Is Activism A Dirty Word?

Is ‘Activism’ A Dirty Word?

Every so often, I face a dilemma. It usually happens when I’ve taken on too much with writing or disability-related stuff and I find there’s just not enough hours in the day to do everything, which I find quite frustrating. It’s times like this where I find myself staring at the laptop screen, my finger hovering around the ‘delete’ button where the file that my so-called ‘novel’ is saved under. At these times, I’m ready to rip down this blog, pretend it never existed, start again.

It’s been quite a busy year, and hopefully it’ll continue to be busy for the rest of the year. In a bid to leave the disability world behind and fully embrace the world of writing, I joined the board of CIL and decided that I needed to take promoting the independent living philosophy much more seriously. (I know, it doesn’t make sense to me either). With every day that passes, I find myself becoming increasingly frustrated with the world around me, a world that I have worked hard trying to fit into. When another HIQA report is released detailing the shortcomings in residential homes, I roll my eyes, rant about it on Facebook, even write blogs about it.

Lately, however, I’ve been wondering: when it comes to fighting the status quo for people with disabilities in Ireland, am I copping out? I know I joke about being an armchair activist, but is that what I am – someone who’s good at talking the talk but reluctant to take any real action?

And is it because I’ve been conditioned to believe that no-one likes an ‘angry crip’, that no-one will ever take me seriously as a person or a writer if I choose to persistently bring so-called ‘disability issues’ into the mainstream with this blog?

I didn’t identify as an activist for a long time for this reason. I also felt like I had no right to identify as an activist. Looking back at all the great activists throughout history, they are great because they achieved something tangible. One of my greatest heroes, Ed Roberts, is the reason why many of us enjoy Personal Assistance today. During the ‘eighties, a group of wheelchair users in the US stopped buses and climbed up the steps to highlight how inaccessible they were. I love to hear such stories of radicalism, being a tad of the dramatic disposition myself. These so-called ‘radical’ actions brought about the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990. Two years later, the first Irish Center for Independent Living was set up in 1992. These were real, remarkable achievements.

About a month ago, I watched a programme called In From The Margins, which was produced in 1993 but may as well have been filmed last week, such is its relevance to 2018’s disability politics. It followed Ursula Hegarty’s transition from residential care to a home of her own, and what struck me the most about the programme (aside from the late Donal Toolan having an abundance of curly black hair!) was that the issues Ursula faced are still facing people living in hospitals or residential homes today. It’s estimated that around three thousand people with disabilities in this country are living in residential homes or care settings, sometimes against their will, which is in direct violation of Article 19 of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities. We know this because there are articles written about it sporadically every few months. Invariably there is uproar, and then it dies down.

Of course, these issues don’t cease to exist just because they’re not in the public domain anymore.

A friend of mine alerted me today that a guy called Kevin was talking to Joe Duffy on Liveline so, despite being in the library at the time, I immediately tuned in on my phone. Kevin, who was formerly a solicitor but had to leave his post early due to his MS, has been living in residential care in Dublin for the last thirteen and a half years. He is fully corpus mentis, but is lonely – in his nursing home, many of his fellow residents have dementia or Alzheimer’s, and therefore are unable to engage in conversation. He spends a lot of time in his room watching telly, and is so bored that he ends up going to bed early.

‘This is frightening,’ I texted my friend after listening to Kevin.

‘If it were any other sector of society there’d be uproar,’ she wrote back. ‘I try not to be an angry activist, but… Jesus!’  And there were those awful words, angry activist. What we strive not to be. Because no-one likes to listen to people drone on and on about the violation of human rights. We should be nice crips, smiling, not complaining all the time. After all, how are we ever going to be equal if we always point out our differences?

We have been conditioned to believe that anger is a bad thing, that we should be grateful for the progress that’s been made already, that protests are undignified and a waste of time, but history illustrates the opposite. So what are we afraid of? If you believe that one person, or a group of people can help change the world, then who are you waiting for? That person is the same person who looks back in the mirror at you every day!

You may be unpopular. You may feel alone. But you are an activist, so that’s par for the course. And my friend reminded me of a great quote, by Edmund Burke:

‘The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to say nothing’.

I’d choose activism over evil any day. Wouldn’t you?

Advertisements

Do I Have a Choice?

What time do you think you’ll get up tomorrow morning? Now, I don’t mean roughly – can you tell me what time exactly? Can you tell me how long it will take to eat your breakfast? To shower? To get dressed?

