I know what I want – and I want it now!

Today is a mucky, awful day. It’s been leaking all morning, and probably will be for the rest of the week, according to forecasts. Nonetheless, I’ve been out of the house. My Personal Assistant and I have already been to the gym today, which not only helps me keep fit but also ensures that a hermit writer such as my good self does not become institutionalised within my four walls. Such a normal, mundane thing, isn’t it, going to the gym? Some dedicated people (read nutcases) even make time to go at six or seven in the morning before work. Often, if I go slightly later in the day (early afternoon) I meet other mums sweating it out before the kids barge in from school.

How wonderful it is to have that choice – to come and go as you please. To go to the gym, or to sit in a café salivating at a large chocolate éclair. To go to bed early and read, or to stay up until 4am watching the latest series on Netflix. The great thing about life is that it is full of choices. We make choices every day – mundane ones like what to have for dinner, and exciting ones like going travelling in Australia(!) – and many of us never give them a second thought.  And hell, why would we? Life is for living, right? We’re going to be dead long enough, aren’t we?

I have not been feeling too good in myself lately (hence all the extra exercise – it boosts my mood) because I know what I want. I want to be a writer, and even though I’ve spent hours this week applying for other jobs, I know that writing is the only profession that makes me feel whole, competent and useful. I love it because it’s a skill that can constantly be worked on, improved upon and polished. However it is so hard to focus solely on writing when I know that disabled people are collectively still fighting for the right to do what they want. And often these things do not include something as ambitious as going to Australia. I’ve heard people comment on how nice it would be to go for coffee once a week with friends, maybe go away for a night or two, breathe in new surroundings. We as a family often go for day trips, a drive somewhere, a change of scenery. It’s a must for your mental health!

During times when I myself feel low and inadequate, my mind wanders to those who don’t even choose what times they get out of bed, who can’t spontaneously decide to have a shower that morning, let alone leave the house to do their own shopping or socialise. If this was my reality, I can only imagine that my thoughts would be very dark indeed. To me, this isn’t living – it’s merely existing. And how many people in Ireland are  merely existing?

I heard someone recently say that they were grateful for the services they receive. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of gratitude, eh? After all, as a parent I have instilled in my daughter that we should always be grateful for what we have, that we should always be polite and say please and thank you. I am guilty of being grateful. I am especially grateful to my Personal Assistants for the work they do in helping me be independent. In fact I am so grateful that if my service were to be cut in the morning, that I would probably say something like “well there are people out there who need it more than I do, and sure can’t I manage, and I can still get taxis and buses and stuff”. Firstly, if I didn’t have a Personal Assistant, I guarantee that I would not have the energy to write rambling blogs such as this one. Secondly, my attitude of comparing my own needs to the needs of others perpetuates ableism and creates a hierarchy of disability. Instead of using the PA Service to achieve equality, it seems that those who “need” it more, such as those who need help with personal care, are prioritised. And logically, there is nothing wrong with this. However, this perception, exacerbated by the constant talk of lack of finances since 2008, has led disabled people themselves to lower their own expectations. And talking out is dangerous because if you are perceived to be a bit of an upstart, you risk having whatever little you have being removed from you.

This is the reality within a country that does not yet recognise Personal Assistance as a right. The right to a Personal Assistant so that a disabled person can live in whatever way they choose is currently not recognised in Irish law. Now that we have ratified this famous UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) that I have harped on about more than once, the absence of legislation protecting our right to access Personal Assistance is no longer acceptable. Oh, and just to clarify, home help and Personal Assistance are separate services according to Article 19, so having access to one does not justify the denial of access to the other. In case you don’t believe me, I quote directly: “Persons with disabilities have access to a range of in-home, residential and other community support services, including personal assistance necessary to support living and inclusion in the community, and to prevent isolation or segregation from the community.” (UNCRPD, emphasis mine).

A year ago, I had the absolute honour of being co-opted onto the board of an organisation called Center for Independent Living Carmichael House. Last September, we rebranded as Independent Living Movement Ireland  (ILMI). Today, ILMI launched a booklet entitled “Achieving a Right to Personal Assistance in Ireland” in collaboration with the forward-thinking Centre of Disability Law and Policy in NUI Galway, as part of their Disability Legal Information Clinic. It is a positive step towards creating an Ireland that eradicates the notion of disabled person as a medical “patient” and moves instead towards recognising Personal Assistance as a social issue and a basic human right. It fills me with hope that perceptions will change, sooner rather than later.

