An Open Letter to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

From the desk of Sarah Fitzgerald (the views are my own and do not represent the views of any other disabled person or organisation).

An open letter to An Taoiseach, Mr Leo Varadkar,

Dear Mr Varadkar,

I hope this letter finds you well, or at least as well as you can be, given the current state of affairs. You don’t know me, and it’s unlikely you’ve heard of me: I’m just another BIFFO from the bog, like your predecessor, Mr Cowen. We’ll probably never meet face to face, and it’s a safe bet to say that it’s unlikely you’ll read this letter either. But it would somehow make me feel better to explain to you how I feel about today’s budget.

Firstly, it would be amiss of me to overlook the remarkable progress that has been made in Ireland over the last year for people with disabilities. After an eleven year wait, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities was finally ratified. It was a wonderful, surreal moment, and your Minister with Responsibility for Disability, Mr Finian McGrath, should be very proud. But I’m a bit of a sceptic, and ratifying this precious document should only be the first step of a radical shift in attitude towards people with disabilities in this country.

Taoiseach, I have lived as a disabled person all my life. I am deeply aware of the horrific history of disability throughout the last century, not just in Ireland but worldwide: involuntary sterilisations, mass murders during the Second World War, people growing old in the back rooms of their parents’ houses, their very existence a taboo secret. In some ways, times have changed: we can live out in the community now (if we can access it), we can be educated in mainstream settings and not just in sheltered workshops, we can even get married and have children provided we are hardened against being told that we will always pose a risk to the little people we love most. This has been my narrative for as long as I can remember.

In the last ten years, another narrative has come into play, one that can be summarised as ‘budget cuts.’ You don’t need to be ‘au fait’ with the UNCRPD to agree that the recession had reversed the progress of the Irish Disability Movement to the extent where it has left us visibly shaken as a community. In 2005, I learned about the ‘philosophy of Independent Living’ and was surprised to learn that the expert on living with disability was… me! I learned how to trust myself, how to allow myself to make good and bad choices- something I’m still learning, truth be known. And it’s only now, ten years later, that I can see disabled people starting to trust in themselves and have the confidence to use our own voices.

As part of a collective of over six hundred thousand people in Ireland, I would respectfully ask you and your government to start seeing spending in the disability sector as an investment in our future and the future of this country. We are willing and ready to contribute, yet only thirty percent of us are in employment. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is down to a lack of investment in Personal Assistant Services. Now, when I talk about Personal Assistant service, I mean a service where we, the disabled people, are regarded as the ‘boss’ or managers of this service, a service where we get to pick what needs to be done, when and by whom. Cutbacks over the last ten years has led service provision to be based on a ‘medical model’ which focuses on the level of impairment rather than the level of ability of the individual. Priority in service provision is currently given to physio and personal care. So at the moment, a number of disabled individuals in Ireland are literally being helped out of bed in the morning, only to sit around in their wheelchairs all day, seeing nobody else until somebody comes back in the evening, often at half seven/eight o’clock (my daughter, who is six, goes to bed at half eight) to put them back to bed. The terms ‘carer’ and ‘Personal Assistant’ are used interchangeably by our government and the HSE.

Of course, people aren’t just trapped in their own homes. They may be considered by some of the three thousand people living in nursing homes and long-term stay wards in hospitals to be the lucky ones. Unfortunately, because of a lack of accessible housing and Personal Assistants, many people, including a thousand young people, are living in these settings, which is in direct violation of Article 19 of the UNCRPD. A significant investment in Personal Assistants and housing is badly needed. Life is too short to be incarcerated for a crime you didn’t commit.

I am a thirty-four year old wife and mother, a freelance writer and a die-hard believer in the Independent Living philosophy. I don’t want to be taken care of, or (controversially) to be overly safeguarded. I want to make mistakes, to embrace life, to live up to my potential. I shouldn’t have to downplay my abilities din order to get the support I need to make a real contribution to our society. I shouldn’t have to choose between conserving my energy for writing or having energy to parent when, with the right support, I can do both really well.

I shouldn’t have to ring my local train station twenty-four hours in advance of train journeys, and still cross my fingers in the hope that I’ll have assistance on both sides of my journey. You know the feeling of relief when the plane you’re flying on touches down at your destination? That’s how I feel when I arrive at the train station to find a ramp waiting for me.

And Mr. Varadkar, I am sick and tired of living this way. Being an activist is tiring. People are getting annoyed with me saying the same things over and over again. I get asked all the time: wouldn’t I rather write about puppies, or chocolate, or gardening? The answer is yes, of course I would. Sometimes I wish I didn’t give a shit, that my blood wouldn’t boil as I read about yet another young person trapped in a hospital, or my peers choosing between heat and food because their Disability Allowance only covers the basics of living. And yes, I’m angry – if this was your reality, you’d be angry too.

