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Film Review: Sanctuary

It’s been over four years since the RTE documentary that I partook in, Somebody to Love, was aired for the first time. At the time the documentary was recorded, I was going through quite a rough patch emotionally, the mental wounds of having been so heavily scrutinised as a disabled mother had not yet healed. Frankly, I had felt hard done by, the victim of discrimination as a result of my physical impairment. But I was soon reminded, when I watched the documentary that however bad things had been for me, they were much worse for other people.

Living in Ireland all my life, I know that the subject of sexual intercourse has traditionally been taboo, especially sex outside marriage and the notion of freedom of sexual expression. But what if you were living in a country where, for you at least, having sex was illegal? What if you were excluded from exploring your sexual identity because of an outdated law that dictated that sexual intercourse before marriage is essentially rape?

Ireland has a tradition of mollycoddling disabled people, and this culture is slow to change. You may not be aware (as I wasn’t prior to taking part in the documentary) that until recently there was an archaic law called the Lunacy Act 1891 (replaced in 2015 by the Assisted Decision Making Capacity Act) that deemed it illegal for people with intellectual disabilities to have sex outside marriage. This meant that it was assumed that people with intellectual disabilities could not understand or give consent to sexual intercourse.

This is the undercurrent of the film Sanctuary. Sanctuary was originally a play commissioned by the Blue Teapot Theatre Company and written by Christian O’Reilly, who also wrote the film Inside I’m Dancing. Sanctuary is different to any other film I’ve seen depicting the lives of people with disabilities because the cast is largely comprised of people with intellectual disabilities. It’s a refreshing break from the norm of non-disabled actors assuming the roles of people with disabilities; Daniel Day Lewis played Christy in My Left Foot; in Inside I’m Dancing, the two main characters Rory and Michael were played by James McAvoy and Steven Robertson, neither of whom have disabilities in real life. So it was almost a surreal experience to be watching authentic disabled actors on screen.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that the actors were merely given these roles as some kind of tokenistic gesture – these actors are talented and each one inhabited their character with the same dedication as you’d see on any Hollywood screen. The film is set in Galway, with beautiful shots of Galway scenery showcased throughout.  Kieran Coppinger plays Larry, a quirky guy with Down Syndrome and Charlene Kelly plays Sophie, who has an intellectual disability and epilepsy. Both of the actors face the same reality as the characters they play – for them, sex before marriage is illegal. But that’s not going to stop Larry in his quest to have some ‘alone time’ with Sophie!

Tom, the care worker, brings a group of people with intellectual disabilities to the cinema, then leaves them unsupervised to arrange a hotel room for Larry and Sophie with the contents of Larry’s piggy bank. The existence of the piggy bank reminds us how childlike Larry is – or is it simply because he’s treated like a child? As the story progresses, it becomes clear how sheltered Larry has been. Although he’s in his twenties, his mother is disgusted at him for looking at a woman posing in her underwear in a magazine, and she chides him as he leaves the house for bringing too many sweets in his rucksack (she doesn’t know he’s bringing his piggy bank).

Shielding people with intellectual disabilities from the reality of sexual intercourse is bound to have repercussions. Firstly, it doesn’t make people less vulnerable to abuse, something that Sophie can attest to, having been sexually abused in her care home. Secondly, Larry knows that he needs to use a condom ‘to stop Sophie getting pregnant,’ but doesn’t know how to use one, and giving Larry a demonstration is beyond Tom’s comfort zone.  This results in Larry and Sophie having unprotected sex because, as Sophie says, ‘ah sure we couldn’t work it out.’ She smiles at the thought of having a baby with Larry, oblivious to the fact that it is highly unlikely that the State would allow two parents with intellectual disabilities raise a child.

Even though the main story is dark, some parts of the film are hilarious. While Larry and Sophie contemplate breaking the law, their unsupervised companions wander the streets of Galway and end up in comical situations, robbing shops, getting drunk and even getting high! There are some brilliant one-liners too that will put a smile on your face.

Does the film have a happy ending? That’d be telling! All I’ll say is this is a story that you won’t forget, and one that should be talked about long after the closing credits. And that the authenticity of the film – a combination of the plot, the characters and the setting -will change the way you perceive people with intellectual disabilities in a way no other film has thus far.

Sanctuary is available on Amazon. Go buy it – you won’t be disappointed!

