Personal Assistance Should Be a Right

(This article was first published in the Tullamore Tribune week ending 20 December 2019. Many thanks to Ger Scully, editor of the Tribune, for this).

On the 19 November 2019, the possibility of legislating for Personal Assistance as a legal right was debated by the Dáil. The motion was brought forward by Donegal TD Thomas Pringle from Independents For Change, who worked in collaboration with Independent Living Movement Ireland (ILMI) in promoting the right for disabled people to access Personal Assistance in Ireland.

 

The Personal Assistance Service and Independent Living are intertwined. In their truest form, Personal Assistants are not “carers”, nor do they have the right to make decisions on behalf of the disabled people they work for. A Personal Assistant has been defined by many as “my arms and my legs”, in other words, the role of a Personal Assistant is to assist with or perform tasks that the disabled person (known as a “Leader”) cannot do for him or herself. The Leader is considered to be the expert in their own needs and directs the Personal Assistant on what he/she wants done. When the service is delivered properly, the PA does not “look after” the Leader, but rather enables him or her to live a fulfilling life – enter employment, access education, enjoy social events and raise a family – depending on the Leader’s own life goals.

 

In theory, a Leader’s service is customised to suit his or her own lifestyle. However, in reality, only a select few disabled people in Ireland are enjoying the full benefits of Independent Living. Since the onset of the recession in 2008 the lack of financial resources, coupled with a growing demand for a Personal Assistant Service, has led to overmedicalised assessments and more stringent criteria, leaving many disabled people with little or no service. Emphasis has been placed on “high dependency needs” such as feeding, showering and dressing. While this might make sense to the powers that be, in reality this can lead to a depressingly low quality of life for the Leader concerned, being all dressed up and nowhere to go.

 

Many Leaders make a distinction between a “home-help” service and a PA service. A home help works to a rota provided by a care organisation and merely assists clients with basic tasks such as Personal Care and feeding. Often, a client has little or no say in what tasks they can be assisted with, nor do they have control over who delivers these tasks. It is not uncommon for a “client” to be assisted by many different people, and a disabled person might not know who is assisting them from one day to the next. Conversely, a Personal Assistant is recruited by the Leader themselves, and matching personalities, as well as a willingness to carry out certain tasks, is a crucial element to the success of any PA/Leader relationship.

 

The original intention behind the service was that the Leader could dictate what they wanted to do and when, just like every other person in this country. Moreover, the philosophy of independent living espouses that the Leader should choose who assists them, what they need assistance with, and when. A distinct benefit of the PA service is that it reduces our reliance on our family and friends so that we can enjoy a relationship as equals, not as “carer” and “cared for”.

 

However, in spite of the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCPRD), Personal Assistant Services are not currently a right for disabled people in Ireland. Consequently, this leaves the service vulnerable to the constant threat of cutbacks, as the government illustrated in 2012 when it endeavoured to eradicate the entire service overnight. People power alone, in the form of demonstrations outside the Dáil saved the service, but the PA service in its current form is not allowing disabled people to enjoy a reasonable or enjoyable quality of life. A report published by ILMI in 2017 conveyed that nearly half of people in receipt of PA services were getting the equivalent of 45 minutes a day. This is entirely unacceptable and clearly illustrates the need to legislate for PA Services.

 

Therefore, the motion which was brought before the Dáil and subsequently passed unanimously was a hugely historic day for disabled people in Ireland. It heralded a shift away from the notion of disabled people as passive recipients of care to people who had human rights and who deserved access to the tools that enable them to participate equally in society. For the first time, Personal Assistance was debated in the Dáil using the language of rights, signalling a shift away from the misperception that disabled people are merely passive recipients of care.

 

Alas, although this small battle has been won (and how sweet the victory does taste!) the work for those who want equality for disabled people is far from over. We cannot afford to be complacent or to take anything for granted. Now is the time to educate people, to create awareness of the importance of our PA services and to ensure that our government delivers on its promise to make independent living a basic human right.