I want my right to Independent Living to be recognised. Before I die would be brilliant. Then I can focus on living my best life, whatever that may be.

For more information on the vital work of ILMI, or to join our  #PASNow campaign, please visit http://www.ilmi.ie.

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Progress is progress is progress…

So, it’s the end of 2018, which in some ways has felt like the longest year ever, and yet I remember sitting here writing last year’s post as if it were yesterday. It’s been a busy year, and here are just some of the highlights:

I did a “Begin your Novel” course in January, and I now am 26,000 words into Draft 2. Maybe I’ll finish it before I die.

I had a couple of job interviews, none of which resulted in me getting a job. May I respectfully ask how in the name of chocolate are you supposed to get experience if you need said experience to get a job? Grrr. Grrr.

I threw myself into promoting Independent Living, which I still think is one of the most important philosophies in the whole world, as it recognises disabled people as equal citizens with rights and choices. I blogged about it and also made a video as part of the #IndependentVoices campaign. I also got to work with some amazing ‘young’ people (I don’t believe I fall into this category anymore) and found out that the future of the Movement is in their capable hands. In September we had the launch of Independent Living Movement Ireland, formerly known as Center for Independent Living Ireland.

I applied to be on the UNCRPD supervisory committee, but was not selected. I did get an interview though which was a huge honour.

I gave two lectures to university students – one about the use of technology to students in NUIG via Skype and the other was about parenthood and disability to UCD students (which was a bit impromptu as I stood in at the last minute for a friend who couldn’t make it). Nerve-wracking to say the least.

I wrote an open letter to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar which was published in the Tullamore Tribune and also read out on Dublin South FM (Ger Scully and Sean O’Kelly, if you’re reading this, many thanks).

I started the Certificate of Disability Studies in NUI Maynooth in October, arrogantly thinking it’d be a piece of cake only to find it’s actually pretty intense with a lot of work and reading involved – oops! It’s so much more than getting the piece of paper for me, though. I want to understand the roots of the oppression of disabled people so that I know how to fight against it.  That said, I need  to stop speaking out in class. I’m coming across as a know-it-all and I will find myself getting beaten up for my lunch money. (If I don’t pass it, I may cry)

I’ve semi-committed to writing another monologue in the New Year with the talented Peter Kearns (Once this course is finished, though – my head is melted)!! Hopefully it materialises.

Oh, and I’m kind of doing some driving lessons! Think the instructor is a little dubious as to whether I can actually do it or not… only time will tell! Fasten your seatbelts!

And finally, I just about managed to keep this blog active (though don’t expect too much before my course finishes in April. Three essays and a group presentation will eat my time). Thanks to all my loyal followers for liking and sharing this pile of drivel. Your cheques are in the post!

Best wishes for 2019! xx

 

Unsocial Media?

I’m in writing mode now. But ten minutes ago I was flitting mindlessly around Twitter and Facebook, seeing what was happening in the world. You don’t need to tell me this is a waste of my time, of course I know that. By ‘waste of my time’ I naturally mean ‘waste of my writing time.’

A few months ago, I felt so guilty about the length of time I was spending on social media that I deleted both my Twitter and Facebook accounts. I think this lasted all of one day before I panicked and reinstated them. It’s sort of disturbing to know that ‘do you want to permanently delete your account?’ doesn’t actually mean what you’d think it would, as even after choosing this option your account can be restored.

It’s depressing how social media owns us. We all know how sharing pictures of our kids and our houses and our beautiful pets can make us look needy, narcissistic and fake. Who hasn’t been scrolling through their Facebook or Twitter feed at one stage or another and thought, ‘oh my God, this is a pile of rubbish, why am I still on social media?’

We’re told that social media is ruining the ability of people to make real-life friendships and conversations. Well, I’m sorry, but social media is not the sole scapegoat for people being lonely. I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t live in the same town as any of my family members. For many of us, it’s not a case of going up the road for a quiet natter with family or friends (I have one close friend living in town at the moment). People are out living their own lives in every corner of the world, and it’s social media that is keeping them all connected.

