Flying Low

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

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

This was with Ryanair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoe shopping

…AND… whatever male audience I might have had is now gone. Oh well!

I’m a rare specimen, me. One of a kind you might say. For example, I HATE shoe-shopping. Apologies to my friends with screen readers who may have just been shouted at, but you need to understand the extent to which I hate it. I think I may hate it more than a typical man does.

See,  the thing is, because of the way I walk, I tend to wear away the inside of my left sole at an alarming rate. So, at most, I tend to get two months tops out of a pair of shoes or boots. And the complications don’t end there. Because of my awkwardness I can only choose from an extremely narrow selection of shoes. I’d like to think that i’d have a selection of shoes in my wardrobe but the reality is I only own two, maximum three pairs at a time.

So when I go shoe- shopping, I have to eliminate the following categories of shoes.

  • High heels, for obvious reasons. For those who don’t know me, I walk as if I’ve been on the beer for three days straight, all the time. If you’re ever looking for a TV extra for the part of drunk randomer, look no further.
  • Mules. They slip on so easily, and also slip off just as easily.
  • UGG boots, or imitation UGGs. There is just too much room to move around in there, and my ever-moving foot likes a little restriction. When I buy imitation UGGs, there’s usually a toe-shaped hole in the left one within five days of purchase.
  • Pumps hate my feet and refuse to stay on. I usually make the mistake of forgetting this until I’m at a wedding or function of some sort rummaging in my bag for hair bobbins to put around them and my feet so they don’t come off.
  • Shoes with laces: Listen, I’m 33 now. If I haven’t mastered tying laces by now, I’m not gonna.
  • Crocs: thankfully not fashionable but also won’t stay on feet.
  • Sandals/flip flops: My toes hate being exposed. They get embarrassed, they’re shy. When wearing these my feet tend to ball up, leaving me frozen on the spot. Lovely.

So what’s left? Granny sandals with Velcro straps, sensible boots with chunky soles and slip-on runners. These are a nightmare to find  unless they’re in season. It’s horrible.

Well, okay. I admit my footwear issues are not as pressing as famine or the threat of terrorism, but having the right shoes is kind of important as far as I’m concerned. They make walking and staying upright a hell of a lot easier, meaning that come the end of the day, I’m not as fatigued as I would be with the wrong shoes.

I believe it was Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird who said you never know a person until you walk around  in their shoes. So, my friend, if you’re wearing high heels, you’d better have a camera ready to send the clip into You’ve Been Framed.

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.

 

Unproductive Days

Lads, for the last half an hour I’ve been sitting looking blankly into the laptop screen silently willing the urge to write to wash over me. And these are the first few words that I’ve managed. So, instead of marking today down as an unproductive one, I’ve decided to be sneaky and write this blog and mark it as work. Genius or what?

I ‘came into work’ at 9.30pm this evening with the intention of researching an article. That hasn’t happened so I’ll have to do it tomorrow.

When I started writing a novel two years ago, I told myself I’d be finished the first draft within six months. Ha. Hahahahaha. I should’ve been a comedian! New aim is to have it done by this Christmas. Oh, and possibly a play too. And a few more newspaper/magazine articles. And play a part in a major event organised by disability activist group, By Us With Us in September.

What do you mean, these are totally ridiculous, unattainable goals? Well, I’ll show you…

I didn’t manage to write much today. But I did manage to bath my child, bring her to the hairdressers and to a birthday party, complete with card and present.

No, I’ve written sod all. But I did manage to clean and hoover the house.

It’s hard to explain, but when I don’t manage to write, I don’t feel like myself. In fact, I’m grumpier, harder to live with, and sometimes this borders on self-hatred. When I see everything I expect myself to do written down on paper/on the screen I can see how ridiculous it is.

I’ve been pushing myself a little harder lately, conscious that the summer holidays will eat into my writing time. I know I won’t be blogging as much, and that my working week will be at least halved.  I might get one or two days a week to work, and the rest of my time will be my daughter’s. And rightly so.

If you had told me ten years ago when I started and abandoned the novel I’m working on now that I’d be a writer with a handsome husband who supported me and a beautiful daughter who loved to read, I would’ve called you mad.

If you have told me that I’d be totally obsessed with the Independent Living Movement, I would’ve scoffed. I hate committees and commitment and yet both seem to be dominating my life at the moment.