 

For more information on the ILMI #PASNOW Campaign, visit www.ilmi.ie or follow us on Facebook www.facebook.com/ILMIreland  or Twitter @ILMIreland

 

Academic Essay: Discuss the challenges facing the Independent Living Movement since the onset of the recession

I am sharing this essay to outline why I am so vehemently supporting the #PASNOW campaign.

 

Discuss the challenges to the realisation of the Independent Living Philosophy in Ireland since the onset of the economic recession.

 

The philosophy of Independent Living was intended to be the cornerstone of the provision of Personal Assistance Services in Ireland. In its truest form, as noted by Morris (1993), independent living is about recognising that each individual has something to offer and that disabled people have “the right to assert control over their lives” (p21). The philosophy is entrenched in the belief that disabled people should have the same quality of life as their non-disabled peers. Yet, there have always been challenges to the realisation of this philosophy in Ireland, and these have become more apparent since the onset of the economic recession in 2008. Berghs (2014, p272) notes that “in a time of austerity, where government budgets are being cut […] independent living or care in a community cannot be ensured”. Independent Living has enriched the lives of many disabled people in Ireland. Yet its philosophy remains at odds with Irish culture, which has historically favoured a charitable approach to funding disability services. In addition, the Personal Assistance service, considered to be the cornerstone of the philosophy, was almost eradicated in September 2012 and the right to access a Personal Assistant remains unprotected by Irish law. A study conducted by the European Network of Independent Living (ENIL) in 2019 indicated that Irish Personal Assistance Services are not perceived to be underpinned by the independent living philosophy (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p13). Additionally, many disabled people are incarcerated in hospitals and institutions in direct violation of their human rights. Of further concern to true “Leaders” or Personal Assistant Service users is the expectation that Leaders should rely on family members for their needs and the consequent strain this can cause to family relationships. In this essay, the ideals of the independent living philosophy will be weighed up against the current reality in Ireland, and it will be demonstrated that Irish culture and the independent living philosophy has always been, and remains, at odds with each other.

 

Firstly, in examining the challenges in meeting the ideals of the philosophy of independent living, it is important to outline what this philosophy entails. According to Bruce (1999), independent living shifts the perception of the disabled person from being an object of care “to a point where they acquire rights of full participation and equality” (p5). In addition, as Morris (1993) notes, the independent living philosophy involves “acquiring the skills and support necessary for severely impaired people to have freedom to live where and how we choose with full control over our lives” (p20). Traditionally, the Personal Assistant Service has been used as a tool by disabled people in achieving independent living. Personal Assistance dates back to 1970s America, when Ed Roberts and a group of disabled college students, collectively known as “the Rolling Quads” employed Personal Assistants which enabled them to attend university and subsequently gain employment. This led to the establishment of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley in 1972.

 

 

It took twenty years for the philosophy of independent living to travel to Ireland. The European Network of Independent Living (ENIL) confirms that the establishment of the first Irish Center for Independent Living was instigated by disabled people themselves (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p13). Martin Naughton, who had spent his childhood in St. Mary’s in Baldoyle, came across the Center for Independent Living when he was travelling in the US during the nineteen-eighties. In an interview with Joanna Marsden, Naughton recalled his time in America and how he saw the potential to bring the philosophy to Ireland:

I began to think of all the people back home, many of whom I had semi-reared in some sense when I was in Baldoyle, who were living in institutions. The temptation to do something became too great and I felt the pull back home. (Marsden, 2010; cited in Conroy, 2018, p227)

The establishment of the Personal Assistant Service in Ireland was also the result of the retaliation of disabled people who were tired of having no control over their own lives. Naughton stated in an Irish Times interview in 2015 that in Ireland, a disabled person had traditionally been perceived as “someone to be cared for rather than cared about” (www.irishtimes.com). Conroy notes that one of the main reasons for the formation of the Irish Independent living movement was a reluctance on the part of disabled people at the time to continue living with resentful family members or in residential institutions. (Conroy, 2018, p229).

