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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s the Story?

 

My Left Foot was on RTE 2 on Saturday night. I know it well because it was one of the ‘comparative’ texts I studied for my Leaving Cert (the film, not the book). Of course, me being me, I’ve read the book as well and it seems to be the voice of a man who very much came from an era where disability and impairment were problematic (okay, let’s face it, that’s every era – nothing’s changed there). Christy Brown is regarded as one of the most talented Irish writers of the twentieth century, and his name has become synonymous with triumph over adversity, literary genius, truly inspirational. And as a writer with Cerebral Palsy myself, I reflected on what it’s like to live in the shadow of such genius, and such brutal and cold oppression such as that endured by Brown.

If I had been born thirty years before, would I too have been relegated to watching life pass me by from under the stairs?

I’m constantly being told that I should consider  writing an autobiography, as Christy says ‘my own story’, and although I’m sure that every writer toys with the idea at one stage or another, part of me can’t see anything particularly extraordinary about my life. Unlike Christy Brown I was mainstreamed, and was very much a part of ordinary family life. I went to school, where I detested homework, and then to secondary school and college. I was always convinced that this was the status quo for other disabled people too, in spite of the fact that there were only two other students with physical disabilities in my school. (I say physical because there are also hidden disabilities like dyslexia, etc.)

Sixty years on from the publication of My Left Foot, I know that there are hundreds of autobiographies written by people with disabilities. In my home town alone, two men with Cerebral Palsy have published their own stories – Brendan Brophy wrote On Three Wheels and Dealing a Bad Hand and David Boland wrote Life from the Tip of My Tongue. Their style is different from Christy Brown’s, although some experiences are the same such as being in the CRC. My good friend Leigh Gath is currently extending her autobiography Don’t Tell Me I Can’t, the s\tory of her incredible journey as a thalidomide survivor (she has hands and feet, but not arms and legs) growing up in Newry during the Troubles, finding her identity as a sexual being and escaping from her alcoholic husband to finally find true love.

The progression of the perception of disability between My Left Foot and Don’t Tell Me I Can’t is intriguing. In My Left Foot Christy is preoccupied with his physical limitations and the now outdated terms he uses to describe himself, such as ‘cripple’ and ‘handicap’ whereas having been born thirty(?) years later, Leigh has a different perspective. Despite her specialised education at boarding school, she can clearly see from a young age that she is not the ‘problem’ but rather she lives in a society that won’t accommodate her needs. This frustration led her to become involved in disability activism and hard-core protests in trying to secure the rights of people with disabilities. It’s interesting to note that Leigh grew up in Newry, a community divided into Catholic and Protestants, while also inhabiting a world that endeavoured to reinforce the differences between disabled and non-disabled people.

Christy Brown’s perception of disability is now a little outdated. But one thing he must be credited for is that he gave permission to the disability community of Ireland (and the wider world) to tell their stories. Unfortunately at present we live in a world where these stories often exist in isolation. Christy Brown’s book may have garnered him worldwide recognition, but the rest of us face a new challenge. Disability has become so commonplace and integration is supposedly the status quo to the extent where, in the future,  writing your story from the perspective of having a disability won’t be enough to gain you credibility or respect.

Instead, it will be up to us as the future Christy Browns to push the message that disabled people in themselves are not problematic. It is society that disables, society that insists that we are different. A disability or impairment can never be overcome, but obstacles created by our society can be removed, if we put our minds to it.

And though I admit that I also am a sucker for a good old ‘triumph over adversity’ story, wouldn’t it be simultaneously strange and wonderful if we had more stories like: ‘Wobbly Yummy Mummy had no problems accessing mainstream school, or going to college, or accessing transport. She lived an average life with her husband and her kid. She sold a billion copies of her bestselling novel. The End.’

Okay, that’s a little boring. A little ordinary, even. But a good writer will always find the extraordinary in everyday life, if he or she is willing to look hard enough for it. My hope is that in the future, disabled  people will be perceived, and have the courage to portray themselves as the multi-faceted, complicated creatures we are.

