Saturday 27 May 2017

The Monday interview: Failure to respect the disabled is an embarrassment

Emily Logan, the straight-talking human rights commissioner, is striving for cultural change, writes Shane Phelan

Emily Logan, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Emily Logan, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Recent events in Irish history have served to underline the need for strong advocates of human rights and equality.

The 'Grace' foster home scandal immediately springs to mind as a case in point.

Intellectually disabled children with limited ability to communicate languished in a foster home where they were subject to sexual and physical abuse because their supposed protectors in the health service failed to stand up for them.

The sorry saga clearly raises questions about the culture which allowed the abuse to continue unchecked for years, and whether the situation was ignored because the people involved were disabled.

The scandal may have its roots in less enlightened times, but discrimination and inequality is still rife in Ireland, particularly in the area of disabilities.

Sitting in the modern offices of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) in central Dublin, its chief commissioner Emily Logan speaks with a passionate voice about the ongoing need to stand up for disability rights.

A fifth of queries the commission receives on the Equal Status Act and a quarter of queries on employment equality law relate to discrimination on the grounds of disability.

March 30 marks the 10th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, yet Ireland is the only EU member state which has failed to ratify it.

This is something Ms Logan describes as "shameful" and "embarrassing".

The convention ensures that people with disabilities have the right to be consulted about their own welfare.

As a former nurse, Ms Logan has "vivid memories" of being trained to think that service providers knew better than the people they were looking after.

Introducing laws in line with the convention would "change that dynamic", she said, and make disabled people active rather than passive participants in their own care.

Although new laws have been promised later this year, a large demonstration is being organised for March 30 by Inclusion Ireland and Joanne O'Riordan, the inspirational young campaigner who was born without limbs.

"This convention is about trying to change that culture and to ensure the State as the primary duty bearer for the rights of people adopts a model where we accept that people are active participants," she said.

A straight talker, Ms Logan became IHREC's first chief commissioner when it was formed as an independent public body to protect and promote human rights and equality in 2014.

She was an obvious candidate for the role, having spent several years working as Ireland's Ombudsman for Children.

The Grace case is one she knows well and she was among those who pressed Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath to make the terms of reference for the commission of investigation into the scandal as expansive as possible.

"I think the question in Grace is whether what happened is symptomatic of a culture that hasn't yet recognised the rights of people with disabilities and, in particular in that case, people with intellectual disabilities, who are much more vulnerable," she said.

Ms Logan criticised the initial terms of reference brought forward by Mr McGrath, which did not explicitly ensure the cases of 46 children other than Grace would be examined promptly.

What was originally proposed was "not a human rights compliant process", she said.

"Just because the people in this case have intellectual disability does not mean we make the assumption that they have not been affected in a way that we should seek to understand."

The terms of reference were hastily revised and Ms Logan said they were now "much closer" to what IHREC has sought.

She said it was important for the Government to recognise that the process used in such investigations was as important as the outcome.

"Our job as a commission is to try to encourage the State to take a consistent approach to doing any type of inquiry," she said.

Another issue where Ms Logan believes the State could do better is in relation to taking in refugees from the Syrian conflict.

She believes Ireland can do more and should be playing a leadership role at EU level.

"We felt there could be a greater number," she said.

She is also critical of the "fairly harsh definitions" of what a family is in the International Protection Act and the impact this is having on the reunification of families.

"If both your parents have died and your only remaining relative is your grandparent, they don't come under the new definition of family, so you will not be reunified with your grandparent," she said.

"We are concerned the State has so narrowly defined the family."

Ms Logan believes concerns that refugees would put further pressure on education and health services are unfounded.

"The people coming from Syria are an entirely different population to people who came here before. Syrian children were well educated prior to the conflict. They are strong linguistically," she said.

"It is not as problematic as some of the children who came in the past who had much more complex experiences.

"I think we are generous as a society, but when it starts impinging on our own services people get a little bit nervous. But I think we have the ability to lead and to be more generous."

Irish Independent

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