How often do you shower? How would you feel about say, one or two showers a week? Could you manage with one or two showers a week?

Do you like to cook your own dinner or would you be happy enough with a random meal from a Meals on Wheels service?

How many times do you go to the toilet? What times? If you go to the toilet overnight, would you be happy enough to lie in a continence pad until a Personal Assistant or Carer comes in to you in the morning, at whatever time they can slot you in?

How many hours and minutes does it take to eat your dinner?

No, friends, I haven’t gone crazy. These are the invasive and ludicrous questions that a person with a disability/disabled person/’Leader’ are forced to answer on a daily basis, in order to access vital services that they need to live independently.

Some time ago, there was something called ‘the philosophy of independent living’, the right for a person with a disability to live life as they saw fit. I remember being told about this philosophy in 2005 by the Father of Independent Living in Ireland, Martin Naughton. He said it was ‘exciting’. He spoke about ‘making mistakes’, ‘learning’ and ‘growing’.

Now, disabled people aren’t allowed to make mistakes in Ireland. There’s safeguarding, risk assessments, care plans. You’re expected to squeeze all your  needs into a time slot, not necessarily of your own choosing. Things that others might take for granted, that a person with a disability might want to do – take up a hobby, go for a chat or a coffee – things that are actually essential in a country that is struggling with mental health issues and rising suicide rates – are now considered luxuries and chances are that in the future, with our growing elderly and disabled population, the HSE will not provide for these anymore.

In 2017, people with disabilities are becoming institutionalised in their own homes, the result of a combination of a lack of accessible transport and a service that reduces people to a list of needs.

Having said that, I’m pretty happy with the service I’m getting, but only because it enables me to do everything I do. I couldn’t dedicate my life to writing and disability activism on a full-time basis were it not for my P.A. service. It’s very difficult to quantify on paper the full benefits of my service, and a tick box exercise would not do it justice. I can write because I’m not exhausted from meal prep; my P.A. helps me with my physio which keeps me in shape. This year alone I’ve done so much in the name of disability activism because of this service. Like so many others out there, I don’t expect something for nothing; I like to think I give back everything I can.

It’s not right to expect people to be happy with just getting up out of bed, maybe going to a day care centre for a few hours, come home again, have dinner and be back in bed by eight. This isn’t living – it’s imprisonment.

And we all know the narrative: money is tight, those who are languishing in various hospitals need to be moved back into their own homes (an estimated three thousand people with disabilities are living, often unnecessarily, in care homes and hospitals), and therefore it’s no longer feasible to provide services like was once provided. Why is the government proposing to spend more money on day care services when there hasn’t been any substantial investment in Personal Assistance in 2008, even though demand for the service is continually increasing?

We are constantly hearing stories on the news about overstretched family carers, a narrative that portrays people with disabilities as burdens. Nobody wants to be a burden, but it is our government, not our needs or impairments, that is making this narrative an unfortunate reality.

I’ve said it time and time again: Ireland needs to ratify the UNCRPD.

I know I’m getting annoying, repetitive. But honestly, I don’t feel I have any other choice.

Because right now, the future for people with disabilities in Ireland looks more grim than ever.

 

 

The Crumbs from the Table

Hey guys, guess what today’s ranty blog is going to be about? *fanfare* You’ve guessed it – the farce otherwise known as Budget 2018, which was released earlier today (10 October). Though you know what, I’m not actually surprised at how little it helps ‘our people’ (aka us crip-folk) and you know why?

Because the UNCRPD (United Nations Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities) hasn’t been ratified yet! What’s that got to do with the price of eggs, you may well ask (or not, maybe you don’t give a shite). Well, I’ll tell you, shall I? As long as the Convention remains unratified, disabled people are at the very least being denied the rhetoric to challenge the discrimination and sometimes the cruel and inhumane torture doled out to them on a daily basis!

Our government continually makes excuses for the delay in the ratification of this UN Convention, allowing them to blatantly disregard the human rights violations that are occurring in the meantime. For example, Article 19 of the UNCRPD states:

 States Parties to the present Convention recognize the equal right of all persons with disabilities to live in the community, with choices equal to others, and shall take effective and appropriate measures to facilitate full enjoyment by persons with disabilities of this right and their full inclusion and participation in the community, including by ensuring that:

a) 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;

b) 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;

c) Community services and facilities for the general population are available on an equal basis to persons with disabilities and are responsive to their needs.