Social media has helped me in three areas of my life: as a mother, a writer and a person with a disability. When Ali was born, my friend added me to some wonderful parenting groups where clueless first time parents like me were asking questions about parenthood. Often I don’t comment: instead I ‘lurk’, nodding silently in agreement with other mums. In fact it was another mother’s open admission on Facebook that she was struggling with PND that ultimately motivated me to get the help I needed, take care of myself and write a blog about it. Knowing that I was not alone really helped. I also joined a reflux survivors’ page when Ali had reflux and seeing other parents come out the other side really gave me hope during this difficult time.

As a writer, being present on social media can be both rewarding and tiring. I’m still trying to find the balance between suave self-promotion and being interesting without just being plain annoying. In terms of rounding up an audience for my blog, I’ve found Twitter to be especially useful. Like most Twitter users, I haven’t a  clue who half of my followers are, but some have proven to be really useful contacts. For example I met a lady on Twitter who helped me find some secondary reading for writing my novel. I met another lady who’s teaching me about chocolate and making material accessible for the visually impaired.

Finally, social media is opening up the world for so many people with disabilities right now. Whereas before peer support mainly involved occasional meetings or coffee mornings, people with disabilities can now communicate with each other on a daily basis. This is so important given that there are nearly three thousand people with disabilities living in inappropriate nursing homes or hospitals and thousands more, be it through lack of transport or Personal Assistance, trapped in their own homes. Social media is becoming an increasingly popular tool for PWD challenging injustice in their everyday lives, and as a result, our stories are being highlighted by mainstream sources including local and national newspapers. People who were once voiceless are now becoming very vocal, all from the comfort of their own homes. The inability to get out does not necessarily mean the inability to participate, to count, and to matter.

So although I should probably curtail my time skulking around on Facebook and Twitter, I’m not ashamed to acknowledge that social media has helped me become a better mother, a more conscientious writer and a fiercer activist. I’m so grateful to be part of a virtual community that accepts and helps me. It certainly doesn’t beat face-to-face contact but it does make the world that little bit more accessible. Not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone.

 

Ps. If you enjoyed this blog, ‘like’ and ‘share’. Joking!

Pps. Well, half-joking anyway

Man, I feel like a writer…

I am writing this blog today in the hope that after I do so, the inspiration that I need to fix the middle of my novel will magically appear and afterwards my office will feel like it’s full of unicorns and rainbows.

It’s been two years since I left my job and decided that I wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t under any illusion that doing this would ever make me rich. It wasn’t the money I was seeking, or fame or recognition or anything like that. It was the sense of feeling useful, productive, being able to see on a blank page exactly what I’d produced that day. Having tangible goals. Doing the unthinkable and throwing myself out there, feeding myself to the wolves.

One thing that I did wrongly anticipate was having a real sense of pride in what I do. I’m ashamed to say that although I try to convince myself otherwise on a daily basis, part of me feel like a giant fraud. Especially when people ask how the novel is getting on (‘How long have you been writing it now? Two years?! You must be nearly finished.’) Nope, nowhere even close. I now realise that I probably should’ve started with something slightly more manageable, like a collection of short stories, but I can’t backpedal now. I’ll finish this book if it kills me! (and by the looks of it, it probably will).

Another frustrating aspect of my life right now is that I can’t decide whether I should focus on activism or writing more. Obviously, in writing the novel, I’m tackling both at the same time which, if I wrote it properly, could start a whole new conversation about how we perceive disability as an issue in Ireland (okay, perhaps I am being a little overambitious, but better to aim too high than too low, right?). But then I can feel myself being pulled towards being a full-time activist, always trying to make a difference, and I think to myself: God almighty, what is it I want?!

I’ve also found myself looking at the job section in the paper/on websites a bit more lately and every time I do so, I can physically feel myself trying to repress my urge to write. You said that if you weren’t getting a steady income by the middle of this year, you’d quit. This makes me turn cold. Inner voice, stop talking out of your behind! I can’t quit. People will laugh at me, think badly of me, I’ll have to start all over again and anyway, if I’m ready to quit, what is this magical force that keeps bringing me back to the keyboard?

Maybe it’s organising an event to honour Irish Disability Activists that has me frazzled, but I have to admit that being involved in this project has prompted me to think about the legacy that activists such as Martin and Donal have left to us. I look at them and others, and at what they achieved and failed to achieve for us, and remember their unwavering passion and I think, how did they never lose their passion? How did they and so many others keep going even when they were told they were wrong? They used their voices with confidence; I hide behind a computer screen.

