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Having a lot of free time on our hands, all of a sudden, can be quite a dangerous thing. In recent days I find my mind wandering into dark, shady corners that I would normally protect it from, and thoughts that can become all the more sinister when overshadowed by a global pandemic. These thoughts vary from day to day. Lately I’ve been giving much thought to my career choices. At first, these choices were both sensible and socially acceptable. I did a good Leaving Certificate and decided to study English Literature in Trinity College. In fourth year, i was presented with another choice: to throw myself into my studies and get a good degree, or to compile a portfolio impressive enough to earn a place on the MA Journalism course in DCU. I didn’t have the energy to do both to the standard I might have liked, and I wept for two days when I got the rejection letter from DCU.
Maybe writing’s not for me, I thought. Maybe it’s just a hobby. It would be too difficult to try and pursue a writing career.
So I applied for jobs. Many jobs. The rejection emails and letters piled up on my desk as I continued to send application after application. It wasn’t impairment related as I never disclosed my impairment on initial application forms. Being unemployed can leave one feeling unhinged. I just wanted something, anything. My prayers were answered when Offaly Centre for Independent Living offered me a job. A good job. If I played my cards right, a permanent job. I was so relieved. I did everything I could to hold onto my job. It took the birth of my daughter for me to realise how unhappy I was. I was a PRO, in charge of the monthly newsletter. I was writing lots of words, just not the words I wanted to write.
I stayed for seven years. I stayed because it was safe. I stayed because despite being seemingly incapable and inadequate, I strongly believed in the philosophy of independent living. I stayed because I thought that no one else would take me with so little experience. These thoughts wreak havoc on one’s self-confidence and belief.
But underneath it all, I still wanted to be a writer. There was a major flaw in my aspirations, however: in order to achieve this, I was going to have to write. i was going to have to be interesting. I was going to have to be honest about some things, both with myself and others. When I survived a nervous breakdown in July 2014, I knew things had to change. I knew that I would have to take a risk and show my words to real, breathing people.
The blog – this blog you’re reading now – was only ever intended to be a temporary thing. It wasn’t supposed to be a disability blog, or a blog about activism – it was supposed to be my ticket away from all of those things. As time passed, however, it became ever more apparent that those two parts of me – writing and activism – could not be separated. The urge to communicate the real message of Independent Living and equal rights swelled within my veins until the dams could hold no longer, bursting all over the keyboard. I began to despair at my lack of control. I wanted to be a writer, not “just” a disability writer. I fought the urges, and lost. An article about someone “bound” to a wheelchair, the perpetuation of a victim narrative that no self-respecting disabled person would consent to be a part of, would bring me back to the keyboard, typing in a fit of rage. I felt I had a duty to add to conversations that were about me yet exclusive of my voice.
I fell into a rabbit hole.
“Be careful of being pigeonholed. It could destroy your career before it starts,” I was warned.
“This disability stuff can get pretty heavy for a blog,” another person told me. Still, I couldn’t take their advice. An invisible magnet always drew me back to independent living and activism. Even now, that can get annoying, but I’m tired of fighting against writing what comes so natural to me.
As I mentioned earlier, lately I’ve been pondering the word “writer” and whether it really applies to me. I’m not a weekly columnist. I don’t have a published collection of poetry or stories. I’ve tried to write the same novel three times, with each attempt ending in me leading the character into a cul-de-sac so deep that metaphorical suicide seems to be the only way out. So have I really earned the lofty accolade of writer? I would be inclined to say, no.
My vision of being a writer was having the ability to sit at my desk and stare at the screen in awe of my own words. My vision involved churning out poem after poem, story after story, without a moment’s hesitation. It involved generous pay cheques and prestigious awards, but above all, I thought being a writer meant feeling secure and confident in sending your precious darlings into the world. That there would be a point where I could produce a piece of work that I was happy with and confident with. I haven’t reached that point, because as I’ve learned with the support of writer friends and various online communities, that’s not what being a writer is.
Being a writer is in fact tortuous. Many fellow writers that I’ve had the privilege of speaking with over the last few months still struggle within the clutches of inadequacy, imposter syndrome and crippling self-depreciation. It seems that a lack of confidence, a fear of being exposed is par for the course when you are a writer. It also seems that a lack of self–belief as opposed to a lack of writing ability is a writer’s biggest enemy.
I write because I can’t not write. I write because when I’m not at the keyboard playing with words, the clouds in my head become heavy and dark. I write because I enjoy putting different combinations of words together. I enjoy trying to capture scenes, emotions, outer injustice and inner struggles.
And, more often than not, writing keeps me from lingering in those dark corners.
In the small corner of my office where I sit and hide, hoping words fall on my page,
I see the sun is shining from the confines of my cage.
I lift my weary arms to type, but don’t really see the use
When the world’s alight with chaos, the toll of many years’ abuse.
I try to write a story, to leave reality behind,
But deep inside I know there’s more sinister things on my mind.
Will I be around to see my daughter grow?
Will I see my friends and family again? Does my husband know
How much I love him?
And does it really matter?
It’s time to reflect on how God laughs at our plans
How we think we are superior
But yet this intense suffering was caused by man.
Did we ever have tomorrow?
It was never guaranteed.
Here is merely a reminder
Of what we really need.
We need love, hugs, and companionship,
A roof over our head,
Access to basic sanitation
To be warm, dressed and fed.
We don’t need the big house
Or to have two cars in the drive,
Not when the main goal is now
Simply to survive.
And if we are so privileged
To be here when it ends,
What will remain are memories
Of long chats with our friends.
But it’s dangerous to trivialise
And paint over all the cracks
When an even more insidious illness
Will no vaccine ever hack.
That voice inside our head –
The one that loses hope,
The one that says we’re better dead
And then hands you the rope.
That voice poses as a friend
But will not hush until you end
The voice, or your life –
I hope you find the energy to fight.
And if you feel overwhelmed
Take things day by day,
Allow yourself to shout and cry,
To feel anger and dismay.
Embrace the disappointment
Of all that won’t now be.
When will this be over?
We’ll have to wait and see.
And so I take this opportunity
To thank each and every friend
For their companionship, love and thoughtfulness
And I promise when this ends
Never again shall I take for granted
Your chats and your embraces,
But for now, try to keep a smile
Upon your worried faces.
Because fear is infectious too
It paralyses to the core.
We only ever had today:
It was true then, is true now, and will be the case evermore.
Invisibly she sits
In the cocoon of her own home
Every day, alone
Churning out her little poems.
As a child she played writer
Imagining awards and trophies,
Never thinking for a second she’d
Be isolated and alone.
She looks outside her window
At the suits rushing to work,
Children on the bus
Wearing the garb of their school.
They all look the same,
And at first glance one couldn’t
Distinguish them by name.
The men in grey suits drive past
In their shiny, new cars –
Symbols of success –
They have made it far –
While she huddles into the safety
Of her oversized dressing gown;
She huddles into it so fiercely that
Within it she may drown.
