Questions, questions everywhere

I love writing and reading about disability but I fear that I might have done so much of it lately that it has actually melted my brain into slush. When I look at an article by Dan Goodley or Colin Barnes, my brain shuts down and I refuse to take anything in, which is an enormous concern giving the nature of the course I’m doing (in case you’ve missed it, I’m doing the Certificate in Disability Studies in NUI Maynooth. I must be mad).

But during the Study Skills seminar  we had this weekend, it occurred to me that the reason I’m not taking anything in is because I’m not being critical – I’m reading but I’m not probing, not asking ‘why?’ or agreeing or disagreeing. And when I thought about it, I thought perhaps that’s why it sometimes feels that we’re moving further away from equality for disabled people – because we aren’t asking ourselves (and the powers that be) important questions about topics that need to be discussed in order for us to be recognised as equal. Questions such as:

  •  Who has the authority to decide what you can’t do – you or other people? Do ‘professionals’ always know what’s best for you? Do they always act with your best interests in mind?
  • Who profits from your impairment? I mean, seriously, a set of four wheelchair tyres can cost over a grand whereas a set of new tyres for the car is around two, three hundred Euro. My tricycle, I’m informed is worth about four grand, whereas you can get a state of the art mountain bike for a grand. An adapted car costs far more than the same model of car, unadapted. Why?
  • Why has the head of Irish Rail not been brought to answer a case under the Equal Status Act? If you’re a regular train user you might have noticed that there is a sign saying ‘We comply with the Equal Status Act’ in the wheelchair space. Can that be true if you have to give twenty-four hours’ notice to travel?
  • If a disabled person decides that their primary aim in life is to be an absolute twat, should professionals have the right to comment? To stop them? To safeguard them?
  • These particular questions are addressed time and again without being resolved: Does the Personal Assistant Service exist now as it was originally intended? Should a Personal Assistant have the right to comment on your lifestyle choices? Do they have the right to refuse to enable you to make these choices if they’re ‘not what’s best for you’? Who knows what’s best for you?
  • Should your right to your own Personal Assistant (and the hours you receive) be affected by the availability of a spouse or family member to act as your ‘carer’? What if you don’t get on with your family or they’re just using you as an excuse to claim Carer’s Allowance? (This has happened to people I know).
  • To what extent are we our  worst enemy? How much of the oppression we experience from outside sources is actually external, and how much have we internalised?  And in blaming  ourselves for being disabled, how much power are we willingly handing over to the powers-that-be, that make life-changing decisions on our behalf on a regular basis?
  • Is it dangerous to ignore the realities of impairment, and can we accept our impairments and limitations without handing over powers to the ‘so-called professionals?’
  • What will lead to the defining moment where disabled people can really be trusted to have full control over their own lives and budgets? I mean, why are disabled people being frightened out of trying Personalised Budgets/Direct Payments? Are they really that complicated, or are disabled people led to believe this so that (God forbid) they never truly experience any sense of control over their own lives?
  • If the UNCRPD has been ratified, why has there not been significant investment into Personal Assistance in the 2018 Budget? Why aren’t we building more houses for everyone, including disabled people waiting to move out of long-stay institutions and hospitals?

Achieving equality for disabled people lies in tackling these, and other tough questions. It means never settling, never accepting anything as a given without a logical and reasonable explanation. It means not taking equality as a given when many of us know this is far from the case.

When we stop questioning these important issues, we become complacent. And I think we can all agree that we simply cannot afford to do that.

 

 

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Dog tired

Some nights… well, okay … most nights, instead of writing (or as I write) I end up having in-depth conversations with friends over Facebook messenger. Being somewhat of a social recluse when I’m in full-scale writing mode, I think of it as maintaining an important connection to the outside world. We discuss many things, sometimes work related, a bit of banter about upcoming holidays, things like that. And I wanted to share with you one of the things many of us seem to have in common:

We’re bloody tired.

When you’re an activist like many of my friends are, you don’t want to be seen as weak. You’ve spent your entire life fighting for equal rights and opportunities. The last thing you want is to be perceived as less than or worse still, as a moany crip. You know what I mean: someone who brings all of their struggles in life back to the fact that they have a disability or impairment. Someone who’s perceived to do nothing but complain.

I know many people with disabilities who have great careers, lovely families (like mine), are able to drive, maintain a home and, if they’re lucky, a career and maybe even a social life. This is merely a dream for many. Yet in conversation with my friends on a one-to-one basis, they share their deepest fears. Are they losing the physical ability to do the things they love, or will they do so in the future? Will they be able to live independently if Personal Assistance is not available? Will they be perceived to be lazy or passive if they can’t give everything they have, 100% of the time? If they stop fighting, will they lose everything?

