybe juggling caring with raising a family. It’s noble and admirable, yet I find something deeply troubling about the narrative surrounding carers in Ireland.
I probably don’t have any right to be writing this blog. I’m lucky insofar as my care plan doesn’t currently involve intimate personal care, just help with things like tying up hair, doing buttons etc. I mentioned before that one of the things I value most is my independence. That, and not being labelled a burden.
As a mother of one little girl, I’m ready to plop myself on the couch by eight o’clock in the evening. I love being a mother more than I ever thought I could, but sometimes it can be exhausting – answering incessant questions, doing role plays, going to the park. And this is without having to take care of toileting needs, inserting feeding tubes or anything like that. BUT I would hate to be in that dangerous position where I would view my own daughter more as an object of care than her own little person.
Traditionally, when a disabled person has a child, it is often assumed that the child will take on the role of a carer. Well, let me tell you – Alison has her little chores for which she gets rewarded, but she is not a carer. I have an excellent personal assistant service (not carers) that enables me to be the best mother I can be. I myself direct the Personal Assistant in what I need, and doing so allows me the energy during the day to write pointless blogs like these and spend some quality time with my daughter in the evening. And it allows my husband to enjoy an existence separate from me. I don’t have to worry about him harbouring resentment for me, because I’m not completely dependent on him. We are very much an average husband and wife.
It is harmful to reduce the identity of a person who has ‘high-dependency needs’ to an object of care. Everyone has the right to personal autonomy, to choose how and where they spend their day and with who. I know if I had ‘high dependency needs’ I wouldn’t want my parents, my husband or my child caring for me. I’d want someone fresh, not so emotionally involved, someone who could appreciate my individuality as well as know how to meet my needs. These sort of people are hard to come by. A FETAC Level 5 in Healthcare Support is useful from a practical point of view, but there is a danger that service provision is becoming overmedicalised, with less emphasis on finding out what the person actually wants and more about ticking boxes and providing a basic care plan and often wholly inadequate service.
If this government really cared about the needs of disabled people and their carers, then they wouldn’t dare contemplate cutting the Personal Assistant Hours or the hard-to-come-by Respite Grant. Instead of having a tokenistic approach to unpaid carers by dedicating a measly week to them, the government could alleviate the workload of carers by looking after the needs of the disabled person themselves and, as the late Martin Naughton suggested, allocating them funds so that they (and their families if appropriate) can choose the services they need. Martin called this putting disabled people ‘in the driving seat of their own lives’.
I’ve spoken to people over the last number of years who regard the possibility of acquiring a disability or impairment as ‘a fate worse than death’ and who, like me, would hate to become a burden on their families. But this attitude is a dangerous one. Centuries of conditioning has led us to believe that it’s our impairment that is the problem, and it’s not. It’s the manner in which Irish society and our healthcare system are constructed to make disabled people feel like they’re somehow ‘wrong’, problematic, inconvenient. We are now the only EU member state that hasn’t ratified the UNCRPD. In the UK, disabled people who cannot work are labelled ‘scroungers’ and I can see that attitude creeping in here now. I now believe that positive change is not progressive, and can be undone more quickly than it happened in the first place.
To all of you unpaid carers across the country: I salute you, and keep up the good work. You deserve recognition, not only this week, but every single day. But can I ask a favour? Please join us in challenging the system. Please don’t resent your loved ones for the care they need. They are not at fault. All of our lives would be so much easier if the dignity of disabled people and their carers were upheld through the provision of basic human rights.