The Big Imposter

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned: it has now been four months since my last blog. I was browsing through it today and decided that I need to make more of an effort to post more often. But I have been writing, I promise. In fact, I decided that I needed to give my novel another chance, after leaving it on the back-burner for the last three years while I got distracted by various projects and courses. I did the Certificate in Disability Studies in 2019 with the view of trying to get another job in the disability sector, and all I have got from that so far is further confirmation that I want to be a full-time writer. Lucrative? Not in the slightest, but I love it. I’ve been doing it for seven years now, with no-one prodding me to write. I’ve gone out of my way to prove that the statement “working on my own initiative” on my CV is true, that’s for sure. And when I look back on my writing career as a whole, I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, how many people I’ve reached and how many opportunities I’ve been given, from Independent Living Movement Ireland (ILMI) in particular (a big thank you once again).

Yet, when the opportunity came to push myself a bit further, I was reluctant. In June, ILMI joined forces with Skein Press and The Stinging Fly, offering a bursary to an emerging disabled writer. I eyed the advertisement with relish, but dismissed it initially. It wasn’t a good time: our house was being renovated and we were living twenty minutes away in Mountmellick, and we were coordinating the renovation as well as trying to keep Alison’s routine normal. The whole ordeal was so overwhelming that I had to step back from activism before I burned out. Suffice to say, it was a busy time, and when I threw the first ten pages of what I would usually term “my excuse for a novel” into the ring, the last thing I expected was to get an email two weeks later to say I’d won.

Reader, I felt euphoric. It was the middle of the July heatwave, and I brought Alison for an ice-cream so chocolatey and stodgy that we needed full showers afterwards; the pack of baby wipes didn’t cut it. I was so proud of myself. I had done it: everything I’d written since 2015 had been leading up to that moment.

But the next morning, after I had sent my “yes please and thank you for this opportunity” email to Nidhi Eipe from the Play It Forward Programme, I felt a sickness in the pit of my stomach. Why did I do that? I won’t be able for it. I’m not a real writer. No way am I good enough for something like this. Nidhi sent me a list of potential mentors from which I had to pick someone to work with. A list of established authors, with their work published, who knew what they were doing. I panicked, and drafted two emails. One was to Nidhi to say thank you but clearly there had been a mistake and I wasn’t the woman for the job. The other was to the two facilitators of a group that I’m part of called Writers Ink, and I wrote that even though I had been awarded this bursary, I wasn’t sure how I was going to maintain a pretence of being a half-decent writer and that I was terrified of making myself look like an idiot.

Thankfully, I didn’t send either email, as I would have succeeded in looking like an idiot. Instead, I stepped away from my laptop and took a breather for a few days. How was I going to shake this feeling of being a complete imposter? How was I going to overcome this feeling of sheer terror?

And then it came to me: I would have to fake it. I would have to pretend that I was a competent writer, capable of writing a novel. You see, the trouble is that I have never really taken this writing thing seriously. I’ve been told by people that there are some hidden gems in these pages, and yet I treat it like a diary, something I think no-one will read (perhaps taking the adage “write as if no-one will ever read it” a bit too far). In reality, despite how far I’ve come, I don’t feel like a “real” writer, deserving of any attention, positive or otherwise. The only thing keeping me going is coming to my laptop every day, telling myself “I can do this,” then typing as fast as I can before I change my mind, or overanalyse what my character is doing.

I’ve been allocated a terrific mentor, author and poet David Butler, who makes me smile: he loves Rachel, my character. Better still, he gets her, which I wasn’t expecting this early in our mentoring journey. He has been so encouraging on this novel-writing journey which can often feel so lonely, and now that I have more (though not full) control over my imposter syndrome, I can take his compliments as well as his suggestions for improvements and feel a sense of pride in my work.

I would like to thank ILMI, the Stinging Fly, the Play It Forward team, Skein Press and David Butler for this incredible opportunity. I won’t let you down! 

…Hopefully, if I keep telling myself that, it might turn out to be true.

Home

Home!

On this sweltering hot Thursday afternoon, I am sitting in a first-floor apartment, overlooking the beautiful Lloyd town park below. This isn’t where I normally live; our house is undergoing some serious renovation work. Every night, I close my eyes and ask myself if I was actually mad to such extensive work to our charming little four bed which was, on the whole, perfectly fine, in the middle of a pandemic, no less (The answer is yes, by the way). Uprooting our child, surrendering our little baby (puppy) Troy into the hands of capable dog-sitters – God, I miss him so much! Was it worth it? I ask myself. Was it…necessary?

The answer to this is also yes. 

I’ve written before briefly about the deterioration of my physical impairment. Since then, I’ve been to physiotherapy a couple of times, and it’s really helped with the pain in my right knee. I’ve also been exercising a little more. I’ve even started eating more healthily, cutting down (though not out – let’s not lose the run of ourselves here!) on sugar and chocolate – which have been staples of my diet for as long as I can remember. (I was a picky child, and my mother reasoned that eating something was better than not eating at all). All of these changes have helped. I feel a bit better, slightly more energetic and, despite the chaos that’s unfolding in my world – not to mention the world in general – I feel more grounded and able to cope with the stress of it all. 

But here’s the upshot: no matter how healthy I eat, no matter how much physio I do, my wobbly body will always be unpredictable. Twenty years ago, I could have handled those concrete stairs in this apartment block more easily: okay, I might have still had to go up on my knees and down on my bum, but it certainly wasn’t the big palaver that I find it to be now. At the moment, I only leave the apartment when it is strictly necessary, or if I am going to be out for a couple of hours (though, admittedly, this is also COVID-related). Nothing is spontaneous at the moment; a simple trip to the shop is now a case of me psyching myself up to conquer my concrete nemesis yet again.

I shouldn’t moan, however. This is only temporary. Soon I shall be returning home – to my own home. A privilege that many people in this country – including many disabled people – can only dream of. When I was twenty-three, the recession of 2008 was still a year away, and I was living in a privately rented two-storey semi-d in Portlaoise. I was managing fine until one day, while carrying some laundry upstairs, I slipped and bounced down the stairs, landing awkwardly on the concrete below. As an expert in the art of falling, I had managed to preserve my head by tucking it into my chest as I landed. That was a wake-up call for me. I would not be able to adapt to my living arrangements indefinitely, not without making some serious changes.

It’s easy for me to understand why disabled people in their twenties, thirties and even beyond are still living in the family home. Firstly, accessibility is a major factor, not to mention a serious lack of rental properties at the moment. Then, if you are lucky enough to find somewhere semi-suitable, the cost of rent can reach over a thousand euro a month, and many landlords refuse to consider tenants on rent allowance or other benefits. Also, many landlords will not allow you to make necessary adaptations to their property, even simple ones such as installing grab rails in the shower. And sure, you can apply for a council house, but the process is a full-time job while you chase (often beg) your local councillors to advocate on your behalf. 

So what? I hear you ask. You may point out that there are many non-disabled people, particularly in the 20-40 age group bracket, in the same position. People with good jobs and incomes, who just can’t seem to get on the property ladder, or to find rental accommodation. 

