Delicate Scent of Summer Dusk

I really shouldn’t be blogging tonight. I’m lucky enough to have a bit of work to do, work that I might actually get paid for. But I can’t concentrate.

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m ‘overdoing it’ as my two friends and husband protest that I am, or whether it’s this lovely weather distracting me and giving me an intense dislike for my desk at the moment. It’s been gorgeous these last few days, and my mantra is to make the most of life before it disappears through your fingers as fast as dry grains of sand. So I’ve been in the park, going for walks and trying to clear my head. And then I sit at my desk, and nothing happens.

Just half an hour ago, I took a break from my desk to bring out the bins, and as I stood there absorbing the fresh air and fanning away the midges, the smell of the warm air brought back memories: memories of having barbecues growing up that lasted until it got dark; memories of walking to the shop with a single pound coin in my pocket to buy sweets for all four of us; memories of having cycling competitions with my two younger sisters (in my younger, fitter days) around our estate, only coming back in when the other kids were called home too.

I really hope that one day, Ali will enjoy this freedom, but right now I don’t think she’ll ever be as free as we were. The dangers that were there when we were kids are still there now, and coupled with social media (I get the irony, believe me), you really can’t tell who is watching your kids and what images they have of them. Ali is only five and I’ve already taught her my address and phone number in case we ever get separated for whatever reason. We’ve done stranger danger, although how much of it she really understands I don’t know, and I worry irrationally all the time. This is normal, right?

I remember after the terrorist attack in Paris in 2015, I didn’t sleep for about two weeks. I got paranoid about every little noise in the night, about being in crowded spaces, about helicopters and planes overhead. And I’m not sure why it worried me so much, because I remember going to Coalisland (In Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland) every weekend with my parents as a child and being stopped by soldiers at the border. Both of my parents worried about their Southern Reg car – it was dangerous at the time and it certainly made you stand out as an outsider and in the wrong area, a prime target for petrol bombs. As kids we were terrified, but mum and dad seemed to take it in their stride. They were used to it, it didn’t faze them. And if it did, they never let it show.

What  were they supposed to do, never go north? Or move back up and never go south? They did neither. We continue to travel back and forth to see our family, and will always do so, even if Brexit does mean tighter borders between the UK and Ireland (and after the attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester this week, it’s looking like a possibility).

Our world is not safe, yet it has been reported that never before in history has it been safer to be alive. Polio, the plague and other diseases are almost entirely eradicated. Vaccinations against deadly diseases such as measles and malaria are widely available. Life expectancy is now into the seventies at least. And we will be spending the rest of our lives worrying about terrorism, bogeymen, rapists and the likes.

Listen, I’m not suggesting for one second that we should let our guard down and ignore what’s going on in the world. Nor am I saying ‘oh well, the world is an evil place, sure what can we do?’ Of course we must be seen to be strong in the face of barbarity. But our children deserve to live free of fear, because they are going to spend enough time worrying about things. Our children deserve to live, and to try and carve out a legacy to leave behind them for their own kids. They deserve the freedom to make their own mistakes and the freedom to recover from them.

They should be free to ride their bikes into the sunset, embracing the sweet smelling fragrance of a summer dusk.

RIP to those who were killed in Manchester 22.5.17, and condolences to your families.

Enda the Line

 

Finally, after what seems like an inappropriately long wait, Enda Kenny stepped down as party Leader of Fine Gael at midnight on Thursday 18 May, and a new party Leader will be announced by the 2 June.  And predictably, many people in this country, including myself, are reflecting on the work (or damage, depending on who you’re talking to) he’s done over the course of his time as Taoiseach. Many of us will not be sad to see him go, especially the many people with disabilities that he’s let down so badly over his term.

Now, I am not saying that by any means that Enda had an easy job. Nor am I denying the fact that his predecessors, Bertie Ahern in particular, left a massive mess behind that Enda would have to clean up. However, during Enda’s time as Taoiseach, I have witnessed a frightening change in the narrative of disability in this country. Perhaps it’s merely age-acquired wisdom, because I don’t remember feeling this trapped as a disabled person during the early noughties. I went to college, I found it easy enough to find summer work and for a very brief period, I was even naïve enough to view myself as equal: willing to contribute to society and worthy of respect for it as a result.

I was just watching an interview activist Joanne O’Riordan had with Gay Byrne’s RTE series The Meaning of Life, in which Joanne discussed her experience with Enda Kenny. Kenny had promised her that the funding for P.A. (Personal Assistant) Services would remain untouched, and then turned around and delivered the blow that a whopping €130million would have to be taken from the HSE Budget, including a €10m cut to the P.A. budget. This soul-shattering announcement demonstrated how little our Taoiseach thought of our lives. This announcement drove activists with disabilities to sleep out in the cold for three days outside Leinster House until these cuts were reversed. It was both a victory and a slap in the face for people with disabilities, because although we were listened to, we realised that we would always have to take drastic measures to have our voices heard.

I worked in the area of Independent Living for seven years, and Enda Kenny was Taoiseach for four of those (since 9 March, 2011). Part of the reason I made the tough decision to leave my job in 2015 was because I found it too difficult to watch, as I saw it, the degeneration of the Independent Living Philosophy. When I joined Offaly CIL first, I was told to have passion. I was encouraged to get excited about equality for people with disabilities, to see the Personal Assistant Service as the key to achieving this equality. I was told that Independent Living was about freedom, control, choice. It was a liberating service with its own unique history and philosophy.

