D-Day

It’s the first day of the Leaving Cert exams, and I can’t stop thinking about my godchild, whose christening I remember as if it were yesterday, going in to sit what she’s been told are the most important exams of her life.

I was listening to the radio yesterday (not sure who – Matt Cooper, perhaps?) who was talking to students on air and generally saying listen – the Leaving Cert is important, but not that important. Study, but don’t stress. It’s not the end of the world. The Leaving Cert is not the be-all and end-all.

That’s certainly not the impression I somehow got when I did my Leaving Cert, fourteen years ago. I did Transition Year the year before, and I had been on a respite break with seven other friends with disabilities during that year (incidentally, that’s where I met my husband). The message I got from that week was that the best prospects for disabled people was in doing a computer course or going to the National Learning Network to do an endless string of courses in job preparation. Has my journey through mainstream education been a waste of time? I thought glumly. Now don’t misunderstand me, or interpret my reaction to be borderline snobbery, but I was afraid that society was trying to mould me into something I wasn’t. These courses are great, but I do think that students with disabilities should feel that anything is possible.

So, as a statement against the status quo, and because I wanted full control over my future, I decided that the only way I was ever going to do this was to get 500+ points in my Leaving Cert (yes, I am a little mentally unstable-how did you guess?) For nearly two years, I threw myself into my studies. I don’t know how I still had friends at the end of it because I never went out to the Harriers or the Bridge House. I don’t exaggerate when I say I spent a solid six hours after school, studying. Soon I became obsessed. If I was going to spend the time studying, I had to be the best. If I got 75% or less in a class test I would openly bawl my eyes out.

I remember my dad saying to me about a month before the exams that if I didn’t slow down, I would have a massive heart attack and be dead before the Leaving came around. He was so worried that he threatened to stop me sitting them altogether. I looked at him incredulously! What did he know? How could he possibly understand how it felt to be the only person in my year with a (visible) disability and so much to prove? Didn’t he know how important these exams were to my future?

No, and he didn’t care. Neither did mum. What they did care about was the fact that I had no friends apart from John Paul, about the fact that I couldn’t relax, or take an evening off study without having a massive panic attack, about the fact that at 12 o’clock they would walk past my room on the way to bed to find me still studying, my books sprawled all over my bed and me panicking because I couldn’t memorise that Irish poem or the ins and outs of the heart in spite of studying all evening, probably on little or no food and definitely no rest (food and rest is for the weak, yo.)

And yet, it paid off. I got enough points (bang-on enough) to get into Trinity to study English (the DARE scheme may have helped a little). The relief was immense; it took a long  time to get used to not stressing out over the Leaving. And just when I became accustomed to calmness, I had my dissertation and exams to worry about! I really wanted an Honours Degree, and I did study just as hard (albeit in the final few months!) and it paid off…

…and now I am a writer, spending day after day writing and researching, blogging and editing. Did I need a good Leaving Cert to do this? Was it worth the hardship? Personally, in spite of the hellish experience that was my Leaving Cert, I don’t think it’s fair or right at this point to be dismissive of its importance. How can teachers, parents, society think it’s okay to spend two years of a student’s life drumming into students that this is the most important exam they’ll ever sit, and then turn around afterwards and say that it wasn’t that important?

Yes, it’s true, no-one ever asks how many points you got twelve months later or (unless you’re an Irish teacher) you’re never asked about the main themes of A Thig Na Tit Orm. And yes, many of us do want our children to have a strong work ethic, but at what cost? Why are we still sending out the message that your worth as a person is based on one set of examinations, and lying to our young people, saying that it could shape your future for the worst or the best?

Because I’ll let you in on a dirty secret: your worth is not how many points you get. It’s how you use your talents to shape the future, be that through medicine, teaching or volunteering to help others. And guess what? Learning is fun – it’s true! I don’t mean school – I mean the learning you choose to do. I’ve done three correspondence courses so far and it wasn’t about the marks, it was about accomplishing little challenges. I loved them and can’t wait to do more.

So do your best in your exams, and spend the summer doing some proper learning. Learn how to cook, how to use the washing machine, how to budget. How to get a week’s worth of groceries for €25 so you can go out on a Thursday night. Meet new people and learn how to tolerate their quirks and annoying habits.

There are no grades, but these are lessons you won’t forget.

And Caoimhe, best of luck. No matter how these exams go, never forget that you are a kind and wonderful person and we all love you so, so much xx

Advertisements

I’m only human, after all…

TMI alert, people: I’m currently in the middle of my, shall we say, ’emotional’ time of the month. And as every woman out there knows, during this period (pun intended) we can become irrationally angry or overwhelmingly emotional for no apparent reason (but hey, isn’t that what chocolate is made for?) Anyway, there is a point to this, I promise. Stay with me.

My husband, my daughter and I were travelling in the car on Monday when ‘Human’ by Rag’n’Bone Man came on the radio. Of course, being an emotionally unstable female, I was instantly in floods of tears, much to the surprise of my husband who nearly crashed his car in shock.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ he blurted out, while I wiped my tears. I shook my head.

‘It’s crazy time again,’ I joked as I tried to compose myself. But there was more to it than that, and he knew it too. And I didn’t have the words to explain. I do now, though.

The energy of the song and the repetitive line ‘I’m only human after all’ brings to mind what’s been going on in the media over the last few months with the remains found in the septic tank at the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. Like many of us I feel sick as I think about all those women, both young and old, who gave birth to their babies and never knew what became of them. It’s likely that some, if not most of these pregnancies were unplanned, and instead of being supported these women were disgraced, disowned by their families, and left in the hands of the nuns. You’ve read some of the stories, I’m sure. It’s truly harrowing stuff, and it’s been playing on my mind for the last two months.

How can we claim to be compassionate when we don’t even allow people to be human?