For these younger disabled people, who still live at home but yearn to move out, there are even more complex issues coming down the line. Many disabled people are considered ineligible for Personal Assistance or Home Help services, either because they have a family member to care for them, or because said family member is claiming Carer’s Allowance for them. In some cases, family members find it difficult, for various reasons, to allow the disabled person to become independent. Often, not enough hours are offered to enable a disabled person to enjoy a decent quality of life, meaning that the person would not have adequate supports to live independently of their family (In 2017, a study revealed that almost half of disabled people who receive PA services are allocated the equivalent of forty-two minutes a day). Anecdotally, it is quite difficult for someone who is be considered “high dependency” to secure the level of assistance they need, especially at times that really suit them. Unless you have a telly in the bedroom, a good old-fashioned midnight Netflix binge is out of the question, and I have heard too many stories of people being put to bed at half eight at night.

The solution to enabling disabled people to live independently must be as multifaceted as the issue itself. Even if local councils provide more accessible housing, the only way disabled people are going to truly enjoy a rich and full life is if Ireland adopts a “rights-based” approach. This means having the opportunity to engage in meaningful and lucrative employment opportunities, for example – the pandemic has demonstrated that it’s possible for those employed in a wide variety of professions to work from home if necessary. It also means granting wider access to user-led services including Personal Assistance. This means having access to support how and whenever the disabled person chooses. However, until Personal Assistance is recognised as a right, true independent living remains a pipe dream.

As for me, I can’t wait to go back to my new, accessible home. I know that I am very lucky. But having a suitable roof over your head should not be a privilege. It must be recognised as a basic human right, for every one of us.

My Journey Into Activism

(This blog has been inspired by a group of stories which I hope will be published soon, called Conversations about Activism and Change)

 It was never my life ambition to work in, or to have much to do with the disability sector. I came from a background where much of the focus was on self-improvement, on getting better, on fitting in. The closest I had experienced to disability activism as a teen was when I stayed in Clochan House with a group of seven other disabled teenagers, (including my future husband!), and we decided to keep in touch. We worked together to raise money to go away for a week to Cuisle in Co. Roscommon, which was run by the Irish Wheelchair Association. I remember feeling lazy and as if I’d let the group down because I wasn’t comfortable with the notion of raising money. 

I remember one of the fundraisers entailed holding a raffle, and so I ventured out around my housing estate on my blue tricycle, knocking on doors for money. Some of these families could barely feed themselves. I remember going to one particular door. The garden was overgrown and the front step was unkempt, the paint chipped away. When I rang the doorbell an elderly lady answered, looking frightened. I think she was expecting to be mugged. She saw my money bag and the raffle tickets, and she felt sorry for me! This turned my stomach. I remember wishing that I could make a real difference, without having to blackmail others for money.

Having the privilege of availing of mainstream education had its drawbacks. I spent so much time trying to prove myself and fit in that I never gave any real thought into my identity as a disabled person. I always maintained that I wasn’t ashamed of my impairment, but yet I refused to embrace it. In secondary school, when I was exhausted from studying for my Leaving Cert, I was offered the use of a manual chair, but I turned it down. I thought that using it would mean that I was lazy and that I was somehow “less than”. Even though I realise now that some of the other students would’ve had learning disabilities, diagnosed or otherwise, I was one of three visibly impaired students in a school of seven hundred girls, and I couldn’t afford to draw more attention to myself. All I wanted to do in those days was fade into the background, pretend I didn’t exist. At times I wanted to do more than pretend and I know now, from hearing the stories of other disabled people, that I wasn’t alone in feeling isolated.

When I started my English undergrad in Trinity, my impairment didn’t seem to matter. From day one, the focus was very much centred around what could be put in place to make my life at university not only easier, but enjoyable. I was offered a laptop, a library assistant, notetakers, the use of an electric wheelchair, help with laundry and housekeeping. At first, I thought the disability service had gone overboard and that all these provisions would make me lazy, until I realised that the only thing standing between myself and a First-Class Honours was my attitude to my studies. All of the other barriers had been removed. This was my first true introduction to the social model, and it was empowering. When I completed my first year exams in Summer 2004, I decided to stay on in Dublin and I worked for Trinity’s Student Disability Service as an “access auditor”, possibly the toughest two months’ work I’ve ever done. Undertaking the audit taught me to approach inclusion from a cross-impairment perspective and to think of creative ways to remove the barriers to full access. Later, in 2011, when a pathway was constructed through the infamous cobbles in Front Square, I saw that even the seemingly immovable barriers could, in fact, be removed.

I learned so much living in Dublin for those four years, and most of it had nothing to do with English Literature. By the end of my second year, I was hungry for another summer living in Dublin. My Personal Assistant at the time tried to get me a job with PWDI [People with Disabilities in Ireland], but that didn’t work out. Trinity did not have the funding to take me back on that summer (although they took me back on for the following summer break, the summer of 2006). I started to panic. Trawling the small ads in College was unfruitful, and although I did secure some work as a freelance audio transcriber, it wasn’t enough to pay the bills. It was then that my PA came across a man called Martin Naughton, who said that he might have a job for me. I found this very weird. How could a man, who didn’t know the first thing about me, have a job for me?

Intrigued, I donned the cheap Dunnes Stores suit that I kept for job interviews and went with my PA to Chief O’Neill’s in Smithfield in Dublin. I remember waiting in the main seating area when a man in a red hat and red jumper whizzed into the room in his wheelchair. I remember feeling nervous and incredulous all at once. I’d never met a disabled person before that had that aura of self-importance, that sense of self—worth before. He was confident and unapologetic, and after five minutes of meeting him, I found myself wanting to be more like him. Little did I know that day that I was chit-chatting to one of the main founders of the Irish Independent Living Movement.

After bullshitting my way through the interview, which was more a rambling conversation about the definition and purpose of the ILM, I was told that I was the Dublin Leader Forum Coordinator and that I had to set up the Forum as per a working document written by Eugene Callan, who transpired to be nothing short of an absolute gentleman. I was offered the job much to my relief – the finances relied solely on it! – but at the baby-faced age of twenty-one, I hadn’t the foggiest idea what I was doing. And when I went to google Martin Naughton, it kept drawing blanks. I would soon learn about this great man and how his actions, alongside other activists, had such a profound direct impact on my life. Through working with Martin, I also had the opportunity to meet other people including Donal Toolan (from Inside I’m Dancing), Eileen Daly, Rosaleen McDonagh and Hubert McCormack. But these people were like no other disabled people I’d ever met before. They were talking about rights and taking back control from service providers and just fighting to live their best lives. I had never heard disabled people speak like this before. I just assumed it was a given that we had to fight for things and that we had to conform in some way. That summer changed my entire life, though I didn’t know it at the time.