For me, Enda Kenny’s government destroyed all of that. Suddenly, service provision was about a hierarchy of needs, and the service became more about covering the basics rather than encouraging ability and individuality. When I spoke to people about this great ‘philosophy,’ I felt I was lying to them. I would ring my fellow Leaders and ask them to come into the office for a coffee and a chat, and they would tentatively ask me ‘are my hours going to be cut?’ I have to hand it to Offaly CIL, they did and still do resist cutbacks and they go above and beyond to protect Leader’s hours. But it infuriates me that because of Enda Kenny’s nonchalant attitude towards disability that my fellow Leaders continue to live in fear.

I’ll never forget reading the coverage of the three-day protest Martin Naughton led outside the Dáil in 2015 (unfortunately, I was out of the country at the time – yes, I really am just an armchair activist). Martin was asking for the opportunity for people with disabilities to have more control over their own lives by allowing money normally paid directly to service providers to be redirected to the experts, the person with the disability. The protest bore little results apart from a lot of negative press about Enda Kenny, with people by now being so annoyed with him that the focus from the public was more about what a complete tool he is as opposed to what Martin Naughton was asking for (the right for people with disabilities to truly experience Independent Living, in case you’re in doubt). And yet, even after talking to Martin and other disability activists, the future of our lifeline – the Personal Assistant Service – is constantly in jeopardy.

Oh, one more thing – some of you out there think that Leo Varadkar should take over as Taoiseach. And perhaps he should, but I’m personally a bit wary. Aside from the fact that our health system is currently a shambles, a report entitled ‘Make Work Pay for People with Disabilities’ recommends that people with disabilities keep their medical card, as well as raising the current cut-off point of €120 before they start to lose their Disability Allowance. Now, don’t misinterpret me – this is great progress – but given that a report from Inclusion Ireland in 2014 estimates the weekly cost of disability to be €207, it seems that there is a long way to go before people with disabilities can expect a decent quality of life. Also, there is a fear that this system could force people into work that they are genuinely incapable of, a bit like what’s happening in the UK at the moment.

So goodbye, Enda Kenny. Undoubtedly you did many great things for many people across Ireland during your time. You’ll have to forgive the disabled population of Ireland for struggling to remember exactly what they were.

And a quick message for your replacement, whoever you may be: We as people with disabilities have put up with enough shit over the last nine years to last a lifetime. We definitely are not in the mood to tolerate any more. Just thought you should know that.

Cripping Up: Useful Exercise, or a load of Crap?

Earlier today my daughter, who is growing increasingly aware that her mummy is different to other mummies, asked me if I could walk properly when I was a little girl. ‘Nope,’ I told her, ‘My walking was pretty rubbish when I was a child too, but I didn’t need a wheelchair.’ She was silent for a second, then she said, a tint of sadness coming into her otherwise unblemished face:

‘Some of the girls in my class make fun of you. They say “ha ha, your mummy can’t walk properly.”‘ For a second, my heart stopped. This is the conversation I’d dreaded having with my daughter since the day she was born.

As nonchalantly as possible, I prodded. ‘And what did you say?’

Alison shrugged. ‘I said “don’t make fun of my mummy, it hurts her feelings” but they didn’t stop. I didn’t like it mummy. I would never do that to anyone.’ She was so absolute in her defence of my that it made me want to cry. ‘Mummy,’ she continued. ‘You know I don’t care if you can’t walk properly, or you’re in a wheelchair. I love you and you’re the best mummy.’ I sat, reeling. Where the hell had all this come out of, all of a sudden?

‘School,’ my friend said when I told her the story. ‘Kids learn all sorts from each other at school. They learn to see things differently, to question things, and most worryingly of all, they trust what each other says.’ This isn’t my first encounter with schoolkids of course; once upon a time, in the very same school in fact, I had the honour of dealing with this sort of thing first hand. And while some of the comments hurt (and they did, because I was an impressionable child, just as Ali is now), others were downright hilarious. One particular time I caused grievous injury to a classmate who was enjoying imitating my walking and consequently whacked herself off a door. ‘I never do that,‘ I laughed. And bingo, humour became my new method of self-defence. To be fair, it’s lasted pretty well.

But what has always interested me, even from my prepubescent years, is how people tend to be so fixated on my impairment and how they see it as problematic. ‘Do you ever wish you didn’t have Cerebral Palsy?’ is a question I’ve been asked more times than I’ve had hot dinners. My answer has always been the same, but it’s only in recent years that I understand why I’ve always said no. Cerebral Palsy, and any other disability for that matter, only becomes problematic when others are uncomfortable with it. Impairment and disability are different things. Impairment is a condition or diagnosis, and disability is the collective term for physical and attitudinal barriers facing people in society. I’ve lost you now, haven’t I? Allow me to explain.

My impairment wasn’t the reason why gaining entry to mainstream school was a battle, but the lack of supports available was.

My impairment didn’t stop me reaching third level education because I was enabled through Assistive Technology and Personal Assistance to do so. I used these as tools to unlock my potential.

I built a ramp on both sides of my home so  that I could consequently get a wheelchair to enable me to be independent and get out of the house. A lack of ramps would hamper my freedom, not my impairment.

My heart always sinks whenever I hear the words ‘disability awareness training’ because it often involves so-called ‘able-bodied’ people ‘cripping up’ to try and get a feel for what the world is like for a wheelchair user. With all due respect to those  of you who think this is a good idea, it’s not. Often, it involves able-bodied people using oversized or unsuitable wheelchairs and trying to navigate a physical environment. It’s an unrealistic portrayal because wheelchairs for full-time wheelchair users are designed for their specific needs. While doing something like this, you get a flavour of what it’s like to use a wheelchair to get around and the physical challenges involved. However, you cannot possibly be expected to know what it’s like to carry the burden of a history of hundreds of years of neglect, discrimination and degradation.