 

 

True to Me

I’m sure each and every one of you have been wondering where I’ve been, and have been spending your waking hours pining for another thrilling instalment of this blog. My apologies for my absence, but believe it or not, I’ve been quite busy writing! I completed a ‘Begin Your Novel’ course during the first week of March and realised, to my great disappointment, that what I’d written so far is an unsalvageable mess. So, I did what any self-respecting writer would do and I started again, which has taken up a great deal of my headspace and time. Second time lucky, right…?

I also realised that I’m a cranky old bitch who, while I don’t mind blogging about disability issues, I hate talking about the day-to-day realities of having CP. To be honest, I bore myself so I wouldn’t inflict that on other people. I live as average a life as I can, juggling writing with raising my daughter, and I am lucky insofar as if I can keep some sort of realistic balance and not push myself past the point of redemption, I can get away with keeping a number of balls in the air. I’ve been conditioned to believe, through interaction with other die-hard activists, that it’s society that truly impairs us and that we need to keep challenging these barriers; they, and not our impairments, are the real source of inequality facing disabled people in Ireland.

Lately, however, I’ve been having doubts about my own beliefs, and these doubts have stopped me from blogging as I normally do. Who am I to question the system? Who am I to maintain that it’s society that disables us? Am I too angry? Have I become the proverbial ‘crip with a chip’ that everyone hates? And am I willing to quieten things down a little, stop being so extreme in my loyalty to the pursuit of pure equality and the philosophy of Independent Living (if there even is one any more)?

The answer to the last question is no. And I hate myself for it, I really do.

On Monday night, Tom Milne, Catherine Molloy and I partook in a radio show called the Open Door hosted by the wonderful Ann Marie Kelly on Midlands 103 where the theme of the show was my poem, ‘Fight, Fight, Fight.’ I have to admit that I acted like a pig-headed jackass towards Ann-Marie, which she didn’t deserve because she was very welcoming to me. But I wanted to highlight so many issues facing people with disabilities when she wanted to talk about my impairment and my day-to-day life. I felt frustrated. I didn’t want to be seen as inspirational (lads, I haven’t had a job with a steady wage for three years). I felt ashamed of myself. I mentioned my novel and what I want to achieve writing it but I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it. (It is the main item on my wish-list this year).

And up until an hour ago, I was struggling to find words to explain why I felt so frustrated in myself. Having stared at a blank screen for a whole half hour, I eventually said ‘sod this’ and decided to whittle away the evening hours watching TED talks on YouTube. To make myself feel better, I decided to watch Francesca Martinez’s TED talk in the name of ‘disability research’. Francesca Martinez is a writer, activist and comedienne with Cerebral Palsy who wrote a fantastic autobiography What the **** is Normal? In her talk, Francesca talks about how she spent her teenage years trying to fit in (just like I did) and how her life changed at nineteen when her friend Dylan gave her life changing information: ‘You are you. Yes, you walk differently but no two people walk the same way. You are Francesca, and you can define yourself any way you want.’

Francesca had a light-bulb moment, just as I did watching the TED talk. We spend so much time, she says, trying to conform in a world obsessed with consumerism, being told that if we buy lots of stuff, wear certain things and look and act a certain way, then we will be accepted by our peers. But, as she points out, the illusion this creates isn’t real. And that’s when I realised exactly why I felt torn apart inside.

I want to be real. I want to be seen as a real person. Yes, I am capable of doing some great things but I also reserve the right to be seen as a cantankerous git, someone who doesn’t always get it right. I want to be seen as someone who challenges the status quo, who is willing to take risks. I can’t change the fact that I  have Cerebral Palsy, but if I persevere, I might be able to change people’s misconceptions and eliminate barriers to full inclusion to society.

And I know that those who really matter will completely understand where I’m coming from. In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, ‘I never apologise. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way I am.’

 

The Search for the Hero

Like many of us, I woke up this morning to the news that Stephen Hawking, absolute genius, died at the age of seventy-six, over fifty years after he was expected to. For many people with impairments, living past their life expectancy is a feat in itself. I won’t insult anyone reading this by pretending that I fully understand the significance of Hawking’s work to our understanding of the universe, because I don’t. I’ve failed many a science test in my time – scientific matters, to me, is what Chinese is to most English-speaking people.  However he was an extraordinary man, an example of what the human mind is capable of.