Today, I urge you to invest in us, to help us change the narrative of oppression, to enable us to contribute to Irish society in a meaningful and tangible way.

Finally, to paraphrase my good friend Shelly Gaynor, we’re not looking for anything special, just an opportunity to have the same quality of life as everyone else.

You owe it to us, our families and our children, to enable us to live the best lives possible.

Yours, etc.

Sarah Fitzgerald

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Something Deep Inside

Three years later, I still can’t make up my mind what I want. I really thought that what I wanted was to be a full-time freelance writer, with nothing else to bother me during working hours – just me and my desk. I tell people I am writing a novel, or at least, trying to. So why have I just committed to spending the rest of this year, and some of next year doing Disability Studies in Maynooth? Don’t get me wrong – I have no regrets. It looks like an interesting course and it’ll be handy to have if I ever do decide to go back into employment in the disability sector.

I’ve had a really productive summer (evidently not blogging-wise but you can’t have it all). In February I was co-opted onto the Board of the National CIL which was a huge honour, and I’ve been involved in some interesting and thought-provoking projects. Most recently I attended an Independent Living workshop in Offaly which was facilitated by a fellow activist. The aim of the workshop was to get back to the roots of Independent Living and to reinforce the idea that as disabled people, we are the experts in our own needs. It was a great session.

One of the questions the facilitator asked us was ‘What are the barriers to Independent Living?’ Loads of great answers were given: lack of Personal Assistance, lack of accessible housing and transport. But I, ever awkward and different, gave the answer of ‘internalised oppression’, you know, just for the craic. The facilitator smiled.

‘Big words,’ she said. ‘Would you like to explain what that means?’

‘Sure.’ My hands were sticky with sweat. ‘Internalised oppression is when you come to believe all the negative labels given to you from outside sources.  It’s when you have been told and reminded of your limitations so much that you begin to believe them. As time goes on, you start to place limitations on yourself to the  extent where you hold yourself back from achieving what you are truly capable of.’

I have been involved one way or another in disability activism for the last fourteen years. I have seen people fighting for housing and personal assistance and accessible transport. Any progress in disability rights that was made prior to the recession has essentially been wiped out. (You are free to argue this point; I love nothing more than a good old-fashioned debate). Look, it took Ireland twelve years to ratify the United Nations Conventions for the Rights of People of Disabilities. Yet there is a long way to go before access to Personal Assistance or accessible housing will be recognised as basic rights. We are in the throes of the worst housing crisis this country has ever seen. Many families are living in abject poverty; it was just reported this week that current childcare costs can average twenty percent of household income. As always, the supports needed by disabled people to live independently are considered a luxury.

Is it selfish, given the current economic climate, for disabled people (aka people disabled by our society) to be demanding more? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. In fact, I think disabled  people have been very accommodating over the last few years. There was barely a whimper when the charges for medical card prescriptions were introduced. The Mobility Allowance disappeared almost without warning, with nothing to replace it. in fact the only time disabled people caused a fuss in Ireland was when James Reilly callously threatened to retract a massive amount of funding from the Personal Assistant Service in 2012. Activists slept outside the Dail in the freezing cold for two nights in protest, and subsequently the cuts were reversed, a momentous occasion in Ireland’s disability history.

And as I watched the entire rotten saga unfold from the comfort of my armchair at home, I felt inspired. Not in a sort of ‘aren’t these cripples so brave’ kind of way, but it was the first time I realised that I had been so blind. It was 2012 and my little girl wasn’t even a year old yet. I had spent the whole year fighting my own battle, trying to prove to so-called health professionals that I was not a danger to my own baby. A year where I demonstrated with grit that I was more than physically capable of raising a child to the many onlookers around me, but then spent my nights lying awake, wrestling with fear and self-doubt, allowing my own tears to sting my face. Would I be physically able to raise a toddler? Would some well-meaning person report me for being a bad parent if I made a mistake? If I was struggling and had to ask for help for whatever reason (not necessarily disability related), would my child be removed from me? And yet, there was hope. People out there were protesting, demanding to be seen as equal. Demanding respect, demanding their rights.

And it was then that I realised that I was my own worst enemy. I was succumbing to fear rather than standing up and questioning the way I was treated and perceived. It took a long time for me to believe that I was a ‘proper’  and capable mother because parenthood isn’t perceived to be the norm for disabled people in Ireland. There’s horror stories and rumours everywhere. Most damaging in my case was that little internalised voice that led me to believe I was incapable.

