Cripple for sale (Dramatic Monologue)

Hi folks/legions of loyal followers/Dad(!)

I wrote this monologue just before Christmas. It’s called ‘Cripple for Sale’. The rationale behind this monologue is that in Ireland, disabled people are afforded neither rights nor dignity owing to our government’s failure to make significant investment into Personal Assistant Services. The HSE has pledged money for home help and home care services in 2018, but it’s unclear whether there’s been any extra investment into Personal Assistant Services.

Many of us, including myself, want to be seen as equal in Irish society. Paradoxically, however, we need certain supports – human, technological, accessibility and financial (to name a few) in order for this to happen. Sometimes I find, as a person with a disability, that it works against you if you portray  yourself to be too ‘capable’ or ‘able’ as the powers that be don’t take a holistic approach to service provision and instead provide services based on absolute ‘need’. Consequently, people with disabilities are becoming institutionalised in their own homes and failing to reach their true potentials.

Every October, come budget day, the Center for Independent Living and the Irish Wheelchair Association make ‘Pre-Budget Submissions’ outlining why substantial investment is needed in the disability sector. We are at higher risk of poverty owing to being stuck in a benefit trap. The Disability Allowance is means tested and doesn’t take into account the extra costs of having a disability – the cost of equipment, extra heating, durable shoes, pre-prepared veg – little things that make a huge difference in the lives of many.

We don’t want to be charity cases. As I said before, charity is too unreliable. We need our human rights to be protected. And with rumours that the ratification of the UN Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities has been postponed until 2019, disabled people remain dependent on the goodwill of the State.

Anyway, here’s my monologue ‘Cripple for Sale’. Enjoy!

 

A young woman sits in a wheelchair with a tartan blanket on her lap, shaking a bucket.

Cripple for sale! Cripple for sale!

A cripple’s soul is for sale!

I ain’t too fussy about the price; any old coppers will do!

Come on now, dig deep, it’s for a good cause!

Hey you – yes, you- oi – ! walking with your head down

Avoiding eye contact with me –

What do you think will happen if you look at me?

Do you think I will try and manipulate you with my sad eyes,

Remind you that it could be you sitting here

Catching trails of your own saliva on the back of your hand

Hands and legs jerking like a woman – possessed!

What’s that you say…? … you’re frightened? Frightened of me…?

How the hell do you think I feel?

I’m sitting here naked, cut open, on full display

Every spasm, every jerk, every bloomin’ thing I have offered up in some sacrifice…

…oh, I’m sorry, have I made you uncomfortable? Oh dear!

I didn’t mean to… that’s why I thought it best to sit in this wheelchair… even though I can walk…

Well, you may not call it walking… I suppose it’s more… ambling…crawling on foot…stumbling one foot after another…

Something like that ‘freaky’ creature in Lord of the Rings…

A cripple falling over would not be a good look

…but I’m sorry, I haven’t tried hard enough…

Maybe if I had spent more time doing that physio like you said… or if I had gone for that life-changing operation when I was six… Maybe if I had been a good little girl and done what I was told I wouldn’t be sitting here, in the freezing cold…

In a country where the only right I have is the right to be a defensive little cripple… alive only for the mercy of this wonderful, merciful government…

Oh, sorry I’m moaning again! aren’t I so lucky to be so far removed from that barbaric regime that defined Nazi Germany… that story that everyone knows and no-one talks about –

a place where cripples went in to be rehabilitated and came out…

Well…

What am I talking about now?

We don’t want to be upsetting people… after all…

Things are so much different now, aren’t they…?

…aren’t they?

People like me are even allowed out now… well… of course a couple of minor preparations need to be made…

You need to pass that pesky risk assessment, you know, the one that determines whether you’re at risk of falling, or choking, or drawing attention to yourself by being your wobbly self – phew!

