Power to change

If you are reading this on 8 February 2020, it’s election day! Even though the general election in Ireland was only officially called about a month ago, it feels as though the pre-election propaganda has been going on for months and I’m sure, just like me, you are all tired of it, dear reader. (And speaking of being tired of people droning on, many thanks to those of you who read the throwback blogs I’ve been sharing on social media every day since this election was announced. You are truly my stars).

Admittedly, although there have been a few leaders’ and political debates on the telebox over the last few weeks, I haven’t actually sat through a whole debate. However, I have seen and heard small glimpses of them and it was like watching toddlers fighting over who drew that lovely picture. My own daughter will be eight on Sunday and I consider her too old for “he said, she said” sort of nonsense. Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar have been particularly irritating. Neither of them have done the disability sector any favours over the years. The cutbacks began in Micheal’s time, and Leo has been the proud Leader of a party that once proposed the complete obliteration of the now precious Personal Assistant Service (which was proposed by James Reilly, then Minister for Health, in 2012).

People haven’t forgotten these things, it seems. Things in Ireland are on the cusp of change, with many once-sceptical people declaring their intention to vote for Sinn Féin. A decade of poverty, homelessness and unemployment have driven many people to the edge, with many of us still looking for signs of this economic upturn we’re supposedly in the midst of. I think it’s Orwellian of the government to assure us that things are improving when the cost of living is so high, when over ten thousand people (just three thousand people shy of the population of Tullamore, my home town) are homeless and those who emigrated during the lows of the recession saying that they couldn’t contemplate moving back in the near future to a country offering few prospects of career progression. As a struggling freelance writer, it’s easy for me to empathise with their point of view.

With the all-important vote here now, I’m still undecided who will be my number one. I know it’s so important to use my vote – not to would be a slap in the face to those brave and fearless suffragettes – but looking through history, I’m starting to wonder whether it’s really the way to make real change. Please don’t think that I’m trying to discourage people from using their vote – far from it! – but it was an Orwellian character, the everyman Winston in the dystopian novel 1984, who said –

“If there is hope, it lies in the proles.”

What I mean by this is that we need to be fearless and unflinching in our own convictions, and it is our responsibility to ensure that those who are elected into power follow the wishes of the people. That can only happen if we stand up and use our own voices with confidence and conviction. The people I admire in life are not politicians; they are ordinary people who were not afraid to make a stand. Rosa Parks, an ordinary woman, one day decided that she had had enough of being segregated because of the colour of her skin and initiated the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Subsequently, she became a symbol of resistance against racism in the USA, collaborating with Martin Luther King Jr in her pursuit of justice.

Seven years later, Ed Roberts, who had contracted polio as a teenager, fought to be accepted into the University of California, Berkeley. At interview stage, he was famously told “We’ve tried cripples before and it didn’t work.”  His subsequent acceptance into the University, along with some other severely impaired students, paved the way for future disabled students to gain entry. Roberts had a revolutionary idea that he was going to recruit and employ his own “attendant” as he wanted a life independent from his mother, Zona. He was going to “hire and fire” this attendant, and instruct them to carry out tasks as per his desires, not just based on what he was perceived to “need” by others. This left Zona free to pursue her own interests and subsequently Ed was not a burden on his mother. The establishment of the Center for Independent Living in 1972 heralded a monumental shift away from the misperception that disabled people could not make their own decisions or manage their own lives. Its establishment led to the philosophy of Independent Living spreading all over the world, even coming to Ireland.

The decision to bring independent living to Ireland did not come from government. No, it came directly from disabled activists themselves, including Martin Naughton, Michael McCabe and Donal Toolan. It was disabled people that took it upon themselves to revolutionise how services were being provided to disabled people at the time. This led to the founding of the first Irish Center for Independent Living in 1992. One of their first major projects, Operation Get Out, saw disabled people moving from unsuitable and outdated institutions into their own homes, where they could make both basic and life-changing decisions with the help of their Personal Assistants.

Over the years, disabled activists in Ireland have continued fighting and pushing for equality. Dermot Walsh is remembered for his work with Dublin Bus, and over the years, many disabled people have joined the campaign for accessible transport. In 2012, when the cutbacks to PA services were so cruelly threatened it was disabled people themselves, protesting for three days and nights outside the Dáil, who reversed that decision. Sadly, we have had no time to pat ourselves on the backs, because an activist’s work is never done. Many young disabled people remain trapped indefinitely in hospitals or unsuitable residential homes. According to research carried out by Independent Living Movement Ireland in 2017, 45% of those lucky 2,200 people in current receipt of PA services only have an average of forty-five minutes’ service a day, and people who have the highest personal care needs are being prioritised.

Can we really expect the government to bring about radical change? Or does the real answer lie closer to home? I have been reminded too often lately that life is short. How do we want to spend it? I understand that fighting and campaigning can be tiring, but believe me, complacency is a far more dangerous prospect.

I remember in 1997, when I was in sixth class in primary school, we had to write a composition about what we thought 2020 might look like. Some of it was bang-on, like having the ability to shop online and being able to pay for things by tapping your credit card. Of course, other suggestions were ludicrous, like having flying cars and being able to travel back and forth through time. But if you had told pre-pubescent me that in 2020, wheelchair users would still have to give notice to travel on public transport, that disabled people would still be trapped in unsuitable nursing homes and that we would not have access to the most basic services that enabled us to live independently, I don’t think I’d have believed it. Because it’s not only unbelievable – it’s scandalous.

The good news is that we can solve these things – us, the proles – by speaking out, saying no and rejecting the status quo.

Governments don’t always bring about the change we need. And they don’t want to reveal the dirty little secret: we, the ordinary people have that power. We’ve had that power all along, the freedom to use our own voices, to speak up on behalf of our peers, to say that the status quo just isn’t good enough any more.

Do you believe that one person can make a difference to the world?

And if so, why can’t that one person be you?

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