I have written before about how I spent most of my life trying to fit in. I remember particularly my Leaving Certificate, and how, even if it killed me, I would get enough points to study in Trinity. I remember the lunacy of staying up until one in the morning, anxious to get no less than 80% in all my exams and essays. I knew I was capable of it, but I nearly paid the price of my mental sanity. But I was so determined not to be defined by my disability that in many ways I rejected it, refusing to believe that I was impaired in any way.

For years now I thought I have been a firm believer in the social model of disability, that it’s society that disables us. And I do believe this: a lack of available housing, accessible transport and personal assistance constantly threatens to deter us from achieving our true potential. However, the reality remains that until these issues are tackled in their entirety, we must try our best to adapt within a society that won’t adapt to our needs. It might mean taking up employment in an inaccessible building, or forgoing the opportunity of job promotions because we can’t afford to lose our medical cards. Maybe it means highlighting our weaknesses and shortcomings so that we can access vital services. Maybe it means languishing in a day centre so that we don’t have to face the deafening echoes of silence at home in our childhood bedrooms or a residential institution.

Sometimes it might mean plastering on a smile so that those around us don’t realise the amount of pain we are in, how exhausted we are or how much effort it took for us to get out of bed that very morning. Because giving any indication of how impairment affects us is a major sign of weakness, right? Isn’t it akin to saying, ‘well, I’m not really equal, and I don’t believe really that we live in a society that disables us? My impairment is my problem?’

No, people – no, this is not what this means. At. All!

The problem is that we live in a society that, when it comes to disability at least, we are brainwashed to believe that our shortcomings are somehow our own fault. For example, prior to being pregnant with Alison, I never used a rollator. In my mind, I never needed one but in reality I was probably constantly falling over. Two days after giving birth, after spending three weeks in a manual wheelchair, I was determined to start walking again, using the rollator at first and then eventually walking on my own as I did before I was pregnant. This was my ultimate goal and it would make me somehow less of a person, less of a mother even, if I didn’t meet this goal. Where was I getting these ridiculous ideas? Mirrored by a society with their stereotypical ideas of what a ‘proper’ or ‘strong’ mother should be? Incidentally, it’s been six years and I never did get to a place where I felt confident walking without the rollator. The medical model of my brain is saying ‘oh, it’s because you didn’t do your physio, you didn’t try hard enough.’ In contrast, the social model tells me that I’ll never be any good to anyone if I’m exhausted trying to do things that in reality don’t really bloody matter!

That’s why, when Alison was two-and-a-half, I decided to get an electric wheelchair. I wanted to be able to bring her for walks in the park, down the canal, walk her to school like a proper mummy. Yet, although I know it’s true that the wheelchair gives me so much more independence, social conditioning sometimes makes me doubt my own judgement. It’s been drummed into me that physical ability, including the ability to walk (which many don’t have) is something which must be used at all times. On the other hand, if I didn’t have it, I would probably not be able to write this blog, have the energy to spend on playing with my daughter or to sit on the committees that I sit on now.

I guess what I’m saying, especially to my friends – those who I’ve spoken to about this at length – is that we need to stop measuring our worth and instead start challenging the ableist society we live in. Can’t hold down a full-time job, or are you struggling to keep up in education? Can’t seem to source a suitable place to live? Perhaps it’s because you’re competing without reasonable accommodations, which isn’t really a level playing field. I’m not saying play the ‘disability card’ and roll over and do nothing with your life, but of course you’re tired. You’ve been trying to claim your rightful place in society for a long time.

So take stock, take some rest and put the fighting gear back on, because the battle isn’t over yet. And take solace in the fact that you are definitely not fighting alone.

PS I apologise for the crappy quality of writing in this blog, but guess what? I’m tired!

The Repression of Rachel

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

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

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

‘Well, where’s she from at least?’

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

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

‘A caged tiger.’

‘And what is it that fuels her anger?’

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

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

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

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

He certainly was.

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

 

Rachel from Kinvara, by Peter Kearns and Sarah Fitzgerald

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

Go away. I said – go away.

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

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

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

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

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

Yes – yes I did…

people never get to hear my voice…

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

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

I am broken because you have broken me.

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

was if improved, if I made the effort…

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

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

What do you see when you look at me?!

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

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

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

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

And stick me into a Galway or Clare nursing home

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

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

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

Am I starting to sound like a broken record?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have a daughter, she calls me mummy

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

She is my proudest achievement – my legacy.

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

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

… and her name is… (lights down)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fight, Fight, Fight

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

*

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwback Thursday: The Others

I’m going through a bit of a writer’s block situation at the moment, trying to work through the messy middle of my novel and fix it into something that ties in with the ending. My concentration’s letting me down though, so instead I thought I’d look up the animation my sister did for her final year project, nearly six years ago, The Others.