If the Convention was ratified, then the government would have to justify why there are currently over one thousand young people with disabilities and an estimated three thousand disabled people in total inappropriately placed in nursing homes. It would have to explain why funding for Personal Assistance is allocated to the HSE who in recent years, owing to financial constraints, have been awarding the service on the basis of absolute need – in their eyes, accessing work/college, personal care and physio. Gone are the days where a person with a disability could be trusted to be accountable for their own decisions. Instead, a lack of funding has resulted in service users (‘Leaders’) having to justify and account for every minute of their P.A. service. Personal Care trumps all. As long as we’re up and dressed, it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not we can actually go anywhere! This is how people become institutionalised in their own homes, a common problem that is rarely discussed.

There has been no additional funding in this area since 2008, but there has been increased demand for services. As a result, many people are on waiting lists for P.A. hours, some of whom are stuck in hospitals and nursing homes in the meantime. Some of these people are well able to contribute to society, so why aren’t we letting them?

Under Article 15, which states ‘Freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’, Ireland has a lot to answer for. We’d all be naïve if we thought that Aras Attracta was the only serious incidence of cruelty toward disabled people in congregated settings. HIQA, though useful, is very clinical in its approach and the danger is that it may be merely ‘a tick-box exercise’ which doesn’t actually measure the happiness of residents. I have yet to see a HIQA report that recommends that some residents (or most, but not all – I appreciate that) would greater benefit from being accommodated to live in the wider community with support.

If HIQA decide in the future to regulate community services, then they must do so with Independent Living and its components of independence, empowerment, choice, options and rights as the core of their policies. Our government needs to realise that the ratification of the UNCRPD (whatever this entails) must shift the disability narrative from one of charity to  one of empowerment. We don’t want to have to be grateful for government handouts, but we are never going to be able to contribute to society in a meaningful way unless we’re enabled to do so. And this must happen through investments in the services we choose.

We want rights, not charity.

We want all the cuts made to disability services reversed, as well as additional investments. Because after today’s budget, people with disabilities are no better off than they were ten  years ago.

I’m sorry, but the crumbs from the table just aren’t good enough anymore.

 

 

 

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.

 

National Carer’s Week 12-18 June

This week  (12-18 June) marks National Carer’s Week, which is an initiative designed to give recognition to the estimated 180,000 unpaid carers across the country. These people are hailed – and rightly so – as heroic. Many carers have given up dreams of marriage, having a career, maybe juggling caring with raising a family. It’s noble and admirable, yet I find something deeply troubling about the narrative surrounding carers in Ireland.

I probably don’t have any right to be writing this blog.  I’m lucky insofar as my care plan doesn’t currently involve intimate personal care, just help with things like tying up hair, doing buttons etc. I mentioned before that one of the things I value most is my independence. That, and not being labelled a burden.

As a mother of one little girl, I’m ready to plop myself on the couch by eight o’clock in the evening. I love being a mother more than I ever thought I could, but sometimes it can be exhausting – answering incessant questions, doing role plays, going to the park. And this is without having to take care of toileting needs, inserting feeding tubes or anything like that. BUT I would hate to be in that dangerous position where I would view my own daughter more as an object of care than her own little person.

Traditionally, when a disabled person has a child, it is often assumed that the child will take on the role of a carer. Well, let me tell you – Alison has her little chores for which she gets rewarded, but she is not a carer. I have an excellent personal assistant service (not carers) that enables me to be the best mother I can be. I myself direct the Personal Assistant in what I need, and doing so allows me the energy during the day to write pointless blogs like these and spend some quality time with my daughter in the evening. And it allows my husband to enjoy an existence separate from me. I don’t have to worry about him harbouring resentment for me, because I’m not completely dependent on him. We are very much an average husband and wife.

It is harmful to reduce the identity of a person who has ‘high-dependency needs’ to an object of care. Everyone has the right to personal autonomy, to choose how and where they spend their day and with who. I know if I had ‘high dependency needs’ I wouldn’t want my parents, my husband or my child caring for me. I’d want someone fresh, not so emotionally involved, someone who could appreciate my individuality as well as know how to meet my needs. These sort of people are hard to come by. A FETAC Level 5 in Healthcare Support is useful from a practical point of view, but there is a danger that service provision is becoming overmedicalised, with less emphasis on finding out what the person actually wants and more about ticking boxes and providing a basic care plan and often wholly inadequate service.

