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.

 

Just Catching a Train (in 24 hours)

I’ve a meeting in Dublin on Wednesday. It’s straightforward  getting there: if you’re going the public transport route, you simply get a train to Dublin, then regardless of whether you come into Heuston or Connolly Station, you can catch the Red Luas to Smithfield and then it’s a ten minute walk. Easy peasy. Shouldn’t be complicated at all, right?

No, it shouldn’t. But this is Ireland, and we seem to have a tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be. And for people with mobility difficulties, public transport isn’t as convenient as it is for others.

I went down to Tullamore Train Station this morning (according to the Irish Rail website, passengers needing assistance are ‘advised’ to give twenty-four hours’ notice) to let them know that I intend to travel on the 09.29 from Tullamore to Heuston on Wednesday morning. I admit I did it as a bit of joke, to make a point. The guy who works there is lovely – I’ve nothing against him as a person – but he was reluctant to guarantee that I’d have assistance on Wednesday afternoon coming home. ‘If I’m here, I will definitely help you,’ was his response. If.

The assistance I, and many other wheelchair users need, is simply the provision of a portable ramp to enable me to disembark from the train safely. That’s all. In my case my chair is electric so there’s no manual pushing involved. But without the provision of a ramp, my independence is immediately compromised.

Okay, I admit that giving two days’ notice is a tad dramatic. But my attitude isn’t without basis. Just last month, a young  wheelchair user got stranded on Platform 2 of Tullamore Train station and had to wait 30 minutes before it was decided that the train should pull into platform 1. The lift was out of order, as is often the case in Tullamore.

I’ve been stranded on a train twice before in my wheelchair because there wasn’t assistance waiting for me at the train station (and I always give as much notice as possible – okay, not always twenty-four hour notice, but I do try). It’s very annoying having to get off at the wrong station and either get a train or a taxi back. It eats into our time and financial resources. Our time isn’t viewed to be as valuable as everyone else’s, I don’t think.

Impairment doesn’t create inequality, society does. Having to give twenty-four hours’ notice to use a train is discrimination and yet, in spite of the many complaints made in relation to accessibility to Irish Rail (according to thejournal.ie, there were 12 complaints about accessibility in 2014. This 12 merely represents complaints made, not necessarily the number of passengers who experienced problems with regards to access), things seem to be getting worse, not better, for disabled passengers.

I’m not alone in experiencing these problems. Last year a friend of mine and wheelchair user, Ann Marie Champ, was denied assistance in Newbridge train station and was forced to continue to Kildare. (Ann Marie works in Dublin and commutes every day). Once in Kildare she had to wait for a taxi to arrive from Portlaoise to bring her to Newbridge. An enraged Ann-Marie remarked, ‘I flew to Australia last year and had to get six flights and had no issues. It only took five minutes over the phone to organise. Yet, I can’t get 20 minutes up the road because of the refusal to lower a piece of aluminium.’

Louise Bruton, the founder of a blog/accessibilty guide called Legless in Dublin, also had trouble with Irish Rail last November when the assistance she had requested in Heuston Station didn’t arrive, leaving her stranded on the train for twenty minutes. ‘The train was stopped further down the tracks than normal and the lights were dimmed, so I was in a scene from a 1990s teen horror flick,’ she told the Irish Independent. “I stuck my head out the door… I shouted again and again and all I could hear in return was my echo. I pressed the train’s emergency button but nothing happened. And then I tweeted. My responses gave me the emergency number for Heuston and, thankfully, Heuston’s very apologetic station manager, Liam Donegan, answered my call and rescued me.’

Ann-Marie and Louise’s experiences show that there is no dignity in travelling when you have a disability in Ireland. And now it’s been proposed by a Cork TD that travel pass holders should pay a subsidy of €6 for travel! For disabled people at least, this is outrageous. Many of us don’t drive and are solely dependent on public transport to get around. And even if was decided that €6 was reasonable, this still wouldn’t mean that disabled passengers would be guaranteed worry-free, hassle-free journeys.

I’m afraid I don’t have definite answers to these ongoing issues. There’s no doubt, however, that these practices are discriminatory. People need to continue to be vocal about this issue, because for me, as a contributing citizen, this isn’t good enough.

In the meantime, fingers crossed that I get to and from my meeting in Dublin on Wednesday, without incident!

Throwback Thursday: The Others

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

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

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

Anyhoo, enjoy!

Credit for this piece belongs to Laura Maye.