 

However, translating the philosophy of independent living into an Irish context has always proved challenging, especially within a predominantly Catholic culture that perceives disabled people as objects of charity instead of equal citizens deserving of rights (Toolan, 2003, p175).  A study entitled Extending the Boundaries was carried out in 2006 to examine the progress of the Independent Living Movement from its introduction to Ireland in the early ‘nineties. Dixon commented that:

While the experience of Independent Living has been broadly accepted as a positive one for disabled people, there is a concern over the uneven spread of this service provision, and a worry that the philosophy of Independent Living, which should underpin service provision, is being diluted. (Dixon, 2006, p17)

 

This quote suggests that there were challenges to realising the Independent Living Philosophy prior to the onset of economic recession. However, the philosophy has become further diluted since the publication of Extending the Boundaries. Given Ireland’s tendency to treat disabled people as “victims” deserving of charity rather than autonomous individuals in their own right, fundraising initiatives has always been the norm in many disability organisations, including RehabCare and the Irish Wheelchair Association. Toolan notes that “At the same time as disabled rights groups are looking for the enactment of disability rights legislation, charities under a ‘not for profit’ banner are projecting demeaning and dehumanising messaging in order to attract resources for their service” (Toolan, 2003, p174).  This conflict between the need for the Center for Independent Living to portray itself as a rights-based organisation and the requirement to secure funding for services came to the fore during recessionary times, with Irish disabled activists reluctant to portray themselves as vulnerable in order to secure funding. However the RehabCare and Central Remedial Clinic scandals, which revealed that charitable donations were being used to inflate salaries, is one reason why sustaining a charitable approach will not work into the future. Morris (1993, p7) states that the supposed dependency and inadequacy of disabled people is perpetuated through the inappropriate application of medical expertise and the growth of the charity sector, and the way disabled people are perceived within the charity model.

 

 

Indeed, the medical model, coupled with the charity model, has had a negative influence on the strength of the Independent Living philosophy. Since the onset of the recession, disabled people have been forced to portray themselves as dependent, passive recipients of services rather than equal citizens who can live independently with the help of a Personal Assistance service. This is at odds with the Center for Independent Living’s “rights not charity” mantra. Toolan (2003) notes that being drenched in the doctrine of Catholicism, Ireland has always leaned heavily on the charitable approach, being “a society that is far from comfortable with individual rights” (p175). This can be seen in the current provision of the Personal Assistance Service. Personal Assistance was initially introduced as a pilot project in 1992, funding for which came from the EU Horizon programme. Following the two-year pilot, the regional Health Boards (now the HSE) and FAS continued to fund Personal Assistance, but in technical terms, Personal Assistance still holds “pilot project” status, and seems to be allocated on an “ad hoc” basis, with the number of hours given to Leaders dependent on which CHO (Community Health Organisation) covers that Leader’s service. Contrary to what the philosophy of Independent Living advocates, a Leader does not have full control over the hiring and firing of their Personal Assistants (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p21). In addition, Leaders lack control over who works for them, and at what time, meaning that assistance hours provided are uncompromisingly rigid (ibid, p20). Presently, access to a Personal Assistant is dependent on an assessment which is usually carried out by a Public Health Nurse, which focuses on basic activities of Independent Living, such as washing, dressing and feeding. This medicalised approach goes against the social model on which the Independent Living Philosophy is based and, as noted by ENIL (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p25) personal assistants are not trained in the independent living philosophy. In addition, access to Personal Assistance is not treated as a human right (ibid, p13). Since the onset on the recession, tasks such as personal care have been prioritised over the need for help with household tasks, accessing employment and education, socialising and shopping. Jolly (2010) notes that attempts to control expenditure on Personal Assistance occurs when a government restricts “the tasks that a personal assistant can do, meaning the tasks that [the HSE or FAS] will pay for a personal assistant to do” (p7). This rationing of Personal Assistance is at odds with the aims of the Center for Independent Living, as noted by Bruce (2000): “From the outset CIL located its activities in the context of seeing disability as a rights and investment issue to enable disabled people to have the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers” (p11, emphasis mine).