…but yes, we are so much more free now, I mean, can you actually imagine how depressing it would be to be holed away in some ancient grey-bricked hospital, living life like a well-programmed robot, so well trained that it never occurred to you to feel unhappy… or to feel anything…

Oh of course I feel, but not what you want me to feel…

I suppose you want me to feel lucky and grateful

That you took the five seconds out of your day to throw the loose change from the bottom of your handbag into my bucket

To help the cripples have a better life

So you can go home to your family and tell them that you’ve made a difference to ‘those people’ –

You’re definite about this – we’re the same really (but not quite)

You want to help me, but you want to keep me at arms’ length – lest I infect you with my imperfections

Don’t think I haven’t noticed that disinfectant gel you keep in your handbag

To protect yourself from those ‘cripple germs’ –

And I suppose me being offended is a complete waste of time –

Just like us both pretending that you’ll ever really see me as your equal…

You haven’t really been listening, have you…?

So I suppose there’s only one thing I can do…

CRIPPLE FOR SALE!

Any old coppers will do.

 

 

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What’s the Story?

 

My Left Foot was on RTE 2 on Saturday night. I know it well because it was one of the ‘comparative’ texts I studied for my Leaving Cert (the film, not the book). Of course, me being me, I’ve read the book as well and it seems to be the voice of a man who very much came from an era where disability and impairment were problematic (okay, let’s face it, that’s every era – nothing’s changed there). Christy Brown is regarded as one of the most talented Irish writers of the twentieth century, and his name has become synonymous with triumph over adversity, literary genius, truly inspirational. And as a writer with Cerebral Palsy myself, I reflected on what it’s like to live in the shadow of such genius, and such brutal and cold oppression such as that endured by Brown.

If I had been born thirty years before, would I too have been relegated to watching life pass me by from under the stairs?

I’m constantly being told that I should consider  writing an autobiography, as Christy says ‘my own story’, and although I’m sure that every writer toys with the idea at one stage or another, part of me can’t see anything particularly extraordinary about my life. Unlike Christy Brown I was mainstreamed, and was very much a part of ordinary family life. I went to school, where I detested homework, and then to secondary school and college. I was always convinced that this was the status quo for other disabled people too, in spite of the fact that there were only two other students with physical disabilities in my school. (I say physical because there are also hidden disabilities like dyslexia, etc.)

Sixty years on from the publication of My Left Foot, I know that there are hundreds of autobiographies written by people with disabilities. In my home town alone, two men with Cerebral Palsy have published their own stories – Brendan Brophy wrote On Three Wheels and Dealing a Bad Hand and David Boland wrote Life from the Tip of My Tongue. Their style is different from Christy Brown’s, although some experiences are the same such as being in the CRC. My good friend Leigh Gath is currently extending her autobiography Don’t Tell Me I Can’t, the s\tory of her incredible journey as a thalidomide survivor (she has hands and feet, but not arms and legs) growing up in Newry during the Troubles, finding her identity as a sexual being and escaping from her alcoholic husband to finally find true love.

The progression of the perception of disability between My Left Foot and Don’t Tell Me I Can’t is intriguing. In My Left Foot Christy is preoccupied with his physical limitations and the now outdated terms he uses to describe himself, such as ‘cripple’ and ‘handicap’ whereas having been born thirty(?) years later, Leigh has a different perspective. Despite her specialised education at boarding school, she can clearly see from a young age that she is not the ‘problem’ but rather she lives in a society that won’t accommodate her needs. This frustration led her to become involved in disability activism and hard-core protests in trying to secure the rights of people with disabilities. It’s interesting to note that Leigh grew up in Newry, a community divided into Catholic and Protestants, while also inhabiting a world that endeavoured to reinforce the differences between disabled and non-disabled people.

Christy Brown’s perception of disability is now a little outdated. But one thing he must be credited for is that he gave permission to the disability community of Ireland (and the wider world) to tell their stories. Unfortunately at present we live in a world where these stories often exist in isolation. Christy Brown’s book may have garnered him worldwide recognition, but the rest of us face a new challenge. Disability has become so commonplace and integration is supposedly the status quo to the extent where, in the future,  writing your story from the perspective of having a disability won’t be enough to gain you credibility or respect.

Instead, it will be up to us as the future Christy Browns to push the message that disabled people in themselves are not problematic. It is society that disables, society that insists that we are different. A disability or impairment can never be overcome, but obstacles created by our society can be removed, if we put our minds to it.