For many, he is an example of ‘mind over matter’, of ‘triumph over adversity.’ To me, however, he didn’t achieve these things ‘in spite of his disability’ because to me, his disability wasn’t relevant. He simply achieved them.

When some people think of disability, they think of Hawking and what he’s achieved. However, Hawking’s genius was part of his own identity. I intend to read his book in the near future but I don’t expect to understand any of it (I am ridiculously bad at science).

I read online this morning that Hawking shares the same anniversary as Albert Einstein (freaky coincidence, no)? He also shares an anniversary with another man who made a much smaller but (in my eyes) equally important contribution to society.  And that man was Ed Roberts.

I’ve blogged about Ed Roberts before, and every year I remember him on his anniversary because he was a leader in the introduction of Independent Living around the world. He and his colleagues challenged the paternalistic model of disability, and fought to be recognised as a person capable of making their own decisions. Like Hawkins, his physical ability was severely restricted (the result of polio in Roberts’ case) but his ability to direct people and think independently was not. When I started working in the area of disability ten years ago, I was told to know the Ed Roberts story inside and out. I read articles, personal testimonies, interviews.

I was so in awe of him (and still am in many ways) that I put him on a pedestal. I aspired to be like him: ruthless and unflinching in the pursuit of equal rights for people with disabilities. He has rightly garnered a lot of respect from millions of activists across the world. Were it not for his insistence that he knew his own mind, that he wanted to be empowered rather than being a passive recipient of care, chances are that I and many others would be relegated to the back room of our parents’ houses, never having the opportunity to leave the house.

Or perhaps I’m being naïve. After all, although Ed is known as ‘the father of Independent Living,’ there were many other activists out there with the same mindset at the  time, a group of people who collectively became known as ‘The Rolling Quads.’ The Rolling Quads brought into existence the first Center for Independent Living in the University of California, Berkeley, which was a Personal Assistant Service directed by the disabled people themselves. This revolutionary act led to the establishment of hundreds of Centers for Independent Living across the world.

Ed Roberts and Stephen Hawking were both extraordinary people who, unfortunately, now exist only in history. As someone who is becoming increasingly preoccupied with disability politics, despite having convinced myself that the only thing I really want to do is write, I have found myself panicking over the last two years as I watch my esteemed peers slip into the next world. We thought Martin Naughton was invincible; then our faith was tested six months later (on my birthday in fact) when Donal Toolan passed away last April. In the last seven months I’ve seen the untimely demise of another two of my role models: Eugene Callan and John Doyle – both strong mouthpieces for  the Independent Living Movement.

I remember well each separate occasion that I met these four men for the first time, and what struck me about them was their sense of conviction. Chances are they weren’t entirely sure what they were doing – nobody really knows at the beginning (I know that now) – but they had the courage to articulate their thoughts and opinions, be they right or wrong, and soon other people started to find their own courage, their own voice.

We live in a different world now. Roberts, Hawking and even Martin Naughton and his peers paved the way in a world where there were no expectations of disabled people. The fight is not over yet. Ireland has ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities but not the Optional Protocol which enables people to report breaches of the convention to the UN. Our Personal Assistant service is becoming more medicalised by the day and less about what we need and more of a  tick-box exercise. We are reaching a critical point in disability politics where we’re either going to be free to make our own decisions, or the victims of discrimination and safeguarding forever.

We have the opportunity to be our own heroes.

Let’s take it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rebel Girls

My six year old daughter, like most children, likes a bedtime story before she goes to sleep. Her latest favourite book is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, a collection of stories about famous women who broke the mould in some way. There’s over a hundred of them: Coco Chanel, Jane Austen, Amelia Earhart to name a few. However, no matter what ones we read, she always insists on reading the story about Rosa Parks. It’s the story of a woman of colour who refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white person. Eventually, thanks to Rosa Parks, apartheid soon became illegal.

‘Why did black people and white people not sit together?’ my daughter asked, confused. There’s a healthy mixture of nationalities in her class, and my heart sunk at the idea that she would, unintentionally, start to label them as different.

‘Because people are mean,’ I replied. ‘Sometimes people make up stupid rules to suit themselves and hurt others, for no reason. It’s a bit like bullying.’

‘People are mean to you too, sometimes,’ she observed. ‘They laugh at you, call you names. But you never get hurt, and you never give out to them or get angry about it. If I were you, I would.’