She lowers her head into the robe
Hoping that they can’t see
And then her keyboard rages against the silence
Of perfect domesticity.
She lays the words before her,
Hesitant but proud,
The freedom to say these dangerous things
That she’d never say out loud.
But now, she feels pathetic –
She feels tired, and weak.
These words floating before her
Are not only hers,
But also belong to
Those who cannot speak.
She saves them in a Word file
Never to be seen
Far too dangerous to be unleashed –
People are far too mean.
What she shares is softer
Without the anger and the spite –
People take personally everything she writes.
They tell her she’s a natural
And should write for the paper
Ignoring that she has no time
For this publishing caper.
Because unfortunately, when day is spent
And the kids are tucked up in bed
She doesn’t have the energy
To wrestle within her head.
Instead she packs the lunches,
And closes her eyes to sleep.
These kids won’t stay young forever
And so, for now, these words can keep.
Two months ago, how would we have described the kids of today?
The word ‘snowflake’ was bandied around an awful lot.
They probably had no empathy for others.
They spend too much time on their tablets and not enough time outside.
They were selfish and obsessed with material goods. Always wanting more. More toys, more technology, more games.
And now we find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic, the biggest threat many of us have faced in the history of our existence.
School and extra-curricular activities cancelled. No visits to play centres, not even to our local playground. We cannot even visit aunts, uncles, grandparents or friends. No more playdates or day trips.
In the midst of it all, it is the kids, not the adults, who are coping so well.
They are using their tablets to keep in touch with each other, and have learned quickly how to use technology to host group calls (I’m now only becoming used to Zoom calls). They watch YouTube for inspiration for art projects.
With no busy schedules, they have to spend more time at home, maybe picking up books that they otherwise would have had no time to read.
They use Google to learn about animals, other countries, famous people.
They want to help. They make cards for the frontline staff. They write letters to nurses thanking them.
Of course, sometimes they play games on their tablets. Maybe for longer than they should. And that’s ok too.
They are learning about the emotions that our generation of parents have been accused of shielding them from for too long. Sadness. Disappointment, Anger. Loss. We cannot give them everything they want, and they are learning to cope with that.
We are no longer raising the snowflake generation. We’re raising the generation of children who will change their world through kindness, empathy, understanding and compassion. We’re raising a generation who understand that physical and mental health must go hand in hand. We’re raising the generation that one day will make the world a better place.
And in fact, they already do. And I for one am very proud.
I am eight years old. My parents are in the front of the car, I’m in the back. I’m the only one of my siblings who is being spoiled with one of these many trips to Dublin. They want to look at me again, to bend my legs back and forth, to mock me by “testing” the strength in my arms. At least it’s a day off school, I suppose, a day free from being reminded that unlike my classmates, I can’t knit. I can’t run. I am not like the others. The others don’t make these trips to Dublin.
I am outside a brown building. Coming out of the automatic doors is a little boy, around my age. He is wearing exaggerated metal splints around his stick-thin legs and walking like a tin man. He stands out, he’s too obvious; he might as well be wearing a bell and shouting “leprosy!” I’ve been threatened with these splints a number of times. A punishment for my legs, for not cooperating. Inside, I am stripped down, exposed. The experts stick markers to my legs and calls them diamonds. Then I walk and walk and walk. I am tired, but I am told to keep going. Push that body. Don’t let it defeat you.
Now I’m ten. We’re staying with my aunt in Belfast. Well, mum and I are staying here. We’ve been coming up and down for weeks, going to the Musgrave Park Hospital. I wear the special markers again and the computer shows the doctors how my muscles move. I walk up and down and up and down. The doctors tell me I am a supermodel, and it must be true, because only supermodels could have their bodies scrutinised and discussed at every angle. They’re recommending botox to loosen my muscles, so I can walk better. Mum tries to make a joke of it, saying that she would love botox. Perhaps, after all this time, this botox will make my life better. Yes, this is the miracle cure I’ve been waiting on since forever. After waiting in a hospital bed for what feels like days, they give me the injection to the back of my right calf, and I am disappointed. Surely to be made normal, I must be ripped apart and sewn back at the seams?
I’m fourteen. To appease my mother I’ve gone into respite, knowing that in spite of her insistence, I won’t enjoy it one bit. I wake up on the first morning to find a nurse, evidently bored on the night shift, unpacking my things. I’m angry, yet I don’t interrupt. There’s no point: she won’t understand my anger. Instead I lie there, silently watching her as she judges my clothes, raises her eyebrows at the sweets my mum packed me. She checks every corner of my suitcase. I feel invaded, but I’m not sure if I am justified in this. Maybe this is just something we disabled people have to put up with. I don’t like it one bit.
Transition Year and one month off my seventeenth birthday. I’ve written a play, and the year head has agreed to allow the drama teacher and I to produce and direct it. This is the beginning of a blossoming writing career. I have so much to do, but I am not in school. Instead I am in Dun Laoghaire, the NRH to be exact. I am to get two weeks’ intensive physio-, speech- and occupational therapy. Have I any idea how lucky I am? I’m only in TY, I’m told. I won’t miss much. I am put on the children’s ward. The girl in the bed next to me is called Stephanie. She becomes breathless when she tries to talk, but she is sweet. She’s also frighteningly institutionalised. She is my age and has been here a few months, but has already forgotten what life outside is like. The happiest part of her week is when one of the nurses does her nails. Life here is regimented. On the first day I wake up looking for a shower, and I’m told that showers are not an everyday thing. Instead I am presented with a basin of soapy water and told to wash myself. On my days to shower, despite my insistence that I can manage, I am told that it is unsafe for me to shower alone. I have to tolerate a stranger touching me, seeing my bits and pieces (“nothing we haven’t seen before” they say cheerily) as I am scrubbed much like a horse might be. The nurses laugh at my embarrassment. Typical teenager. But I am not a typical teenager. If that were true, I would be in my home economics class, not here. We go to bed with a video at half eight. I haven’t gone to bed this early since I was eleven. It’s not really an opportunity to rest, either: people need to be turned and toileted during the night, sometimes people cry out for assistance. I am only here for two weeks, but the memory of it will last a lifetime. They prescribe lots of physio. Even now, at thirty-five, I still do it. It’s good for me.
I’m still in Transition Year, back in the safety of my own routine in Tullamore. I’ve done work experience in the Tullamore Tribune, and my play is about to go live to an audience of four hundred people over two nights. It feels surreal; it’s what I’ve always wanted, and yet I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. I also feel exposed, as these characters are based on real-life people that I know and love. I also feel immensely proud and validated that my teachers trusted me with the task of writing and producing this play. In a parallel universe, we have to visit the National Learning Network as part of the “Community Care” module. It’s an alternative to college for disabled people, people like me. As I sit listening I recognise its merits, but I also find myself wondering whether there is more to life. Will I end up in a day care centre in my twenties, drinking tea and making idle chit-chat about the weather? The prospect terrifies me, though I don’t know why. In many ways it may be easier than the mainstream route, but I am stubborn. Too stubborn sometimes.