And though I admit that I also am a sucker for a good old ‘triumph over adversity’ story, wouldn’t it be simultaneously strange and wonderful if we had more stories like: ‘Wobbly Yummy Mummy had no problems accessing mainstream school, or going to college, or accessing transport. She lived an average life with her husband and her kid. She sold a billion copies of her bestselling novel. The End.’

Okay, that’s a little boring. A little ordinary, even. But a good writer will always find the extraordinary in everyday life, if he or she is willing to look hard enough for it. My hope is that in the future, disabled  people will be perceived, and have the courage to portray themselves as the multi-faceted, complicated creatures we are.

And undoubtedly My Left Foot, both the book and the film version will be studied for decades to come, and my hope is that students will exclaim, ‘How could Irish society exclude Christy Brown and other disabled people for so long? Thank God Ireland ratified the UNCRPD!’*

*We haven’t, as of 23rd January 2018. The Minister of State with responsibility for Disability promised it would be ratified by the end of January. Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

 

 

The Repression of Rachel

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

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

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

‘Well, where’s she from at least?’

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

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

‘A caged tiger.’

‘And what is it that fuels her anger?’

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

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

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

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

He certainly was.

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

 

Rachel from Kinvara, by Peter Kearns and Sarah Fitzgerald

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

Go away. I said – go away.

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

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

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

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

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

Yes – yes I did…

people never get to hear my voice…

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

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

I am broken because you have broken me.

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

was if improved, if I made the effort…

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

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

What do you see when you look at me?!

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

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

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

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

And stick me into a Galway or Clare nursing home

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

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

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

Am I starting to sound like a broken record?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have a daughter, she calls me mummy

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

She is my proudest achievement – my legacy.

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

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

… and her name is… (lights down)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kind Gestures

Kind Gestures

It’s amazing what meaningless rubbish you can learn just in mindlessly scrolling through social media. For example, did you know that International Kindness Day is marked on 13th November each year?

Reading this got me thinking about the busy week I had last week. Last Thursday, 9th November last, a delegation of people with disabilities including myself went to meet the Junior Minister with Responsibility for Disability, Mr Finian McGrath in Dail Eireann. The main reason that the meeting was requested by Clare activist Ann-Marie Flanagan was because Ireland is the last country in the EU to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Frankly, the meeting was a farce. Minister McGrath seemed distracted throughout the meeting, and while he could sympathise with the reality of our lives, we felt he could not empathise with our fears. He constantly interrupted us, and we left the meeting feeling that we’d been heard but not listened to.

Reader, I cried on the train back to Tullamore, the train I’d given twenty-four advance notice to travel on. Onlookers asked me if I was okay, and I simply nodded. How could I possibly explain how alone I felt in that moment, the feeling of knowing that deep down the Minister who represented my needs and so many others’ needs at government level had no perception of how difficult it is to be disabled in  Ireland today? I say this with the assumption that if he knew our frustrations, he wouldn’t have been so evasive in his answers. He would’ve assured us that our rights were on the way to being recognised. If the Minister can’t reassure us, then who can?

On Friday, I needed a change of scenery and so I eagerly accepted the invitation of an old college friend to meet for coffee in Lemon on Dawson Street in Dublin. To my delight, the conversation came easy, just as it had ten years ago when I saw her last. We caught up over two pancakes each, and I realised that I’d missed debating the meaning of life with her.

‘So, what have you been up to?’ she asked over the hum of students talking. I told her that I’d had the meeting with Minister McGrath and that I felt I’d wasted my time. ‘You know,’ she said thoughtfully, chewing her omelette, ‘I’ve lived in France and what I’ve noticed is that they don’t really have the concept of kindness there, the way they do here. People are kind here.’

‘Which is a lovely thing,’ I replied. ‘Where would we be if it weren’t for kindness?’

‘Oh, it is,’ she continued, ‘but in France, things are more rights-based. Everyone knows – and gets – what they’re entitled to. It’s not perfect, it’s just…different to here.’