My friends, I would put it to you that this little voice is the single biggest obstacle to true equality in Ireland. This is the voice that tells us that we are less than, the voice that  advises us not to voice how we feel ‘because no-one likes an angry crip,’ the voice that tells us that if we try harder to conform that one day we might be accepted as equals.

And this is the obstacle to true equality that I predict will be the hardest to remove. Why? Because whether your impairment is congenital or acquired, social conditioning dictates that *you* are different, that *you* must do your best to fit in.

I don’t know for sure at the time of writing this blog whether I want to work in writing or disability, or if (ideally) I get to do both.

What I do know is: Internalised oppression, I see you. I am naming you. And until my dying breath, I will strive (hopefully with others) to always challenge you.

The Repression of Rachel

It was a miserable September afternoon, the 19th if I’m not mistaken, and I was sitting in the Hilton Hotel in Kilmainham with a man I’d only met once before, having coffee in the middle of the day. Sounds sordid, but I assure you it wasn’t. It was purely business. You see, I’d written a monologue and I was due to perform it in the Mansion House at a massive disability event on 23rd September, but something about the piece felt hollow, and so Peter was trying to encourage me to inject a bit of personality into it.

‘Who is this character?’ he demanded as we reread the script, me eyeing him warily. Surely he wasn’t suggesting that my perfectly written script required an overhaul, four days before the bloody event?

‘What do you mean? It’s an everyman-type character.’

‘Well, where’s she from at least?’

I knew the answer to this. ‘She’s from Kinvara. My aunt lives just outside it, in the Burren. What I’ve always found interesting about Kinvara is that it’s in County Galway, kind of on the Clare border. I thought that it’d be a good metaphor for this character, who’s stuck between having a disability and needing services to live independently, and being capable in so many ways too. She’s confused and angry about how society defines her.’

‘And if she were an animal, what would she be?’ he asked. He’s lost it, I thought. Finally I answered:

‘A caged tiger.’

‘And what is it that fuels her anger?’

I composed a perfectly generic answer: ‘The way in with society treats her like an ‘other’ and as I said before, confusion about her place in society.’

Peter wasn’t happy with my answer. ‘Be more specific. What fuels your anger?’ A lump formed in my throat.

‘The way I was treated after my daughter was born.’ As I told Peter the story, my heart broke in the same places it did nearly six years ago when I found myself trying to convince medical ‘experts’ – as well as myself – that I was a capable mother. After I finished, Peter grinned.

‘Now that’s a story worthy of drama.’ I went cold. Was he seriously suggesting I get emotionally naked in front of two hundred people?

He certainly was.

And so, on the 23rd September, I performed a monologue that I had co-written (I don’t normally write in collaboration, but it’s time to open up my mind to new experiences) in front of two hundred people.  And since 3 December marks International Day of People with Disabilities, I thought it would be appropriate to share it with you today.

 

Rachel from Kinvara, by Peter Kearns and Sarah Fitzgerald

(Rachel is sitting in a chair and a woman dressed in a white coat is sticking labels on her – scrounger, handicap, vulnerable, waste-of-space etc)

Go away. I said – go away.

Just five minutes. five minutes – that’s all I ask.

And don’t worry, I won’t forget I’m not ‘normal’

I can’t forget – I’m not allowed to forget – we are never allowed to forget!

Well I wish I could forget you… this horrible pain you’ve inflicted upon me…

But you don’t understand. I tried – I did my best…

Yes – yes I did…

people never get to hear my voice…

You say it’s because ‘they’ – those ‘mainstreamers’ – won’t understand me.

Instead you encourage them to pity me, to try and ‘cure’ me….

I am broken because you have broken me.

You told me that the only way that my life could be better

was if improved, if I made the effort…

You promised me if my impairment were cured, that I could have everything…

I did the exercises  – stretched on the hard, sticky medicine ball and I endured your prodding and poking, cutting me open  and sewing me back together and – Look at me!

What do you see when you look at me?!

I don’t know how you look people in the eye…

Convince them that you know what’s best for me…

Convince me -and them – I know nothing about running my own life…

Will you be the one to bend down and kiss me on the cheek

And stick me into a Galway or Clare nursing home

Take me out to your AGM – that once a year ‘thing’ that makes you feel good

And then store me away like normies store their Christmas decorations in the attic –

Never to be seen from one end of the year to the next?

Am I starting to sound like a broken record?

Normies think that it’s okay that I have to give twenty four hours’ notice before using public transport?

That I would rather laze around on benefits than contribute to society?

Loads – I’ve shitloads – Loads to say… but hey…

It’s easier to believe I’m a freeloading scrounger rather than someone, who could be… someone….

Actually I am someone. Seven years ago I became a wife and two years later I became a mother. But you couldn’t let me have that, could you?

Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

You told me that I would be a danger to my own baby.