With my words, where I feel safe.

I know that I’m probably going to return to the workforce, sooner rather than later, but I’d rather do it with something to show for myself. Something tangible, preferably a novel or some kind of written portfolio. Something to leave behind. A legacy.

And I suppose, isn’t that what activists and writers have in common: the irrepressible need to leave their mark on the world? Seems they’re not so different, after all.

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.

 

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.

I hate to be a burden, but…

Anyone who knows me at all knows that the most important thing to me, apart from my family, friends and laptop, is independence.

As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to do things my way, to be control of my own life. I don’t ever remember my parents beating me out of the house or having to sit me down and tell me that my decisions were bad ones. And for the last twenty years, I’ve worked hard on developing this persona of being independent, capable of running my own life. Most importantly, I needed the freedom to make my own mistakes. Lord knows, I’ve made many.

When I reached my mid-teens, I realised that I never wanted to be a burden on my parents by virtue of my disability. I was raised in a country that wanted me to fit into a particular box, and when I didn’t, I was problematic. I felt that I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes, which resulted in me studying like crazy in school. By the time I was eighteen I didn’t want to be seen as a burden in any sense of the word. And I hope that I was no more a burden to my parents than my siblings

As I grow older and wiser, I learn more about the way the world works. For example, I now understand that progress isn’t linear. We as a society are in fact regressing in how we view disability. The ‘nineties marked revolution in Ireland, and people were encouraged to leave residential settings behind and embrace the big, bad world with a Personal Assistant by their side. The Independent Living Movement in Ireland brought promise of freedom and equality to disabled people. Most importantly, disabled people themselves are seen to be the experts in what they themselves need.

An important result of a disabled person having a Personal Assistance Service is that it relieves families of the ‘burden’ of ‘caring’ for their disabled relative. Language of dependence and inability becomes language of empowerment, enablement, choice.

And yet, twenty-five years on from the beginning of the Independent Living Movement, disabled people (so defined because we are disabled by society) are no closer to achieving equality in Ireland. Instead we continue to live in fear of cutbacks, in the hope that more vital services are not taken away from us. We stay quiet, hoping not to draw attention to ourselves. Our pleas and petitions to ratify the United Nations Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities (the UNCRPD) disappear into an unknown wilderness.

In my opinion the reason why this hasn’t been ratified is not because of legislative changes that need to be addressed. It’s because we live in a country where disability has always been synonymous with charity and this enables government to continue to keep the ‘grateful cripples’ in their place. We shouldn’t need to sigh with relief when we  travel by train and there’s someone with a ramp, waiting to help us. We shouldn’t have people living in institutions whose peers are going  to Copper’s on a Thursday night. I remember the fun I had in my twenties, and the nearest I got to sitting in an institution was in the IWA’s Carmel Fallon Centre in Clontarf (even these were not sober times). Many would view my life as privileged, whereas I view it as an entitlement. One that admittedly has not come easily.

We shouldn’t need to accommodate and change our lifestyles and miss out on our true potentials, be this through education, employment or raising a family. Nor should we have to justify these choices to the HSE in order to get the proper supports we need to do these things.

Of course a single group or blogger cannot single-handedly change the current narrative of disability. We can all contribute, though. For example, the next time you throw coins absent-mindedly into a charity bucket, don’t resent disabled people or pity them; we don’t want to be objects of charity anymore, but we have been forced into this position because of government cutbacks. When you read a story about somebody with a disability in the media, look at the narrative voice: is it theirs, or someone else’s?

It seems that there are more pressing issues for the government at the moment: the US, homelessness, Brexit, the drug crisis. In the grand scheme of things, the rights of disabled people might not seem to be a priority. But if we don’t speak up, it never will be.

Because quite frankly, it’s disgusting that we live in a country that actively refuses to ensure equality for all its citizens. And none of us want to be seen as a burden.

Especially when, with a little consideration and respect, for both ourselves and our families, as well as granting us basic human rights, this burden could easily be lifted.

Birds of a Feather

 

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted by the past. The traditions of all the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living”.

Karl Marx (1979)

 

 

I carry the weight of a dark and cruel history on my bony little shoulders.

Every day, I fight a small battle in some shape or form. Sometimes it’s because somebody has skipped ahead of me in the queue in the shop. Sometimes it’s a waitress asking my husband what I would like for dinner. Sometimes it’s the need to feel that people take you seriously as an activist.