That got me thinking. I don’t know much about French culture, but I’m familiar with Irish culture, and my friend is absolutely right – we are,  as a nation, very kind. The problem is that we depend on kindness and charitableness as a substitute for our rights, and particularly for people with disabilities, this can be problematic. Because of a lack of proper funding in the disability sector disability organisations, for example, the Irish Wheelchair Association, put much time and energy into fundraising. In order for fundraising to be in any way lucrative, people with disabilities are forced to portray themselves as vulnerable, almost desperate. And unfortunately, it’s not a lie. Because of massive gaps in government funding, we are vulnerable and desperate.

However, the CRC and Rehabcare scandals were only examples of why organisations should not rely on charitable donations to fund their services going into the future.  Money is going into inflated salaries rather than direct service provision. Meanwhile, essential services are being cut. On the other side of the coin you have many people with disabilities in hospital beds, costing the State thousands a year, when that money would be better spend moving people into their own homes, providing a Personal Assistant Service and enabling these people, regardless of their disability, to realise their potential.

In our meeting with Minister McGrath last Thursday, we shared some painful experiences with him, to illustrate how a lack of a rights based approach is denying thousands of disabled people across Ireland the opportunity to contribute to society. We urged him to help us to change the narrative of disability from one of victimisation to empowerment.

Finally, when we tried to extract a timeline from him of when the UNCRPD would be ratified, he refused to commit to one, saying that he’d done this last year, ‘and got burnt.’ He wasn’t going to make promises he couldn’t keep, he said.

Even when Ireland does eventually ratify the Convention, our rights as people with disabilities will still be in question.

However, we should do it regardless, not out of kindness, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Kindness is lovely, but it isn’t enough. We as people with disabilities need – and deserve – more than this.

 

Do I Have a Choice?

What time do you think you’ll get up tomorrow morning? Now, I don’t mean roughly – can you tell me what time exactly? Can you tell me how long it will take to eat your breakfast? To shower? To get dressed?

How often do you shower? How would you feel about say, one or two showers a week? Could you manage with one or two showers a week?

Do you like to cook your own dinner or would you be happy enough with a random meal from a Meals on Wheels service?

How many times do you go to the toilet? What times? If you go to the toilet overnight, would you be happy enough to lie in a continence pad until a Personal Assistant or Carer comes in to you in the morning, at whatever time they can slot you in?

How many hours and minutes does it take to eat your dinner?

No, friends, I haven’t gone crazy. These are the invasive and ludicrous questions that a person with a disability/disabled person/’Leader’ are forced to answer on a daily basis, in order to access vital services that they need to live independently.

Some time ago, there was something called ‘the philosophy of independent living’, the right for a person with a disability to live life as they saw fit. I remember being told about this philosophy in 2005 by the Father of Independent Living in Ireland, Martin Naughton. He said it was ‘exciting’. He spoke about ‘making mistakes’, ‘learning’ and ‘growing’.

Now, disabled people aren’t allowed to make mistakes in Ireland. There’s safeguarding, risk assessments, care plans. You’re expected to squeeze all your  needs into a time slot, not necessarily of your own choosing. Things that others might take for granted, that a person with a disability might want to do – take up a hobby, go for a chat or a coffee – things that are actually essential in a country that is struggling with mental health issues and rising suicide rates – are now considered luxuries and chances are that in the future, with our growing elderly and disabled population, the HSE will not provide for these anymore.

In 2017, people with disabilities are becoming institutionalised in their own homes, the result of a combination of a lack of accessible transport and a service that reduces people to a list of needs.

Having said that, I’m pretty happy with the service I’m getting, but only because it enables me to do everything I do. I couldn’t dedicate my life to writing and disability activism on a full-time basis were it not for my P.A. service. It’s very difficult to quantify on paper the full benefits of my service, and a tick box exercise would not do it justice. I can write because I’m not exhausted from meal prep; my P.A. helps me with my physio which keeps me in shape. This year alone I’ve done so much in the name of disability activism because of this service. Like so many others out there, I don’t expect something for nothing; I like to think I give back everything I can.

It’s not right to expect people to be happy with just getting up out of bed, maybe going to a day care centre for a few hours, come home again, have dinner and be back in bed by eight. This isn’t living – it’s imprisonment.