 

During the recession, the right to Personal Assistant Services was constantly threatened by the government, and indeed the service continues to face the threat of cutbacks (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p14). In September 2012, the Minister for Health, James Reilly announced that twelve million euro would be cut from the Personal Assistance budget, showing government’s lack of understanding of the true value of the service. The decision was only reversed following a three-day protest by disability activists, calling themselves the “Leader’s Alliance”, outside the Dail. This radical action was necessary as the right to Personal Assistance currently has no basis in Irish law.

 

In reality, the fact that provision for Personal Assistance is not yet legislated for in Ireland means that the service remains vulnerable to cutbacks at any given time, at the discretion of the Irish government. In 2013, the Center for Independent Living Carmichael House (renamed Independent Living Movement Ireland in September 2018) proposed to legislate for Personal Assistance. On 7 May 2014, a motion was debated and passed by the Seanad to allow for the legislation of Personal Assistance (Independent Living Movement Ireland, 2017). The motion noted that this legislation would build on the Value for Money and Policy Review of the Disability Services, the National Disability Strategy and the Action Plan for Jobs 2014. The proposal for the legislation stated that

the purpose of Personal Assistance is to ensure that people with disabilities enjoy the same opportunities as all members of society, to ensure that they have the same choices as others, and to afford them the means to control how they wish to pursue their lives. (ILMI, 2017, p31)

Under the proposed legislation, it was suggested that Personal Assistance hours would be granted “without regard to any upper limit on the number of hours and without regard to the cost of the service or the means of the individual” (ILMI, 2017, p33). However, the proposal also advised that the Department of Social Protection should take charge of the funding allocation for Personal Assistant Services, raising concerns that the service may be means tested in the future, potentially leaving Leaders “worse off” in terms of the level of service they would receive (ibid, p13).

 

However, for reasons unknown to this author, the Personal Assistance Bill was never enacted by the Oireachtas. Passing this law would enable Ireland to uphold its obligations in the eyes of the United Nations. According to Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities (UNCRPD), “Persons with disabilities [should] have access to a range of in-home, residential and other community support services, including personal assistance necessary to support living and inclusion in the community” (UN, 2006, p14). Although Ireland was one of the first countries to sign up for the UNCRPD in 2007, it was the last country in the European Union to ratify it on 7 March 2018, after an eleven year wait. In response, Independent Living Movement Ireland initiated a #PASNow campaign towards the end of 2018. It involves encouraging individual Leaders to contact their local politicians and educate them about the importance of the Personal Assistance Service. In addition to encouraging the legislation of the service, the campaign also calls for a rights-based definition of a Personal Assistant, as well as outlining what distinguishes Personal Assistance from home help (Independent Living Movement Ireland, 2018). The #PASNow campaign evolved following research which found that a mere 2,200 disabled people in Ireland received a Personal Assistant service in 2017 (Conroy, 2018, p232). In addition, Conroy notes that almost forty-five percent of Leaders receive a mere forty-five minutes of Personal Assistance a day, which illustrates how narrow and medicalised the criteria for receiving a Personal Assistant has become. Given that a Personal Assistant has been described by many Leaders as “my arms and my legs”, Conroy notes that forty-five minutes is not enough time to allow a disabled person to live a complete life (Conroy, 2018, p231). Clearly, the fact that such a high percentage of Leaders have access to such little service demonstrates that Ireland does not yet perceive Independent Living to be a human rights issue.

 

In fact, Ireland remains far from recognising the rights of disabled people to live in their own communities, and this is evident from the high numbers living in residential institutions. Inclusion Ireland estimated that as of 2016, just over three thousand disabled people in Ireland were living in residential or congregated settings (www.inclusionireland.ie, Accessed 19 March 2019). Article 19 of the UNCRPD (UN, 2006) states: “Persons with disabilities have the opportunity to choose their place of residence and where and with whom they live on an equal basis with others and are not obliged to live in a particular living arrangement”. However, for many disabled people in Ireland, this is not yet a reality. The HSE report Time to Move on from Congregated Settings: A Strategy for Community Inclusion notes that between 1999 and 2008, more people moved into residential settings (693) than moved out of them into the mainstream community (619) (HSE, 2011, p3). It is evident that there needs to be more investment into Personal Assistance to allow people to move out of residential settings. Conroy (2018) states that Ireland is currently spending three times as much money on institutional and nursing home care than on “home care” (not necessarily Personal Assistance, as in its truest form, Leaders employ and direct their own Personal Assistants) (Conroy, 2018, p235). In 2015, Martin Naughton organised a three-day protest outside the Dáil following an announcement by Taoiseach Enda Kenny that four hundred and fifty million euro was to be invested into institutional living arrangements for disabled people. In his explanation about why the protest was organised, Naughton said