It creates awareness, as Kathryn Thomas did on The Late Late Show on Friday 7 April. Everyone knows her face. She was selected to create awareness of the barriers facing wheelchair users in Dublin. It got a great response from many people, saying that it was great to see this issue being highlighted at last. The reality is that people with disabilities have been saying these things for years. And yet, many wheelchair users, including Louise Bruton, who reviews access in Dublin for her blog, Legless in Dublin, was not asked to participate. She wrote an article for the Irish Times before the Late Late aired in which she said: ‘These pieces are a gimmick and if they help change the minds of a few people, then that is great, but they remove us from the discussion. By doing this, we are passing the baton and the opportunity to go deep into the experiences of a wheelchair user is missed.’

Blogger John Doyle was more direct in his criticism of this approach, saying in his blog: ‘Would your celebs paint themselves black and claim the understand racism? No they would not. Did John F Kennedy mimic being a different ethnicity to highlight racism? No he did not. He acted with legislation because he lived in a country that had one rule equality for one section and a rule of inequality for others’. We still haven’t ratified the United Nations Convention of Rights for People with Disabilities, which would mean so much more than a celebrity endorsement.

And why do we need celebrities to highlight the issues that we disabled  people have been discussing for years? The answer is simply we don’t – but for some reason our voices seem to only matter when they’re endorsed by politicians, celebrities and the likes. I wonder is this because people don’t want to know about the nitty-gritty of the discrimination disabled people face, or is it because they feel they can relate to an able-bodied person better? If that’s the case, will our voices, our own voices, ever be heard?

Because I don’t want my daughter answering questions about her ‘different’ mummy forever. I hope that one day she will be wise enough to say ‘You have a question about my mummy? You ask her yourself. I don’t speak on behalf of her, or anyone else.’

How Many More Graces?

I go through phases, extremes of mood and thoughts. Sometimes I’m elated. I love writing. I know I’ve made the right choices in life. Other times I worry that I’m making myself increasingly unemployable as the days go past.

I haven’t really left the Centre for Independent Living behind, of course. I still volunteer a lot of my time to promoting the philosophy of independent living and campaigning for equal rights for people with disabilities. In fact, I’m now part of an activist group called By Us With Us. we’re still relatively new, but we recently set up a blog which is well worth a look.

Independent Living is not my job any more, my husband insists. You’re a writer now. You should be dedicating every free minute you have to writing and trying to get published.

And oh, how I would love to! How I wish life could be this simple, that I could have the luxury of locking the office door every day, focusing on nothing but putting words down on paper. My  mother used to tell me that I can’t fix all of the wrongs in the world. She was right, of course, but there are so, so many wrongs that I feel that I must try and do something;

As most of you know, I’m writing a novel at the moment, a story that initially came to me in 2007 while I was unemployed for six months. The story explores the life of a disabled woman who was tortured by a nun in a residential institution and how she copes with the aftermath of that abuse. Lately, I’ve been finding it hard to stay motivated. This is off the wall, I thought to myself as I rewrote the first chapter the other night (for the sixth time). No-one reading  this is going to believe that someone could be treated with such cruelty.

I’m not a trusting person anyway, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this distrust, particularly in the government at the moment (or, as it is starting to transpire, any government before or after this). Yesterday, the story of the abuse suffered by ‘Grace’ dominated headlines, a girl with an intellectual disability (now forty years old) who was abused while in foster care. It’s still a little unclear the extent or the nature of the abuse; some of it is of a sexual nature.

Grace has an intellectual disability and in the eyes of the Irish state at least, cannot be trusted to have her own narrative voice. And in Ireland, this is not limited to those with intellectual disabilities. The opinions and lived experiences of disabled people in Ireland don’t seem to matter to our policy makers.

I doubt that Grace is an isolated case. So why is there such little uproar about the status quo? There is mounting evidence to illustrate that disabled people should not be living in institutions, that the state cannot be trusted to provide a decent standard of care. Who can?

In December 2014, the nation was shocked by the Aras Attracta scandal, which saw people with intellectual disabilities being physically and psychologically tortured by those who were meant to care for them. People were disgusted by the RTE documentary; at one point my husband, whose stomach was turning, asked me to turn it off. I refused.

‘How can you sit there and watch that?’ he asked, bewildered by my seeming nonchalance.

‘Because,’ I replied, ‘Ireland has buried its head in the sand for too long. We have a government, and this and successive governments not only allow this abuse to happen, but by implementing cutbacks create situations such as these. We need to see this and someone needs to take responsibility.’

The Aras Attracta staff were later held accountable and given paltry sentences of community service. But what happens to those who continue to abuse people with disabilities behind closed doors, and are never questioned? I’m not talking solely about people in congregated living settings – I’m talking about people who suffer abuse at the hands of their families too.

When I started doing some research for my novel, what struck me was the lack of information available about how disabled people were treated in Ireland over the last fifty years. Apart from a few research papers, the Irish Wheelchair Association’s collection of stories, Extraordinary Lives, and this documentary on the programme ‘Horizon’ called ‘The Weakest Link’ on RTE in 1966, there isn’t a lot of documented stories about what life was like for a disabled person, particularly in a residential setting. So essentially I’m writing a story about something I have little information.