In 2007 I graduated from Trinity with that all-useful English undergraduate degree and found myself pondering on what to do next. I did an interview for an internship with HP in Leixlip and I also wrote to Offaly CIL offering my services as a Creative Writing tutor. I got offered both jobs, but I turned down the Leixlip job, because it wasn’t worth the wages minus the rent in Leixlip at the time – the height of the Celtic Tiger. I still regret this; it may have altered my career path. A couple of months later, I was offered a FAS scheme as a “researcher” for OCIL. I was doomed from the outset. Having worked with Martin, I knew what independent living was supposed to look like but, being funded by the HSE, we had to be careful about projecting the conflicting messages of independence and restricted freedom. Furthermore, by September 2008, the threats of cutbacks to services started to become real, and I was reluctant to preach a message that could result in me losing my job. I constantly felt an inner conflict between wanting to keep my job and keeping true to the Philosophy. It was a miserable time that adversely affected my mental health. I went from being an occasional smoker to smoking heavily for two years. I lost interest in reading and writing. I even found myself sucked back into the throes of a dormant eating disorder. The most frustrating part of it was that I was passionate about Independent Living, about rights and equality for disabled people, but yet it felt like Independent Living was succumbing to the medical model. Often, I would go into work and spend the five hours scrolling through the internet. I would smile as I read about Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann and the emergence of a worldwide movement. But it felt like something that was “out there,” that I was not part of. And I yearned to be part of something exciting, something to be proud of.

In 2011, I decided that it was time to be brave and give my career a facelift. I was starting to feel like a liability in OCIL and I didn’t feel comfortable continuing as the tokenistic cripple in the office, so I contacted Declan Treanor in Trinity, who said he might have a job for me. I also started writing again in earnest and after a few months, set up my own blog – a Blogspot one – and starting sharing random scribbles and thoughts, which were surprisingly well received. Seasoned blogger Suzy Byrne even asked me to do a guest blog for her highly popular Maman Poulet, which was widely read and well received – an honour so early in my writing career. Declan asked me to interview the Provost of Trinity prior to his departure, in the hopes of pitching the article to the Irish Times. Things were starting to look up when, damn! – my brain stopped working for no apparent reason. Why was I so tired? I put it down to the extra work I was doing, on top of the job with OCIL, but I told myself I had to push back against the tiredness, that I’d have to get used to it. I was eating healthily, lots of exercise, going to bed early, but was still so drained.

On 18th June 2011, John Paul said to me, “Your last period was the second week of May, wasn’t it?”

Oh I’m hardly pregnant, I thought. I’m just drained from all the extra work I’m doing.

On 20th June, I did a pregnancy test. To my surprise (and I won’t lie, a fright also),  it was positive. Of course, this changed everything, but little did I know it – she – would be the best thing to happen to me. Because of the pregnancy, my brain continued to jellify over the coming weeks, and soon I had to abandon my plans of impressing Declan Treanor with my words. My focus was now preparing to welcome our child into the world, which involved countless meetings with public health nurses, physios and OTs. Pregnancy was such a magical but draining experience.  I was so tired all the time and I secretly wondered how I was going to muster up the energy to look after a small baby. I continued to work until a month before Alison was born. I was never going to win any “Employee of the Year” awards, but I managed to keep punching in time until the first week in January. I couldn’t really afford not to.

So, I have always been quite vocal about the challenges we faced as disabled parents when Alison was born. I feel that if my story can be used as an example of how new parents with disabilities shouldn’t be treated, then my story serves its purpose. The experience really shook me because I had lulled myself into a false sense of security.  I thought I’d done the sensible thing by reaching out to the “professionals” for help before my daughter was born. Once Alison was in my arms, the attitude quickly shifted and I confess, I was not strong enough to argue back like I once might have done. I found myself compromising instead of fighting my corner out of fear that if I didn’t, I would be bringing home an empty carseat from Mullingar Hospital. I initiated breastfeeding even though I had never intended on feeding her myself. I was willing to do anything to be able to bring this little baby home. As a result, after being told I would be a danger to my own baby, JP and I reluctantly agreed to have the Public Health Nurse visit on an almost daily basis. These “visits” lasted around six months, to the time I went back to work with OCIL. JP was understandably quite angry about the whole thing, but I was petrified. I wanted to just keep my head down and behave myself and not draw any attention to myself. Alison was about three months old when I realised I had PND. It is only this year that I finally sought professional help for this, and although it is hard, I do feel that I am healing at last.

After six months I went back to work and I enjoyed it for a while, until I became frustrated once again by the movement away from the true philosophy of IL. I really thought I was going mad and at every staff meeting I was getting myself into trouble by saying things like “care plans have nothing to do with the philosophy.” Coupled with the PND, I could barely get myself out of bed in the morning. I dreaded work, but couldn’t see a way out. Again, I was torn between my passion for equal rights and my need for a job. I was the PRO, but how could I send out a message about the philosophy of independent living that, because of the medicalisation of services, wasn’t being put into practice? I must say at this stage that OCIL were great employers. It wasn’t their fault, they were working in the face of constant threats of cutbacks, which was very stressful.

In September 2012, a group of disability activists staged a three-day “action” outside Leinster House in retaliation to proposed cutbacks to disability services. Had these cutbacks gone ahead, I would’ve lost my job and PA service at the same time, which in turn would have subjected me to further scrutiny about my parenting abilities from the HSE. Luckily for many leaders like myself across the country, Health Minister James Reilly was forced to back down and reverse the proposed cutbacks. But of course, this was not the end of our woes, and to this day I still hear stories of hours being reduced to allow a disabled person the bare minimum to get up out of bed in the morning and go back to it in the early evening. What kind of life is that for anyone? 

The 2012 protests awakened a sense of radicalism in me, and I began to question my own beliefs. Did I truly believe in equality for all disabled people, or only for some of us? Was everybody truly capable of Independent Living? I decided that if I didn’t truly believe that everyone- regardless of the nature or severity of their impairment – were entitled to live as they wished with the support that they needed, that I was not as progressive as I imagined myself to be. I realised that in order to be an activist, I needed to unpack my own internalised oppression, which I think will be a lifetime journey for me. I needed to trust in myself and my own worth, and I needed to be open to learning afresh what independent living meant – for everyone.


In 2014, depression took over and paralysed me. When you’re drowning and gulping in deep water, you can feel yourself sinking; you can feel the gravity sucking you down, but you can’t shout for help – at least, that’s how I felt. In July 2014, I wasn’t sleeping at all between Alison having the normal childhood illnesses like chicken pox, and feeling completely restless and depressed at once. The accumulation of depression and sleepless nights led to an incident where I attempted to take my own life. It remains the most frightening moment of my entire life. I remember abandoning the plan at 6am that morning and going to bed, only to get back up with Alison at 7.30am to get her ready for the childminder and me for work. That’s the lowest I’ve ever been, and touch wood things have never been so bad since.

That day, my colleagues took me aside and told me that they thought it best if I took time off work to sort myself out. I think they had said the words that I’d been so desperate to hear. I just needed a break, a bit of headspace, and to learn how to be kinder to that sad-looking lady who stared back at me from the mirror every morning. 

