On this sweltering hot Thursday afternoon, I am sitting in a first-floor apartment, overlooking the beautiful Lloyd town park below. This isn’t where I normally live; our house is undergoing some serious renovation work. Every night, I close my eyes and ask myself if I was actually mad to such extensive work to our charming little four bed which was, on the whole, perfectly fine, in the middle of a pandemic, no less (The answer is yes, by the way). Uprooting our child, surrendering our little baby (puppy) Troy into the hands of capable dog-sitters – God, I miss him so much! Was it worth it? I ask myself. Was it…necessary?
The answer to this is also yes.
I’ve written before briefly about the deterioration of my physical impairment. Since then, I’ve been to physiotherapy a couple of times, and it’s really helped with the pain in my right knee. I’ve also been exercising a little more. I’ve even started eating more healthily, cutting down (though not out – let’s not lose the run of ourselves here!) on sugar and chocolate – which have been staples of my diet for as long as I can remember. (I was a picky child, and my mother reasoned that eating something was better than not eating at all). All of these changes have helped. I feel a bit better, slightly more energetic and, despite the chaos that’s unfolding in my world – not to mention the world in general – I feel more grounded and able to cope with the stress of it all.
But here’s the upshot: no matter how healthy I eat, no matter how much physio I do, my wobbly body will always be unpredictable. Twenty years ago, I could have handled those concrete stairs in this apartment block more easily: okay, I might have still had to go up on my knees and down on my bum, but it certainly wasn’t the big palaver that I find it to be now. At the moment, I only leave the apartment when it is strictly necessary, or if I am going to be out for a couple of hours (though, admittedly, this is also COVID-related). Nothing is spontaneous at the moment; a simple trip to the shop is now a case of me psyching myself up to conquer my concrete nemesis yet again.
I shouldn’t moan, however. This is only temporary. Soon I shall be returning home – to my own home. A privilege that many people in this country – including many disabled people – can only dream of. When I was twenty-three, the recession of 2008 was still a year away, and I was living in a privately rented two-storey semi-d in Portlaoise. I was managing fine until one day, while carrying some laundry upstairs, I slipped and bounced down the stairs, landing awkwardly on the concrete below. As an expert in the art of falling, I had managed to preserve my head by tucking it into my chest as I landed. That was a wake-up call for me. I would not be able to adapt to my living arrangements indefinitely, not without making some serious changes.
It’s easy for me to understand why disabled people in their twenties, thirties and even beyond are still living in the family home. Firstly, accessibility is a major factor, not to mention a serious lack of rental properties at the moment. Then, if you are lucky enough to find somewhere semi-suitable, the cost of rent can reach over a thousand euro a month, and many landlords refuse to consider tenants on rent allowance or other benefits. Also, many landlords will not allow you to make necessary adaptations to their property, even simple ones such as installing grab rails in the shower. And sure, you can apply for a council house, but the process is a full-time job while you chase (often beg) your local councillors to advocate on your behalf.
So what? I hear you ask. You may point out that there are many non-disabled people, particularly in the 20-40 age group bracket, in the same position. People with good jobs and incomes, who just can’t seem to get on the property ladder, or to find rental accommodation.
For these younger disabled people, who still live at home but yearn to move out, there are even more complex issues coming down the line. Many disabled people are considered ineligible for Personal Assistance or Home Help services, either because they have a family member to care for them, or because said family member is claiming Carer’s Allowance for them. In some cases, family members find it difficult, for various reasons, to allow the disabled person to become independent. Often, not enough hours are offered to enable a disabled person to enjoy a decent quality of life, meaning that the person would not have adequate supports to live independently of their family (In 2017, a study revealed that almost half of disabled people who receive PA services are allocated the equivalent of forty-two minutes a day). Anecdotally, it is quite difficult for someone who is be considered “high dependency” to secure the level of assistance they need, especially at times that really suit them. Unless you have a telly in the bedroom, a good old-fashioned midnight Netflix binge is out of the question, and I have heard too many stories of people being put to bed at half eight at night.
The solution to enabling disabled people to live independently must be as multifaceted as the issue itself. Even if local councils provide more accessible housing, the only way disabled people are going to truly enjoy a rich and full life is if Ireland adopts a “rights-based” approach. This means having the opportunity to engage in meaningful and lucrative employment opportunities, for example – the pandemic has demonstrated that it’s possible for those employed in a wide variety of professions to work from home if necessary. It also means granting wider access to user-led services including Personal Assistance. This means having access to support how and whenever the disabled person chooses. However, until Personal Assistance is recognised as a right, true independent living remains a pipe dream.
As for me, I can’t wait to go back to my new, accessible home. I know that I am very lucky. But having a suitable roof over your head should not be a privilege. It must be recognised as a basic human right, for every one of us.