But if I can achieve this, then I will be happy. Because it’s time for disabled people to tell their stories, and to discover and reclaim their histories.

If we don’t, then our stories will be like Grace’s – spoken through the mouths of people on the outside.  Our stories should – and deserve to be – woven into the mainstream fabric of Irish society.

I hate to be a burden, but…

Anyone who knows me at all knows that the most important thing to me, apart from my family, friends and laptop, is independence.

As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to do things my way, to be control of my own life. I don’t ever remember my parents beating me out of the house or having to sit me down and tell me that my decisions were bad ones. And for the last twenty years, I’ve worked hard on developing this persona of being independent, capable of running my own life. Most importantly, I needed the freedom to make my own mistakes. Lord knows, I’ve made many.

When I reached my mid-teens, I realised that I never wanted to be a burden on my parents by virtue of my disability. I was raised in a country that wanted me to fit into a particular box, and when I didn’t, I was problematic. I felt that I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes, which resulted in me studying like crazy in school. By the time I was eighteen I didn’t want to be seen as a burden in any sense of the word. And I hope that I was no more a burden to my parents than my siblings

As I grow older and wiser, I learn more about the way the world works. For example, I now understand that progress isn’t linear. We as a society are in fact regressing in how we view disability. The ‘nineties marked revolution in Ireland, and people were encouraged to leave residential settings behind and embrace the big, bad world with a Personal Assistant by their side. The Independent Living Movement in Ireland brought promise of freedom and equality to disabled people. Most importantly, disabled people themselves are seen to be the experts in what they themselves need.

An important result of a disabled person having a Personal Assistance Service is that it relieves families of the ‘burden’ of ‘caring’ for their disabled relative. Language of dependence and inability becomes language of empowerment, enablement, choice.

And yet, twenty-five years on from the beginning of the Independent Living Movement, disabled people (so defined because we are disabled by society) are no closer to achieving equality in Ireland. Instead we continue to live in fear of cutbacks, in the hope that more vital services are not taken away from us. We stay quiet, hoping not to draw attention to ourselves. Our pleas and petitions to ratify the United Nations Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities (the UNCRPD) disappear into an unknown wilderness.

In my opinion the reason why this hasn’t been ratified is not because of legislative changes that need to be addressed. It’s because we live in a country where disability has always been synonymous with charity and this enables government to continue to keep the ‘grateful cripples’ in their place. We shouldn’t need to sigh with relief when we  travel by train and there’s someone with a ramp, waiting to help us. We shouldn’t have people living in institutions whose peers are going  to Copper’s on a Thursday night. I remember the fun I had in my twenties, and the nearest I got to sitting in an institution was in the IWA’s Carmel Fallon Centre in Clontarf (even these were not sober times). Many would view my life as privileged, whereas I view it as an entitlement. One that admittedly has not come easily.

We shouldn’t need to accommodate and change our lifestyles and miss out on our true potentials, be this through education, employment or raising a family. Nor should we have to justify these choices to the HSE in order to get the proper supports we need to do these things.

Of course a single group or blogger cannot single-handedly change the current narrative of disability. We can all contribute, though. For example, the next time you throw coins absent-mindedly into a charity bucket, don’t resent disabled people or pity them; we don’t want to be objects of charity anymore, but we have been forced into this position because of government cutbacks. When you read a story about somebody with a disability in the media, look at the narrative voice: is it theirs, or someone else’s?

It seems that there are more pressing issues for the government at the moment: the US, homelessness, Brexit, the drug crisis. In the grand scheme of things, the rights of disabled people might not seem to be a priority. But if we don’t speak up, it never will be.

Because quite frankly, it’s disgusting that we live in a country that actively refuses to ensure equality for all its citizens. And none of us want to be seen as a burden.

Especially when, with a little consideration and respect, for both ourselves and our families, as well as granting us basic human rights, this burden could easily be lifted.

Ireland and Disability: A Reflection of 2016

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International Day of People with Disabilities: 3rd December

 

‘Disability is not a problem to be cured, but a part of our identity and diversity’ – (Dynah Haubert, a lawyer in the US)

 

Are things really improving for people with disabilities in Ireland?

I’ve been picking my brains for the last two weeks trying to decide how I would approach this blog. As you may have guessed from the heading, today (December 3) marks an occasion called the International Day of People with Disabilities. As with Cerebral Palsy Day (October 5), I’m not exactly sure what having a specific day to recognise people with disabilities is supposed to achieve. Then it occurred to me that perhaps it isn’t about individual people as much as it is about reflecting on how we as a society have embraced disability and difference as part of Irish culture.

The year 2016 kicked off with the imminent General Election and the Disable Inequality Campaign. Activists across the country had the opportunity to meet with (interrogate) their local representatives and urge them to take the needs of people with disabilities into consideration. The ‘Disable Inequality’ Campaign itself was popular and created awareness of issues facing people in Ireland such as poverty (Newstalk reported on 27 September that 70% of people with disabilities struggle to make ends meet), lack of employment and the biggest thorn in our paw, the failure of the previous Government to ratify the United Nations Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Although everyone has human rights under the ‘normal’ UN Convention, the UNCRPD includes other things such as the right to choose your place of residence, the right to have a Personal Assistant and the right to be a full and active member of your community.