I looked into her round blue eyes and smiled by way of reply. Plenty of time when she’s older, I thought, to sit her down and explain everything. How I grew up in a mainstream environment where I spent too much time trying to fit in. How I fought to prove myself as a person of worth, in school, in college and at work. How hard I’d fought to prove myself as a worthy mother, not only to professionals, but to Ali and even to myself.

Tomorrow, the 8th March marks International Women’s Day, a day to acknowledge and address both the real challenges facing modern women and the fantastic achievements that women have made throughout history.

But today, 7th March 2018, marks an equally significant milestone: a solid commitment from our government to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (aka the UNCRPD). The disabled population of Ireland has been waiting for this for nearly twelve years. And it seems inappropriate of me to admit that after all this time, after blogging about it so much, I don’t feel that lightness, that relief that I thought I would.

Oh, it’s a victory for sure – we have won a battle, all right – a battle we should never had to fight in the first place. The onset of the recession brought waves of devastation to the disability sector, and the aftershocks are still in evidence today. The disability budget was stripped down to the minimum, and many disabled people lived basic lives. Unable to afford their own accommodation or to get a job, many were forced to live with their families or in segregated/institutionalised settings. Fear soon consumed us, and many of us were left afraid to complain lest whatever we had left was taken away from us too.

I have spent my adult life hearing stories about wheelchair users being trapped on trains, about disabled parents living in fear of their kids being taken (and sadly I’ve also heard stories of people who’d love to become parents but don’t have the energy to fight the system/jump through hoops as we did), about people going for countless job interviews and never getting a job.  And as much as I’d love to think it would, ratifying the UNCRPD isn’t going to mean anything unless we truly believe  that we are equal and that we are willing to start a new narrative.

Tomorrow, on the 8th March, International Women’s Day, I will be thinking of all the wonderful rebel women I know, especially those with disabilities. The ones who fought to be educated. The ones who decided that they didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives in the back room of their parents’ houses. The ones who had lots of sex and had babies. The ones who continue chipping away at the inequality they face, both as women and disabled people. I’ll be thinking of my mother, who didn’t believe in mollycoddling me, who taught me how to be self-sufficient. I’ll be thinking of my daughter, the future generation, who I know will take it upon herself to make the world a better place for the rebel girls of the future.

And tomorrow, I’ll continue to lead by example, as best I can.

 

The Writing Process

Hi all, my apologies for not blogging here for a long, long time but believe it or not, I have actually been busy writing! I’m half-way through a ‘Begin Your Novel’ course (the time to do this, I suspect, was three years ago) and hope to dive into finishing Rachel’s story with more clarity. Deborah, if you’re reading this, we said the beginning of May for a first draft, but looking at the work I need to do that won’t be happening – sorry!

One of the other things I’ve been working on is an article about why I chose to write and my writing process. It was a great opportunity to promote myself as a writer and it will be published in the Spring edition of The Irish Wheelchair Association’s SpokeOut.  While everything I put into the article is completely true, I did make some omissions to the realities of the writing process. Here’s what a typical day might look like

9am – Arrive at my desk. My diary is open in a deliberate attempt to get me writing straightaway, complete with a pen to encourage me to jot down things straightaway. Ignore said diary and open emails instead. It’s important to know what skills my cousin endorsed me for on LinkedIn. Ooh, writing… oh yes, right…

9.30am Open Word and start freewriting. It’s great to get the old juices flowing. I love writing, it’s awesome.

10am – I did not know that your one Sarah from Corrie, Tina-whatever-her-face is, actually went out with Ryan Thomas who plays Jason. Oh, and that vicar Billy is going out with your man Daniel – wow he’s gay?! Oh all right, this has nothing to do with my novel, oops

10.20am – Back to work.

11.15am – That dryer has been beeping for the last ten minutes. I must turn it off because it’s wrecking my head.

11.30am: [ding] Who’s messaging me? Oh, it’s Ken from college. Writing back to him surely counts as work, him being a published writer and all. He’s sharing his knowledge. It’s imperative I don’t ignore him.

11.45am: 500 words written. Of pure and utter waffle! This is embarrassing, I’ve been working since half nine!

