Friday 28 October 2016

Disabled people are not 'vulnerable', but our actions are making them feel that way

Published 02/12/2015 | 02:30

For the rest of civic society, we need to do more to support those causes by looking at this as a social justice, rights-based issue – and not a hand-out to ‘vulnerable’ people who need help
For the rest of civic society, we need to do more to support those causes by looking at this as a social justice, rights-based issue – and not a hand-out to ‘vulnerable’ people who need help

Tomorrow is the United Nations International Day of People with Disability - a day which the UN sanctions as a time to promote the understanding of people with disability and encourage support for their dignity, rights and well-being.

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On entering Government, the Fine Gael and Labour coalition pledged that people with disabilities were going to be their number one social justice priority. The Disability Federation of Ireland's post-Budget comment did not concur.

In their view, Budget 2016 showed no realistic fiscal plan to address in any meaningful way the Government's prior commitment to restore services and promote equality for people with disabilities. But is anybody listening?

Other representative organisations that fight for services for disabled people expressed a similar view about the recent Budget - however, their views have been largely lost in the groundswell of positivity underlying our new-found economic buoyancy. It's them and us, again.

So the rest of us celebrate our reduction in the Universal Social Charge and small increases in family allowance benefit. We simply continue with the 'I'm alright Jack' attitude and sit back and wait to be coaxed further by the next round of goodies before the general election.

Some view disability as a medical condition - to others, it's an infliction leading to vulnerability and marginalisation, a view expressed by the Tánaiste recently. A purportedly more 'enlightened' view holds that disability is really nothing at all, a minor difference best overlooked and unmentioned.

But to the people involved in the disability rights movement, it could be described as a profoundly political experience.

A lifelong battle that is fraught with conflict and struggle against the system. That debilitating battle to secure equality and to control definitions must at times seem more onerous than the demons of physical or mental disability.

Disabled people and their families grapple against powerful political, economic and cultural institutions which are ostensibly controlled by non-disabled people. A system that is ultimately designed to do the minimum amount required to remain within the boundaries of what is deemed politically correct, while ticking all of the socially inclusive boxes introduced through legislation.

In recent times, disability groups in Ireland have become more astute in getting their message across. Their task now is to harness the might of all who are affected by disability and ensure that, while our economic fortunes are improving, their voices remain heard.

With more than 600,000 people classified as disabled in this country there is a huge sleeping giant who cannot access services. They may not be able to access services but they can certainly access politicians in advance of a General Election.

In order to effect real change, the issues can no longer be confined to access to care centres or medical facilities. Thousands of disabled people are living in accommodation which has not been adapted for their needs.

Many disabled children have inferior education choices than that of able-bodied children - all of which is leading to a dichotomy in qualification rates, and ultimately, life-choices.

An obvious consequence is access (or the lack of it) to employment for people which physical or intellectual disabilities. Family events and gatherings are missed because of barriers related to impairment - many things that we take for granted are a daily challenge for a disabled person, but they cannot take a single thing for granted.

All social norms that able-bodied people know and love are constant reminders of the barriers some people face.

The number of people who have a vested interest in this disability sector goes way beyond the 600,000 who are classified disabled. It extends to family members neighbours and friends who have often been the people to deliver the very basic services that disabled people should be afforded as a right by the State. This group of people, if organised properly, could themselves become a political force to be reckoned with.

But they need to find a way to extend their campaign beyond those who are affected by making the question about human rights and equity in the way it has never been in the past.

Taking a back seat is not a new development for the disabled in Irish society - their cause has often been superseded by more populist causes.

There are lessons to be learned from recent campaigns. The reason the Marriage Equality Bill was passed was not because we have millions of people in same-sex relationships who want to get married. It is because 1.2 million people believed in the need for equality.

Essentially, the message and mandate extended far beyond those affected by the changes in legislation, to those of us who wanted to effect a change in our society.

A change which demands equality would demand that everyone pay attention, not just those who are affected.

For those crafting the narrative for future debates surrounding the disability issue they may wish to examine how, in a fundamentally conservative country, the liberal agenda to afford the same constitutional protections to same sex couples prevailed.

For the rest of civic society, we need to do more to support those causes by looking at this as a social justice, rights-based issue - and not a hand-out to 'vulnerable' people who need help.

They are not vulnerable, but in reducing basic services we are doing everything we can to make them feel that they are.

Irish Independent

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