Indeed, the unnecessary institutionalisation of people with disabilities in Ireland continues to be problematic. The Health, Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) found that many residential services were not fit for purpose this year. On 11 November The Irish Times reported that a person staying in the psychiatric unit in Portlaoise was waiting twelve days for a shower. Children were staying in adult psychiatric wards, and one person commented ‘At least I’d get exercise in prison.’

According to independent.ie on 29 October, money was taken from HSE patients’ accounts without full clearance. The ‘mishandling’ of €136.3m of patients’ money and assets including bank accounts, pension books, property documents, investments and jewellery was attributed to staffing issues, which led to inconsistency when recording financial transactions. Well, dress it up however you please: this is theft of the assets of vulnerable people left in the care of greedy vultures.

2016 also saw the Paralympics in Rio, and our athletes brought home eleven medals in total (four gold, four silver & three bronze). Unfortunately Ailish Dunne (one of the Leaders with Offaly CIL) couldn’t compete owing to risks posed by the Zika virus. As with every Paralympics, it was great to see disability being portrayed as a positive thing, although there is still the misperception out there that if you have a disability, you are either an object of pity or ‘Superhuman’ (which so happens to be the name of a Channel 4 programme which explored this very issue).

The portrayal of disability in the media continues to be unbalanced. Some of it is positive. This year, the Blue Teapot Theatre Company in Galway (as seen on the award-winning documentary Somebody to Love) released the film Sanctuary, originally a play written by Christian O’Reilly which explores sexual identity in two characters with intellectual disabilities. The lead roles are played by Kieran Coppinger (Larry) and Charlene Kelly (Sophie), both who have their impairments in real life, and explores love and sexuality in an Ireland where it is illegal for people with intellectual disabilities to have sex (under the old Lunacy Act, which is now replaced by the Assisted Decision Making Act). This play/film has started a much-needed conversation around sexuality and challenges the perception of people with disabilities as being incapable of sexual desires. Most importantly, it highlights that sex is an important part of life, therefore breaking taboos.

Characters with disabilities in box-office films are often portrayed by non-disabled actors, as in Me Before You. However, there was particular disgust at a decision taken by fashion magazine Vogue in August 2016 to use ‘able-bodied’ models, photoshopped to look as though they had disabilities. Two Paralympians, Renato Leite and Paulo Vilhena, both of whom are amputees are said to be the inspiration behind the photoshoot and yet, their own photos were not used to promote the Paralympics. This sends out a negative message that disabled people themselves are neither desirable nor sexy.

Public transport continues to be an issue of contention for people with disabilities in 2016. Owing to staffing issues, wheelchair users across the country are required to give twenty-four hours’ notice to their local stations if they intend to travel by train. On July 2, 2016, the Wicklow People reported that Garrett Jameson from Rathnew was denied access to a local Bus Eireann vehicle, an inaccessible bus stop cited as the reason.  On September 8, the Irish Independent reported that Ann-Marie Champ, a wheelchair user who travels from Dublin to Newbridge to work every day, was refused a ramp at Newbridge and was told by the driver that she would have to get off in Kildare. After this, Ann-Marie had to wait an hour for a taxi to arrive from Portlaoise. On November 19, blogger Louise Bruton, another wheelchair user who checks venues for accessibility and then blogs on her own blog, Legless in Dublin, found herself trapped on a train at Dublin Heuston when assistance to help her off the train failed to arrive. She commented to the Irish Independent: ‘When it comes to a lack of disabled facilities, I’m sick of hearing that it’s a lack of money. The ones with the power to change anything aren’t taking action.’ These, sadly, are not isolated incidents in 2016 Ireland, just some examples of the ones that people had to courage to report. A time has to come when we say: this is not good enough.

And of course, in 2016 we were forced to bid farewell to a man who many of us in the disability community would count as a close friend, Martin Naughton. Martin, who had lived experience of institutionalisation, was responsible for bringing the Independent Living Movement to Ireland. He used every opportunity possible to spread his important message: that people with disabilities in Ireland deserve choice. They deserve to have access to services that will enable them to live wherever they choose, to pursue educational and employment opportunities and to make their own mistakes. In an interview with RTE in July 2016, Martin simply said, ‘The solution is not institution.’

Thankfully, newly appointed Minister for Disability Finian McGrath so far seems to be committed to Martin’s vision. On 20 June he announced an investment of €20m to enable people with disabilities who are currently living in institutions to move out into the community. This was hope to benefit 165 people living in 14 institutions, according to breakingnews.ie. McGrath said: ‘The Programme for Government wants a commitment to continue to move people with disabilities out of congregated settings and our objective is to reduce this figure by one-third by 2021 and ultimately to eliminate all congregated settings.’ However, the UNCRPD is still not ratified as was promised at the start of the year, so only time will tell whether McGrath can truly honour his promises.

So as you can see, 2016 has been an eventful year for people with disabilities in Ireland, but the real question is: are we really making any progress? Well, I can’t tell to be honest, but we are certainly becoming more vocal, and that can only be a good thing. It’s up to us as activists to vow to never stay silent, to always challenge injustice, to strive to live as equal members of our communities and society.

And that is what International Day of People with Disabilities is really about. The perusal of equality and fairness for all.

The Trump Card

Like all of us, I woke up this morning to the horrible news that Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. (Slow clap for those who elected him). Everybody I’ve spoken to so far is absolutely terrified of the wider-reaching implications this will have. Acclaimed author and recently turned television presenter Louise O’Neill wrote a long status on Facebook this morning expressing her fear for all people, including women, children and people with disabilities.

Once I saw the words ‘people with disabilities,’ I knew I had to write something in response.