 

If the Government continues to go down the route of refurbishing and building home   care and residential settings, as they have announced, they will have to put people into those homes. We need to get away from this model of incarceration. (Flaherty, Irish Times, 2015)

 

 

It has been noted that Ireland finds it difficult to embrace independent living provisions, preferring instead to rely on outdated solutions such as residential institutions (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p18). However, the challenge in convincing governments to invest in Personal Assistance is not exclusively an Irish one. Speaking at the European Day Conference for People with Disabilities in 2011, UK activist John Evans feared that a potential effect of a lack of Personal Assistance was that it could once again give rise to a culture of institutionalisation (Evans, 2011). In an attempt to highlight this issue, disabled people across Europe partake in a biannual “Freedom Drive”, an initiative which was the brainchild of the late Martin Naughton, and began in 2003. The activists typically present their “demands” to the European Parliament, most notably the demand to close residential institutions and to legislate for access to Personal Assistance. Besides being in violation of Article 19 of the UNCRPD, Conroy (2018, p233-4) notes that the four main characteristics of living in an institution (“depersonalisation, rigidity of routine, block treatment and social distance”) are at odds with the philosophy of independent Living. In addition, being “warehoused” in an institution is often associated with a reduced quality of life as Maggie Hynes, a disabled British activist noted: “Institutions were places where people like me died in” (Hynes, 1983; cited in Morris, 1993, p22).

 

One example of the inappropriate use of institutionalisation in Ireland was the case of Julia Thurmann, whose case has garnered much media attention since 2014. Thurmann, who was hospitalised after contracting the ADEM virus, is now paralysed from the waist down, but is still able to work and would be able to live fully independently had she accessible housing and a Personal Assistance service. However, due to the fact she could not move back to her inaccessible flat on her discharge from Dun Laoghaire Rehabilitation Hospital, she has spent the last ten years living in a nursing home in north County Dublin. It was reported in the Dublin Gazette that Thurmann spends four hundred euro a month on taxis in an attempt to ensure that she is not isolated from her mainstream community (Pownall, 2019). At the beginning of this year, Thurmann was informed that accessible accommodation would be made available to her by the end of 2019, after an eleven year wait.

 

Another consequence of the failure to legislate for Personal Assistance is that it often leaves disabled people with no choice but to rely on family members for assistance. As a consequence, families become under strain, and disabled people cannot enjoy meaningful relationships with family members as equals. This is a threat to the independent living philosophy, as it reverts back to the notion that disabled people are objects of care instead of autonomous individuals. Morris (1993) notes that

In the context of economic inequality which accompanies physical impairment […] the need for personal assistance has been translated into a need for ‘care’ in the sense of a need to be looked after. Once Personal Assistance is seen as ‘care’ then the carer, whether professional or a relative, becomes the person in charge. The disabled person is seen as being dependent on the carer, and incapable even of taking charge of the personal assistance he/she requires. (Morris, 1993, p23)