I’m coming up to the third anniversary of the July night that I was determined to end everything, once and for all. If you had told me then that I would come out the other end and start to recover, even like myself a little, I wouldn’t have believed you.

And I think of that Sarah back in 2014, who was struggling to stay together for five minutes at a time, and how thrilled she’d be to have a novel on the go, some freelance work, a little blog and a real opportunity to help people. And not in an arrogant way, I think of how far I’ve come from three years ago, just by taking one day at a time.

Suddenly, not being able to focus and write a few words doesn’t seem like a big deal, because I know there’s  always tomorrow.

And it’s great to be able to believe that.

National Carer’s Week 12-18 June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

D-Day

It’s the first day of the Leaving Cert exams, and I can’t stop thinking about my godchild, whose christening I remember as if it were yesterday, going in to sit what she’s been told are the most important exams of her life.

I was listening to the radio yesterday (not sure who – Matt Cooper, perhaps?) who was talking to students on air and generally saying listen – the Leaving Cert is important, but not that important. Study, but don’t stress. It’s not the end of the world. The Leaving Cert is not the be-all and end-all.

That’s certainly not the impression I somehow got when I did my Leaving Cert, fourteen years ago. I did Transition Year the year before, and I had been on a respite break with seven other friends with disabilities during that year (incidentally, that’s where I met my husband). The message I got from that week was that the best prospects for disabled people was in doing a computer course or going to the National Learning Network to do an endless string of courses in job preparation. Has my journey through mainstream education been a waste of time? I thought glumly. Now don’t misunderstand me, or interpret my reaction to be borderline snobbery, but I was afraid that society was trying to mould me into something I wasn’t. These courses are great, but I do think that students with disabilities should feel that anything is possible.

So, as a statement against the status quo, and because I wanted full control over my future, I decided that the only way I was ever going to do this was to get 500+ points in my Leaving Cert (yes, I am a little mentally unstable-how did you guess?) For nearly two years, I threw myself into my studies. I don’t know how I still had friends at the end of it because I never went out to the Harriers or the Bridge House. I don’t exaggerate when I say I spent a solid six hours after school, studying. Soon I became obsessed. If I was going to spend the time studying, I had to be the best. If I got 75% or less in a class test I would openly bawl my eyes out.

I remember my dad saying to me about a month before the exams that if I didn’t slow down, I would have a massive heart attack and be dead before the Leaving came around. He was so worried that he threatened to stop me sitting them altogether. I looked at him incredulously! What did he know? How could he possibly understand how it felt to be the only person in my year with a (visible) disability and so much to prove? Didn’t he know how important these exams were to my future?

No, and he didn’t care. Neither did mum. What they did care about was the fact that I had no friends apart from John Paul, about the fact that I couldn’t relax, or take an evening off study without having a massive panic attack, about the fact that at 12 o’clock they would walk past my room on the way to bed to find me still studying, my books sprawled all over my bed and me panicking because I couldn’t memorise that Irish poem or the ins and outs of the heart in spite of studying all evening, probably on little or no food and definitely no rest (food and rest is for the weak, yo.)

And yet, it paid off. I got enough points (bang-on enough) to get into Trinity to study English (the DARE scheme may have helped a little). The relief was immense; it took a long  time to get used to not stressing out over the Leaving. And just when I became accustomed to calmness, I had my dissertation and exams to worry about! I really wanted an Honours Degree, and I did study just as hard (albeit in the final few months!) and it paid off…

…and now I am a writer, spending day after day writing and researching, blogging and editing. Did I need a good Leaving Cert to do this? Was it worth the hardship? Personally, in spite of the hellish experience that was my Leaving Cert, I don’t think it’s fair or right at this point to be dismissive of its importance. How can teachers, parents, society think it’s okay to spend two years of a student’s life drumming into students that this is the most important exam they’ll ever sit, and then turn around afterwards and say that it wasn’t that important?

Yes, it’s true, no-one ever asks how many points you got twelve months later or (unless you’re an Irish teacher) you’re never asked about the main themes of A Thig Na Tit Orm. And yes, many of us do want our children to have a strong work ethic, but at what cost? Why are we still sending out the message that your worth as a person is based on one set of examinations, and lying to our young people, saying that it could shape your future for the worst or the best?