So I enter fifth year, still terrified. I am just another number, I tell myself. Nothing special about me. I’ve convinced myself that the only way to avoid that day care centre is to study. I resolve to get enough points to get into Trinity, although I have no idea what I’m going to do after I get my degree. I become fixated with this aim; it’s the only thing that keeps me going. My life revolves around school. I stop eating, watching with satisfaction as my belly shrinks into nothing. I am normal, I tell myself. I don’t stop studying until after midnight every night. I silently cry my way through lessons, despising my own weakness. I am lonely, but I don’t have time to go out gallivanting at weekends. I have no choice. I must do this. The Leaving Cert nearly breaks me, but I conquer it. Great triumph over adversity story. I am going to Trinity.
Trinity is a different world. I am equal here. With the right supports in place, I blend into the background, silently struggling with imposter syndrome. I can’t compete with these genii who claim to have been reading Jane Austen since they were five. I struggle in silence. I got a scholarship to go here. If I ask for help, people might think that I’m a dumbass and kick me out. I’ve resolved to leave when I am compelled to confide everything in Orlaith and Declan, the disability officers. They tell me not to leave. They also confirm something that I have suspected my entire life: that there is nothing wrong with me and that we need to use our inner fire to eliminate barriers for disabled people. I shamefully tell them I broke my electric wheelchair by bringing it across Front Square, but they don’t berate me (much!!). Instead they insist that the solution is to build a level-access pathway across the cobbles. I start to think that if an institution as old and as steeped in history as Trinity College is can make such dramatic changes, then there is no excuse for the rest of the world not to make these changes too.
During my time at Trinity, I learn so much more than how to write a critical essay. I learn how to be independent, how to cook, how to work and pay my bills. Every morning I wake up, and know that I have choices. I don’t always make the right ones, and having that freedom to fail and learn from those mistakes is vital. For example, one month I spend my rent money on God knows what and have to spend the next few months eating cereal. A hard but important lesson! I leave Trinity with the second class honour that was so important to me, though now I can’t remember why. I don’t even have the Latin parchment on display, I think it’s in my attic somewhere. After I leave college, I have no idea what I’m going to do. I feel like I’m leaving part of myself on campus, but with the grey buildings and the beautiful campanile and the leafy trees and students in their dufflecoats, I forget I’m not in the real world. The real world is cruel and it reminds me of my place: outside it. I apply for hundreds of jobs, but I do not get called for a single interview. What was I thinking, I berate myself, nobody would want a useless cripple.
Eventually, I am thrown a lifeline and Offaly Centre for Independent Living offers me a job. Mum tells me she was happier when I got offered a six-month internship with HP, an experience which would’ve cost me more money than it was worth. But I am delighted, and I still look back on my time there with fondness. My job is ridiculously easy. It is the emotional toll that is harder. I learn all about independent living and equal rights only to discover that these are only theories and that in reality Independent living cannot be achieved. I witness people becoming afraid to ask for what they wanted as the focus shifts to what people need at a basic level. There’s no money, we are constantly told at staff meetings. We need to prioritise services, get people out of bed. Nothing we can do about it, we are told. Things are tight at the moment. I am an upstart, a troublemaker. I am not cooperating. I find myself trapped in an institution of my own, the dark depths of my own mind. I think back to my own respite stays of my childhood and feel physically sick at the thought of them being a long term arrangement, for me or for anyone.
It bothers me, even now in my position of privilege – I live independently, in my own home, with my husband, daughter and naughty little puppy – that there are people out there who are incarcerated by circumstances not of their own making. Many are living in hospitals either because their own houses are not wheelchair accessible, or because there are not enough ‘community supports’ like home helps and Personal Assistants, and it annoys me. It annoys me because I know that I am lucky. It annoys me because I constantly feel that I have dodged a bullet. It bothers me to hear about disabled people who are ready and willing to contribute to our economy being stuck at home because only their personal care needs are being met. It infuriates me sometimes that I was naively led to believe that disabled people could ever be viewed as equal when the story on the ground, as well as the lived reality, seems to be disturbingly different.
Sometimes, I wish I didn’t care. That I could get on with my life and writing and ignore the many rights that are being denied to disabled people at the moment. I’m not trying to make myself out to be a martyr, I promise. All I’m saying is why must there always be barriers to break through, obstacles to overcome? Why do I say the same thing over and over again to the point where I’m nearly boring myself?
Because, dear reader, I know what the alternatives are. And I never want to become institutionalised, in body or mind. I reserve the right to live a life of my own choosing, and I’m lucky to be free to exercise that right.
I am getting older now. My body – my fabulously unpredictable body – is letting me down in ways it never did before. It is scary, and I know that it is partly my own fault. But this is my vessel. It will never be perfect, it cannot be fixed, and nor would I ever want it to be. This was the way I was made – not worse or better, just me – and after all these years, believing that makes me stronger than any physio regime ever could.
If you are reading this on 8 February 2020, it’s election day! Even though the general election in Ireland was only officially called about a month ago, it feels as though the pre-election propaganda has been going on for months and I’m sure, just like me, you are all tired of it, dear reader. (And speaking of being tired of people droning on, many thanks to those of you who read the throwback blogs I’ve been sharing on social media every day since this election was announced. You are truly my stars).
Admittedly, although there have been a few leaders’ and political debates on the telebox over the last few weeks, I haven’t actually sat through a whole debate. However, I have seen and heard small glimpses of them and it was like watching toddlers fighting over who drew that lovely picture. My own daughter will be eight on Sunday and I consider her too old for “he said, she said” sort of nonsense. Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar have been particularly irritating. Neither of them have done the disability sector any favours over the years. The cutbacks began in Micheal’s time, and Leo has been the proud Leader of a party that once proposed the complete obliteration of the now precious Personal Assistant Service (which was proposed by James Reilly, then Minister for Health, in 2012).
People haven’t forgotten these things, it seems. Things in Ireland are on the cusp of change, with many once-sceptical people declaring their intention to vote for Sinn Féin. A decade of poverty, homelessness and unemployment have driven many people to the edge, with many of us still looking for signs of this economic upturn we’re supposedly in the midst of. I think it’s Orwellian of the government to assure us that things are improving when the cost of living is so high, when over ten thousand people (just three thousand people shy of the population of Tullamore, my home town) are homeless and those who emigrated during the lows of the recession saying that they couldn’t contemplate moving back in the near future to a country offering few prospects of career progression. As a struggling freelance writer, it’s easy for me to empathise with their point of view.
With the all-important vote here now, I’m still undecided who will be my number one. I know it’s so important to use my vote – not to would be a slap in the face to those brave and fearless suffragettes – but looking through history, I’m starting to wonder whether it’s really the way to make real change. Please don’t think that I’m trying to discourage people from using their vote – far from it! – but it was an Orwellian character, the everyman Winston in the dystopian novel 1984, who said –
“If there is hope, it lies in the proles.”