12.00pm: I’ve spend the last fifteen minutes rocking back and forth in my office chair, trying to calm myself down. But I feel I’m failing as a writer, and failing at life. Who did I think I was,  trying to be the next Margaret Atwood? I wonder did she ever feel like this. I’m going to quickly google and find out

12.15pm: Nope, probably not. I mean, look at all the books she’s written. Bet she didn’t spend all her time googling all her favourite authors. You know what? This internet’s nothing but a bloody distraction. I’m going to disconnect altogether.

12.55pm: 300 more words. Not bad if you omit the fact that I’m supposed to have my novel finished by the end of May. I feel sad. Cue more chocolate.

1.05pm: Nooooo, what is my laptop doing? Updates?! I don’t remember agreeing to this time. ‘Preparing to configure: 3%’. Why are you doing this to me?

1.45pm: Alison will be home in fifteen minutes but thank God the bloody laptop has finished updating itself, though what difference it makes I don’t know….. Oh no… no no no…my work, where is it? I’m opening Word but not seeing it… Recover unsaved files… no, that’s not it… agh! [enter string of expletives here]

2pm: Make note in my diary to write blog about my crappy day’s work, but maybe wait until I find it funny.

Of course, not every day is like this (if it were I wouldn’t bother writing at all) and if I had my wish, I’d be more organised and productive.

Then again, I’d also love to move to Australia, but that mightn’t happen anytime soon either.

 

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Birth Day (Poem)

At eight minutes to midday,
On a sterile, cold operating table
Happiness was born.
She weighed eight pounds four ounces.
She was strong,
But her mother was saggy, deflated.
My breasts throbbed with the heaviness of milk
Ready for the taking.
They sewed me back together,
But alas, they knew
They couldn’t fix me.


I curled around my newborn cherub
Like a lizard around her precious eggs,
Sneaking peeks at the round blue eyes
And the perfectly pink skin.

Nothing made me so frightened
Than my beautiful, breakable china doll.
I’d broken so many cups, glasses, plates –
But this was something that really mattered.
How I wished I could bubble-wrap you,
Shield you from my imperfections,
Preserve you as you were.

And all that time spent worrying –
Baby talk and weaning all a blur –
And for what? To prove myself? Ha!
All that matters is that you love me
And that I truly believe I am good enough.

Worthy of the princess
Whose hand feels so soft on my cheek,
Who strokes my eyebrow when she is worried,
Who pulls me so close after her bedtime story
That our breaths fuse in the half-darkness

I know people watch us, comment and stare
And shake their heads, but honestly, my darling
I don’t care.

They tried to destroy what we had and now
I say no more, enough.
I wasn’t put on earth to prove them wrong
But rather to love you,
And as every year goes by, be assured
That I love you more than life itself,
Than all the stars and oceans,
Even more than chocolate.

Cripple for sale (Dramatic Monologue)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Cripple for sale! Cripple for sale!

A cripple’s soul is for sale!

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

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

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

Avoiding eye contact with me –

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

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

Remind you that it could be you sitting here

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

Hands and legs jerking like a woman – possessed!

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

How the hell do you think I feel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cripple falling over would not be a good look

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

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

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

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

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

Well…

What am I talking about now?

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

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

…aren’t they?

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

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

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

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

I suppose you want me to feel lucky and grateful

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

To help the cripples have a better life

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

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

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

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

To protect yourself from those ‘cripple germs’ –

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

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

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

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

CRIPPLE FOR SALE!

Any old coppers will do.

 

 

What’s the Story?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fitting in

It might surprise those who  know me to learn that despite my passionate way with words, I once was seriously lacking in self-confidence.

I have always been integrated into a mainstream environment. When I started attending primary school in 1989, nearly thirty years ago, integrating students with disabilities into mainstream classes was certainly not the norm. it didn’t take me long to work out that I was the ‘other’, an undesirable, almost an example of what could go horribly wrong in life. By the time I was eight I always felt a hint  of self-loathing in the background, a sense of shame, responsibility. I must have done something pretty abhorrent to deserve such rejection, such isolation by my peers. I couldn’t be trusted to do PE, to play out in the yard. By the time I reached secondary school I was something of a pariah. I cycled to school on a red, then blue, tricycle. I had a laptop. I walked from class to class like I was drunk.