And we all know the narrative: money is tight, those who are languishing in various hospitals need to be moved back into their own homes (an estimated three thousand people with disabilities are living, often unnecessarily, in care homes and hospitals), and therefore it’s no longer feasible to provide services like was once provided. Why is the government proposing to spend more money on day care services when there hasn’t been any substantial investment in Personal Assistance in 2008, even though demand for the service is continually increasing?

We are constantly hearing stories on the news about overstretched family carers, a narrative that portrays people with disabilities as burdens. Nobody wants to be a burden, but it is our government, not our needs or impairments, that is making this narrative an unfortunate reality.

I’ve said it time and time again: Ireland needs to ratify the UNCRPD.

I know I’m getting annoying, repetitive. But honestly, I don’t feel I have any other choice.

Because right now, the future for people with disabilities in Ireland looks more grim than ever.

 

 

A Future Within Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legacies

Today, as my husband slinked into the sitting room to eat his dinner in peace, something unusual happened. Within thirty seconds he’d come back out into the kitchen and said in a casual tone certainly unfitting to the matter at hand, ‘There’s a bird flying around the sitting room.’

I closed my eyes as I imagined our black leather couch now covered in those trademark yellow and white stains. ‘You’re not bloody serious?’

‘Afraid so. We shouldn’t have left the front door open.’

Now, if you asked me if I was afraid of birds, I’d normally say no. But you’d need to contextualise. For example, I have no problem watching autumn migrations or gatherings of birds in the garden. Hell, because my daughter is a nature fanatic, I often have to follow them around the park, driving my wheelchair as slowly as possible so that it doesn’t ‘click’ and frighten them away. But the thought of one trapped in our sitting room, flying frantically, trying to escape, filled me with trepidation.

Walking softly towards the sitting room I peered in to see a little robin, with a fiercely red breast, casually exploring our sitting room. My husband and I looked at each other and smiled slightly, and I recognised something in him I wasn’t expecting, a softness. Normally, we would both be sort of like get that bird out of our sitting room before he shites everywhere, but this was different.  It felt like a presence, like an unexpected but welcome visitor. One of our mothers, perhaps, or Maisie, my mum’s friend who, before she closed her eyes for the last time just two months ago, gave me a green card with a little redbreast robin on it. The card simply read Thinking of You.

‘We have to guide him out, before he has a heart attack,’ my husband finally conceded, before gently herding him towards the front door and closing it.

For the superstitious among you, I’m sure you know that a robin is meant to represent a loved one since passed, and its presence symbolises that he/she is thinking of you, that he or she is near. For me, however, robins represent childhood innocence, dependability. Growing up, we had a conservatory at home and one morning, a little robin hopped in through the open doors while we all watched silently. He explored a little, he sang and he left. Soon, that same robin (or so we liked to think at least) came back every morning, let himself into the conservatory and made himself at home. It became routine, a ritual, and when I saw that robin this evening I was instantly reminded of it.

That association with robins is a legacy left to me by my parents. It’s funny how, even though that era is now gone, I remember not so much the robin, but how I felt when we all saw it for the first time, over twenty years ago. The wonder. The quiet respect.

I’ve been thinking about legacies lately, not least because on Saturday, over two hundred activists will come together in Mansion House to remember the influence that disability activists, both past and present, have had over our lives. That space will allow us to reflect on the achievements of the past, and to be thankful for what has been achieved in the name of people with disabilities thus far. But it’s also an acknowledgement that once Saturday’s event is over, we need to continue looking forward, keep striving towards true equality, ensure that our voices are always heard.

Like the robin from my childhood, some of us thought that these people were invincible, that no matter what, they would always be there. My memories of those who I will be remembering on Saturday are sometimes the only fuel that keeps me involved in activism. Sooner or later, we are going to have to look at the future, and it can be scary when someone we looked up to, be that a parent or sibling in the literal or figurative sense, is no longer here to guide us.

When it seems that all the greatness of the world is slowly disappearing, will we be able to find the courage to look within ourselves. to see what we can offer? And if we can’t trust ourselves to do this, who can we trust to educate our legacies to our children? That’s why we need to tell them about the past, the robin. We all need to know where we came from.