Within a week, I’d decided that I needed to step back from independent living for a while and focus on forging a writing career of sorts. I signed up for a journalism course with Kilroy’s College and was surprised to learn how much I’d missed writing. I decided that I needed to make writing a priority for my mental health. It felt like writing was the only thing that would make me feel like myself again. But in one of the lessons, the instruction was to write about what I knew. What did I know the most about? – Independent Living. I started writing about independent living in a way I’d never felt comfortable doing before. In my blogs, which I would say are entirely my own views and opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of any organisation or people, I questioned the status quo of how services were funded and provided to disabled people in Ireland, and how, since the recession, disabled people had lost so much control over every aspect of their lives. 

I had always felt so alone in my frustrations, so it was a huge surprise to see that when I started sharing the blogs, people were agreeing with what I had to say about the realities facing me as a disabled person in Ireland. I started writing about myself, but in no time at all, “I” became “we” and I had the support of a like-minded community I didn’t even know existed. The blogs started to be widely shared and discussed -my humble words that I wrote in the secrecy of my office, enveloped safely in my oversized bathrobe – were being read by activists and allies across the globe. It’s quite humbling and also frightening because I keep forgetting that it’s a global platform – more often than not, I treat it like my own personal diary, which I probably should stop doing… after this post, of course.

A year of blogging, writing novels and articles, and doing a Creative Writing course flew by, and my confidence was growing.  I was moving away from Independent Living, and I missed it, but still felt conflicted. Then, just as I had given up hope of contributing anything valuable to the Irish disability movement, my friend and mentor- the guy who had taken a chance on me in 2005 – the great Martin Naughton, passed away in October 2016. I didn’t expect to feel so upset and lost. Nor did I expect to be given an opportunity to show him how much he had meant to me.  A week after the funeral, Susan O’Brien from Carmichael House contacted me and asked would I like to get involved in organising an event to commemorate Martin and other activists. I jumped at the chance.

A group of us met in Carmichael House in Dublin to discuss what form this event would take. There, I met the great John Doyle who I’ve written about before, and Ann Marie Flanagan, Dermot Hayes and Shelly Gaynor, who I now regard as one of my closest friends. From day one I felt accepted, although I’d never met any of them before. They were talking about rights and they were so energetic and ambitious, and I yearned to be a part of that. I offered to set up a blog promoting the event and to be trusted to do that was the highest honour. I also offered a piece of drama which my peers encouraged me to perform at the event in the Mansion House in September 2017. These people were pushing me far beyond my comfort zone in every way, and I loved it. 

The event became a catalyst for the regrouping of the Independent Living Movement. To my absolute glee, I found that there were people like me who wanted to bring back passion and excitement to the movement. Hearing the stories of more seasoned activists ignited a hunger in me. I was warmly welcomed by my peers and I felt a real sense of community that I never felt before. I felt like I belong. In April 2018 I was co-opted to the Board of what became a new, vibrant organisation – Independent Living Movement Ireland. Had I not found my own writing voice, I might never have been offered that opportunity. I need to stop underestimating the power of this humble little blog!

It’s been a busy time, and over a short period ILMI has progressed from being an organisation that only a few people had heard of, to being one of the main promoters of disability rights in Ireland. During the pandemic, ILMI has actively facilitated the growth of the modern-day Independent Living Movement via Zoom, ensuring that even in these difficult circumstances, the voices of disabled people are heard. Over the last three years, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to write a short dramatic monologue, several articles and blogs, and even to compile a collection of twelve activists’ personal journeys. ILMI have been very good to me, and I am thankful to them for that.

Going forward, I hope to do more writing. Life is too short to regret the words not written. Of course disability is not everything, and I want to write about other things, and I have a few projects and stories in the pipeline that I hope will come to fruition, but I’m not ashamed to be a disability blogger. At least people can take or leave it, and I’m not going around the neighbourhood looking for stray coppers.  I want to play a part in making improvements – wider societal improvements that’ll benefit us all – that will lend us a sense of equality and belonging.

Forgiveness, Please!

So, where have I been in the monotony of lockdown, I hear many of you ask. Well, like many of you, I have been homeschooling and sorting out my house. Actually, that last part is a lie. I’ve been sorting out my head – after years of using this blog as some sort of replacement therapist, I started talking to a real one, a qualified one instead. If you have the money, I strongly recommend it. Even though I’ve written about my mother dying and the trauma surrounding Alison’s birth/first homecoming, I’ve never relayed any of the feelings behind these things to a professional, and now, at a time when I have far too much time to think, I decided that it was the right time to tackle my demons and get my real life back. And I have to say, it’s going far better than expected. I feel so different, and more like myself. Look, I’m even writing a blog – it’s a miracle!

We started talking about Alison’s birth and the emotional rollercoaster that came with that, the unfairness of the scrutiny we were under and how it affected my mental health to the point where I stupidly fought Postnatal Depression on my own. She responded with things like “that was hard” and “that was so unfair and clearly damaging”, which made me feel validated in what I felt. Then, at the end of the session, she sent me a worksheet – on forgiveness.

My first reaction was, “Well, clearly she wasn’t listening as well as I thought if she thinks for a second that I can forgive the feeling of being scrutinised, not to mention the subsequent three years (and probably longer, if we’re being honest) of depression.” I shut down my laptop, walked away in anger. I’m not ready to forgive, I thought. That time after Alison was born damaged my confidence, and my relationship with my husband and my child. I felt deprived of the freedom to make mistakes like other mothers. I had been subjected to excessive scrutiny, making an already stressful time, even more so.

But a couple of days before my next counselling appointment, I opened up the file again and read it. Forgiveness is not about forgetting how you were wronged, it is about letting go of anger. I realised that I had been carrying anger around for a long time, and that it was now exhausting me. I realised how, sadly, that anger led me to decide that I couldn’t face having any more children in case the same thing happened again. That anger and fear stopped me from seeking help at a time when I needed it most. Every year, I find Alison’s birthday overwhelmingly emotional because those memories and feelings come flooding back.

And I started to think more closely about the anger that I was feeling. I cannot deny that some good things have come from that anger. I started writing about my experiences as a disabled parent because of it. Many of my peers came to me for advice on starting a family and accessing services on the back of those angry words. I became involved in the (Re)al Productive Justice Project, where I spoke about my experiences with the Health services, both positive and negative, and in doing so, highlighting the physical and attitudinal barriers to parenthood for disabled people. I’ve spoken at the International Disability Summer School about the shortcomings of the maternity services for disabled parents. I’ve written blogs and magazine articles. My blog was quoted in an academic study of disabled writers by Elizabeth Grubgeld, Disability and Life Writing in post-independent Ireland. Most recently, my blog was included in a radio segment called “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which documented a range of women’s stories, some of whom had given birth in mother and baby homes. It was the first time that I considered my story to be part of a wider picture, the ongoing injustices against mothers and their children in Ireland. So I am proud of the part my story has played in this wider narrative.

However, if this stupid pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that life is delicate. It’s short. It’s so precious. And now that I am really ready to heal properly, I don’t want to waste any more time seething in resentment and pain. I want to enjoy my life. So here goes…

To the medical professionals who doubted me, and in turn made me doubt myself – I forgive you.