Being an average Josephine on the other side of the pond, I can’t see what (some of) the people of America would see in Trump. He’s rude, obnoxious, racist, sexist, and every other ‘ist’ you can think of. He’s a modern day Hitler, with a warped vision and he doesn’t care who he has to hurt, sideline or destroy in order to reach this vision. But I have to admit, I wasn’t that surprised he was elected. The vast majority of people want change, but many are afraid of what would happen if it actually came about.

Just look at our own situation in Ireland for a second. We had a general election back in February, and everyone I spoke to about it was adamant that Enda Kenny would not get in again. His government made one of the biggest threats to Personal Assistant Services in the history of the State. Cuts made to welfare allowances, the creation of the giant money pit known as Irish Water… I could go on incessantly. And yet, our only alternative was to vote Independent (which I did) or to vote for Fianna Fail, who led the country into recession in the first place. (Whoever voted for Gerry Adams needs their heads examined).

So here we are again, and what are we going to do about it? Have a good old moan. Rant about it on Facebook. Write a blog.

After all, we can’t change the world, can we? We’re only small, insignificant people. So why bother, right?

This is exactly how I felt in work a year and a half ago. Working in the area of Independent Living for seven years and hearing about how hard people had to work to reach their goals. How many obstacles stand in their way: negative attitudes, inaccessible environments, fear of losing their benefits and their medical cards. I started to wonder how we could change all this, and my head hurt. And the more research I did into the discrimination against people with disabilities, the more disheartened I became.

Whether we are interested in history or not, our personal history, and our wider social history, are the cornerstones of who we are. And for me, as a disabled person (a person disabled by society) it was only when I became aware of this history that I developed a clearer understanding of what I was up against. Hitler’s T4 Projekt, which involved the ‘mercy killing’ of an estimated 700,000 people with disabilities, was a horrific act, but yet people with disabilities continue to fight for their basic rights, to live in their own homes, to do whatever they want whenever they want, to be recognised as equal. Elsewhere across the world, disabled women across the world continue to be forced into sterilisation, for fear that they will inflict more disabled children upon society. This is perceived to be a bad thing, because society dictates that it’s a bad thing.

Now that I know about all of this stuff, I can’t unlearn it. Born during the wrong era, in the wrong country, this could’ve been my fate. Who knows – the way the world is going it still could be.

As many of you know, I’ve been trying to  write a novel for over a year now, and the theme of the novel is exactly what I discussed above. It’s about a woman with Cerebral Palsy who’s been moulded by society’s low expectations of her, about her struggle to express her individuality in a world that wants to define her, and how, like all of us, the past has left a permanent impression on how she sees the world and her thought processes. Can a person ever be separated from their past?

Can our society?

The majority of us want a fair and equal society, but unfortunately this may have to happen in spite of, not because of, those in power. From the moment we are born, we are part of a machine. Some of us are seen as the core components, others merely the decorative extras. Some still are perceived to be the silicone packets that come in handbags – no-one seems to know what they’re for. We still live in a world where physical ability is prized over everything else, where impairment is seen as a weakness, where medical advances and robotic legs seem to be favoured over inclusiveness and equality for people with disabilities.

So Donald Trump is now the president of the US, and I think that instead of tearing our hair out we need to remain strong and calm, be we people of colour, women, men, children, people with disabilities. We need to look to the future and strive to achieve the world we want to leave to our children. We need to stand together, exercise love and understanding, and never settle for anything less than acceptance and equality. Change will only happen when we instigate it

After all, history should be used as a lesson. And if we don’t learn from it, then we shouldn’t be surprised when it repeats itself.

In Memory of Veronica Guerin

‘This is Irish journalism’s darkest day. For the first time, a journalist has been murdered for daring to write about our criminal underworld and daring to chronicle the lives of the brutal people who inhabit it.’ (Aengus Fanning, Irish Independent, 27 June 1996)

It has been twenty years since Sunday Independent journalist and mother of one, Veronica Guerin, was gunned down and brutally murdered on the Naas Road. Even though I never knew her, I think about her on her anniversary every year, and as an aspiring journalist I find myself asking the same question: was Veronica’s murder, described by the late Aengus Fanning as ‘an attack on democracy’, an act of bravery or sheer naivety on Veronica’s part?

I was twelve years old when the news of Veronica’s murder was reported on the six-one news on the 26 June 1996. I remember how my mother put her hand to her mouth and my father shook his head in disbelief. Even though I had no real interest yet in the nitty-gritty of Ireland’s politics, I knew that this shooting was significant. The images of the bloodied, smashed up car will stay ingrained in my mind forever. It was the first time that I’d ever heard of a journalist being targeted in such a brutal way, and the first time I’d considered that being a female journalist could be dangerous.

Two years later I would sit up way past my bedtime to watch a documentary detailing the extent of the drug problem in Dublin. I saw images of people shooting up in broad daylight, some who had committed petty crimes in order to fund their addiction. Some of them were in their early teens just as I was. This was my first introduction to what the sordid world of heroin and cocaine addiction looked like: needles everywhere, people sitting in their own excrement, so high on drugs that they barely knew what day it was.

Drug addiction and supply were still widespread problems, even after Veronica’s murder, but at least the problem had been thrown into the consciousness of the public who could no longer hide behind the predictability of their everyday lives.