And sometimes we need a reminder, so that we may create meaningful legacies for them. We need to remember the past, not to live in it, but rather to use it as a blueprint to make our own mark in history.

 

 

 

 

 

Flying Low

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

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

This was with Ryanair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Dystopian Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

National Carer’s Week 12-18 June

This week  (12-18 June) marks National Carer’s Week, which is an initiative designed to give recognition to the estimated 180,000 unpaid carers across the country. These people are hailed – and rightly so – as heroic. Many carers have given up dreams of marriage, having a career, maybe juggling caring with raising a family. It’s noble and admirable, yet I find something deeply troubling about the narrative surrounding carers in Ireland.

I probably don’t have any right to be writing this blog.  I’m lucky insofar as my care plan doesn’t currently involve intimate personal care, just help with things like tying up hair, doing buttons etc. I mentioned before that one of the things I value most is my independence. That, and not being labelled a burden.

As a mother of one little girl, I’m ready to plop myself on the couch by eight o’clock in the evening. I love being a mother more than I ever thought I could, but sometimes it can be exhausting – answering incessant questions, doing role plays, going to the park. And this is without having to take care of toileting needs, inserting feeding tubes or anything like that. BUT I would hate to be in that dangerous position where I would view my own daughter more as an object of care than her own little person.

Traditionally, when a disabled person has a child, it is often assumed that the child will take on the role of a carer. Well, let me tell you – Alison has her little chores for which she gets rewarded, but she is not a carer. I have an excellent personal assistant service (not carers) that enables me to be the best mother I can be. I myself direct the Personal Assistant in what I need, and doing so allows me the energy during the day to write pointless blogs like these and spend some quality time with my daughter in the evening. And it allows my husband to enjoy an existence separate from me. I don’t have to worry about him harbouring resentment for me, because I’m not completely dependent on him. We are very much an average husband and wife.

It is harmful to reduce the identity of a person who has ‘high-dependency needs’ to an object of care. Everyone has the right to personal autonomy, to choose how and where they spend their day and with who. I know if I had ‘high dependency needs’ I wouldn’t want my parents, my husband or my child caring for me. I’d want someone fresh, not so emotionally involved, someone who could appreciate my individuality as well as know how to meet my needs. These sort of people are hard to come by. A FETAC Level 5 in Healthcare Support is useful from a practical point of view, but there is a danger that service provision is becoming overmedicalised, with less emphasis on finding out what the person actually wants and more about ticking boxes and providing a basic care plan and often wholly inadequate service.

If this government really cared about the needs of disabled people and their carers, then they wouldn’t dare contemplate cutting the Personal Assistant Hours or the hard-to-come-by Respite Grant. Instead of having a tokenistic approach to unpaid carers by dedicating a measly week to them, the government could alleviate the workload of carers by looking after the needs of the disabled person themselves and, as the late Martin Naughton suggested, allocating them funds so that they (and their families if appropriate) can choose the services they need. Martin called this putting disabled people ‘in the driving seat of their own lives’.

I’ve spoken to people over the last number of years who regard the possibility of acquiring a disability or impairment as ‘a fate worse than death’ and who, like me, would hate to become a burden on their families. But this attitude is a dangerous one. Centuries of conditioning has led us to believe that it’s our impairment that is the problem, and it’s not. It’s the manner in which Irish society and our healthcare system are constructed to make disabled people feel like they’re somehow ‘wrong’, problematic, inconvenient. We are now the only EU member state that hasn’t ratified the UNCRPD. In the UK, disabled people who cannot work are labelled ‘scroungers’ and I can see that attitude creeping in here now. I now believe that positive change is not progressive, and can be undone more quickly than it happened in the first place.

To all of you unpaid carers across the country: I salute you, and keep up the good work. You deserve recognition, not only this week, but every single day. But can I ask a favour? Please join us in challenging the system. Please don’t resent your loved ones for the care they need. They are not at fault. All of our lives would be so much easier if the dignity of disabled people and their carers were upheld through the provision of basic human rights.