I live in a country where my rights as a person with a disability are not protected. This is because something called the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (or the UNCRPD) hasn’t been ratified by the Irish government. In theory, this Convention guarantees that no person with a disability should be forced to live in an institutional setting against their will. It guarantees access to Personal Assistance as a right, not a privilege. Those who have ratified the Convention (and Ireland is the only EU country that hasn’t) are answerable to the UN if human rights are breached. With constant threats of cuts to PA hours and people with disabilities having to give twenty four hours to use public transport, Ireland would certainly have a lot to answer for.

What upsets me the most is when you have a disability, you’re not allowed to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, takes wrong turns and yet, when you have a disability you’re either expected to be some kind of Superwoman, or an utter failure. If you make a mistake, well, obviously you’re not cut out for education or parenthood or whatever it was you were trying to do. People judge each other; I’m no different. But this pressure to live up to an arbitrary standard, set by people who may have no experience of disability, is overwhelming. As my loyal followers are aware by now, I came up against intense pressure to prove myself when I had my baby girl. And as you may be aware, I never sought help for my postnatal depression which lasted two and a half years because I was afraid that, combined with my disability, it would give the HSE the authority to take my daughter.

And my overwhelmed, hormonal, PMSing self thinks this is truly unfair. I feel frustrated and tired with it all, and I only wish there was more I could do to challenge this injustice, to stop history from repeating itself. Sometimes I wonder if life would be easier if I wasn’t so sensitive, so stubborn, if I just didn’t care. But the truth is, I do care. A lot. Too much.

But there isn’t much I can do at  eleven at night, and I’m pretty stuffed from that Easter Egg I’ve just polished off…

Hey, don’t judge me, I’m PMSing.

…and I’m only human, after all…

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.

Meaningless rant on a Friday night

I’m upset. And I know deep down when I’m upset that I should turn off the laptop, walk away and root out a tin of Celebrations from the spare room that ‘we’re saving for Christmas.’ But like a fool I can’t do that. I need to get this off my chest.

First of all, I’m upset with myself. I’ve been around for thirty-two years, you’d think with all of the physical and metaphorical knocks I’ve had in my lifetime my skin would be thicker. That stupid comments wouldn’t get to me.

Today, Ann Marie Flanagan, a disability activist from Clare, wrote a well articulated article for thejournal.ie about why Ireland urgently needs to ratify the United Nations Convention for the Rights of People with Disabilities. Unfortunately some of the comments on the article demonstrated the frightening ignorance of some of the Irish population. (I have said ‘some’ twice, I am not making generalisations, okay. Some of you are lovely). Yes, I know, thejournal.ie and trolls are well-known bedfellows. And like the gobshite that I am, I fed the greedy trolls.

One comment that was made was along the lines of ‘You need a PA to get things done and you thought it’d be a great idea to have a child?’ I don’t know this person from Adam, nor he me, but this isn’t the first time I heard this particular line. In fact, the first time I heard this was in the hospital the day after I had my daughter and I was walking to the toilet for the first time after the section. It wasn’t even a nurse that said it, it was an orderly (who we reported afterwards).  It wasn’t any of her business, but we weren’t going to go all angry  crip on her and run the risk of not being able to bring Alison home. Which nearly happened anyway when the head midwife suddenly, for no apparent reason, decided that we couldn’t go home because I was going to be a danger to my baby.

And that moment has never left me. I fought so hard to prove myself before Alison was born, and yet it wasn’t enough. And when I developed postnatal depression afterwards, I felt that I couldn’t seek help in case I accidently revealed some vulnerability and had my daughter taken away from me. There’s an underlying narrative to disability: everything is a struggle. That narrative begins from the day we are born. And I’m so tired of it, I really am.

I’m tired of biting my tongue every time someone comes over to Alison and says to her ‘are you looking after your mammy?’ I know it’s harmless banter, but I’m the parent, she is my daughter. She has her little chores but nothing like a carer’s role. And having a good PA service will ensure it always stays that way. Alison is very much a child, and will always be, because I am her capable mum. I have to tell myself this every day, and I’m sick of it.

I’m tired of explaining my personal choices to strangers, of having to reassure them that I know what I’m doing (I do have a Trinity degree after all) and having to wangle that degree into conversation to gain credibility from them.

I’m tired of the weight of history on my shoulders, a history that depicted disability as a fate worse than death, that it was perfectly okay to control disabled people and their families by denying them the appropriate services in order for them to live independently, which ultimately results in resentment of the disabled person by their families (Johanne Powell being the most recent example of this).

I honestly don’t know if I can change any of this stuff for the better.

But what I do know is that there’s a box of chocolates in the spare room, and while it won’t exactly change the world, at least I’ll go to bed on a (sugar) high.

When no words are coming, what do you do? Write a poem about it!

No. Words. Are. Coming. Lately.

As I sit at my laptop, waiting for the words to come,

Thoughts crash together in my brain, becoming mangled and broken;

I try to stay calm and serene, but the right words elude me,

I feel they are watching me from a comfortable distance

Laughing and mocking me. I feel the frustration rising within.

It burns my soul and crushes my being. The words must come,

Without them I am nothing. I can say nothing, I can’t be defined

And if this is the case, can I really exist? So I persevere

Writing bullshit and nonsense and shaking my head,

This is not good enough. Who will this offend? Who can I impress?

Writing is not a choice, it’s a terrible infliction

That follows the victim forever, strangles them, drags them down.

And yet I can’t fight the urge to keep trying

To create something special, something small, in a world

Where the search for perfection threatens to destroy our humanity.

I take a deep breath and say,

I am not perfect; I am shattered and broken,

But I will continue to try, to search for the unattainable,

Because the search for the right words is as important as the finding,

And when they are found, there will be nothing more to say.