A Crip With A Chip

My name is Sarah Fitzgerald, and I have an awful confession. I think I have turned into an angry person with a disability. A ‘crip with a chip’, I believe we are referred to.

I hate ‘angry crips’, or at least I thought I did, until recently. I’ve come across many people in my life who I would’ve dubbed an angry crip at one stage. They are portrayed as believing that the world is against them. They seem to moan about things all the time, but yet they don’t do anything about anything, because they think it is pointless. I used to think it was laziness, selfishness, that they wanted everything handed to them. Yes, I am ashamed to say that I used to view the angry crip as some sort of moaning Michael.

As life changes day by day, so too does my perception of the angry crip, because I’m starting to think that maybe an angry crip has every right to be angry. Maybe it’s old age, maybe it’s cynicism. I personally think it’s I-don’t-think-I-can-take-more-of-this-crap … ism.

In my previous blog, I wrote about the expectations we have of ourselves and how we sometimes go to extremes to meet these. Some of these expectations come from within, but there’s no denying that society and consumerism create them too. When my daughter Alison sings ‘Let it Go’ and particularly ‘don’t let them in/don’t let them see/Be the good girl you always have to be,’ I cringe inside. I know Elsa sings them with irony, as a reminder that society expects women to act a certain way. I just don’t want my daughter to feel pressured to become anyone less than who she is inside.

I must confess that over the years I too allowed myself to aspire to perfection. A grade-A student in school, who from the outside struggled through adversity and completed the Leaving Cert. Teachers would look at me in awe; I would look at them like they were demented. ‘But you still get on with things, despite everything, aren’t you great?’ they would gush at me. My parents never said this to me and I love them for it. I went to college where, let me assure you, I never heard how great I was once. I wasn’t treated differently at all, and it was there that I gained a sense of what it was to be equal.

And then I was flung back into the real world. A world where people stare at you while you’re having your lunch, having full-blown conversations about you (‘the one from the telly’), your walking (‘she’s very shaky, God love her’) and your disability. This used to not bother me at all, but now it’s difficult to resist the urge not to go over and say ‘I’m sorry, can I help you? introduce you to the art of whispering perhaps? Because I can hear what you’re saying from the other side of the restaurant.’ But I never break my resolve, and you know why? Because I don’t want to be known as the ‘crip with a chip.’

My resolve has been tested so much over the last few months. I watch as people can’t access education and employment because there are too many obstacles. I was in a queue in the bank recently, in my wheelchair, and a woman said to the person who was ahead of her ‘I need to hurry up cause I have my mother in the car in the wheelchair space so I wouldn’t need a ticket.’ (When I told her this was wrong, she ignored me.) And you know, the usual that all of us put up with at some stage or another: the taxi man asking my friend who was putting me into the taxi where was I going (I didn’t know, apparently); a shop assistant taking my wallet off me, looking for change because I was taking too long to find it; a woman asking me where my mother was as I dropped my handbag and started scooping up all my change (‘Who is with you?’); people talking over my head (‘she wants the chicken roll’). And you are expected to keep schtum and smile. Well, sorry, no. I’ve had enough.

Two things tipped me over the edge today into writing this ranty blog. The first was seeing an interview of two veteran disability activists from the US, Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann (who I met in 2011). The interview took place in 1984 and Roberts and Heumann were talking about the need for people with disabilities to have more control over their own lives. ‘There is a lot more to life than being physically perfect,’ Roberts said. Judy Heumann said, ‘Disabled people have to fight harder in order to be able to make it in the system… if they want to live the life that they want.’ In their opinion, people with disabilities need to be seen in positions of power in order to be taken seriously, and they need to work together in order to achieve this. Judy adds: ’I question whether disabled people have achieved democracy and solidarity’. Although this interview is thirty years old, it is unfortunately still relevant today.

Then I opened the local rag to reveal the headline, ’24 hours’ notice required if assistance needed to get on train’. For a moment I thought I’d entered some sort of time warp, but no, this was an article written in 2015. I was outraged and posted this on Facebook immediately, to which some of the responses included, ‘yeah, this has always been standard practice in our local station.’ Eh, really?! How can anyone think this is okay? Have we become so complacent as a society that we not only witness discrimination every day, but think that it’s to be expected? That it’s now just a part of our psyche, part and parcel of having a disability?