To the Public Health Nurse, for your scrutiny – I forgive you.

To anyone who expressed doubt when I needed your support – I forgive you.

To those who judged me – I forgive you.

And finally – to that face that looks back at me in the mirror every day, who gave your baby the jar food instead of cooking fresh, who gave (and still gives!) their kid way too much iPad time when times got tough. Who saw seeking help as a sign of weakness, who made some crappy parenting decisions (but a lot of decent ones too) – I forgive you too.

And that forgiveness feels so good.

Medical Model vs Social Model vs Self

Last Monday evening I sat on my kitchen chair, biting my lip, unable to stop the tears falling from my eyes. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was exhausted, and in so much pain. I was also frightened by how out of control I felt. How had I got here, at the tender age of thirty-six? The pain was shooting into the back of my knee and every time I stood up, my right leg crumbled beneath me.

You see, I fell in September. Outside, while crushing a plastic bottle so that it’d fit into an overflowing recycling bin. Falls are nothing new to me; I fall so often that I’ve actually learned how to fall in order to protect my head. I normally have pain for ten minutes, tops, and am then able to mosey about my normal business. But since this particular fall, my right leg and I have been at odds. I’ve been exercising, resting it, applying hot water bottles, taking painkillers, going without painkillers. Nothing seems to work.

The truth is, I have had a somewhat troubled relationship with my body. It began with the prescribed physiotherapy as a child which continued into my teens and continued through the stubbornness of my right leg which turned inwards (and still does), tripping me over. I tried in vain to straighten out my leg. I did the physio, I had botox. I resisted using a wheelchair until my early twenties. But I succumbed, and my internalised oppression tells me that this is why I’m suffering now, that this is somehow my own fault.

I’ve been really busy this year, which has left no time for writing. Trying to navigate the emotional ups and downs that come with a global pandemic, with a terrified child, has been exhausting. Then I became involved in various projects with Independent Living Movement Ireland, and suddenly I hadn’t the time to write that I used to. Lately, however, my body has forced me to slow down and reflect, and once again I find myself questioning the same things. Given this pain that I’m currently experiencing, to what extent is disability really located outside of myself? I live by the principles of the social model and one of its architects, the late Michael Oliver, once proclaimed that “disability has nothing to do with the body.” So if I believe that disability is caused by barriers, am I supposed to ignore whatever it is my body’s trying to tell me? To fight for my rightful place in society, do I need to leave my Cerebral Palsy at the door and focus exclusively on political action?

After spending too much time feeling sorry for myself, I began to consider my next move. It doesn’t look as though this pain is shifting anytime soon and I want – need – to start writing again. Maybe even start working again, more than the odd bits I’ve been doing.  I transcribed a number of podcasts and compiled a collection of stories about the Independent Living Movement, and now that’s nearing completion, I’m thinking about what to do next. Finish my novel? Do another course? Compile another poetry collection? Whatever I choose to do,  I know I’m going to need supports in place in order to do it. I went and got a special chopping board the other day which in theory means that I can now prep food in half the time. I put a grabrail with suction cups on my front door so that I can pull it closed behind me when I’m in the wheelchair. I have a shower chair, and a grabrail on my bed. I also have a Personal Assistant Service (reduced because of Covid) who help me do chores – they can do certain tasks that would take me hours in a matter of minutes! This allows me the energy I’ve needed to compile those stories, which is my biggest achievement this year.

And, eventually, Covid will piss off. But I will still be disabled (in the social model meaning of the word). The aftershocks of the extra money that the government is currently spending, coupled with the deep recession that we are heading into, means that the funding of a true PA service that allows disabled people to have full control over our lives, may once again be threatened, as although the legislation allowing for the provision of Personal Assistance has passed through the Seanad, it hasn’t yet been signed into law. Decisions about what kind of supports are available to us are still being made by medical experts; we are not fully trusted to decide what we feel is best for ourselves.

And while I have to silently contemplate what it means to be a wobbly yummy mummy now approaching my late thirties, I must try harder to remember that my quality of life should not, and will not, be dictated by my impairment. However, it certainly would be enhanced by having access to the correct products and services, chosen and controlled by me. I have so much more to achieve, to do and see, and to give. 

I cannot be fixed. But our society sure as hell can. So let’s roll up our sleeves and keep building a better, more inclusive future.

Institutionalised

I am eight years old. My parents are in the front of the car, I’m in the back. I’m the only one of my siblings who is being spoiled with one of these many trips to Dublin. They want to look at me again, to bend my legs back and forth, to mock me by “testing” the strength in my arms. At least it’s a day off school, I suppose, a day free from being reminded that unlike my classmates, I can’t knit. I can’t run. I am not like the others. The others don’t make these trips to Dublin.

I am outside a brown building. Coming out of the automatic doors is a little boy, around my age. He is wearing exaggerated metal splints around his stick-thin legs and walking like a tin man. He stands out, he’s too obvious; he might as well be wearing a bell and shouting “leprosy!” I’ve been threatened with these splints a number of times. A punishment for my legs, for not cooperating. Inside, I am stripped down, exposed. The experts stick markers to my legs and calls them diamonds. Then I walk and walk and walk. I am tired, but I am told to keep going. Push that body. Don’t let it defeat you.

Now I’m ten. We’re staying with my aunt in Belfast. Well, mum and I are staying here. We’ve been coming up and down for weeks, going to the Musgrave Park Hospital. I wear the special markers again and the computer shows the doctors how my muscles move. I walk up and down and up and down. The doctors tell me I am a supermodel, and it must be true, because only supermodels could have their bodies scrutinised and discussed at every angle. They’re recommending botox to loosen my muscles, so I can walk better. Mum tries to make a joke of it, saying that she would love botox. Perhaps, after all this time, this botox will make my life better. Yes, this is the miracle cure I’ve been waiting on since forever. After waiting in a hospital bed for what feels like days, they give me the injection to the back of my right calf, and I am disappointed. Surely to be made normal, I must be ripped apart and sewn back at the seams?

I’m fourteen. To appease my mother I’ve gone into respite, knowing that in spite of her insistence, I won’t enjoy it one bit. I wake up on the first morning to find a nurse, evidently bored on the night shift, unpacking my things. I’m angry, yet I don’t interrupt. There’s no point: she won’t understand my anger. Instead I lie there, silently watching her as she judges my clothes, raises her eyebrows at the sweets my mum packed me. She checks every corner of my suitcase. I feel invaded, but I’m not sure if I am justified in this. Maybe this is just something we disabled people have to put up with. I don’t like it one bit.