If this government really cared about the needs of disabled people and their carers, then they wouldn’t dare contemplate cutting the Personal Assistant Hours or the hard-to-come-by Respite Grant. Instead of having a tokenistic approach to unpaid carers by dedicating a measly week to them, the government could alleviate the workload of carers by looking after the needs of the disabled person themselves and, as the late Martin Naughton suggested, allocating them funds so that they (and their families if appropriate) can choose the services they need. Martin called this putting disabled people ‘in the driving seat of their own lives’.

I’ve spoken to people over the last number of years who regard the possibility of acquiring a disability or impairment as ‘a fate worse than death’ and who, like me, would hate to become a burden on their families. But this attitude is a dangerous one. Centuries of conditioning has led us to believe that it’s our impairment that is the problem, and it’s not. It’s the manner in which Irish society and our healthcare system are constructed to make disabled people feel like they’re somehow ‘wrong’, problematic, inconvenient. We are now the only EU member state that hasn’t ratified the UNCRPD. In the UK, disabled people who cannot work are labelled ‘scroungers’ and I can see that attitude creeping in here now. I now believe that positive change is not progressive, and can be undone more quickly than it happened in the first place.

To all of you unpaid carers across the country: I salute you, and keep up the good work. You deserve recognition, not only this week, but every single day. But can I ask a favour? Please join us in challenging the system. Please don’t resent your loved ones for the care they need. They are not at fault. All of our lives would be so much easier if the dignity of disabled people and their carers were upheld through the provision of basic human rights.

 

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.

Locked away

For as long as I can remember, I have had an irrational fear of being institutionalised, or more specifically, living in a residential institution or a hospital.

I remember being eight years old, an age where my sense of self-awareness was growing rapidly. I was beginning to sense that I was different from my classmates. They had to tell me that I walked and talked differently, because I’d always assumed that I was no different to them. They didn’t use a typewriter. They played in the yard at lunchtime while I sat watching them. I remember complaining to my parents about it. ‘Count yourself lucky,’ my dad would say, ‘you can do so much more than other people with Cerebral Palsy.’ What the hell is Cerebral Palsy? My mum told me it was a kind of brain damage; that all of the body’s messages come from the brain, and that’s why I did things a little differently to others. That was that.

Then one night, my parents and I watched a documentary on the institutionalisation of people with disabilities during the Second World War and in the 1950s. Horrified does not describe how I felt as I watched how people were locked away by the Nazis, never to be seen again. I heard stories about people who were hidden in their parents’ attics for decades, and I thought: I am lucky. I am lucky.

That year, I would stay in Clochan House, a local respite centre, for the first time. My parents told me it was a sleepover summer camp, and indeed it was lots of fun. We did art, went on trips shopping and to the cinema, and had singsongs in the evenings. Don’t get me wrong, I have very fond memories of my time there, but the first time I stayed there I was convinced I was going to be left there, even though my mother went to great pains to tell me this wasn’t the case. That week, I learned to use a tricycle, which would be my main mode of transport for many years. It gave me independence, liberated me. I would later cycle to school and into town on a trike. I loved freedom. I lived a pretty bog-standard life. I did my Junior and Leaving Cert, went to Uni, got a degree and started working. Nothing remarkable there.

Unfortunately, not everyone agreed. In my school, I became a role model for people with disabilities and got told that I was great. I decided to compete for a place in Trinity, but knew I’d have to work hard, to the point where I made myself sick. ‘Remember that you can only do your best,’ teachers would say, their voiced tinged with concern. ‘Like it or not, you do have a disability so you will face challenges no other student would face.’ I refused to take my eye off the ball, afraid that my future would be full of endless computer courses and day centres. I have nothing against either, but that’s what you’re automatically supposed to do, as a person with a disability. You’re supposed to partake in a pre-formulated narrative. And if you do manage to fight the system and get a degree and a full-time job, then you’re great! Absolutely fantastic altogether! A real example of triumph over adversity! A pre-formulated narrative in itself.