Because I’ll let you in on a dirty secret: your worth is not how many points you get. It’s how you use your talents to shape the future, be that through medicine, teaching or volunteering to help others. And guess what? Learning is fun – it’s true! I don’t mean school – I mean the learning you choose to do. I’ve done three correspondence courses so far and it wasn’t about the marks, it was about accomplishing little challenges. I loved them and can’t wait to do more.

So do your best in your exams, and spend the summer doing some proper learning. Learn how to cook, how to use the washing machine, how to budget. How to get a week’s worth of groceries for €25 so you can go out on a Thursday night. Meet new people and learn how to tolerate their quirks and annoying habits.

There are no grades, but these are lessons you won’t forget.

And Caoimhe, best of luck. No matter how these exams go, never forget that you are a kind and wonderful person and we all love you so, so much xx

My Literary Inspiration

Sometimes (okay, most days if I’m honest), I find myself asking why bother. Why writing? Why not an office job, a nine to five with a steady income and job security? On days when I have to drag  the words out of my head kicking and screaming, I end up on job vacancy websites, sobbing into my laptop as once again self-doubt, in all its cruel and soul-destroying glory, sneaks in again and does a happy dance in my stomach.

This happened again last night, when I had so much to do and couldn’t settle. I scrolled through the Word document that will be a novel some day (I’m trying the power of positive thinking starting….now) and I watched helplessly as the words seemed to merge into one big blob. I have to walk away when that happens. The temptation to end the struggle once and for all using just two buttons, delete and enter, is much too great when I’m in a panicky, confused state of mind.

But I digress. I got to thinking why I wanted to write in the first place. Louise O’Neill, award-winning author of Only Ever Yours and Asking for It (and, as far as I remember, sat in a few tutorials with me in Trinity- her and Ken Mooney are my claims  to fame) credits Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (now a major TV series) for igniting her need to write. Incidentally, I’m a Louise fan too, and in particular Asking for It raises some serious questions about how we perpetuate rape culture and how we need to exonerate the victim of responsibility. After all, you wouldn’t ever say that a murder victim was partly responsible for their own demise, would you?

I’m an Atwood fan too, though the book that changed my life was Cat’s Eye, a novel detailing the complexity of female friendship, the far-reaching consequences of emotional abuse by a loved one and the struggle of trying to live with regret. Atwood is the master of description, and in Elaine  she created a complex character who is a product of her past and her regrets. In fact, if I think about it, this is what I’m trying to portray in my character as well.

Another book that changed my life was the text I read for my Junior Cert, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harpur Lee. I had read widely up to that point, mainly for pleasure, and Mockingbird was the first time that I considered that a novel could be a vehicle of promoting activism. Lee’s depiction of the inherent segregation of people in the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama and the widespread normalisation of discrimination, demonization even, made me feel cold. As a child narrator, Scout is taught both directly and indirectly, to judge people based on their differences, and yet Lee offers hope to the narrator. Yes, the innocent Tom Robinson, convicted of the rape of Mayella Ewell, is wrongfully convicted and later killed for trying to escape prison, but Scout learns to recognise humanity. In the touching scene where she meets the childlike Boo Radley for the first time, we learn that it is our perception of others that creates divide and not our tangible differences.

I still have nightmares about this last book (by no means the last book to have influenced my writing, but nobody will read a 4000-odd word blog about  it), George Orwell’s 1984. Like any good dystopian novel, the world of 1984 is not too far from the world we live in now. It’s a world in which the inhabitants’ thoughts are not really their own, where there are cameras everywhere, even in private homes, and where news stories are rewritten  to suit the agenda of the State and the real facts are chucked into a ‘memory hole’. Winston, an ordinary working class bloke, starts to question the oppressive regime under which he lives. He lives in a world where he cannot trust anyone, where he is not even allowed the privacy of his own thoughts. The reason why I had nightmares about  this book is because Winston is beaten into submission when he is placed in a room of rats. Loyalty means nothing in 1984, and neither does friendship or compassion. You think and do what you are told to think and do.

Sometimes I wonder whether I’d really be able to write a novel that would have the same impact on others as these three have had on me. Yet that little annoying voice inside says that I have to keep trying, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s better to have tried and failed than never tried at all. Right?!