Veronica was not merely a journalist, she was also a wife and mother. Bringing a child into the world is a great responsibility and protecting them from evil is an even greater one.   I’m a chicken. My writing is important, but I wouldn’t be willing to risk the safety of my child over it. But ironically, Veronica was most likely thinking of her son and trying to ensure that he wouldn’t grow up in the same horrible culture. Sadly, in trying to protect her son, Veronica became the target of three shootings (one through a window at home, one gunshot wound to her leg and the fatal shooting through the window of her car on the Naas road).

Indeed, there is much debate as to whether her actions were heroic or plain ridiculous. Emily O’Reilly, writer of Veronica Guerin: The Life and Death of a Crime Reporter was accused by many critics as deliberately setting out to sully Veronica’s name in the name of professional jealousy. In her book O’Reilly challenges everything that we know and believe about Veronica. She says that Veronica lied about her age in order to be  accepted into the Ogra Fianna Fail, and points out how she was accused of fabrication when reporting on the Bishop Comiskey Case. In addition, Veronica is depicted as being selfish, putting her career before the safety of her child. She continued to write despite being repeatedly targeted by gang members, even after John Gilligan *allegedly* threatened to rape and kill her son.

However Cate Blanchett, who played Veronica Guerin in the movie of the same title, says that such criticism of Veronica is too harsh, and in an interview she pointed out that being ‘a female journalist, the questions of her as a wife and a mother [such as] ‘how could she do this’ were asked in a way that wouldn’t be asked of a man.’

Veronica is now dead twenty years, and her husband Graham Turley observed in a recent interview with the Irish Mirror (published on 8 May, written by Blaithnaid Murphy) that: ‘Twenty years down the road we are back to stage one. It is getting to the stage where there is literally a shooting on the streets every day of the week.’ Drug abuse in Dublin City centre has again reached an all-time high to the point where the provision of safe injection centres and the legalisation of cannabis are slowly creeping onto the political agenda. Despite Veronica’s efforts, there is more focus on the petty criminals rather than the drug dealers who are undoubtedly profiting massively from the sale of these drugs.

So, if this is the case, was Veronica’s death in vain, or more to the point, did she bring about her own fate by playing with fire? I don’t think so, to be honest. If we really believe that it was partly Veronica’s own fault that she was murdered, we essentially exonerate her murderers of full responsibility for their crimes. Unfortunately, we live in Ireland where we typically try to understand the motives of those who break the law. On the whole, we try to see the best in people, including those who commit such despicable crimes.

True, Veronica Guerin may not have been perfect, but at the end of the day, she was the victim of the greatest crime there is – murder. Her methods may have been invasive and unorthodox, but she was still trying to do her job. Perhaps she did take on more than she could handle, but she paid the ultimate price. And her legacy will live on through her family, her articles, television documentaries and films, reminding us that drugs will always be a problem in Irish society unless we find a way to disempower drug barons and provide proper rehabilitation options for recovering addicts.

If Veronica’s life and death has taught us anything, it should be that the efforts of one person really do matter, and that if we join together and create a unified front progress, however slow, will eventually follow. But this won’t ever happen if we sit back and do nothing.

RIP Veronica, and thank you for trying to make our country a better place for children like yours and mine.

Show me what you’re worth

Value and worth are based on  all sorts of things. There’s material value, namely, the kind of house you own, the kind of car you drive, the balance on your bank account. There’s emotional value, which I think means your support network, the people who are still there when you’re being whingy and clingy and annoying. In today’s fast-paced world, value is obviously placed on the person who can perform the most tasks within a set time frame. Words to describe this person might include dynamic, motivated, driven, dedicated.

From the cradle to the grave, it seems as if life can feel like a great big competition. Babies’ weight and height are constantly compared. From the moment our children start school, there are art competitions, handwriting competitions, sports days. Although our job as parents is to teach our kids that they can only do their best, somewhere along the these kids learn that it’s important to be the best, it’s important to win. Just today, my three and a half year old daughter came home, devastated because she didn’t win a game of musical chairs at playschool. She’s learning that sometimes she loses, that she can’t win all of the time. This is something that I as a parent must teach her, and yet, I can empathise with her. I know what it’s like to lose in a world where winning seems so important.

As the loyal followers of my blog will know (hi dad!) I’m on a six month career break at the moment, and although I am enjoying it, it’s hard as well. We are born into a society where we are taught from an early age that having the best job, the highest paying job is something we should aspire to. As a person with a disability, our narratives are quite different. First we are born, and most of the time our parents are told not to expect too much. If we live past  a week or two, that in itself would be a remarkable achievement. Our parents don’t love us objectively, however; to them, we are everything. They push us through the system, ignoring the derogatory comments, challenging the lack of educational supports, tolerating being called delusional and stubborn. They don’t accept that their children are not worthy of equal treatment, and in turn, as we grow older, we must continually challenge the system too, proving ourselves to be capable, autonomous individuals.

Historically, man’s worth has always been connected with their physical and intellectual strength. During the Stone Age, people with physical impairments were often left to die. During the Christian era, people with disabilities were viewed as objects of pity, as charity cases. Then of course Charles Darwin came up with his riveting ‘survival of the fittest’ theory, a notion that Hitler took very literally as he carried out ‘assessments’ on people with disabilities, where he decided whether people could live or die based on their physical and mental capabilities. Granted, Hitler was a lunatic – few would dispute that – but in spite of how controversial his plan of creating the perfect human race was, sometimes it feels that we haven’t moved far from the idea of equating somebody’s worth with what someone can physically do.