What I mean by this is that we need to be fearless and unflinching in our own convictions, and it is our responsibility to ensure that those who are elected into power follow the wishes of the people. That can only happen if we stand up and use our own voices with confidence and conviction. The people I admire in life are not politicians; they are ordinary people who were not afraid to make a stand. Rosa Parks, an ordinary woman, one day decided that she had had enough of being segregated because of the colour of her skin and initiated the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Subsequently, she became a symbol of resistance against racism in the USA, collaborating with Martin Luther King Jr in her pursuit of justice.
Seven years later, Ed Roberts, who had contracted polio as a teenager, fought to be accepted into the University of California, Berkeley. At interview stage, he was famously told “We’ve tried cripples before and it didn’t work.” His subsequent acceptance into the University, along with some other severely impaired students, paved the way for future disabled students to gain entry. Roberts had a revolutionary idea that he was going to recruit and employ his own “attendant” as he wanted a life independent from his mother, Zona. He was going to “hire and fire” this attendant, and instruct them to carry out tasks as per his desires, not just based on what he was perceived to “need” by others. This left Zona free to pursue her own interests and subsequently Ed was not a burden on his mother. The establishment of the Center for Independent Living in 1972 heralded a monumental shift away from the misperception that disabled people could not make their own decisions or manage their own lives. Its establishment led to the philosophy of Independent Living spreading all over the world, even coming to Ireland.
The decision to bring independent living to Ireland did not come from government. No, it came directly from disabled activists themselves, including Martin Naughton, Michael McCabe and Donal Toolan. It was disabled people that took it upon themselves to revolutionise how services were being provided to disabled people at the time. This led to the founding of the first Irish Center for Independent Living in 1992. One of their first major projects, Operation Get Out, saw disabled people moving from unsuitable and outdated institutions into their own homes, where they could make both basic and life-changing decisions with the help of their Personal Assistants.
Over the years, disabled activists in Ireland have continued fighting and pushing for equality. Dermot Walsh is remembered for his work with Dublin Bus, and over the years, many disabled people have joined the campaign for accessible transport. In 2012, when the cutbacks to PA services were so cruelly threatened it was disabled people themselves, protesting for three days and nights outside the Dáil, who reversed that decision. Sadly, we have had no time to pat ourselves on the backs, because an activist’s work is never done. Many young disabled people remain trapped indefinitely in hospitals or unsuitable residential homes. According to research carried out by Independent Living Movement Ireland in 2017, 45% of those lucky 2,200 people in current receipt of PA services only have an average of forty-five minutes’ service a day, and people who have the highest personal care needs are being prioritised.
Can we really expect the government to bring about radical change? Or does the real answer lie closer to home? I have been reminded too often lately that life is short. How do we want to spend it? I understand that fighting and campaigning can be tiring, but believe me, complacency is a far more dangerous prospect.
I remember in 1997, when I was in sixth class in primary school, we had to write a composition about what we thought 2020 might look like. Some of it was bang-on, like having the ability to shop online and being able to pay for things by tapping your credit card. Of course, other suggestions were ludicrous, like having flying cars and being able to travel back and forth through time. But if you had told pre-pubescent me that in 2020, wheelchair users would still have to give notice to travel on public transport, that disabled people would still be trapped in unsuitable nursing homes and that we would not have access to the most basic services that enabled us to live independently, I don’t think I’d have believed it. Because it’s not only unbelievable – it’s scandalous.
The good news is that we can solve these things – us, the proles – by speaking out, saying no and rejecting the status quo.
Governments don’t always bring about the change we need. And they don’t want to reveal the dirty little secret: we, the ordinary people have that power. We’ve had that power all along, the freedom to use our own voices, to speak up on behalf of our peers, to say that the status quo just isn’t good enough any more.
Do you believe that one person can make a difference to the world?
And if so, why can’t that one person be you?
So, it’s happened, as many predicted it would – a general election has been called for the 8thFebruary, 2020. What an underhanded move, don’t you think? To call an election due to take place within three weeks? The short timeframe leaves us all scrambling to make our cases, to highlight pressing issues to election candidates in the hope that somehow, our electorates will improve our quality of life.
However, there is something that’s been bothering me, something that I need to clarify once and for all with you, dear reader. You may have noticed, that as a writer, I am in danger of pigeon-holing myself; after all, the name of this blog is “wobbly yummy mummy”. The keywords I use most, according to the word map located to the right of this blog are “disability”, “independent living” and “equality”. When I established this blog six years ago, I intended it to become a platform for a diverse range of subjects, not just disability activism. Yet, I don’t think of it as time wasted, nor do I worry whether it will impact on my future writing career. I’m proud of this blog, and what it represents. Above all, my writing serves as a reminder to all who read it that –
Disability Rights Are Human Rights
This reminder comes as the nation ramps up to challenge those who think they hold the solution to the many problems facing people in this country right now. Often, when organisations purporting to represent the needs of disabled people deliver their manifestoes to the vote-seeking candidates, they are told by the election hopefuls that they understand the importance of services for disabled people, that they want to protect those who are “vulnerable” within our society. That said, few candidates understand that it’s not our impairments that make us vulnerable, but rather the lack of access, services and respect that we as disabled people face on a daily basis.
The reality is that disabled people’s lives are affected in deeper ways by the government’s unwillingness to treat us as equals. It has been recently reported that Ireland is the worst country in Europe to have an impairment or disability, and this doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. One of the biggest challenges is that disabled people are still treated as “patients”, people who, in the words of prominent activist, the late Martin Naughton “are to be cared for rather than cared about.” We have to ask ourselves whether things can ever drastically improve for disabled people in Ireland as long as the HSE is the principal funder of disability services. Does this mean that disability will always be seen as a medical issue rather than a form of social oppression, like racism? Which, of course, is exactly what it is.
It would be amiss of me to imply that there have been no glimmers of hope in the last three years. On 7 March, 2018, Ireland finally ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. On November 19, 2019, a motion was brought to the Seanad by Donegal TD Thomas Pringle in collaboration with NUI Galway and Independent Living Movement Ireland (ILMI) to legislate for a Personal Assistant Service. This has been a monumental step not only towards securing a service for disabled people often described as “my arms and my legs” but bringing about a change in the overall narrative of disability. It was the first time in a long time that I observed the language that was used being focused on a rights-based approach rather than the usual “vulnerable” narrative. And although the safety of the future of personal assistant services is still not guaranteed, I feel optimistic about the future of disabled people right now.
But – and there’s always a but – we cannot and should not rely on elected representatives to speak on our behalf. Historically, disabled people have had to suffer the humiliation of not having their voices heard. This starts on a seemingly innocuous level, in our everyday lives, when our family members or personal assistants are spoken to instead of us being spoken to directly. This is referred to as the “does he take sugar” syndrome, and evolves into a warped reality where the views of disabled people are only taken seriously when they are endorsed by a “disability organisation”. I know that my little blog does not have the reach that I would like it to have, and while I would never claim to be the expert on disability issues, I know how exclusion, lack of access and discrimination, both direct and indirect, impacts on my everyday life.
