It was October 13, 2016. Martin Naughton had just died, and the entire disability community was in mourning. Martin’s death was at a time when I had made a monumental decision, for the thousandth time. I was ready to kiss the world of disability activism goodbye and become a full-time freelance writer. I had spent too long caring about the degeneration of the philosophy of independent living. I had blogged about it, spoken about it and still I felt empty inside, as if the wonderful, magical world of Independent Living only existed in fairy tales.
A week later, I received an email from the wonderful Susan O’Brien in Carmichael House Centre for Independent Living (or Independent Living Movement Ireland as it is now known) asking me if I would be interested, along with other activists, in organising an event to pay tribute to Martin, who was considered to be the Irish Father of the Independent Living Movement. I accepted Sue’s kind invitation, and a week later found myself sitting like an imposter among some of the greatest activists in Ireland: Dermot Hayes, Ann Marie Flanagan, Mick Nestor and the legendary Shelly Gaynor (Shelly had been to the forefront of many protests against cutbacks to Personal Assistant Services). There was another man there who seemed oddly familiar: even though I’d never met him before in my life, I felt like I’d known him a long time. His name was John.
As the group discussed plans for the memorial event, John’s enthusiasm struck me and inspired me to volunteer to manage the social media and create a blog for the event. I felt more confident in my own voice and started to open up and share my ideas. In December 2016, I started talking to John over Facebook about how disillusioned I’d become with Independent Living in Ireland and how I felt that things had become overmedicalised.
“We are the experts in our own lives,” he said. “The HSE supports the medical model. They will never understand the true meaning of Independent Living or rights.” I offered the idea that we could educate those within the HSE, but John was having none of it. Over the following weeks we fought, we clashed, we agreed on some points. John said that it was important to have those conversations, to make things clearer in my own head.
At this point, there was talk of me joining the board of CIL Carmichael House, in early 2017. I was having serious doubts about it and John, who was concerned about me, asked me why.
“John, I’m not experienced enough to go onto any board, let alone onto a board of an organisation I’ve respected for years. Sure, I can talk the talk but I haven’t done anything tangibly constructive for the movement the way the others have. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
John wrote back: “Nobody knows what they’re doing, not at first anyway. Martin spent his life taking risks, and look how that paid off! You have such passion. Let that drive you.”
But I still didn’t feel worthy so I shied away from the Board. Determined to give something back, however, I instead threw myself into the memorial event. As a group, we named ourselves “By Us With Us”. In addition to managing the social media for the event, I wrote and consequently performed a dramatic monologue, which was close to the bone as it explored the damage caused by internalised oppression when Alison was born.
The months flew by. Before I knew it, it was May 2017 and I had not seen John since February. Nor had I heard much from him. In August, I was devastated to learn that John had lung cancer. My mum had that too. Generally, the prognosis for lung cancer is not good. Naturally, John pulled away from the organisation of the event. Before this, he had been guiding me in managing the blog and Facebook page. His silence was eerie.
Not wanting to bother John, I asked other friends how he was doing. Apparently he was trying to put a brave face on it but he was terrified. I continued working with By Us With Us and getting to know Shelly. Soon, I would not be able to imagine my life without her as a friend, and she remains a massive part of my life.
Finally, the big event came on 23rd September 2017, and with it came my dramatic debut. It was so raw. The pain was supposed to be that of my character’s, but it was obviously I who was crying on the stage, not “Rachel”. The performed drained me and much to my disappointment, I had no choice but to miss the rest of the event and take it easy. At nine o’clock that evening, my phone pinged: a message from John. All it said was “I heard you were brilliant, well done Sarah”.
That was the last I ever heard from him.
John died on the night of 26th November. My heart ached, and I couldn’t say why. I barely knew the man; realistically I only met him face-to-face a handful of times. I cried when I heard. The thought of his children facing the rest of their lives without their dad, the loss within a disability community that had lost so many people, including Eugene Callan, four days after the memorial event.
For some reason, John’s death angered me. I began to think of all the disabled people I knew, young and old, who were grappling with the same shite that disabled people grappled with thirty years ago. How could there be so little progress between my generation and John’s? As if possessed by some intangible demon, I sat at the keyboard and typed blindly, my own salty tears stinging my eyes. I could hear John saying (though I can’t remember whether he actually said this, or if he implied it), that from the cradle to the grave, all disabled people seem to do is fight.
I didn’t dedicate the poem to John openly at the time. I felt I had no right to. I barely knew the man. Others had a historical connection to him that I didn’t have. So I shared it, but didn’t mention John. Now, I dedicate this poem to John, two years after his passing.
In 2018 I was asked if I would like to join the Board of Independent Living Movement Ireland. Again I said, “Others have more experience than me.” Shelly’s response was the exact same as John’s had been and I felt that he was there, dragging me back to the world of activism which frustrates me and makes my soul sing in equal measure.
As a movement, we have made fantastic progress. Last week saw the passing of a motion in the Seanad that represented independent living as a fundamental human right for disabled people rather than a service that is granted on a whim by the powers that be within the HSE. This was always John’s dream, and now it’s up to all of us to make it a reality – to continue to fight, fight, fight.
Rest in peace friend (and thanks so much for the poetic inspiration – one of my favourite poems yet).