The message behind The Others is that it is society that disables us and moulds us into a state of dependency. The piece is voiced by my good self and Dani McGovern, a friend of mine who also has Cerebral Palsy. Note how the negative narrative of the piece disables the two women, and distorts the physical form.

This is the exact message I want to portray in my novel, if I can ever get it written!

Anyhoo, enjoy!

Credit for this piece belongs to Laura Maye.

#CripLivesMatter

Over the last few years, there have been a number of bizarre occurrences in Ireland, a lot of which coincided with the recession of 2008. Suddenly, what was once one of the most prosperous countries in the world collapsed as housing prices plummeted, and unemployment and emigration soared. Headlines of doom and gloom swept the nation. And in the disability sector where I worked at the time, the most feared words were ‘cutbacks’.

The narrative at the time was that Ireland was on its knees, at the mercy of Europe. Everyone was expected to pay in some shape or form for ‘the good Celtic tiger days’ that the whole of Ireland enjoyed (read: the elite few). That period was almost identical to the dark world depicted in George Orwell’s 1984, where people believed everything that the media told them, where the written word controlled the psyche of a nation, keeping them in fear. None more so than people with disabilities.

It is estimated that disabled people in Ireland have lost 17% of total funding to vital services during recessionary times. The supplementary cost of medicines to medical card holders rose from fifty cent to two euro fifty overnight. The threat of cuts to Personal Assistant Services moulded us into a state of fear, undoing the good work of the activists who had fought tooth and nail almost instantly. It seems that the needs of disabled people are only important when there’s an overflow of money or a photo opportunity to be had by some politicians. (I hasten to add, not all politicians. Here in Tullamore our elected councillors are doing great work with us and bringing about real change).

Today, we live in a country where we don’t trust our elected leaders, where we have been screwed to the wall time and again. We look across the pond and condemn Trump’s behaviour, shocked when footage of him mocking a disabled reporter emerged during his election campaign. We despair at his behaviour and fear that he is creating irreparable divides between people.

But at least he’s open about his controversial policies. He’s not pretending to be a nice guy, conning people with his smarmy charm like Enda Kenny does. At a disability protest nearly a year and a half ago in September 2015, Enda went to ‘speak’ with the protestors and avail of some publicity. Offering Martin Naughton a cup of coffee when Martin was clearly unable to hold a cup independently was a clear illustration of how out of touch this government are with the realities of disability.

Having a disability these days is a little like  living in a dystopian novel. We live in a world where we are expected to conform to the ‘norm’. Our voices are either taken away from us, or distorted to make us seem either piteous or courageous. What we are fighting for are equal rights. At the moment we are not equal because we are different; we are the problem. However, the United Nations Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities(the UNCRPD) recognises that our society has a duty to enable us to make a real contribution as equal citizens. Unfortunately, Ireland has not yet ratified this, even as a tokenistic gesture, and the uproar about this is real, but somewhat sporadic.

That’s why when I read this blog about the Women’s Rights Marches and the support it had from so many people that it saddens me that disabled people in Ireland have yet to do the same. Don’t get me wrong – there are so many activists out there who are genuinely trying to change things – but it seems to me that we are all a little fragmented right now. Part of this may be due to the fact that we face our own challenges every day, and sometimes these seem so insurmountable that we forget that others face the same challenges.

Only we have the power to change this depressing narrative. I’m sick of talking about it, and sick of living it.

Our lives matter. We matter. Achieving true equality in Ireland matters. As I wrote in an earlier blog, we have marriage equality, so equality for those with disabilities should follow.

And the time is now. No more excuses.

We matter, and deserve to have our voices heard.

Ireland and Disability: A Reflection of 2016

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International Day of People with Disabilities: 3rd December

 

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

 

Are things really improving for people with disabilities in Ireland?

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

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The Disable Inequality Campaign Poster

 

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

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

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

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

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

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The poster for Me Before You, a film that suggests that life with a disability is not worth living

However, one of the biggest films at the box office, Me Before You, angered disability activists worldwide. These activists argued that the main character, Will, was portrayed as being the stereotypical angry crip, and was not given his own narrative voice. (I’ve read the book but felt that it would be betraying what I believed in if I were to go to see the film). As an armchair activist myself, I know that disability is mainly seen as a tragedy, something not to wished upon your worst enemy. This film/book did nothing to dispel this belief. Given the history of involuntary euthanasia during the Second World War (and plenty of other less reported cases too, I’m sure) I feel that it is somewhat dangerous to depict disability as being a fate worse than death.

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

 

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These models were photoshopped to look like they had impairments. (Source: thejournal.ie)

 

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

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

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Martin Naughton (Source: AT Network website)

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

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

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

The Trump Card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can our society?

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

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

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