It’s all too easy to forget that I’m not the only one who’s perceived as different, that I’m not the only one fighting for equality in a society that indirectly labels me as inconvenient. If you think I’m being dramatic, just look at the recent coverage of Johanne Powell’s story (Johanne Powell is a mother and carer to her severely impaired daughter, Siobhan). I’m not disputing Johanne’s right to her story, but surely Siobhan, and so many in her position, should be given the chance to somehow tell their story too?

Every time I hear a story, be it about a wheelchair user who couldn’t board a train, or a person living in an institution simply because their home isn’t adapted, I feel an inexplicable anger, and also a sense of being victimised. I always think to myself: what if that had been me? It’s only luck that it isn’t me. And what can I do about it?

I often think about my upbringing and how often my parents used the word ‘fight’, ‘It was a long fight but Sarah made it into primary school.’ ‘It was a fight but we got Sarah botox treatment’ (for my legs, not my face – this is all natural). For many parents, and subsequently children, everything is a fight in a world where cutbacks are the norm. Sadly, parents still have to fight to have their disabled (by society) children accepted into mainstream school. Fight for the supports their children need to excel. And I ask myself – what exactly has changed in fifty years?

Sure, some things are improving – for example, Tullamore is becoming more accessible, students with disabilities are now going onto third level education and employment, sometimes setting up their own businesses, having families of their own and so on. But none of this falls into our laps. It is hard work having to constantly prove yourself in a society that expects little of you. And, *apols for harping on about this,* the fact that the United Nations Convention of People with Disabilities has not yet been ratified nearly ten years after it was signed is a clear indication of how (un)seriously our government views the needs of people with disabilities.

As far as I can see, we have internalised our history – please correct me if I’m wrong, but –

  • The word ‘handicap’ derived from the term ‘hand in cap’ is deemed offensive now, but is technically still correct as every year thousands of people with disabilities live in fear of losing their Personal Assistants, losing benefits and medical cards. As long as I worked in the disability sector, the Disability Federation of Ireland and the Centre for Independent Living made pre-budget submissions (elaborate begging letters) outlining the damage further cuts would cause. Obviously government didn’t care;
  • Despite one damning HIQA report after another, residential homes are still alive and well. Minister Mc Grath reckons that they will all be closed by 2020, but according to a HSE report published in 2011, more people are entering residential home than leaving them;
  • I’m a young’un, but I could safely bet that many disability activists were campaigning and protesting for the exact same reasons twenty years ago as we are now;
  • Disability/impairment is still viewed as one of the worst things to happen to you (cheers for that, Me Before You). it’s a tragedy that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, and wouldn’t it be great if there was a cure, and have you heard of these robotic legs blah blah blah. It seems that cures are more favourable than respect, understanding and acceptance. What does that say about us?

I know that I am the sole author of this blog, but I’m not sure I’d have the confidence to blog at all were it not for the support of all my readers, especially those who have experienced discrimination as I have. So the next time you are raising a grievance, be it because you were excluded from a building or public transport, or because some prat doesn’t think you should be a parent, or because you’re being blocked from getting your dream job, you have a responsibility to keep fighting.

But don’t worry.

You are not alone.

You have all of us behind you.

Ireland and Disability: A Reflection of 2016

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International Day of People with Disabilities: 3rd December

 

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

 

Are things really improving for people with disabilities in Ireland?

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

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The Disable Inequality Campaign Poster

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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Martin Naughton (Source: AT Network website)

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

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

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

A Tribute to Martin Naughton: Activist, Campaigner, Friend

I woke up with a start this morning, the darkness threatening to suffocate me. My sleepy brain told me that I had woken up in a world that was different than the one I opened my eyes to yesterday, which was the thirteenth of October, 2016.

Then I remembered. I felt my stomach close in on itself as the events of the last twenty-four hours rushed back to my memory: Martin Naughton, prominent disability advocate and all-round good guy, passed away yesterday aged sixty-two, following a short illness. There is nothing worse than hearing the news, via social media (so tacky), that someone who made such a huge impact on your life has died. At first I thought (hoped) it might have been a hoax, a rumour, but as the Independent and RTE published their stories, the reality of our loss hit home.