My point is – we need to trust ourselves. We need to truly believe that we as disabled people, and we alone, know what’s best for us. If we don’t believe this – and it’s shocking how many disabled people doubt themselves because of internalised oppression – then the big decisions will be made for us. Where we live, who assists us, our dreams and the nitty-gritty of our own lives will never be in our hands.
So to reiterate: The issues facing the population as a whole also face disabled people.
For example, disabled people are aversely affected by the housing crisis. Many adult disabled people, just like non-disabled people, are still stuck living at home with their parents. Others are living in hospitals or nursing homes for the elderly because there is no accessible housing available or because they don’t have access to Personal Assistant Services. There are no figures available to show how many of the 10,000 people who are currently homeless are disabled people, but logically people with a varied range of impairments would be logistically unable to access certain hostels and emergency accommodation.
The rising costs of living means that disabled people in Ireland (like many others) are forced to eat nutritionally deficient food such as breakfast cereal, pasta or packaged soup, because they must save money for heating and other bills, or because they lack the assistance needed to prepare a more substantial meal. And the free travel pass, which was intended to reduce isolation among disabled people from their communities, is useless when buses are inaccessible and both urban and rural train stations are unmanned.
Should I have the chance to meet any of the election hopefuls face-to-face, I shall be reminding them that disabled people are demanding their human rights, that the government urgently needs to invest in all of our lives, that we should have access to the same services and opportunities as the “non-disabled” population and, above all, that we have been very patient. We have watched the deterioration of vital services and yet the outcry has been barely audible. We have tolerated cutbacks, the denial of basic rights, the compartmentalisation of our needs into “special needs” for far too long.
We refuse to do it any longer.
We refuse to be spoken for any longer.
Henceforth, we will be collectively using our voices and demanding our human rights.
(This article was first published in the Tullamore Tribune week ending 20 December 2019. Many thanks to Ger Scully, editor of the Tribune, for this).
On the 19 November 2019, the possibility of legislating for Personal Assistance as a legal right was debated by the Dáil. The motion was brought forward by Donegal TD Thomas Pringle from Independents For Change, who worked in collaboration with Independent Living Movement Ireland (ILMI) in promoting the right for disabled people to access Personal Assistance in Ireland.
The Personal Assistance Service and Independent Living are intertwined. In their truest form, Personal Assistants are not “carers”, nor do they have the right to make decisions on behalf of the disabled people they work for. A Personal Assistant has been defined by many as “my arms and my legs”, in other words, the role of a Personal Assistant is to assist with or perform tasks that the disabled person (known as a “Leader”) cannot do for him or herself. The Leader is considered to be the expert in their own needs and directs the Personal Assistant on what he/she wants done. When the service is delivered properly, the PA does not “look after” the Leader, but rather enables him or her to live a fulfilling life – enter employment, access education, enjoy social events and raise a family – depending on the Leader’s own life goals.
In theory, a Leader’s service is customised to suit his or her own lifestyle. However, in reality, only a select few disabled people in Ireland are enjoying the full benefits of Independent Living. Since the onset of the recession in 2008 the lack of financial resources, coupled with a growing demand for a Personal Assistant Service, has led to overmedicalised assessments and more stringent criteria, leaving many disabled people with little or no service. Emphasis has been placed on “high dependency needs” such as feeding, showering and dressing. While this might make sense to the powers that be, in reality this can lead to a depressingly low quality of life for the Leader concerned, being all dressed up and nowhere to go.
Many Leaders make a distinction between a “home-help” service and a PA service. A home help works to a rota provided by a care organisation and merely assists clients with basic tasks such as Personal Care and feeding. Often, a client has little or no say in what tasks they can be assisted with, nor do they have control over who delivers these tasks. It is not uncommon for a “client” to be assisted by many different people, and a disabled person might not know who is assisting them from one day to the next. Conversely, a Personal Assistant is recruited by the Leader themselves, and matching personalities, as well as a willingness to carry out certain tasks, is a crucial element to the success of any PA/Leader relationship.
The original intention behind the service was that the Leader could dictate what they wanted to do and when, just like every other person in this country. Moreover, the philosophy of independent living espouses that the Leader should choose who assists them, what they need assistance with, and when. A distinct benefit of the PA service is that it reduces our reliance on our family and friends so that we can enjoy a relationship as equals, not as “carer” and “cared for”.
However, in spite of the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCPRD), Personal Assistant Services are not currently a right for disabled people in Ireland. Consequently, this leaves the service vulnerable to the constant threat of cutbacks, as the government illustrated in 2012 when it endeavoured to eradicate the entire service overnight. People power alone, in the form of demonstrations outside the Dáil saved the service, but the PA service in its current form is not allowing disabled people to enjoy a reasonable or enjoyable quality of life. A report published by ILMI in 2017 conveyed that nearly half of people in receipt of PA services were getting the equivalent of 45 minutes a day. This is entirely unacceptable and clearly illustrates the need to legislate for PA Services.
Therefore, the motion which was brought before the Dáil and subsequently passed unanimously was a hugely historic day for disabled people in Ireland. It heralded a shift away from the notion of disabled people as passive recipients of care to people who had human rights and who deserved access to the tools that enable them to participate equally in society. For the first time, Personal Assistance was debated in the Dáil using the language of rights, signalling a shift away from the misperception that disabled people are merely passive recipients of care.
Alas, although this small battle has been won (and how sweet the victory does taste!) the work for those who want equality for disabled people is far from over. We cannot afford to be complacent or to take anything for granted. Now is the time to educate people, to create awareness of the importance of our PA services and to ensure that our government delivers on its promise to make independent living a basic human right.
It was October 13, 2016. Martin Naughton had just died, and the entire disability community was in mourning. Martin’s death was at a time when I had made a monumental decision, for the thousandth time. I was ready to kiss the world of disability activism goodbye and become a full-time freelance writer. I had spent too long caring about the degeneration of the philosophy of independent living. I had blogged about it, spoken about it and still I felt empty inside, as if the wonderful, magical world of Independent Living only existed in fairy tales.
A week later, I received an email from the wonderful Susan O’Brien in Carmichael House Centre for Independent Living (or Independent Living Movement Ireland as it is now known) asking me if I would be interested, along with other activists, in organising an event to pay tribute to Martin, who was considered to be the Irish Father of the Independent Living Movement. I accepted Sue’s kind invitation, and a week later found myself sitting like an imposter among some of the greatest activists in Ireland: Dermot Hayes, Ann Marie Flanagan, Mick Nestor and the legendary Shelly Gaynor (Shelly had been to the forefront of many protests against cutbacks to Personal Assistant Services). There was another man there who seemed oddly familiar: even though I’d never met him before in my life, I felt like I’d known him a long time. His name was John.
As the group discussed plans for the memorial event, John’s enthusiasm struck me and inspired me to volunteer to manage the social media and create a blog for the event. I felt more confident in my own voice and started to open up and share my ideas. In December 2016, I started talking to John over Facebook about how disillusioned I’d become with Independent Living in Ireland and how I felt that things had become overmedicalised.