The Innocence of Anna

Yesterday, my dad called in and delivered an unexpected surprise: an old newspaper article from 2001, written by two of my Transition Year classmates about the performance of my play, Waiting for Anna, in the Sacred Heart School. The paper itself is now tatty, dog-eared and smells damp, but the memory of that period of my life is as clear and fresh as if I were seventeen years old again.

 

waiting for anna 30007

Aforementioned Article published in the Offaly Express, 5 May 2001

 

A year before, I was sixteen, getting ready  to sit my Junior Cert with only a vague idea of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I hated study at the time (yes, believe it or not) and the prospect of going into fifth year made me feel sick.  So, in spite of the fact that I would be nineteen leaving school, a year older than 90% of my peers, I decided to do Transition Year and chill out. Little did I know that there’d be little chilling involved!

To get into Transition Year, there was an interview process. I was nervous and when it came to my turn, I was asked what skills I had to offer either by way of the Mini Company or other projects. Before the thought of writing a play had crossed my mind, the idea fell out of my mouth into the thoughts of Ms F, who was interviewing me to determine if I was a suitable TY candidate. Within twenty-four hours Ms H, the drama teacher, had sought me out and congratulated me on committing to write the TY play. It was madness. The only play I’d ever read was Romeo and Juliet, and I suppose Waiting for Anna does share similar themes: two teenagers falling in love against their parents’ wishes, running away to be together. Thankfully nobody dies; that’d be a tad extreme.

I set to work in the summer of 2000, spending all my time at the computer typing, composing, tittering to myself. I decided to have fun because I didn’t think anyone was ever going to actually read it, let alone play it out on stage. I got to know all the characters individually, each one based (and named after) someone I knew and loved. I laughed out loud, I sobbed into my chest. The first draft was completed on the 13 September 2000, at twenty pages long.

Writing Waiting for Anna was the most pure writing experience I’ve ever had. I had no perception of myself as a writer; it was just something I wrote. I never thought to edit or censor myself either, and all in all Ms H took very little out. Handing it over to be read by my classmates is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. In the beginning, they  didn’t know I’d written it and felt free to pull parts of  the dialogue apart and make it their own, although these occurrences were rare. As the writer I was more than happy to walk away and leave my friends to their  own interpretations, but then Ms H insisted that I co-produce the play as well.

Anna consumed me. In many ways I became her. She was the unwitting victim of psychological and financial abuse at the hands of her boyfriend Tom, but this wasn’t a straightforward ‘good vs evil’ story. Tom’s life had been hard, whereas Anna came from a privileged background. Tom wasn’t evil; in fact he had a lot to be angry about: having to leave school early, losing his mother and bound to support his hapless, unemployed father. All he wanted was control over his life. And believe it or not, even though I wrote the bloody play, I can only understand Tom now, nearly sixteen years later.

And here I am, sixteen years later. trying to forge a career for myself in writing and finding myself envious of that confident seventeen year old who didn’t know any better. I miss her. She wasn’t self-conscious about every little thing that she wrote. She didn’t care who she offended as long as her message got out there. She would’ve had the confidence  to throw herself out there at the mercy of an unreliable audience.

She wouldn’t have hordes of short stories hidden away on her laptop, never to be read by anyone.

She would have finished her novel months ago without giving two flying figs how it would be received, if it made sense or if people would relate to the main character.

Some people become less self-conscious as they get older, but I seem to have become more so. A lot of it has to do with being a disabled parent, but that’s not the whole story. I’ve been told, both by people who know me and people who don’t, that their favourite blogs and stories of mine are ones where I share my own experiences. I do believe that the best writing has passion and personality and reveals a bit about the author, and yet doing so makes me nervous. Every time I press that ‘publish’ button up there, for a second I feel physically sick. Why do I do this to myself? What if I’m being annoying, repetitive, or coming across as self-righteous? Is it time to revisit the idea of getting a normal office job, and ignore the little voice that says I’m happier as a writer?

Obviously, owing to a lack of time-travel facilities, I’ll never be seventeen again, but hopefully that doesn’t mean that I can’t learn how to write again without the burden of self-consciousness.

As my friend used to say ‘what other people think of you is none of your business.’ Maybe, one day, I might fully agree with her.

 

Delicate Scent of Summer Dusk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enda the Line

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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