And… even after doing all the ‘normal’ things – the Leaving Cert – battling access in an inaccessible college – being a wobbly yummy mummy was taking that mainstreaming that little bit too far.

I caught you spying on me while I struggled in the playground with those shitty nappies, staring while I tried to breastfeed – your stares dried up my milk, your judgement lessened my embraces.

I felt worthless, damaged. For a long time you led me to  believe I was not a proper  mother.

Do you know how good it feels to have proven you wrong?

And how degrading it was to have to do it in the first place?

I have a daughter, she calls me mummy

I care for her, not the other way round. Of all the labels you’ve placed on me, it’s my label – my favourite.

She is my proudest achievement – my legacy.

And you won’t ever be able to take that from me – would you – could you?

So here I am… in Kinvara… neither Galway nor Clare… neither specialised nor mainstreamed – literally ‘idir eatha’ as the mystics would say, ‘between worlds’ – the hard world of your anxious clinical society and a place I know in myself, in the unfolding mystery of my daughter…

… and her name is… (lights down)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fight, Fight, Fight

Before they cut the cord,
They shake their heads and say
That having a ‘child like that’ won’t be easy
And probably won’t live very long anyway
(Well one must hope).
Because, heaven forbid
This child is a drain on our resources,
A
nd if it survives it faces a lifetime of pain
And completing meaningless little courses,
The kind that would never get you a job
Beyond stacking shelves in Aldi,
He may never talk and never walk
Or go to school, or get married.
But those little voice inside your parents shouts with all their might,
‘You don’t know what you’re on about. We will fight, fight, fight.’

*

You dodge the bullet of special education
Thanks to your parents’ begging and tears,
You work and work to prove yourself –
Much harder than your peers.

You’re told to ignore the insults:
Spastic, rehab, handicap,
They don’t know what they’re saying
And it would be rude to fight back.
‘Oh aren’t you an inspiration?’
They say when you achieve
Enough points in your Leaving Cert
To grant you the reprieve
From languishing in a day care centre
And instead you are lucky enough
To study in University just like you always dreamed.

Suddenly you’re equal. It’s too good to be true
And people are sitting up and listening to you.
After all these years they realise
You have something of worth to say,
You’re finally taken seriously!
Nothing can get in your way!
Then BAM! You are spat back out
And put back in your place
When you leave third level education
And fall right on your face.
What makes you feel so special
And worthy of a job
When you walk like an old drunk
And dribble like a slob?
College has given you notions
That simply will not do!
But don’t worry – there’s lots of Jobbridge courses
For people just like you.
But the niggling voice inside is saying ‘This simply isn’t right.
I want so much better. I will fight, fight, fight.’

****

And so I don the armour
And pick up the heavy sword
To follow in the footsteps
Of activists gone before.

Ignoring the voices of normies
Telling me that I’m an ingrate
Don’t I know I would be dead but
For the mercy of this state?
But I don’t feel their compassion,
Just a weight upon my heart –
I just want to fix the world
But I don’t know where to start.
A world where I need not give notice
To travel on a train
A world where I don’t have to beg for my rights
Time and time again.
And those who once paved the way for us
Are dying, one by one –
Dying fighting a battle
That they have never won.
The workload is increasing
And people start to look to me
For little nuggets of wisdom.
‘What shall we do? Will we ever see
This so-called progress that’s meant to be
Happening in Ireland right now?’
I can’t answer, I don’t know how.

And I plaster on a smile
And blog about something deep,
Knowing that they don’t know
I sometimes cry before I sleep.
You can’t show ‘them’ your weakness –
They’ll feast on that like cake –
So you simply be persistent until you
Wonder how much more you can take.

You hope your messages are seeping through,
Although you never are quite sure,
When people say they understand,
Then refuse to ramp a door.
You start to become repetitive,
Repeat, repeat, repeat.
And suddenly you’re that annoying crip
That people cross the street
To avoid.

And you smile inside
Because in your heart you hope
That it’s getting harder to hide
From the grim reality facing people in Ireland today.

*

Sometimes it feels that we’re getting nowhere
And no-one hears our plight,
But we owe it to our children
To stick up for what is right.
And they might have to do the same
Which should be to this country’s shame,
But in every single disabled person’s name
We have no choice
But to suck it up
(because Ireland’s fucked it up)
And continue
To fight, fight, fight.

Unsocial Media?

I’m in writing mode now. But ten minutes ago I was flitting mindlessly around Twitter and Facebook, seeing what was happening in the world. You don’t need to tell me this is a waste of my time, of course I know that. By ‘waste of my time’ I naturally mean ‘waste of my writing time.’