“We are the experts in our own lives,” he said. “The HSE supports the medical model. They will never understand the true meaning of Independent Living or rights.” I offered the idea that we could educate those within the HSE, but John was having none of it. Over the following weeks we fought, we clashed, we agreed on some points. John said that it was important to have those conversations, to make things clearer in my own head.
At this point, there was talk of me joining the board of CIL Carmichael House, in early 2017. I was having serious doubts about it and John, who was concerned about me, asked me why.
“John, I’m not experienced enough to go onto any board, let alone onto a board of an organisation I’ve respected for years. Sure, I can talk the talk but I haven’t done anything tangibly constructive for the movement the way the others have. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
John wrote back: “Nobody knows what they’re doing, not at first anyway. Martin spent his life taking risks, and look how that paid off! You have such passion. Let that drive you.”
But I still didn’t feel worthy so I shied away from the Board. Determined to give something back, however, I instead threw myself into the memorial event. As a group, we named ourselves “By Us With Us”. In addition to managing the social media for the event, I wrote and consequently performed a dramatic monologue, which was close to the bone as it explored the damage caused by internalised oppression when Alison was born.
The months flew by. Before I knew it, it was May 2017 and I had not seen John since February. Nor had I heard much from him. In August, I was devastated to learn that John had lung cancer. My mum had that too. Generally, the prognosis for lung cancer is not good. Naturally, John pulled away from the organisation of the event. Before this, he had been guiding me in managing the blog and Facebook page. His silence was eerie.
Not wanting to bother John, I asked other friends how he was doing. Apparently he was trying to put a brave face on it but he was terrified. I continued working with By Us With Us and getting to know Shelly. Soon, I would not be able to imagine my life without her as a friend, and she remains a massive part of my life.
Finally, the big event came on 23rd September 2017, and with it came my dramatic debut. It was so raw. The pain was supposed to be that of my character’s, but it was obviously I who was crying on the stage, not “Rachel”. The performed drained me and much to my disappointment, I had no choice but to miss the rest of the event and take it easy. At nine o’clock that evening, my phone pinged: a message from John. All it said was “I heard you were brilliant, well done Sarah”.
That was the last I ever heard from him.
John died on the night of 26th November. My heart ached, and I couldn’t say why. I barely knew the man; realistically I only met him face-to-face a handful of times. I cried when I heard. The thought of his children facing the rest of their lives without their dad, the loss within a disability community that had lost so many people, including Eugene Callan, four days after the memorial event.
For some reason, John’s death angered me. I began to think of all the disabled people I knew, young and old, who were grappling with the same shite that disabled people grappled with thirty years ago. How could there be so little progress between my generation and John’s? As if possessed by some intangible demon, I sat at the keyboard and typed blindly, my own salty tears stinging my eyes. I could hear John saying (though I can’t remember whether he actually said this, or if he implied it), that from the cradle to the grave, all disabled people seem to do is fight.
I didn’t dedicate the poem to John openly at the time. I felt I had no right to. I barely knew the man. Others had a historical connection to him that I didn’t have. So I shared it, but didn’t mention John. Now, I dedicate this poem to John, two years after his passing.
In 2018 I was asked if I would like to join the Board of Independent Living Movement Ireland. Again I said, “Others have more experience than me.” Shelly’s response was the exact same as John’s had been and I felt that he was there, dragging me back to the world of activism which frustrates me and makes my soul sing in equal measure.
As a movement, we have made fantastic progress. Last week saw the passing of a motion in the Seanad that represented independent living as a fundamental human right for disabled people rather than a service that is granted on a whim by the powers that be within the HSE. This was always John’s dream, and now it’s up to all of us to make it a reality – to continue to fight, fight, fight.
Rest in peace friend (and thanks so much for the poetic inspiration – one of my favourite poems yet).
I am sharing this essay to outline why I am so vehemently supporting the #PASNOW campaign.
Discuss the challenges to the realisation of the Independent Living Philosophy in Ireland since the onset of the economic recession.
The philosophy of Independent Living was intended to be the cornerstone of the provision of Personal Assistance Services in Ireland. In its truest form, as noted by Morris (1993), independent living is about recognising that each individual has something to offer and that disabled people have “the right to assert control over their lives” (p21). The philosophy is entrenched in the belief that disabled people should have the same quality of life as their non-disabled peers. Yet, there have always been challenges to the realisation of this philosophy in Ireland, and these have become more apparent since the onset of the economic recession in 2008. Berghs (2014, p272) notes that “in a time of austerity, where government budgets are being cut […] independent living or care in a community cannot be ensured”. Independent Living has enriched the lives of many disabled people in Ireland. Yet its philosophy remains at odds with Irish culture, which has historically favoured a charitable approach to funding disability services. In addition, the Personal Assistance service, considered to be the cornerstone of the philosophy, was almost eradicated in September 2012 and the right to access a Personal Assistant remains unprotected by Irish law. A study conducted by the European Network of Independent Living (ENIL) in 2019 indicated that Irish Personal Assistance Services are not perceived to be underpinned by the independent living philosophy (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p13). Additionally, many disabled people are incarcerated in hospitals and institutions in direct violation of their human rights. Of further concern to true “Leaders” or Personal Assistant Service users is the expectation that Leaders should rely on family members for their needs and the consequent strain this can cause to family relationships. In this essay, the ideals of the independent living philosophy will be weighed up against the current reality in Ireland, and it will be demonstrated that Irish culture and the independent living philosophy has always been, and remains, at odds with each other.
Firstly, in examining the challenges in meeting the ideals of the philosophy of independent living, it is important to outline what this philosophy entails. According to Bruce (1999), independent living shifts the perception of the disabled person from being an object of care “to a point where they acquire rights of full participation and equality” (p5). In addition, as Morris (1993) notes, the independent living philosophy involves “acquiring the skills and support necessary for severely impaired people to have freedom to live where and how we choose with full control over our lives” (p20). Traditionally, the Personal Assistant Service has been used as a tool by disabled people in achieving independent living. Personal Assistance dates back to 1970s America, when Ed Roberts and a group of disabled college students, collectively known as “the Rolling Quads” employed Personal Assistants which enabled them to attend university and subsequently gain employment. This led to the establishment of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley in 1972.
It took twenty years for the philosophy of independent living to travel to Ireland. The European Network of Independent Living (ENIL) confirms that the establishment of the first Irish Center for Independent Living was instigated by disabled people themselves (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p13). Martin Naughton, who had spent his childhood in St. Mary’s in Baldoyle, came across the Center for Independent Living when he was travelling in the US during the nineteen-eighties. In an interview with Joanna Marsden, Naughton recalled his time in America and how he saw the potential to bring the philosophy to Ireland:
I began to think of all the people back home, many of whom I had semi-reared in some sense when I was in Baldoyle, who were living in institutions. The temptation to do something became too great and I felt the pull back home. (Marsden, 2010; cited in Conroy, 2018, p227)
The establishment of the Personal Assistant Service in Ireland was also the result of the retaliation of disabled people who were tired of having no control over their own lives. Naughton stated in an Irish Times interview in 2015 that in Ireland, a disabled person had traditionally been perceived as “someone to be cared for rather than cared about” (www.irishtimes.com). Conroy notes that one of the main reasons for the formation of the Irish Independent living movement was a reluctance on the part of disabled people at the time to continue living with resentful family members or in residential institutions. (Conroy, 2018, p229).