It can be argued that portraying the disabled person as an object of care dehumanises both the disabled person themselves and those who care for them. The challenges facing family carers in Ireland have been highlighted over the last few years, most notably with an RTE documentary aired in 2017 entitled “Carers in Crisis”. One of the mothers in the documentary, Johanne Powell, who cares for her severely disabled daughter Siobhan, now in her mid-thirties, spoke about her reality as a full-time carer. In 2013, the Irish Times reported that Siobhan had been offered a place in a nursing home, which undermined Johanne’s request for home support so that Siobhan could continue living at home with her family (O’Brien, Irish Times, 2013). Although it could be argued that Siobhan is too mentally incapacitated to make any meaningful decisions over her own life, denying her the support she requires to remain in her own home evidently places strain on the mother/daughter relationship. In an interview on the Late Late Show in 2017, Johanne admitted: “I am bored, depressed, I want more, I want a life for myself” (www.irishexaminer.com, November 2016). Currently in Ireland, as noted by ENIL (Mladenov, Pokern & Bulic-Cojocariu, 2019, p18), a person’s eligibility for Personal Assistance is in part dependent on the availability of family members to assume ‘caring’ roles. This is problematic because aging parents who are currently caring for their disabled children cannot shoulder the responsibility alone, as the Carers in Crisis documentary demonstrated.

 

In conclusion, it is clear that the integrity of the independent living philosophy in Ireland has faced significant challenges since the onset of the economic recession. It is important to remember, however, that these challenges will not be eradicated by financial investment alone. Those who wish to truly embrace the Independent living philosophy need to have confidence in their own ability and power. In addition, they must reject the association of disability with charity and embrace their rights to the various supports they need in order to live independently. However the reality is that the status quo regarding Independent Living in Ireland will remain until Leaders themselves are truly empowered, through the implementation of legislation and the adoption of a rights-based approach, to make decisions affecting their own lives.

 

 

 

Bibliography:

Berghs, M (2014) The Global Economy of Care from Swain, J, French, S, Barnes, C and Thomas, C Disabling Barriers – Enabling Environments (3rd Edition) London: Sage

Bruce, A (2000) Towards A New Millennium (Independent Living Movement Ireland) www.ilmi.ie

Conroy, P (2018) A Bit Different: Disability in Ireland. Dublin: Orpen Press

Conroy, P, Dixon, S & McGrath, C (2006) Extending the Boundaries: Our Experience of Independent Living. Dublin: CIL Carmichael House.

European Network on Independent Living (2015) European Network on Independent Living: Personal Assistance Services in Europe 2015 from www.enil.eu/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Personal-Assistance-Service-in-Europe-Report-2015.pdf

Evans, J (2011) Rights and Social Inclusion or Cuts and Social Exclusion (speech given atEurope’s Way out of the Crisis: The Disability Rights Perspective  European Day Conference for People with Disabilities Brussels, December 1st 2011) from https://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/40/library/evans-The-impact-of-the-austerity-measures-on-disabled-people-in-Europe.pdf

Flaherty, R (2015) “Disability Protesters Disappointed after Meeting Taoiseach” from the Irish Times Online: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/disability-protesters-disappointed-after-meeting-taoiseach-1.2356009 Accessed 10 March 2019

HSE (2011) Time to Move on from Congregated Settings: A Strategy for Community Inclusion www.hse.ie

Inclusion Ireland (2016) http://www.inclusionireland.ie

Independent Living Movement Ireland (2017) Center for Independent Living Leader Forum Consultation Report: Personal Assistance Services from https://ilmi.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Personal-Assistance-Report-2016-.pdf

Independent Living Movement Ireland (2018) Campaign for Personal Assistance  https://ilmi.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/ILMI-Personal-Assistance-Campaign-Leaflet-min.pdf

Irish Examiner (2015, author unknown) “’You grieve for the child you thought you were going to have’ Johanne Powell talks about life as a carer” from https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/discover/you-grieve-for-the-child-you-thought-you-were-going-to-have-johanne-powell-talks-about-life-as-a-carer-765894.html Accessed 20 March 2019

Jolly, D (2010) Personal Assistance and Independent Living: Article 19 on the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Leeds University Archive

Mladenov, T, Pokern, Y & Bulic-Cojocariu, I (2019) PA Checklist – A Tool for Assessing Personal Assistance Schemes. https://enil.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Mladenov_Pokern_Bulic-PA_Checklist.pdf?sfns=mo Brussels: European Network on Independent Living

Morris,  J (1993) Independent Lives? Community care and Disabled People (Part 1) London: Macmillan (accessed on leeds.ac.uk/disability-archive)