The only time I ever got closed to being kissed (‘shifted’ as we say in the Midlands) was in third year and a young lad asked me, stating that it was part of a dare. I declined as the boys fell about laughing. When I told my friend, she said I should’ve gone for it as I was sixteen and at that stage, had had no encounters, romantic or otherwise. After all, it was the best I could do, the best I could hope for. For a long time I accepted this as the status quo. (My husband was my first and only kiss- isn’t he  lucky?)

I was the geek in school – the brainbox. The world of the average teenager was one I didn’t fit into.

At fourteen, until my early twenties, I instigated a war with my stupid spastic body. While the girls in my class were wearing jeans, tight-fitting tops, hipsters and belly-tops, I was wearing baggy combats and my mum’s old t-shirts. I didn’t own a single dress or a skirt because I didn’t see the point. The girls in my class were ‘sexy’ whereas I had nobblity knees, ever-jumping arms and a screwed-up mouth. Ironically, the only thing that I liked about myself was my brain (which is ironically damaged!), my mental ability.

In fifth year, I decided that I needed to define myself as someone other than the class cripple, the tokenistic inspirational figure. In a world where I would never fit in, I  had to be good at something. Around the same time, I started exercising more and I lost weight. I was delighted with myself. I started eating less. I was finally the clever, skinny girl in class. I had a small group of friends. I almost felt beautiful, normal.

It didn’t matter that my own ribs ripped into my skin when I lay down at night.

It didn’t matter that I stayed up till twelve at night learning Irish poems while my parents pleaded with me to stop. ‘This shit is not the end of the world,’ my father would say as I looked at him from my books, panda-eyed, my brain melted. And I could never find the words to explain to him how much I needed to do this, that unless I conformed that I wouldn’t be worth anything, not only in the eyes of others, but in my own eyes.

In 1999, I went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Irish Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust, and I remember vividly seeing the seven abandoned crutches hanging by the grotto, left by those who had apparently been cured. Did I want to be cured? I was asked before I flew out, by various people. Cured of what? My mum retorted when I told her. She’d always been adamant  that I was fine the way I was. Okay, I lie: she wished that I wasn’t such a huffy teenager and that I took the initiative to clean up  now and then, but in terms of my disability, she was pretty accepting. And it was only after I’d been to Lourdes (and came back my same old spastic self) that I started to question not only how I was perceived but how disability in general was perceived.

After all, didn’t Jesus cure the cripples and the lepers? When I was say, communion age, I don’t remember cripples being mentioned in religion class and I wonder now whether that was a deliberate action taken by the teachers, to avoid awkward questions. But I knew from going to Mass that Jesus cured cripples – the blind, the lame. In my teens I had many an elderly lady come up to me, unapologetically invade my personal space and say, ‘I’ll keep praying for you,’ when ironically their lives were probably much crappier than  mine. Hell, in my twenties I went to Mass in Emo one evening and the priest actually apologised to me afterwards for reading a gospel about curing the cripples!

Disability is unsexy, disability is undesirable. This is the mantra we crips are taught, from cradle to grave. We exist only to remind others that they are lucky, that they somehow dodged a bullet in being ‘normal’. I’ve actually heard people I know and love saying ‘God, if I were to be diagnosed with xyz disability, I think I’d kill myself.’ We are amazing simply in being. But of course the majority of us crips hate this patronising bulls**t. Unfortunately we live in a world where we are expected to conform, to fit in. Look at all the women’s fashion magazines. You’ll never see a size fourteen in any of them (is it true that fourteen is considered a ‘plus’ size?) and rarely will you find a disabled model.

With no strong disabled role models until my mid-twenties, I spent the majority of my life second-guessing myself. I went to a secondary school that had an upstairs and never questioned why it had no lift. I wore high heels to my grad and didn’t understand why I couldn’t walk in them! I chided myself for getting tired even though I know I use more energy than others doing menial shite. To slow down, take it easy, makes you weak, not quite as capable. Even now I cannot shake that mantra completely.

Despite the fact that disabled people are shouting loud, demanding their rights (your end of January deadline for having the UNCRPD ratified quickly looms, Mr Finian McGrath), there’s still an uncomfortable undercurrent, an unspoken consensus that we  should strive to eradicate impairment in all its forms. Hitler had ideas on how to achieve this (gas chambers) which is a shameful part of our history. But his ideals are far from relegated to the past. I read an article published just last week about how Pakistan is promoting the use of drugs and technology with the aim of ‘eradicating disability by 2025’. (Why such a specific timeline?) In the same article it’s reported that Pakistan has done little to further human rights of people with disabilities in the country. I can’t be the only one who is frightened by this.