However, translating the philosophy of independent living into an Irish context has always proved challenging, especially within a predominantly Catholic culture that perceives disabled people as objects of charity instead of equal citizens deserving of rights (Toolan, 2003, p175). A study entitled Extending the Boundaries was carried out in 2006 to examine the progress of the Independent Living Movement from its introduction to Ireland in the early ‘nineties. Dixon commented that:
While the experience of Independent Living has been broadly accepted as a positive one for disabled people, there is a concern over the uneven spread of this service provision, and a worry that the philosophy of Independent Living, which should underpin service provision, is being diluted. (Dixon, 2006, p17)
This quote suggests that there were challenges to realising the Independent Living Philosophy prior to the onset of economic recession. However, the philosophy has become further diluted since the publication of Extending the Boundaries. Given Ireland’s tendency to treat disabled people as “victims” deserving of charity rather than autonomous individuals in their own right, fundraising initiatives has always been the norm in many disability organisations, including RehabCare and the Irish Wheelchair Association. Toolan notes that “At the same time as disabled rights groups are looking for the enactment of disability rights legislation, charities under a ‘not for profit’ banner are projecting demeaning and dehumanising messaging in order to attract resources for their service” (Toolan, 2003, p174). This conflict between the need for the Center for Independent Living to portray itself as a rights-based organisation and the requirement to secure funding for services came to the fore during recessionary times, with Irish disabled activists reluctant to portray themselves as vulnerable in order to secure funding. However the RehabCare and Central Remedial Clinic scandals, which revealed that charitable donations were being used to inflate salaries, is one reason why sustaining a charitable approach will not work into the future. Morris (1993, p7) states that the supposed dependency and inadequacy of disabled people is perpetuated through the inappropriate application of medical expertise and the growth of the charity sector, and the way disabled people are perceived within the charity model.
Indeed, the medical model, coupled with the charity model, has had a negative influence on the strength of the Independent Living philosophy. Since the onset of the recession, disabled people have been forced to portray themselves as dependent, passive recipients of services rather than equal citizens who can live independently with the help of a Personal Assistance service. This is at odds with the Center for Independent Living’s “rights not charity” mantra. Toolan (2003) notes that being drenched in the doctrine of Catholicism, Ireland has always leaned heavily on the charitable approach, being “a society that is far from comfortable with individual rights” (p175). This can be seen in the current provision of the Personal Assistance Service. Personal Assistance was initially introduced as a pilot project in 1992, funding for which came from the EU Horizon programme. Following the two-year pilot, the regional Health Boards (now the HSE) and FAS continued to fund Personal Assistance, but in technical terms, Personal Assistance still holds “pilot project” status, and seems to be allocated on an “ad hoc” basis, with the number of hours given to Leaders dependent on which CHO (Community Health Organisation) covers that Leader’s service. Contrary to what the philosophy of Independent Living advocates, a Leader does not have full control over the hiring and firing of their Personal Assistants (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p21). In addition, Leaders lack control over who works for them, and at what time, meaning that assistance hours provided are uncompromisingly rigid (ibid, p20). Presently, access to a Personal Assistant is dependent on an assessment which is usually carried out by a Public Health Nurse, which focuses on basic activities of Independent Living, such as washing, dressing and feeding. This medicalised approach goes against the social model on which the Independent Living Philosophy is based and, as noted by ENIL (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p25) personal assistants are not trained in the independent living philosophy. In addition, access to Personal Assistance is not treated as a human right (ibid, p13). Since the onset on the recession, tasks such as personal care have been prioritised over the need for help with household tasks, accessing employment and education, socialising and shopping. Jolly (2010) notes that attempts to control expenditure on Personal Assistance occurs when a government restricts “the tasks that a personal assistant can do, meaning the tasks that [the HSE or FAS] will pay for a personal assistant to do” (p7). This rationing of Personal Assistance is at odds with the aims of the Center for Independent Living, as noted by Bruce (2000): “From the outset CIL located its activities in the context of seeing disability as a rights and investment issue to enable disabled people to have the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers” (p11, emphasis mine).
During the recession, the right to Personal Assistant Services was constantly threatened by the government, and indeed the service continues to face the threat of cutbacks (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p14). In September 2012, the Minister for Health, James Reilly announced that twelve million euro would be cut from the Personal Assistance budget, showing government’s lack of understanding of the true value of the service. The decision was only reversed following a three-day protest by disability activists, calling themselves the “Leader’s Alliance”, outside the Dail. This radical action was necessary as the right to Personal Assistance currently has no basis in Irish law.
In reality, the fact that provision for Personal Assistance is not yet legislated for in Ireland means that the service remains vulnerable to cutbacks at any given time, at the discretion of the Irish government. In 2013, the Center for Independent Living Carmichael House (renamed Independent Living Movement Ireland in September 2018) proposed to legislate for Personal Assistance. On 7 May 2014, a motion was debated and passed by the Seanad to allow for the legislation of Personal Assistance (Independent Living Movement Ireland, 2017). The motion noted that this legislation would build on the Value for Money and Policy Review of the Disability Services, the National Disability Strategy and the Action Plan for Jobs 2014. The proposal for the legislation stated that
the purpose of Personal Assistance is to ensure that people with disabilities enjoy the same opportunities as all members of society, to ensure that they have the same choices as others, and to afford them the means to control how they wish to pursue their lives. (ILMI, 2017, p31)
Under the proposed legislation, it was suggested that Personal Assistance hours would be granted “without regard to any upper limit on the number of hours and without regard to the cost of the service or the means of the individual” (ILMI, 2017, p33). However, the proposal also advised that the Department of Social Protection should take charge of the funding allocation for Personal Assistant Services, raising concerns that the service may be means tested in the future, potentially leaving Leaders “worse off” in terms of the level of service they would receive (ibid, p13).