O’Brien, C (2013) “HSE offered disabled woman place in nursing home despite  wishes of parents” from the Irish Times online: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/hse-offered-disabled-woman-place-in-nursing-home-despite-wishes-of-parents-1.1416012 Accessed 14 March 2019

Pownall, S (2019) “45 year old Julia hopes her 10-year stay at a nursing home is at an end” from the Dublin Gazette online https://dublingazette.com/news/news-fingal/julia-swords-38924/ Accessed 19 March 2019

Ratzka, A (2017) Self-determination for Persons with Extensive Disabilities through Direct Payments for Personal Assistance from the Independent Living Institute:https://www.independentliving.org/docs7/Self-determination-direct-payments.html Accessed 1 March 2019

Toolan, D (2003) An emerging rights perspective for disabled people in Ireland: An activist’s view from Quin, S & Redmond, B (eds) Disability and Social Policy in Ireland Dublin: UCD Press

United Nations (2006) The United Nations Convention for the Rights of People with Disabilities www.un.org/disabilities/documents/convention/convoptprot-e.pdf Accessed 10 March 2019

What do we want? A PA service! When do we want it? Now!

Ugh. I’ve been thinking lately about how many times I’ve been torn between pursuing other journalism opportunities and how often I end up just posting here instead. This blog is too accessible, too easy. Perhaps I should delete it, the culmination of five years’ solid work, publish it in book form, and charge extortionate amounts of money to people who want to read it. I give myself away, far too easily as a writer.

On the other hand – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – some things are more important than money. And there are some things money can’t buy. Freedom of choice, equal rights – those kind of things.

On Tuesday, 19 November 2019, an important motion is being brought to the Dáil. The motion proposes the legislation of a P.A. service. It’s safe to say that the majority of disabled people who currently use the service understand the rationale behind legislation. For too long, there has been a level of misperception that disabled people, in the words of Martin Naughton, are “to be cared for rather than cared about.” Since the onset of the recession, a culture has been created between those who care about the Independent Living Philosophy whereby it is often perceived to be “safer” to stay quiet and accept things, especially if people are afraid of losing the little provision they have.

Historically, independent living has never been approached as a “rights-based” issue in Ireland. The establishment of the Center for Independent Living in 1992 marked a monumental shift away from the charity model of disability to a rights-based approach. It celebrated the individuality of disabled people and their diverse lifestyle choices. However, as the demand for this revolutionary service grew, so too did the restrictions of it.

The HSE funds the Personal Assistant Service at present. However, significant investment is badly needed to enable people to live full, meaningful lives. Pauline Conroy, in her book entitled A Bit Different? Disability in Ireland notes that in 2017, forty-five percent of Leaders (service users) were only receiving a mere 45 minutes a day on average of Personal Assistance, largely for Personal Care. Many activists have been crying out for years for the need to create a fund exclusively for personal assistance. In our minds, “carers” tend to follow the “medical model”; disabled people are viewed either as “problematic” or as passive recipients of services, incapable of having their own voice or even of making the most basic decisions about their own lives. Whereas in the true definition of the Personal Assistant Service, the Leader is placed, as Martin Naughton once said, in the “driving seat” of their own lives.

The debate coming up next Tuesday is an important one. It won’t lead to all of us waking up on Wednesday morning in a world that has changed overnight, where we will all be able to access the level of assistance we need to live fully independently. At the very least, however, we will be creating a conversation about the need to approach Personal Assistance as a right, not as a lottery depending on your address. It’s about urging people to consider the importance of free will, of independence and choice.

If you would like to create awareness of independent living, or if you would like your local representative to debate this motion in the Dáil next Tuesday, please email me at sarahfitzgerald1984@gmail.com and I can send you an email template.

Finally, if I’ve kept your attention this far, you might be interested in this short story which details the reality of dependency and uncertainty for disabled people in Ireland.

 

(For more info on the #PASNow campaign, email me as above or visit Independent Living Movement Ireland’s website, ilmi.ie)

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.

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.