Transition Year and one month off my seventeenth birthday. I’ve written a play, and the year head has agreed to allow the drama teacher and I to produce and direct it. This is the beginning of a blossoming writing career. I have so much to do, but I am not in school. Instead I am in Dun Laoghaire, the NRH to be exact.  I am to get two weeks’ intensive physio-, speech- and occupational therapy. Have I any idea how lucky I am? I’m only in TY, I’m told. I won’t miss much. I am put on the children’s ward. The girl in the bed next to me is called Stephanie. She becomes breathless when she tries to talk, but she is sweet. She’s also frighteningly institutionalised. She is my age and has been here a few months, but has already forgotten what life outside is like. The happiest part of her week is when one of the nurses does her nails. Life here is regimented. On the first day I wake up looking for a shower, and I’m told that showers are not an everyday thing. Instead I am presented with a basin of soapy water and told to wash myself. On my days to shower, despite my insistence that I can manage, I am told that it is unsafe for me to shower alone. I have to tolerate a stranger touching me, seeing my bits and pieces (“nothing we haven’t seen before” they say cheerily)  as I am scrubbed much like a horse might be. The nurses laugh at my embarrassment. Typical teenager. But I am not a typical teenager. If that were true, I would be in my home economics class, not here. We go to bed with a video at half eight. I haven’t gone to bed this early since I was eleven. It’s not really an opportunity to rest, either: people need to be turned and toileted during the night, sometimes people cry out for assistance. I am only here for two weeks, but the memory of it will last a lifetime. They prescribe lots of physio. Even now, at thirty-five, I still do it. It’s good for me.

I’m still in Transition Year, back in the safety of my own routine in Tullamore. I’ve done work experience in the Tullamore Tribune, and my play is about to go live to an audience of four hundred people over two nights. It feels surreal; it’s what I’ve always wanted, and yet I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. I also feel exposed, as these characters are based on real-life people that I know and love. I also feel immensely proud and validated that my teachers trusted me with the task of writing and producing this play. In a parallel universe, we have to visit the National Learning Network as part of the “Community Care” module.  It’s an alternative to college for disabled people, people like me. As I sit listening I recognise its merits, but I also find myself wondering whether there is more to life. Will I end up in a day care centre in my twenties, drinking tea and making idle chit-chat about the weather? The prospect terrifies me, though I don’t know why. In many ways it may be easier than the mainstream route, but I am stubborn. Too stubborn sometimes.

So I enter fifth year, still terrified. I am just another number, I tell myself. Nothing special about me. I’ve convinced myself that the only way to avoid that day care centre is to study. I resolve to get enough points to get into Trinity, although I have no idea what I’m going to do after I get my degree. I become fixated with this aim; it’s the only thing that keeps me going.  My life revolves around school. I stop eating, watching with satisfaction as my belly shrinks into nothing. I am normal, I tell myself. I don’t stop studying until after midnight every night. I silently cry my way through lessons, despising my own weakness. I am lonely, but I don’t have time to go out gallivanting at weekends. I have no choice. I must do this. The Leaving Cert nearly breaks me, but I conquer it. Great triumph over adversity story. I am going to Trinity.

Trinity is a different world. I am equal here. With the right supports in place, I blend into the background, silently struggling with imposter syndrome. I can’t compete with these genii who claim to have been reading Jane Austen since they were five. I struggle in silence. I got a scholarship to go here. If I ask for help, people might think that I’m a dumbass and kick me out. I’ve resolved to leave when I am compelled to confide everything in Orlaith and Declan, the disability officers. They tell me not to leave. They also confirm something that I have suspected my entire life: that there is nothing wrong with me and that we need to use our inner fire to eliminate barriers for disabled people. I shamefully tell them I broke my electric wheelchair by bringing it across Front Square, but they don’t berate me (much!!). Instead they insist that the solution is to build a level-access pathway across the cobbles. I start to think that if an institution as old and as steeped in history as Trinity College is can make such dramatic changes, then there is no excuse for the rest of the world not to make these changes too.

During my time at Trinity, I learn so much more than how to write a critical essay. I learn how to be independent, how to cook, how to work and pay my bills. Every morning I wake up, and know that I have choices. I don’t always make the right ones, and having that freedom to fail and learn from those mistakes is vital. For example, one month I spend my rent money on God knows what and have to spend the next few months eating cereal. A hard but important lesson! I leave Trinity with the second class honour that was so important to me, though now I can’t remember why. I don’t even have the Latin parchment on display, I think it’s in my attic somewhere. After I leave college, I have no idea what I’m going to do. I feel like I’m leaving part of myself on campus, but with the grey buildings and the beautiful campanile and the leafy trees and students in their dufflecoats, I forget I’m not in the real world. The real world is cruel and it reminds me of my place: outside it. I apply for hundreds of jobs, but I do not get called for a single interview. What was I thinking, I berate myself, nobody would want a useless cripple.

Eventually, I am thrown a lifeline and Offaly Centre for Independent Living offers me a job. Mum tells me she was happier when I got offered a six-month internship with HP, an experience which would’ve cost me more money than it was worth. But I am delighted, and I still look back on my time there with fondness. My job is ridiculously easy. It is the emotional toll that is harder. I learn all about independent living and equal rights only to discover that these are only theories and that in reality Independent living cannot be achieved. I witness people becoming afraid to ask for what they wanted as the focus shifts to what people need at a basic level. There’s no money, we are constantly told at staff meetings.  We need to prioritise services, get people out of bed. Nothing we can do about it, we are told. Things are tight at the moment. I am an upstart, a troublemaker. I am not cooperating. I find myself trapped in an institution of my own, the dark depths of my own mind. I think back to my own respite stays of my childhood and feel physically sick at the thought of them being a long term arrangement, for me or for anyone.

It bothers me, even now in my position of privilege – I live independently, in my own home, with my husband, daughter and naughty little puppy – that there are people out there who are incarcerated by circumstances not of their own making. Many are living in hospitals either because their own houses are not wheelchair accessible, or because there are not enough ‘community supports’ like home helps and Personal Assistants, and it annoys me. It annoys me because I know that I am lucky. It annoys me because I constantly feel that I have dodged a bullet. It bothers me to hear about disabled people who are ready and willing to contribute to our economy being stuck at home because only their personal care needs are being met. It infuriates me sometimes that I was naively led to believe that disabled people could ever be viewed as equal when the story on the ground, as well as the lived reality, seems to be disturbingly different.

Sometimes, I wish I didn’t care. That I could get on with my life and writing and ignore the many rights that are being denied to disabled people at the moment. I’m not trying to make myself out to be a martyr, I promise. All I’m saying is why must there always be barriers to break through, obstacles to overcome? Why do I say the same thing over and over again to the point where I’m nearly boring myself?

Because, dear reader, I know what the alternatives are. And I never want to become institutionalised, in body or mind. I reserve the right to live a life of my own choosing, and I’m lucky to be free to exercise that right.

I am getting older now. My body – my fabulously unpredictable body – is letting me down in ways it never did before. It is scary, and I know that it is partly my own fault. But this is my vessel. It will never be perfect, it cannot be fixed, and nor would I ever want it to be. This was the way I was made – not worse or better, just me – and after all these years, believing that makes me stronger than any physio regime ever could.

Power to change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disability Rights are Human Rights

So, it’s happened, as many predicted it would – a general election has been called for the 8thFebruary, 2020. What an underhanded move, don’t you think? To call an election due to take place within three weeks? The short timeframe leaves us all scrambling to make our cases, to highlight pressing issues to election candidates in the hope that somehow, our electorates will improve our quality of life.