I often think about what it must be like to live in an institution. According to the latest figures, 1,000 young people are living in residential institutions and hospitals. This is outrageous in 2015. Cuts to the adaptation grants, household benefits and Personal Assistant Services have all contributed to this problem. But institutionalisation is not just about your living arrangements. In my view, institutionalisation is spreading into the wider community. It manifests itself when business premises are not accessible for wheelchair using clients. Hate crime is also on the rise, that is, people with disabilities (including myself) being attacked because they are perceived as being vulnerable and ‘easy targets’. In my case, being attacked forced me to leave an affordable council house in Portlaoise and move back into the private rented sector. I felt I had to move back to my home town in order to have emergency contacts in case something happened to me.

I wonder how many more people out there feel held to ransom by circumstances beyond their control.

I wonder how many people are trapped within the four walls of their own homes, day in, day out, because they have to use their Personal Assistant hours for Personal Care or household duties. I wonder how many don’t see anyone else from one day to the next.

I wonder how many people, despite being in their homes, still don’t control what time they get up and go to bed at, or who is going to help them with these tasks.

When I had Alison, I had to start fighting before she was born. Fighting for the help I’d need to care for her. Fighting against the misconceptions of my parenting abilities as a mother with a disability. But most difficult of all was fighting against the negativity that I myself had internalised over the years, mirrored from a society that want to define me, keep me in my place. What if you drop her? the voice would say. What if you can’t look after her properly? What if she resents you for having her? What good can someone like you be to her?

Alison has recently started to ask ‘Why?’ about everything. ‘Why does it rain?’ ‘Why can’t we eat chocolate for dinner?’ I never want her to stop asking why things are the way they are, and as people with disabilities, we should never stop questioning things either. Yes, having to be continually vocal about your rights is exhausting. Yes, sometimes it feels as though the Disability Rights Movement is going around in circles. But if we stop challenging injustice, then not only will we be institutionalised in our own homes, but also in our minds and in our way of thinking.

And this kind of institutionalisation is the scariest and most debilitating of all.

Talkin’ bout a revolution (again)

Election time has arrived again, and the atmosphere is almost electric. Posters on every pole, letterboxes crammed with manifestos, Facebook (and Twitter, I assume) home to pre-election scandal, the most recent being a van used for a candidate’s campaign parked illegally in an accessible parking space. This move caused outrage across social media sites this morning. Being a poet at heart, I saw this a metaphor for how far people with disabilities have yet to go in their quest for equality in Irish society.

Over the last five years, my profession has allowed me to explore and learn about the Independent Living Movement. I’ve studied the history of people with disabilities prior to the Movement and was physically sick after reading about the T4 Project which took place under Hitler’s reign during the Second World War. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this concept, I am talking about a scheme that Hitler himself devised where people with ‘incurable’ disabilities were institutionalised and later gassed or injected with a lethal substance (a ‘mercy death’).

The Independent Living Movement came almost twenty years later, coinciding with other human rights movements. I can imagine the excitement in the air as Ed Roberts, a young man and polio survivor, enlisted the assistance of an ‘attendant’ which enabled him to live away from home and attend university. He and a group of fellow ‘disabled students’ formed a group called the ‘Rolling Quads’ and they established the first Center for Independent Living in 1972. At this stage, the concept of somebody with a disability having control over the fundamental aspects of their everyday lives, such as deciding what time to get up in the morning, where to go, whether to work or pursue leisure activities was a foreign one.

And despite the Independent Living Movement arriving in Ireland in 1992, the physical and emotional freedom of people with disabilities is still in question.

We have to ask ourselves why, twenty-two years since the Personal Assistant Service was made available in Ireland, people in this country are forced to live in residential institutions and hospitals; why people who need the assistance to live independently live in fear of vital services being taking away; and how we got to a point where we say nothing in response to all the cutbacks in recent years in case we ‘rock the boat’, even though many people remain on a sinking ship, waiting to be rescued by a Government who caused us to sink in the first place.

It seems that Government is only interested in helping people with disabilities when times are good. Despite all the studies that have been conducted on the viability of the Personal Assistant Service, people are still living in institutions and hospitals, where they exercise little choice over their everyday routine. Having a disability is an expensive way of life, and yet medical cards are being revoked, housing grants are being refused and household allowances are almost non-existent. These cuts inhibit people with disabilities from participating fully in Irish society and ironically from contributing to society rather than sponging off the State.

So until we stand united and say ‘enough is enough – we want equality and guaranteed access to the services that will enable us to achieve it’, we as people with disabilities will always be vulnerable, passive recipients of services that are reliant on state funding. We need to ensure that in the future, we regain choice and control over our lives. The time for talking is now over; we need to speak louder with our actions.

Yet again.