And undoubtedly My Left Foot, both the book and the film version will be studied for decades to come, and my hope is that students will exclaim, ‘How could Irish society exclude Christy Brown and other disabled people for so long? Thank God Ireland ratified the UNCRPD!’*

*We haven’t, as of 23rd January 2018. The Minister of State with responsibility for Disability promised it would be ratified by the end of January. Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

 

 

Kind Gestures

Kind Gestures

It’s amazing what meaningless rubbish you can learn just in mindlessly scrolling through social media. For example, did you know that International Kindness Day is marked on 13th November each year?

Reading this got me thinking about the busy week I had last week. Last Thursday, 9th November last, a delegation of people with disabilities including myself went to meet the Junior Minister with Responsibility for Disability, Mr Finian McGrath in Dail Eireann. The main reason that the meeting was requested by Clare activist Ann-Marie Flanagan was because Ireland is the last country in the EU to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Frankly, the meeting was a farce. Minister McGrath seemed distracted throughout the meeting, and while he could sympathise with the reality of our lives, we felt he could not empathise with our fears. He constantly interrupted us, and we left the meeting feeling that we’d been heard but not listened to.

Reader, I cried on the train back to Tullamore, the train I’d given twenty-four advance notice to travel on. Onlookers asked me if I was okay, and I simply nodded. How could I possibly explain how alone I felt in that moment, the feeling of knowing that deep down the Minister who represented my needs and so many others’ needs at government level had no perception of how difficult it is to be disabled in  Ireland today? I say this with the assumption that if he knew our frustrations, he wouldn’t have been so evasive in his answers. He would’ve assured us that our rights were on the way to being recognised. If the Minister can’t reassure us, then who can?

On Friday, I needed a change of scenery and so I eagerly accepted the invitation of an old college friend to meet for coffee in Lemon on Dawson Street in Dublin. To my delight, the conversation came easy, just as it had ten years ago when I saw her last. We caught up over two pancakes each, and I realised that I’d missed debating the meaning of life with her.

‘So, what have you been up to?’ she asked over the hum of students talking. I told her that I’d had the meeting with Minister McGrath and that I felt I’d wasted my time. ‘You know,’ she said thoughtfully, chewing her omelette, ‘I’ve lived in France and what I’ve noticed is that they don’t really have the concept of kindness there, the way they do here. People are kind here.’

‘Which is a lovely thing,’ I replied. ‘Where would we be if it weren’t for kindness?’

‘Oh, it is,’ she continued, ‘but in France, things are more rights-based. Everyone knows – and gets – what they’re entitled to. It’s not perfect, it’s just…different to here.’

That got me thinking. I don’t know much about French culture, but I’m familiar with Irish culture, and my friend is absolutely right – we are,  as a nation, very kind. The problem is that we depend on kindness and charitableness as a substitute for our rights, and particularly for people with disabilities, this can be problematic. Because of a lack of proper funding in the disability sector disability organisations, for example, the Irish Wheelchair Association, put much time and energy into fundraising. In order for fundraising to be in any way lucrative, people with disabilities are forced to portray themselves as vulnerable, almost desperate. And unfortunately, it’s not a lie. Because of massive gaps in government funding, we are vulnerable and desperate.

However, the CRC and Rehabcare scandals were only examples of why organisations should not rely on charitable donations to fund their services going into the future.  Money is going into inflated salaries rather than direct service provision. Meanwhile, essential services are being cut. On the other side of the coin you have many people with disabilities in hospital beds, costing the State thousands a year, when that money would be better spend moving people into their own homes, providing a Personal Assistant Service and enabling these people, regardless of their disability, to realise their potential.

In our meeting with Minister McGrath last Thursday, we shared some painful experiences with him, to illustrate how a lack of a rights based approach is denying thousands of disabled people across Ireland the opportunity to contribute to society. We urged him to help us to change the narrative of disability from one of victimisation to empowerment.

Finally, when we tried to extract a timeline from him of when the UNCRPD would be ratified, he refused to commit to one, saying that he’d done this last year, ‘and got burnt.’ He wasn’t going to make promises he couldn’t keep, he said.

Even when Ireland does eventually ratify the Convention, our rights as people with disabilities will still be in question.

However, we should do it regardless, not out of kindness, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Kindness is lovely, but it isn’t enough. We as people with disabilities need – and deserve – more than this.

 

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.