However, for reasons unknown to this author, the Personal Assistance Bill was never enacted by the Oireachtas. Passing this law would enable Ireland to uphold its obligations in the eyes of the United Nations. According to Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities (UNCRPD), “Persons with disabilities [should] have access to a range of in-home, residential and other community support services, including personal assistance necessary to support living and inclusion in the community” (UN, 2006, p14). Although Ireland was one of the first countries to sign up for the UNCRPD in 2007, it was the last country in the European Union to ratify it on 7 March 2018, after an eleven year wait. In response, Independent Living Movement Ireland initiated a #PASNow campaign towards the end of 2018. It involves encouraging individual Leaders to contact their local politicians and educate them about the importance of the Personal Assistance Service. In addition to encouraging the legislation of the service, the campaign also calls for a rights-based definition of a Personal Assistant, as well as outlining what distinguishes Personal Assistance from home help (Independent Living Movement Ireland, 2018). The #PASNow campaign evolved following research which found that a mere 2,200 disabled people in Ireland received a Personal Assistant service in 2017 (Conroy, 2018, p232). In addition, Conroy notes that almost forty-five percent of Leaders receive a mere forty-five minutes of Personal Assistance a day, which illustrates how narrow and medicalised the criteria for receiving a Personal Assistant has become. Given that a Personal Assistant has been described by many Leaders as “my arms and my legs”, Conroy notes that forty-five minutes is not enough time to allow a disabled person to live a complete life (Conroy, 2018, p231). Clearly, the fact that such a high percentage of Leaders have access to such little service demonstrates that Ireland does not yet perceive Independent Living to be a human rights issue.
In fact, Ireland remains far from recognising the rights of disabled people to live in their own communities, and this is evident from the high numbers living in residential institutions. Inclusion Ireland estimated that as of 2016, just over three thousand disabled people in Ireland were living in residential or congregated settings (www.inclusionireland.ie, Accessed 19 March 2019). Article 19 of the UNCRPD (UN, 2006) states: “Persons with disabilities have the opportunity to choose their place of residence and where and with whom they live on an equal basis with others and are not obliged to live in a particular living arrangement”. However, for many disabled people in Ireland, this is not yet a reality. The HSE report Time to Move on from Congregated Settings: A Strategy for Community Inclusion notes that between 1999 and 2008, more people moved into residential settings (693) than moved out of them into the mainstream community (619) (HSE, 2011, p3). It is evident that there needs to be more investment into Personal Assistance to allow people to move out of residential settings. Conroy (2018) states that Ireland is currently spending three times as much money on institutional and nursing home care than on “home care” (not necessarily Personal Assistance, as in its truest form, Leaders employ and direct their own Personal Assistants) (Conroy, 2018, p235). In 2015, Martin Naughton organised a three-day protest outside the Dáil following an announcement by Taoiseach Enda Kenny that four hundred and fifty million euro was to be invested into institutional living arrangements for disabled people. In his explanation about why the protest was organised, Naughton said
If the Government continues to go down the route of refurbishing and building home care and residential settings, as they have announced, they will have to put people into those homes. We need to get away from this model of incarceration. (Flaherty, Irish Times, 2015)
It has been noted that Ireland finds it difficult to embrace independent living provisions, preferring instead to rely on outdated solutions such as residential institutions (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p18). However, the challenge in convincing governments to invest in Personal Assistance is not exclusively an Irish one. Speaking at the European Day Conference for People with Disabilities in 2011, UK activist John Evans feared that a potential effect of a lack of Personal Assistance was that it could once again give rise to a culture of institutionalisation (Evans, 2011). In an attempt to highlight this issue, disabled people across Europe partake in a biannual “Freedom Drive”, an initiative which was the brainchild of the late Martin Naughton, and began in 2003. The activists typically present their “demands” to the European Parliament, most notably the demand to close residential institutions and to legislate for access to Personal Assistance. Besides being in violation of Article 19 of the UNCRPD, Conroy (2018, p233-4) notes that the four main characteristics of living in an institution (“depersonalisation, rigidity of routine, block treatment and social distance”) are at odds with the philosophy of independent Living. In addition, being “warehoused” in an institution is often associated with a reduced quality of life as Maggie Hynes, a disabled British activist noted: “Institutions were places where people like me died in” (Hynes, 1983; cited in Morris, 1993, p22).
One example of the inappropriate use of institutionalisation in Ireland was the case of Julia Thurmann, whose case has garnered much media attention since 2014. Thurmann, who was hospitalised after contracting the ADEM virus, is now paralysed from the waist down, but is still able to work and would be able to live fully independently had she accessible housing and a Personal Assistance service. However, due to the fact she could not move back to her inaccessible flat on her discharge from Dun Laoghaire Rehabilitation Hospital, she has spent the last ten years living in a nursing home in north County Dublin. It was reported in the Dublin Gazette that Thurmann spends four hundred euro a month on taxis in an attempt to ensure that she is not isolated from her mainstream community (Pownall, 2019). At the beginning of this year, Thurmann was informed that accessible accommodation would be made available to her by the end of 2019, after an eleven year wait.
Another consequence of the failure to legislate for Personal Assistance is that it often leaves disabled people with no choice but to rely on family members for assistance. As a consequence, families become under strain, and disabled people cannot enjoy meaningful relationships with family members as equals. This is a threat to the independent living philosophy, as it reverts back to the notion that disabled people are objects of care instead of autonomous individuals. Morris (1993) notes that
In the context of economic inequality which accompanies physical impairment […] the need for personal assistance has been translated into a need for ‘care’ in the sense of a need to be looked after. Once Personal Assistance is seen as ‘care’ then the carer, whether professional or a relative, becomes the person in charge. The disabled person is seen as being dependent on the carer, and incapable even of taking charge of the personal assistance he/she requires. (Morris, 1993, p23)
It can be argued that portraying the disabled person as an object of care dehumanises both the disabled person themselves and those who care for them. The challenges facing family carers in Ireland have been highlighted over the last few years, most notably with an RTE documentary aired in 2017 entitled “Carers in Crisis”. One of the mothers in the documentary, Johanne Powell, who cares for her severely disabled daughter Siobhan, now in her mid-thirties, spoke about her reality as a full-time carer. In 2013, the Irish Times reported that Siobhan had been offered a place in a nursing home, which undermined Johanne’s request for home support so that Siobhan could continue living at home with her family (O’Brien, Irish Times, 2013). Although it could be argued that Siobhan is too mentally incapacitated to make any meaningful decisions over her own life, denying her the support she requires to remain in her own home evidently places strain on the mother/daughter relationship. In an interview on the Late Late Show in 2017, Johanne admitted: “I am bored, depressed, I want more, I want a life for myself” (www.irishexaminer.com, November 2016). Currently in Ireland, as noted by ENIL (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p18), a person’s eligibility for Personal Assistance is in part dependent on the availability of family members to assume ‘caring’ roles. This is problematic because aging parents who are currently caring for their disabled children cannot shoulder the responsibility alone, as the Carers in Crisis documentary demonstrated.
In conclusion, it is clear that the integrity of the independent living philosophy in Ireland has faced significant challenges since the onset of the economic recession. It is important to remember, however, that these challenges will not be eradicated by financial investment alone. Those who wish to truly embrace the Independent living philosophy need to have confidence in their own ability and power. In addition, they must reject the association of disability with charity and embrace their rights to the various supports they need in order to live independently. However the reality is that the status quo regarding Independent Living in Ireland will remain until Leaders themselves are truly empowered, through the implementation of legislation and the adoption of a rights-based approach, to make decisions affecting their own lives.
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