Everyone in the disability world knows Martin. He’s our representative, our ‘go-to’ guy. If the Independent Living Movement was a mafia, he’d be our Don; he was always trying to think of new and seemingly radical ways of equalising the playing field for people with disabilities. (such as giving us full control over our lives in the form of Direct Payments – I know, outlandish, right?!)

Martin had an impairment called Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and spent his childhood in St. Mary’s Hospital in Baldoyle, where he developed a strong stance against the institutionalisation of people with disabilities.  He became a youth leader and coach there, and became a strong advocate for people with disabilities. When he went travelling in the US, he saw the disability movement in action first-hand and on his return to Ireland, immediately set about bringing Personal Assistance here. This began with ‘Operation Get Out,’ a programme designed to move people who had been institutionalised back out into the community and culminated in the development of Ireland’s first Center for Independent Living in Dublin.  There are now around 25 CILs across Ireland today, thanks to Martin.

Martin dedicated his entire life to trying to achieve equality for people with disabilities, but the first I ever heard of him was in 2005, when I was looking for a summer job in Dublin. My Personal Assistant arranged for me to have a job interview with him in Chief O’Neill’s in Smithfield. She didn’t know much about him, so I’d pictured a stern-looking man in a suit, wielding a pen and ticking boxes as I spoke. As it turned out, I didn’t do a lot of talking during that interview, but I’ll never forget it. Martin’s kind, soft features put me at ease as he spoke passionately about the need for Leaders (people with disabilities) to take full control of their own lives and to have a platform from where they could voice their concern about their Personal Assistant Services. This platform was called a Leader Forum and it was my job to help him put it together. This experience later enabled me to help establish forums in Laois and Offaly. I could see that this was a man with a rare combination of passion, vision, and stubbornness. He would not rest until he realised his goals.

That September, Martin would lead the biannual Strasbourg Freedom Drive for the second time, and although I couldn’t go, it awakened in me an awareness that issues facing people with disabilities in Ireland are commonplace across Europe. During this Freedom Drive, people with disabilities across Europe convened at the European Parliament with key demands, which invariably included the deinstitutionalisation of people with disabilities and the recognition of the Personal Assistant Service as a basic human right. The slogan for the event was ‘Nothing About Us Without Us.’

I started working with Offaly Centre for Independent Living Ltd in 2008, and thanks to Martin, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to achieve. However, I soon discovered that it wasn’t as easy to motivate others to fight for equal rights. During the recession (that we’ve apparently come out of), a time when ‘cutbacks’ instilled more fear in people with disabilities than any other word, Martin was actively protesting against these cutbacks. He and other activists took the drastic measure of camping outside Leinster House, and their perseverance was worth it when the cuts were reversed.  Just last year, in September 2015, he organised another three day protest outside the Dail where he expressed his disappointment to our Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, on hearing that investments were going to be made into residential institutions.

Martin is a celebrity, and we all loved to see him coming to Offaly. In 2010 he agreed to be filmed as part of a promotional DVD Paddy Slattery and myself made for Offaly CIL Ltd, called ‘My Life with Me in It,’ in which he explained how he established the Independent Living Movement and how he helped Michael Nestor establish Offaly CIL. In October 2011, when prominent US advocate Judy Heumann came to visit us in Offaly, Martin came to meet her, noting the many similarities in the struggles for independent living for people in the US and in Ireland. That day, he introduced me to Judy as a hard-working Trinity Graduate who was passionate about forwarding the Independent Living Movement. It was the highlight of my seven years’ service with Offaly CIL. Despite the fact Martin met so many people every day, he had still taken the time to get to know me as a person and believe in me as a person. I’m crying just remembering that moment!

And in spite of his many achievements, Martin always strove to achieve more. The Offaly Leader Forum (now the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum) organised a celebratory event in September 2015 to mark twenty years of Independent Living in Offaly. While other speakers were maudlin about the past, Martin focused instead on the future, warning us that must never become complacent in our pursuit of equality. Before his passing, he was actively campaigning for the introduction of Direct Payments, insisting that we must believe in our ability to take control of our lives and to achieve our potential in everything we do.

Nobody could accuse Martin of not achieving his potential. And now that he has passed from this world, we have to ensure that his legacy lives on, never for a moment doubting that we deserve anything less than to live with dignity, respect and choice in our own communities.

Codladh go sámh, a chara. You will be missed, but never forgotten. Thanks for everything xx