A few months ago, I felt so guilty about the length of time I was spending on social media that I deleted both my Twitter and Facebook accounts. I think this lasted all of one day before I panicked and reinstated them. It’s sort of disturbing to know that ‘do you want to permanently delete your account?’ doesn’t actually mean what you’d think it would, as even after choosing this option your account can be restored.

It’s depressing how social media owns us. We all know how sharing pictures of our kids and our houses and our beautiful pets can make us look needy, narcissistic and fake. Who hasn’t been scrolling through their Facebook or Twitter feed at one stage or another and thought, ‘oh my God, this is a pile of rubbish, why am I still on social media?’

We’re told that social media is ruining the ability of people to make real-life friendships and conversations. Well, I’m sorry, but social media is not the sole scapegoat for people being lonely. I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t live in the same town as any of my family members. For many of us, it’s not a case of going up the road for a quiet natter with family or friends (I have one close friend living in town at the moment). People are out living their own lives in every corner of the world, and it’s social media that is keeping them all connected.

Social media has helped me in three areas of my life: as a mother, a writer and a person with a disability. When Ali was born, my friend added me to some wonderful parenting groups where clueless first time parents like me were asking questions about parenthood. Often I don’t comment: instead I ‘lurk’, nodding silently in agreement with other mums. In fact it was another mother’s open admission on Facebook that she was struggling with PND that ultimately motivated me to get the help I needed, take care of myself and write a blog about it. Knowing that I was not alone really helped. I also joined a reflux survivors’ page when Ali had reflux and seeing other parents come out the other side really gave me hope during this difficult time.

As a writer, being present on social media can be both rewarding and tiring. I’m still trying to find the balance between suave self-promotion and being interesting without just being plain annoying. In terms of rounding up an audience for my blog, I’ve found Twitter to be especially useful. Like most Twitter users, I haven’t a  clue who half of my followers are, but some have proven to be really useful contacts. For example I met a lady on Twitter who helped me find some secondary reading for writing my novel. I met another lady who’s teaching me about chocolate and making material accessible for the visually impaired.

Finally, social media is opening up the world for so many people with disabilities right now. Whereas before peer support mainly involved occasional meetings or coffee mornings, people with disabilities can now communicate with each other on a daily basis. This is so important given that there are nearly three thousand people with disabilities living in inappropriate nursing homes or hospitals and thousands more, be it through lack of transport or Personal Assistance, trapped in their own homes. Social media is becoming an increasingly popular tool for PWD challenging injustice in their everyday lives, and as a result, our stories are being highlighted by mainstream sources including local and national newspapers. People who were once voiceless are now becoming very vocal, all from the comfort of their own homes. The inability to get out does not necessarily mean the inability to participate, to count, and to matter.

So although I should probably curtail my time skulking around on Facebook and Twitter, I’m not ashamed to acknowledge that social media has helped me become a better mother, a more conscientious writer and a fiercer activist. I’m so grateful to be part of a virtual community that accepts and helps me. It certainly doesn’t beat face-to-face contact but it does make the world that little bit more accessible. Not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone.

 

Ps. If you enjoyed this blog, ‘like’ and ‘share’. Joking!

Pps. Well, half-joking anyway

A Future Within Us

I lay on the hard, unmade bed that I hadn’t really been able to sleep in the night before, and closed my eyes, trying to drown out the medley of Dublin city traffic below me: the deep hum of the Dublin buses, the screeching of random sirens, the faint echo of heavy footfall. Noises that were once so familiar to me ten years ago, as I lay on my overly-narrow single bed in Botany Bay in Trinity College. It should’ve felt like home, and yet, never have I felt so out of place.

I shouldn’t have been lying in bed at half three in the afternoon on such a momentous day as the 23rd September, 2017, a day that I worked so hard towards for the guts of a year. I had left my colleagues behind in the  Mansion House to celebrate the lives of those who had established the Independent Living Movement. An event that I had put everything I had into, turning down paying jobs and little tidbits of work during the summer in the process. I wanted to give all my energy to this event.

Two hours beforehand, I’d tackled one of the things on my bucket list: I performed a piece of drama that I’d co-written in front of two hundred people. As I climbed the stage, I thought I could feel a brick beneath my posterior, I was so nervous. I felt overwhelmed with emotion as I played ‘Rachel’ out on stage, a disabled mother struggling to escape the negative labels placed upon her by an indifferent society. The only way I can describe the experience is ’emotional nakedness’. The tears – and the anger – were evidently mine, not Rachel’s. I couldn’t have dreamed of the positive feedback, and yet afterwards, I wasn’t elated – I was physically sick.

Afterwards, I told myself that it was stress. I panicked because I was filled with fear that I’d pushed it a little too far this time, that once again I had seriously overestimated my physical stamina and taken on too much. But it wasn’t that at all. And it’s only this morning when I feel semi-normal again that I realise when I’ve felt that particular sensation before – the feeling of darkness, heaviness in the pit of my stomach – and it was when my mother died.