No, sorry now, but from where I’m sitting I’d rather be perceived as the angry cripple and be vocal about these very real issues than give into the status quo and say nothing. Because if we don’t start channelling this anger into making real changes in our society, then we might as well watch all of our human rights slowly disappear. And if we don’t start making these changes, us ‘crips with chips’ will always have something to be angry about.

Equality for all

It’s the night before the Marriage Referendum. I’ve read articles and stories from both sides and I’m ready, as the slogan urges us, to vote Yes for equality. But being who I am, I can’t turn off my thoughts about the word ‘equality’ and what it means in 2015. And here’s why.

I know that I use this blog to prattle on and on about the importance of disability rights. I am aware of how one-dimensional some of my posts may seem to those of you who know that I am more than my disability and am proud to know Sarah (this isn’t directed at any dads in particular by the way). But here’s the thing: despite being periodically frustrated by my limitations, I have embraced who I am. I know that I try to be understanding, accepting and tolerant of all others, simply because that’s how I expect to be treated, even though it is not always the case. I laugh off the insults, the condescension, the ignorance because at the end of the day, it shouldn’t really matter what people think of me. I am who I am, regardless of the labels people throw at me.

Over the last few months I have listened, watched and read arguments in favour of, and opposing same-sex marriage. You haven’t been able to avoid it unless you live under a rock; it was even on the front page of the Tullamore Tribune this week. Politicians, celebrities and ordinary citizens talking about which way they are voting in the Same-sex marriage referendum. People sharing their experiences of what it’s like to be gay in twenty-first century Ireland. It’s amazing how this referendum has forced people to face such a taboo subject head-on. To examine what it means for people living in shame of who they are. To explore people’s anxieties and deconstruct their misconceptions. To hear both sides argue their cases so passionately.

Ireland has progressed so much, people say. But allowing same-sex marriage won’t stop homophobia or hate crime. And although so much has been done to ensure that Ireland is becoming a more accepting and understanding society, I have to admit I still don’t feel it.

In the last two weeks two separate incidents involving people with disabilities made the headlines. The first was a man who was left on a train when the ramp was not provided to let him off the train. He was let off twenty minutes later, and he commented that never before had his disability made him feel so vulnerable. The second one was a woman who was denied access to a Dublin Bus because a buggy was occupying the wheelchair area. One wheelchair space for fifty-odd seats seems a bit discriminatory anyway. These are not isolated incidents, as I know only too well from working in the disability sector; everyone has a story to tell about public transport in Ireland.

How can Ireland be viewed as being progressive if there are still people in society who cannot even access basic services such as transport? Why are we still highlighting the same issues over and over again?

I thought I was being paranoid, so I decided to do some actual research. According to a report by the National Disability Authority in 2011 on attitudes towards people with disabilities, the number of people who believed that ‘it is society that disables people’ fell from 62% strongly agreeing and agreeing in 2006 to 57% in 2011. Not a significant drop, but a drop nonetheless. Furthermore, there was a decrease in the number of people who think that people with disabilities should be treated more favourably in certain circumstances (i.e. when their disabilities prevent them from doing things that a person without a disability could do) from 80% in 2006 to 68% in 2011.

It occurs to me as I read these statistics that the changes in the attitudes of those who partook in the study may be due to the onset of the recession. Since 2008, funding that was once earmarked for disability services has been restricted and the needs of people with disabilities have had to be prioritised. Every year disability organisations make pre-budget submissions, outlining how further cuts will have devastating consequences for their clients. When you have a disability, you become costly; a report launched by Inclusion Ireland in September 2014 estimates that the extra cost of disability is roughly €207 per week. That’s not even provided through our (means-tested) disability allowance. And because of this people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty; many are caught in a welfare trap, afraid to move into employment in case they lose their secondary benefits such as medical cards and travel passes, and consequently they are either seen as spongers or dependent on the state.

How is this equality?

Tomorrow’s same-sex marriage referendum will come and go, and whatever the outcome, one thing is for certain: this referendum has given so many people a platform on which to relate their personal experiences, voice their opinions, and persuade the people around them of the merits and disadvantages of same-sex marriage. Giving the Irish people the opportunity to vote for same-sex marriage empowers the people and puts the potential of equality for same-sex couples in their hands.

Imagine, this time tomorrow, the right to marry your partner regardless of gender could be a reality.

Maybe, one day, equality for people with disabilities could be a given, too. But in order to achieve this, we need to be more vocal, more visible. We need to make sure that our voices are always heard. Not just around election time but every single day. Only when true equality exists should we fall silent.

PS Yes Equality!