One such piece of technology which is increasing in popularity is the eksoskeleton, more commonly known as robotic legs. I read in the local rag the other day that a local man has recently acquired one and highly recommends it. And I am trying to see the positives too. There’s great benefit in exercise with the aid of an ekoskeleton, particularly for those paralysed from the waist down. What makes me uncomfortable is  that it pushes wheelchair users further down a hierarchy, reinforcing the idea that to be physically disabled is far from desirable. For those of us who have struggled on our road to self-acceptance, it reminds us that we are ‘Other’ and that we live in a society more preoccupied with making sure people fit in rather than committing to constantly strive to make our world more accessible. Not forgetting, of course, that we need to be inclusive of people with visual, hearing, intellectual and emotional impairments as well.

I only hope that in ten years’ time, when my own daughter is in her mid-teens, that there aren’t hordes of insecure disabled teens across the country, doubting their proper place  in the world as I once did.

And if I could give them one piece of advice, it would be this:

Stop trying to conform for the wrong reasons, and make sure you stand out for the right ones.

Aussie Dreams

Finally, after losing a whole day of your life,
You are hovering over the fair green isle –
Squares and squares of different shades of green –
From up here you could tell where the grass is greener.
It’s so beautiful. You’ve never really noticed it before.
As the wheels bounce off the runway you tell yourself you will appreciate every second.
A second might not seem long, but sometimes it’s forever –
Before, each second dragged as the Aussie dream refused to come nearer,
And now seconds fly as your family live on in your absence.

 You’re prepared for how bloody cold it will be –
Hats and scarves at the ready –
Isn’t that why you left in the first place – because of the bitter cold?
You’d be forgiven for being bitter
For being fed the lie
That having a good Leaving Cert was the key to a good future
And that your performance would define you for the rest of your life.
As you walk through the airport, shocked at the Irish signs,
You’re also shocked to see your childhood neighbour sauntering beside you in Customs.
Ah, we Irish stick together, even in flight,
Showing solidarity in escaping a life of misery and monotony.

 And now, back in your hometown
You feel like a celebrity
Being stopped in your tracks by those you went to school with,
Worked with for a while,
got drunk with every Saturday night.
It always was the same old  story –
And for some, the tale remains the same.
Giddy with excitement and faint disappointment,
You hardly can decide what to do first.
You stuff yourself with Tayto and Barry’s tea,
The familiar tastes leaving an odd cramp in your stomach. 

Feeling the joy of seeing your loved ones,
You wonder why every day can’t be like this,
But no-one bothers to tell you that
You’ve forgotten to take off your rose-tinted glasses.
Behind the smiles and the warm embraces
Everything is the same as it ever was, and will ever be –

Those who love you have continued to do so in your absence
But your fair country refuses to drag itself out of depression
Like a feisty school kid is pulled out of bed on a frosty morning.
Rent in Perth and Tullamore are nearly on a par,
And the streets are lined with people who are ‘wealthy’
But can barely afford to live.
Old Tom still drinks in the same pub on a Thursday night,
And those who stayed behind in pursuit of their pot of gold
Ended up with a bucket of coal.

And when they ask whether you’d come back,
You purse your lips and smile and say simply: ‘Some day.’
Some day when Ireland becomes sexy and alluring
And rewards young people for a good day’s work.
Some day when you’re allowed to have big dreams
And not clipped around the ear for ‘having notions’.
Some day when having fun is not tied up with being obliterated.
When being ‘home’ makes your heart soar higher than being away.

But that day is not today.

And so your heart breaks as you stuff your life back into your suitcase,
Trying to ignore the glistening tears
Falling from the eyes around you.
And knowing that it’s the right thing to do
Makes goodbye ever slightly easier on everyone.
‘Sure we’ll see each other again, and sure can’t you come over?
You’ll be sick of me Skyping you – sure you won’t miss me at all!’
And other such little comforts.

 And as the green plane takes off into the darkness
Searching once more for the light
You’re proud of what you’ve accomplished
And that you were brave enough
To leave behind this little island
In search of something spectacular –
And not to worry, dear – dreary, dependable old Ireland
Will be the very same when you get back again –
But somehow, you’ll have changed-
All grown up, and just a little bit wiser.