 

However, there is something that’s been bothering me, something that I need to clarify once and for all with you, dear reader. You may have noticed, that as a writer, I am in danger of pigeon-holing myself; after all, the name of this blog is “wobbly yummy mummy”. The keywords I use most, according to the word map located to the right of this blog are “disability”, “independent living” and “equality”. When I established this blog six years ago, I intended it to become a platform for a diverse range of subjects, not just disability activism. Yet, I don’t think of it as time wasted, nor do I worry whether it will impact on my future writing career. I’m proud of this blog, and what it represents. Above all, my writing serves as a reminder to all who read it that –

 

Disability Rights Are Human Rights

 

This reminder comes as the nation ramps up to challenge those who think they hold the solution to the many problems facing people in this country right now. Often, when organisations purporting to represent the needs of disabled people deliver their manifestoes to the vote-seeking candidates, they are told by the election hopefuls that they understand the importance of services for disabled people, that they want to protect those who are “vulnerable” within our society. That said, few candidates understand that it’s not our impairments that make us vulnerable, but rather the lack of access, services and respect that we as disabled people face on a daily basis.

The reality is that disabled people’s lives are affected in deeper ways by the government’s unwillingness to treat us as equals. It has been recently reported that Ireland is the worst country in Europe to have an impairment or disability, and this doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. One of the biggest challenges is that disabled people are still treated as “patients”, people who, in the words of prominent activist, the late Martin Naughton “are to be cared for rather than cared about.” We have to ask ourselves whether things can ever drastically improve for disabled people in Ireland as long as the HSE is the principal funder of disability services. Does this mean that disability will always be seen as a medical issue rather than a form of social oppression, like racism? Which, of course, is exactly what it is.

Progress

It would be amiss of me to imply that there have been no glimmers of hope in the last three years. On 7 March, 2018, Ireland finally ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. On November 19, 2019, a motion was brought to the Seanad by Donegal TD Thomas Pringle in collaboration with NUI Galway and Independent Living Movement Ireland (ILMI) to legislate for a Personal Assistant Service. This has been a monumental step not only towards securing a service for disabled people often described as “my arms and my legs” but bringing about a change in the overall narrative of disability. It was the first time in a long time that I observed the language that was used being focused on a rights-based approach rather than the usual “vulnerable” narrative. And although the safety of the future of personal assistant services is still not guaranteed, I feel optimistic about the future of disabled people right now.

But – and there’s always a but – we cannot and should not rely on elected representatives to speak on our behalf. Historically, disabled people have had to suffer the humiliation of not having their voices heard. This starts on a seemingly innocuous level, in our everyday lives, when our family members or personal assistants are spoken to instead of us being spoken to directly. This is referred to as the “does he take sugar” syndrome, and evolves into a warped reality where the views of disabled people are only taken seriously when they are endorsed by a “disability organisation”. I know that my little blog does not have the reach that I would like it to have, and while I would never claim to be the expert on disability issues, I know how exclusion, lack of access and discrimination, both direct and indirect, impacts on my everyday life.

My point is – we need to trust ourselves. We need to truly believe that we as disabled people, and we alone, know what’s best for us. If we don’t believe this – and it’s shocking how many disabled people doubt themselves because of internalised oppression – then the big decisions will be made for us. Where we live, who assists us, our dreams and the nitty-gritty of our own lives will never be in our hands.

So to reiterate: The issues facing the population as a whole also face disabled people.

 For example, disabled people are aversely affected by the housing crisis. Many adult disabled people, just like non-disabled people, are still stuck living at home with their parents. Others are living in hospitals or nursing homes for the elderly because there is no accessible housing available or because they don’t have access to Personal Assistant Services. There are no figures available to show how many of the 10,000 people who are currently homeless are disabled people, but logically people with a varied range of impairments would be logistically unable to access certain hostels and emergency accommodation.

The rising costs of living means that disabled people in Ireland (like many others) are forced to eat nutritionally deficient food such as breakfast cereal, pasta or packaged soup, because they must save money for heating and other bills, or because they lack the assistance needed to prepare a more substantial meal. And the free travel pass, which was intended to reduce isolation among disabled people from their communities, is useless when buses are inaccessible and both urban and rural train stations are unmanned.

Should I have the chance to meet any of the election hopefuls face-to-face, I shall be reminding them that disabled people are demanding their human rights, that the government urgently needs to invest in all of our lives, that we should have access to the same services and opportunities as the “non-disabled” population and, above all, that we have been very patient. We have watched the deterioration of vital services and yet the outcry has been barely audible. We have tolerated cutbacks, the denial of basic rights, the compartmentalisation of our needs into “special needs” for far too long.

We refuse to do it any longer.

We refuse to be spoken for any longer.

Henceforth, we will be collectively using our voices and demanding our human rights.

Personal Assistance Should Be a Right

(This article was first published in the Tullamore Tribune week ending 20 December 2019. Many thanks to Ger Scully, editor of the Tribune, for this).

On the 19 November 2019, the possibility of legislating for Personal Assistance as a legal right was debated by the Dáil. The motion was brought forward by Donegal TD Thomas Pringle from Independents For Change, who worked in collaboration with Independent Living Movement Ireland (ILMI) in promoting the right for disabled people to access Personal Assistance in Ireland.

 

The Personal Assistance Service and Independent Living are intertwined. In their truest form, Personal Assistants are not “carers”, nor do they have the right to make decisions on behalf of the disabled people they work for. A Personal Assistant has been defined by many as “my arms and my legs”, in other words, the role of a Personal Assistant is to assist with or perform tasks that the disabled person (known as a “Leader”) cannot do for him or herself. The Leader is considered to be the expert in their own needs and directs the Personal Assistant on what he/she wants done. When the service is delivered properly, the PA does not “look after” the Leader, but rather enables him or her to live a fulfilling life – enter employment, access education, enjoy social events and raise a family – depending on the Leader’s own life goals.

 

In theory, a Leader’s service is customised to suit his or her own lifestyle. However, in reality, only a select few disabled people in Ireland are enjoying the full benefits of Independent Living. Since the onset of the recession in 2008 the lack of financial resources, coupled with a growing demand for a Personal Assistant Service, has led to overmedicalised assessments and more stringent criteria, leaving many disabled people with little or no service. Emphasis has been placed on “high dependency needs” such as feeding, showering and dressing. While this might make sense to the powers that be, in reality this can lead to a depressingly low quality of life for the Leader concerned, being all dressed up and nowhere to go.

 

Many Leaders make a distinction between a “home-help” service and a PA service. A home help works to a rota provided by a care organisation and merely assists clients with basic tasks such as Personal Care and feeding. Often, a client has little or no say in what tasks they can be assisted with, nor do they have control over who delivers these tasks. It is not uncommon for a “client” to be assisted by many different people, and a disabled person might not know who is assisting them from one day to the next. Conversely, a Personal Assistant is recruited by the Leader themselves, and matching personalities, as well as a willingness to carry out certain tasks, is a crucial element to the success of any PA/Leader relationship.

