'These were people who are supposed to have one desire: to go to Lourdes and be the subject of a miracle." Peter Young, who has cerebral palsy, quoted in The Irish Times yesterday about the protesters in 1994 who originally brought the concept of independent living for people with disabilities to most people's attention.
Young's quote made me think again of my own interaction with people with disabilities, either intellectual or physical, when I was a child. At Christmas, we would sometimes go, with the best will in the world, to somewhere called the Spastic Clinic.
And it was hard to know on those occasions who was more scared of whom -- us or the sometimes severely disabled children there. We would go swimming to Lota too. Lota was a Brothers of Charity institution on the outskirts of Cork. By the time the Melbourn Residents' Association got the pool in the evening, most of the residents of Lota would be well out of our way.
I remember we would sometimes see a stray around the place, or maybe behind the window of a prefab-like building. And it would haunt you a bit for a few days as a kid, these strange people who lived in this depressing, institutionalised place. And indeed it would emerge that awful things happened those people there. And then in day-to-day life you would see the odd person with Down syndrome, still often called Mongoloid then. They would often be walking around with the older parents, who seemed to protect them from the outside world.
But now, this week, there is a sense in which we are further breaking through the mystery between the able bodied and those with disabilities. As we embraced the heroics of the Irish Paralympic team it seemed as if it was slightly less them and us. The Paralympians, in their success, were representing Ireland, not just the "Spasticus Autisticus" sector, to use the title of the empowering, "normal"-baiting Ian Dury song that Orbital so thrillingly and movingly rebooted for the Paralympics opening ceremony.
Though many, RTE included, were late in copping on that something very exciting was happening for Ireland over in London, once people did cop on, they couldn't get enough of that feel-good vibe. Not only were these athletes stunning to watch, Irish and winning, but they were, if you will forgive me the cliche, awe-inspiring. Every athletic feat is, in some sense, a triumph of the human spirit. One doesn't want to take from those who brought Paralympic glory to Ireland, because they are of course great athletes in their own right, not just great athletes considering everything. But none of us could watch these athletes without being moved by how incredible it was that they had broken out of the cages that nature, or fate, and to some extent society, had attempted to put them in.
They had not only achieved sporting prowess that most of us could only dream of, but they had done it by conquering the kind of handicaps (in a sporting sense) that would make most of us lie down and give up. They also refused to recognise, or they worked around any limitations that life or society tried to put on them. This wasn't Lourdes but these were miracles, self-generated, with the help of assistants, supporters, coaches, and of course, mothers.
Of course, of course, of course mothers. Possibly the greatest weapon anyone with a disability has in their arsenal apart from their own determination, is a mother. It is perhaps unfashionable to say so these days but mothering is another field of endeavour at which Ireland would top per capita medal rates. And the mothers of people with disabilities are the first ones to see no boundaries for their kids. They are the ones who recognise very quickly that there is nothing wrong with their kids but that perhaps there is something wrong with the world and how it sees them. Was there a dry eye in the house when Michael McKillop's mother presented him with his second Olympic gold medal? It was perhaps the ultimate moment that any mother would aspire to when they find out their child has a disability and when they first become determined that this will not hold their child back.
And as Mark Rohan gained his second gold, among his rowdy supporters and his underdressed coach, he reminded us that he was once like us, and still is, and that a sportsman is a sportsman is a sportsman, and if a motorcycle takes away one avenue of competition and excellence he will find another.
The question now is whether this past week or two represents a fundamental change in the way we view people with disabilities in this country. It is very easy to hail people as heroes and to be awed by their performance. Paralympians are sexy and graceful and cool to watch -- the grace of the blades, the determined, almost thuggish, physicality of the basketball and rugby. But let us hope that this is not just a moment of tokenism, where we adopt some pet disabled people because they are not too disabled, not so different as to make people uncomfortable. Let's hope this is not a Rainman moment, when everyone decided that autism was about counting cards and fishsticks on Friday while real-life adults with autism languished away out of sight, much more challenging and cut off from life than cuddly Dustin Hoffman.
The other sense in which people with disabilities burst into our consciousness last week suggests we still have a way to go. While the triumphs of how people can overcome limitations given the right assistance and support structures was being played out in London, back here the Government was attempting to deny people with disabilities exactly that kind of independence, exactly those same rights to live like most of us do, to contribute like most of us get to do.
While the Government was lauding the achievements in London, they showed a complete misunderstanding of what makes those achievements possible. Indeed, some of the Irish heroes in London were the sporting equivalent of the same PAs the Government tried to cut last week.
If members of the Government have the gall, after last week, to turn up at the homecoming for Ireland's Paralympic heroes it should only be to say the
following: it should be to say that they are sorry they doubted the importance of independent living. And it should be to say that from now on they will recognise the potential of every person with a disability to be a fully functioning member of society and a full citizen of this State.
It should be to say that they will ratify as a mater of urgency the human rights treaties for disabled people this country has signed up to. It should be to say that they will implement the well-intentioned, but not fully functioning, laws we have -- like the Disability Act, which guarantees that everyone with a disability should have at least an assessment of their needs as an individual, not a service user or fodder for the system, but an individual.
It should be to say, too, that they will look at the more outdated laws, like the Lunacy Act -- an ignorant law from ignorant times.
It should also be to say that we are not going to forget what happened these last two weeks, when the invisible barriers that exist between the able bodied and the disabled disappeared. It should be to say that diversity is good for everyone and that while people with disabilities will always need to be treated differently to differing extents, Ireland is now going to lead the world in bringing disabled people into the mainstream, if they want to be there.
The Irish Paralympic team not only smashed records these past two weeks, they smashed stereotypes. Hopefully now, they, and we, can take this moment and run with it.