Or more specifically, the moment of realisation that she wouldn’t be around for me any more and, as a fully-fledged adult (I was twenty-five when she died) I would now have to shoulder a lot more responsibility for my own life.

It’s easier to be a sheep than a shepherd, easier to follow than to lead. Many of us have followed for years. When Martin Naughton died last year, it felt like the bedrock of the disability activism world was slowly starting to wear away. You could always count on the seven activists that ‘By Us With Us’ honoured on Saturday to lead the way. to spearhead the protests, the fight. Who can we look up to now?

And then it occurred to me that although an intimate knowledge of past successes in disability activism are crucial, we need to trust ourselves and have real belief in our own ability to pave the way to the future. By the way, this nugget of wisdom is coming from someone who has absolutely zero self-confidence and who is still learning to assert her right to use her own voice, the result of years of internalised oppression and being underestimated by those around her.

It’s taken me three days to recover from the emotional rollercoaster that was Saturday (even though I missed most of it) and to get my head around the fact that although the pressure is off in many ways, there is still lots of work waiting in the future. And we – not anyone else – will have to be the ones to put ourselves forward. One of the things that I did manage to gather on Saturday is that there is a general consensus that society is now going backwards, and that the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities will not guarantee us our liberties.

That  will depend on us. On every single one of us.

Take Care of Yourself

It’s something that we all say to each other, almost like a cliché, at the end of phone calls or when bidding each other adieu when meeting face-to-face: ‘Take care of yourself’. We say it because we care about the other person, and yet we don’t always follow our own advice.

Correction: that should read, I don’t follow my own advice.

As long as I can remember, I’ve always been crap at looking after myself. And before you go off ringing social services, this never has impacted on my ability to look after my daughter; she’s never gone without. But somewhere along the way I seem to acquired the message that my needs aren’t as important as the needs of others. Perhaps it’s a result of internalised oppression (something I’ve been researching lately for the novel I’m writing), the result of growing up in a world where disability is some sort of ‘other’, a deviation from the norm.

Perhaps I need to re-evaluate what I can realistically achieve. I say that I’m writing a novel, but in truth, I don’t know if I’ll ever get it finished. A friend read what I’ve done so far and gave some great constructive feedback, but warned me what I already knew: that it may be difficult to publish and even more difficult to sell. I’m starting to wonder whether I should’ve stuck to short stories, started small. I’m trying to decide whether I’m in over my head. (He didn’t criticise the story though, which gives me hope).

This feeling of tiredness coincides with the fact that I’m waiting for four new (solid this time) tyres for my wheelchair, as one is quite badly flat. And to be honest, reader, I feel very hard done by this. I like being able to whizz around town from this shop to that, and still have the energy to write rubbish blogs and do other work, and being housebound does not become me. As I said in an earlier blog, the wheelchair has been an invaluable addition to my life. It offers me independence with my daughter and enables me to be both a mother and a writer.

I’m writing this  blog to inform my loyal followers that I probably won’t be around for a few weeks as I’m off, with the help of some great friends, to try and reactivate the entire Independent Living Movement (although if I get the wheelchair back, I’ll have energy to spare!) And to say thank you all for being so amazingly supportive of my ‘writing career’ and for your lovely comments.

That’s it for now. See you soon! Until then, take care of yourselves. I’m off to veg in front of the telly before another hectic week of trying to make a difference, however small, in the world.

 

Flying Low

Readers, this summer my husband, the little ‘in and I decided to ‘staycate’ in Ireland. We spent a lovely week in Galway and then the two of us went north for a wedding towards the end of July. It’s been a nice summer, but now my husband wants to go abroad later in the year. And while I’d love to, part of me couldn’t be bothered with the rigmarole. Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with flying with our  five year old daughter – she’s more sensible than the two of us combined – but rather the worry about bringing the wheelchair with us.

Don’t bring the wheelchair, we’ve been told before. Rent one instead. Well that’s all well and good, but the truth is I like my wheelchair. I’m used to it, I personally don’t think it’s overly bulky or heavy (125kg),and it means in the airport I can take my time, if I check in early. Admittedly, however, I’ve only brought it once, when we went to Salou in 2015.

This was with Ryanair.

I am not exaggerating when I say I rang their customer service a thousand times to give the specifications of the wheelchair – the weight, make, dimensions and the fact that it had a dry-cell battery. Oh, and the fact that the back folded down. And it was, after all the phone-calls and emails, a hassle-free experience.

I have an Invacare Kite. The same wheelchair as my friend Dani McGovern.