 

The original intention behind the service was that the Leader could dictate what they wanted to do and when, just like every other person in this country. Moreover, the philosophy of independent living espouses that the Leader should choose who assists them, what they need assistance with, and when. A distinct benefit of the PA service is that it reduces our reliance on our family and friends so that we can enjoy a relationship as equals, not as “carer” and “cared for”.

 

However, in spite of the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCPRD), Personal Assistant Services are not currently a right for disabled people in Ireland. Consequently, this leaves the service vulnerable to the constant threat of cutbacks, as the government illustrated in 2012 when it endeavoured to eradicate the entire service overnight. People power alone, in the form of demonstrations outside the Dáil saved the service, but the PA service in its current form is not allowing disabled people to enjoy a reasonable or enjoyable quality of life. A report published by ILMI in 2017 conveyed that nearly half of people in receipt of PA services were getting the equivalent of 45 minutes a day. This is entirely unacceptable and clearly illustrates the need to legislate for PA Services.

 

Therefore, the motion which was brought before the Dáil and subsequently passed unanimously was a hugely historic day for disabled people in Ireland. It heralded a shift away from the notion of disabled people as passive recipients of care to people who had human rights and who deserved access to the tools that enable them to participate equally in society. For the first time, Personal Assistance was debated in the Dáil using the language of rights, signalling a shift away from the misperception that disabled people are merely passive recipients of care.

 

Alas, although this small battle has been won (and how sweet the victory does taste!) the work for those who want equality for disabled people is far from over. We cannot afford to be complacent or to take anything for granted. Now is the time to educate people, to create awareness of the importance of our PA services and to ensure that our government delivers on its promise to make independent living a basic human right.

 

For more information on the ILMI #PASNOW Campaign, visit www.ilmi.ie or follow us on Facebook www.facebook.com/ILMIreland  or Twitter @ILMIreland

 

Remembering John Doyle

It was October 13, 2016. Martin Naughton had just died, and the entire disability community was in mourning. Martin’s death was at a time when I had made a monumental decision, for the thousandth time. I was ready to kiss the world of disability activism goodbye and become a full-time freelance writer. I had spent too long caring about the degeneration of the philosophy of independent living. I had blogged about it, spoken about it and still I felt empty inside, as if the wonderful, magical world of Independent Living only existed in fairy tales.

A week later, I received an email from the wonderful Susan O’Brien in Carmichael House Centre for Independent Living (or Independent Living Movement Ireland as it is now known) asking me if I would be interested, along with other activists, in organising an event to pay tribute to Martin, who was considered to be the Irish Father of the Independent Living Movement. I accepted Sue’s kind invitation, and a week later found myself sitting like an imposter among some of the greatest activists in Ireland: Dermot Hayes, Ann Marie Flanagan, Mick Nestor and the legendary Shelly Gaynor (Shelly had been to the forefront of many protests against cutbacks to Personal Assistant Services). There was another man there who seemed oddly familiar: even though I’d never met him before in my life, I felt like I’d known him a long time. His name was John.

As the group discussed plans for the memorial event, John’s enthusiasm struck me and inspired me to volunteer to manage the social media and create a blog for the event. I felt more confident in my own voice and started to open up and share my ideas. In December 2016, I started talking to John over Facebook about how disillusioned I’d become with Independent Living in Ireland and how I felt that things had become overmedicalised.

“We are the experts in our own lives,” he said. “The HSE supports the medical model. They will never understand the true meaning of Independent Living or rights.” I offered the idea that we could educate those within the HSE, but John was having none of it. Over the following weeks we fought, we clashed, we agreed on some points. John said that it was important to have those conversations, to make things clearer in my own head.

At this point, there was talk of me joining the board of CIL Carmichael House, in early 2017. I was having serious doubts about it and John, who was concerned about me, asked me why.

“John, I’m not experienced enough to go onto any board, let alone onto a board of an organisation I’ve respected for years. Sure, I can talk the talk but I haven’t done anything tangibly constructive for the movement the way the others have. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

John wrote back: “Nobody knows what they’re doing, not at first anyway. Martin spent his life taking risks, and look how that paid off! You have such passion. Let that drive you.”

But I still didn’t feel worthy so I shied away from the Board. Determined to give something back, however, I instead threw myself into the memorial event. As a group, we named ourselves “By Us With Us”. In addition to managing the social media for the event, I wrote and consequently performed a dramatic monologue, which was close to the bone as it explored the damage caused by internalised oppression when Alison was born.

The months flew by. Before I knew it, it was May 2017 and I had not seen John since February. Nor had I heard much from him. In August, I was devastated to learn that John had lung cancer. My mum had that too. Generally, the prognosis for lung cancer is not good. Naturally, John pulled away from the organisation of the event.  Before this, he had been guiding me in managing the blog and Facebook page. His silence was eerie.

Not wanting to bother John, I asked other friends how he was doing. Apparently he was trying to put a brave face on it but he was terrified. I continued working with By Us With Us and getting to know Shelly. Soon, I would not be able to imagine my life without her as a friend, and she remains a massive part of my life.

Finally, the big event came on 23rd September 2017, and with it came my dramatic debut. It was so raw. The pain was supposed to be that of my character’s, but it was obviously I who was crying on the stage, not “Rachel”. The performed drained me and much to my disappointment, I had no choice but to miss the rest of the event and take it easy. At nine o’clock that evening, my phone pinged: a message from John. All it said was “I heard you were brilliant, well done Sarah”.

That was the last I ever heard from him.

John died on the night of 26th November. My heart ached, and I couldn’t say why. I barely knew the man; realistically I only met him face-to-face a handful of times. I cried when I heard. The thought of his children facing the rest of their lives without their dad, the loss within a disability community that had lost so many people, including Eugene Callan, four days after the memorial event.

For some reason, John’s death angered me. I began to think of all the disabled people I knew,  young and old, who were grappling with the same shite that disabled people grappled with thirty years ago. How could there be so little progress between my generation and John’s? As if possessed by some intangible demon, I sat at the keyboard and typed blindly, my own salty tears stinging my eyes. I could hear John saying (though I can’t remember whether he actually said this, or if he implied it), that from the cradle to the grave, all disabled people seem to do is fight.

I didn’t dedicate the poem to John openly at the time. I felt I had no right to. I barely knew the man. Others had a historical connection to him that I didn’t have. So I shared it, but didn’t mention John.  Now, I dedicate this poem to John, two years after his passing.

In 2018 I was asked if I would like to join the Board of Independent Living Movement Ireland. Again I said, “Others have more experience than me.” Shelly’s response was the exact same as John’s had been and I felt that he was there, dragging me back to the world of activism which frustrates me and makes my soul sing in equal measure.

As a movement, we have made fantastic progress. Last week saw the passing of a motion in the Seanad that represented independent living as a fundamental human right for disabled people rather than a service that is granted on a whim by the powers that be within the HSE. This was always John’s dream, and now it’s up to all of us to make it a reality – to continue to fight, fight, fight.

Rest in peace friend (and thanks so much for the poetic inspiration – one of my favourite poems yet).