When I was in college studying feminism, we used to discuss something called ‘the virgin/whore dichotomy’. Basically, it was this notion that women were either one or the other, and that in failing to live up to the  ideal of  the perfect virginal woman, they were imperfect, damaged, inferior. I often feel that when a story is told in the media about disability, the subject is either portrayed as being super-inspirational or vulnerable. You know the stories I’m on about (I’ve  written some and been the subject of others), they normally go along the lines of ‘Despite being in a wheelchair and taking ten tablets a day, Joe has managed to learn Chinese and Computer programming,’ or ‘Because of the cutbacks to her Personal Assistant Service, Emma may not be  able to enjoy living independently in her own home for too much longer.’  Stories like the latter are often the only way to highlight how the recession has affected people with disabilities. We sacrifice our  dignity in order to get our point across. And I believe this should not be necessary.

People with disabilities have much to offer society, and they are worth far more than a paltry €30 on a Jobbridge Scheme. All the new plans to create jobs for people with disabilities are laughable because many of us don’t want to be segregated from the main workforce. All we want is equality, which is not the ability to do as much as our peers, but to be recognised as useful, productive members of society.  Hopefully the UN Convention on Human Rights for People with Disabilities will be ratified next year, even as a tokenistic gesture that everyone should have equal rights.

We are worth so much to society, and now it’s time for us to be more vocal and construct our own narratives. There is no  need to feel small and insignificant. Shout loud. Make sure your voice is heard. Don’t let people  make you think that your issues don’t matter because they’re only perceived to affect a small number of people.

We deserve equality, in spite of our limitations. We are worth  nothing less.

Budget 2016: What money can’t buy.

In less than 24 hours, we as a nation will be picking at the bones of Budget 2016, due to be announced today. I’m sure as always spending increases and cuts will be debated all over the internet. It’s depressing to think of the citizens of this country glued to the TV and Radio, waiting to hear if the Government is going to be generous this year after seven years of cutbacks that have left many families struggling to pay their bills. But as we all know, election time is coming, so I’ve no doubt that serious attempts will be made to dupe the masses into thinking that this  government really cares about the average Joe. I doubt it. Many of us are still struggling to keep our head above water, and the homeless crisis is starting to spiral out of control. And for people with disabilities- well – many of us seem to be stuck in some sort of twisted time warp.

In recent months, there has been some much-deserved focus on the problem of people with disabilities being stuck in outdated institutions, where they are mere recipients of basic care. Many of these people are cut off from their local communities, and have little choice over their everyday lives. Every new HIQA scandal is a reminder that the current model of service provision isn’t working. About 8,000 people, 1,000 of which are under twenty-seven, are now living in residential institutions. I cannot imagine having spent my twenties in a hospital-like setting. I spent my twenties partying my way through college, getting work experience and going on holidays abroad. I chose to get married and have a child.  I live in my own home. As a thirty-one year old woman, I am doing well for myself. As a thirty-one year old woman with a disability, I am living a dream that some of my peers cannot yet access. And it’s not right.

A few weeks ago a man who I have known and respected for ten years, veteran disability activist Martin Naughton, staged a three-day protest outside the Dail and was joined by many colleagues and friends. He urged for this government not to spend €450 million on maintaining and building new residential institutions for people with disabilities and instead  to allow access to individualised payments that would enable us to choose the services we need to live equally and independently. Predictably, the protest ended on a disappointing note, with no concrete commitments made to improving service provision for people with disabilities. According to the group of protestors named the People with Disabilities group, more than 68% of service users are currently dissatisfied with services provided to them. They claim this is because the people who use these services are chiefly recipients of them and do not direct them themselves.

Let me ask you a question – who is more knowledgeable on what I need, me, or a team of medical experts who have had their noses in books for the last six years? Each and every person with a disability knows what they need, and what they don’t need. Every day government money is being wasted on organisations and institutions who claim to know what’s best for us. When you have the privilege of working in the disability sector for over ten years, you see first hand the effects of the cutbacks that were made during the recession. I’ve seen high dependency clients’ hours being cut to the bare minimum, often to take them out of bed in the morning and put them back in the evening. I’ve seen people having to fundraise in order  to have their houses adapted after acquiring disability because the Housing Adaptation Grant is no longer available. I’ve read stories where people are forced to choose between heating and food. Medical Card revocation, stopping the mobility allowance… I could go on and on.

I followed the response to Martin Naughton’s protest on social media and online papers, and of all the comments left on thejournal.ie, Suzy Byrne managed to clearly articulate the crux of the matter. She wrote: ‘We don’t need celebrities patting us on the head – all they usually do is turn up to rattle buckets for us and get pictures in paper. Same with most politicians – this is the problem – disability is not seen as a human rights issue but one of charity. And too many able bodied people benefit from this in terms of jobs and wages and status in society.’ Every year, after the pre-budget submissions and the announcement of the budget itself, there is silence. The media’s focus on people with disabilities tends to involve the words ‘triumph over adversity’ or ‘inspirational’ or ‘vulnerable.’ These articles tend to also use words ‘brave’, ‘courageous’ and ‘heroic’. There is nothing heroic about having a disability, but trying to push past condescending bullshit and trying to perceived as equals who have so much to offer this country is heroic indeed.

And that’s why we need the Government to listen to us, the experts of disability and spend the money (paid by us, the taxpayers – even those who don’t work buy goods and services) the way that we see fit in order to enable us to be truly equal citizens in this country, worthy of dignity and self -respect, not merely rattling coins in charity buckets. All we want is equality, and this is something money can’t buy.

Oh, and if Enda could deliver on his promise to ratify the United Nations Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities, that’d be just peachy.