Dani was in my house last Wednesday. She’d called over with her husband John and son Logan and we chatted about how excited she was about little Logan’s first time on the plane (they were going to Birmingham for the weekend with her sister, her brother and their kids). They’d only been away as a couple in Lanzarote  a few months before so they had no reason to believe there’d be any issues this time either.

But when I read Dani’s sister Sharon’s Facebook status yesterday afternoon, I immediately felt sick. The story, which Dani shared with the Irish Independent today, was that there was no issue with Dani’s flight over to Manchester, but on the way home she was asked for the voltage of her battery which she was unsure of (Neither of us have been asked this before. You’re normally asked if it’s a dry or wet cell battery. Wet cell = no flysies. Ours is dry cell). She was given the option of flying without the wheelchair (Dani can’t walk, unless she’s harbouring a secret I don’t know about) or getting off the plane.

Can you imagine being told that your legs were going to be amputated or somehow decommissioned? I’m talking shite now, aren’t I? That’s how much sense flying without Dani’s wheelchair made. So really she had no option but to disembark the flight, leaving her husband and her young son (who, like any two year old, went beserk without his mammy in his eyeline) and wait for the next flight, an hour later, where by some miraculous intervention her chair suddenly wasn’t a ticking time bomb and she could fly! Makes sense, doesn’t it? (Just like my handwriting).

What wasn’t detailed in the article was that this isn’t the first time Dani’s been messed around when flying. We went to Mallorca in 2007, Dani, John Paul and I, and we’d brought Dani’s manual chair for me because taxis over there don’t take electric wheelchairs of the size Dani’s was at the time so we thought we’d have her small one for taxis (and for me if I got tired). Good thing too, because when we landed, the cabin crew arrived with the manual chair but there was no sign of the electric one! Panic is not the word, lads – it was like we’d lost a limb. Eventually it reappeared on the carousel – how it got there I haven’t a clue. In the meantime. our accessible taxi had threatened to leave without Dani, in a foreign country where we knew no-one.

Dani never went to the media about that, and she was within her right to. But if she had not gone this time around she would’ve inadvertently been saying that this treatment is ok, that it was somehow her fault. But it isn’t, and was not.

In short. Dani is more than ‘a girl in a wheelchair’. She’s a college graduate, a woman who’s been living independently since she was nineteen, a woman who’s worked hard to prove herself in every way, and in spite of some negative running commentary is a fantastic wife, loving mother, loyal friend and passionate advocate. She certainly didn’t deserve that treatment.

And in telling her story, she is reminding us that none of us do.

My Dystopian Life

Guys, this evening as I sit here on my laptop, I’m starting to seriously doubt myself. When I started writing a novel two years ago now, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing or how to plan it out. And man – now it’s a mess. I can still see merit in the story, and I am a hundred percent sure what I wanted to achieve. But another story has beckoned over the last number of months, and it’s a dark, dystopian fiction (but kind of similar to the one I’m writing now in many ways).

In my fourth year of college I was introduced to the world of dystopian fiction by a professor who urged us to  read the novels and afterwards to question everything, to draw similarities between the fictional work and real life. After all, dystopian novels draw from our history. Look at 1984, for example. The use of propaganda (I.e. Hitler) to brainwash the public into trusting the ‘government’, the deliberate rewriting of history to suit a warped political agenda, the destruction of language so that the ‘proles’ have no means of expressing anger towards the Big Brother regime (any of this ringing a bell? Tuam Babies? Garda Corruption?) These are all ways in which people are worn down and forced into a narrative they do not want to partake in. And of course, rebellious Winston is forced into Room 101, where he is tortured into submission when faced with his darkest fear: rats.

Watching the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has reawakened my fascination with the dystopian form, and it’s interesting to watch my husband’s outraged reaction to the show every Sunday and to point out to him, just as we did in Apocalypse Class ten years ago, the similarities between Gilead and the world we live in now. Of course, we don’t live in the nightmarish worlds of these two novels. But I definitely feel trapped in some kind of dystopian nightmare.

I live in a country that is deliberately denying me my human rights, in a world where I constantly have to prove myself in order to have any kind of credibility. A world in which disability is seen as a medical problem rather than a social one. A world where my voice and the voice of many disabled people are dismissed as trivial or unimportant. The problem is that speaking openly and honestly about disability isn’t seen as ‘cool’ or interesting unless your views are endorsed by some random celebrity or politician, who has no idea what it’s like to be viewed as an inconvenience by your own government.

I believe in something called the philosophy of Independent Living. It was originally an American concept, its birth coinciding with other major political movements originating in the US in the 1960s. Basically, many people, including disabled people, were sick to death of being discriminated against and denied their basic human rights. And so they fought. They protested. Above all, they made it quite clear that the only real authority on the subject of disability were disabled people themselves.

Fast-forward almost sixty years, and what’s changed? Sure, things have improved. Access has improved. Disabled people even have careers and families now. But don’t be fooled: these things haven’t and still don’t come easy. We still have to fight, fight, fight.

But what’s the alternative to fighting? What would happen if disabled people sat back and said ‘sure what’s the point? What can we do?’ Well, I’ll paint you a picture, shall I?

If we continue to allow organisations to represent us instead of us representing ourselves, sooner or later we won’t be trusted in our own opinions at all. We won’t ever challenge ourselves and we will become complacent, so much so that we won’t even notice our human rights being stripped away, one by one.

If we don’t actively promote the social model of disability and be adamant and unwavering in our belief that it’s the society we live in that’s the problem, we will always be seen as patients to be improved, fixed or cured, and future generations will fail to acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with us.

Today, across Ireland, so many disabled people in Ireland do not get a say in what time to get out of bed, when to eat dinner or where they live. Many are stuck in hospitals or in their parents’ homes where they have no control over many aspects of their lives. This is not okay. Please don’t shrug your shoulders and say ‘oh well that’s just the way it is at the moment, what can we do?’

Imagine if you had to justify every single little decision in order to be able to do what you wanted.

Imagine having to prove yourself every single day in everything you do, and be expected to do so with a smile.

Imagine having to downplay your abilities, almost to the point of degradation, and having to expose your vulnerabilities before getting the basic help you need to live independently.

This isn’t a dystopian novel. This is Ireland, right now.

And for many, it’s a scarier place than any fictional dystopian world ever created.

 

I’m only human, after all…

TMI alert, people: I’m currently in the middle of my, shall we say, ’emotional’ time of the month. And as every woman out there knows, during this period (pun intended) we can become irrationally angry or overwhelmingly emotional for no apparent reason (but hey, isn’t that what chocolate is made for?) Anyway, there is a point to this, I promise. Stay with me.

My husband, my daughter and I were travelling in the car on Monday when ‘Human’ by Rag’n’Bone Man came on the radio. Of course, being an emotionally unstable female, I was instantly in floods of tears, much to the surprise of my husband who nearly crashed his car in shock.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ he blurted out, while I wiped my tears. I shook my head.

‘It’s crazy time again,’ I joked as I tried to compose myself. But there was more to it than that, and he knew it too. And I didn’t have the words to explain. I do now, though.

The energy of the song and the repetitive line ‘I’m only human after all’ brings to mind what’s been going on in the media over the last few months with the remains found in the septic tank at the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. Like many of us I feel sick as I think about all those women, both young and old, who gave birth to their babies and never knew what became of them. It’s likely that some, if not most of these pregnancies were unplanned, and instead of being supported these women were disgraced, disowned by their families, and left in the hands of the nuns. You’ve read some of the stories, I’m sure. It’s truly harrowing stuff, and it’s been playing on my mind for the last two months.

How can we claim to be compassionate when we don’t even allow people to be human?

I live in a country where my rights as a person with a disability are not protected. This is because something called the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (or the UNCRPD) hasn’t been ratified by the Irish government. In theory, this Convention guarantees that no person with a disability should be forced to live in an institutional setting against their will. It guarantees access to Personal Assistance as a right, not a privilege. Those who have ratified the Convention (and Ireland is the only EU country that hasn’t) are answerable to the UN if human rights are breached. With constant threats of cuts to PA hours and people with disabilities having to give twenty four hours to use public transport, Ireland would certainly have a lot to answer for.

What upsets me the most is when you have a disability, you’re not allowed to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, takes wrong turns and yet, when you have a disability you’re either expected to be some kind of Superwoman, or an utter failure. If you make a mistake, well, obviously you’re not cut out for education or parenthood or whatever it was you were trying to do. People judge each other; I’m no different. But this pressure to live up to an arbitrary standard, set by people who may have no experience of disability, is overwhelming. As my loyal followers are aware by now, I came up against intense pressure to prove myself when I had my baby girl. And as you may be aware, I never sought help for my postnatal depression which lasted two and a half years because I was afraid that, combined with my disability, it would give the HSE the authority to take my daughter.

And my overwhelmed, hormonal, PMSing self thinks this is truly unfair. I feel frustrated and tired with it all, and I only wish there was more I could do to challenge this injustice, to stop history from repeating itself. Sometimes I wonder if life would be easier if I wasn’t so sensitive, so stubborn, if I just didn’t care. But the truth is, I do care. A lot. Too much.

But there isn’t much I can do at  eleven at night, and I’m pretty stuffed from that Easter Egg I’ve just polished off…

Hey, don’t judge me, I’m PMSing.

…and I’m only human, after all…