Tuesday 25 October 2016

Time to disable inequality and finally take rights of 600,000 people seriously

Elaine Howley

Published 13/01/2016 | 02:30

Disability has never received the political leadership, attention and commitment that it needs to make Ireland a truly modern, truly equal Republic
Disability has never received the political leadership, attention and commitment that it needs to make Ireland a truly modern, truly equal Republic

People with disabilities face discrimination and segregation every day across Ireland. Today sees the launch of a new campaign called Disable Inequality, which puts a spotlight on the daily experiences of inequality.

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The title of this campaign tells us that it is not the disability that we live with that is disabling. It is actually the inequality that we live with that is disabling. And with those two little words we also get the solution. We have to disable inequality if we want an Ireland that is fair.

At the heart of Disable Inequality is the collection of stories from people across the country. These stories will be gathered as a volume of evidence and presented to candidates and leaders during the general election campaign.

There are over 600,000 people - or 13pc - in Ireland living with a disability. That's 600,000 stories. Two in three of us already know or care for somebody living with a disability. If we were a constituency, we would be bigger than the whole of Connacht. We would challenge the electoral grail of Greater Dublin.

But we are set apart from other constituencies where candidates are already knocking on doors, vying for attention. We are set apart because we are located across every constituency, in every village. There is something ironic in the fact that our very prevalence has also made us politically invisible, easier to ignore, to put to the back of the electoral queue. We are also easier to set apart because we are one of the poorest, most marginalised constituencies in the country. Imagine any other constituency where 71pc of the people are unemployed. Imagine a constituency were only one in every two people continue with education beyond secondary school?

This is our constituency. Yet, disability has never received the political leadership, attention and commitment that it needs to make Ireland a truly modern, truly equal Republic. While there are policies and promises - many made during elections - and nice strategy documents, in reality, Ireland is not accessible, is not disability-friendly and is simply not fair.

Does it seem fair, for example, that if you are using a wheelchair you have to give 24 hours' notice if you want to travel by train?

Does it seem fair that children with disabilities often can't attend their local schools because of the lack of basic supports?

Does it seem fair that many State back-to-work schemes are not accessible to people with disabilities who want to work and contribute to society? Does it seem fair that we continue to lock over 3,000 people away in outdated and Victorian institutions, or leave people open to slapping, hitting or restraint in residential settings?

I am a person with impaired vision. As a non-driver, I am reliant on public transport, which is a recurring issue of difficulty for people with disabilities.

I can now use the new public service card as a travel pass, for which I am very grateful. But that card has no chip for opening the barriers that have now almost replaced staff at Dart and train stations.

This means that - ironically - as a member of the Department of Transport's Public Transport Accessibility Committee, I am regularly forced to jump the barrier to get to the platform.

When I do bolt the barrier, I am reliant on audible announcements.

These are often not working, which means I have no idea when the train is coming, when I'm on board or where I am.

This lack of audible signals is not unique to the train system. I hear, regularly, stories about audible signals at traffic lights being switched off.

This leaves people with sight loss either taking their lives into their own hands or waiting endlessly on the side of the road until somebody else arrives to respond to a request for help.

Why is it okay that I, and others, are denied information regarding our location and safety when it is always available to others? Just imagine the furore on Joe Duffy if this was a situation faced by the general public every day?

Perhaps the biggest issue is that these access systems are often installed - at public expense - but are then switched off. Systems are wonderful but services are what we need and, most of all, continuity of services.

But inequality comes in many forms. Not just with transport. In developing Disable Inequality, we carried out research with voters who were not living directly with a disability. We wanted to test the fundamental truth and principles we felt were at stake.

It became clear that it wasn't just about specific situations or issues like transport, or medical cards. For voters, it was all about a sense of inequality with a clear message that they didn't want to live in a country that doesn't treat people well.

The next Government can respond to this. It can demonstrate its ambition and commitment to equality and to the people I work with, to me, to people with disabilities everywhere by ensuring that three priorities are in the new Programme for Government:

1. The establishment of a cabinet minister for disability.

2. Fair income and work opportunities, including the end of the anomaly that means people with disabilities can't access all job activation schemes.

3. Independence, access and choice in our communities - where we live, where we vote.

The last eight years of recession have had a disproportionate and brutal impact on people with disabilities. Disable Inequality gives us an opportunity to change this.

It unites us. It gives us one, powerful, collective voice. Because when we speak with one voice, they will not just hear us - they will have to listen.

Disable Inequality is doing this by collecting stories - people's stories of the challenges and difficulties they have with living their lives as they want to.

These stories will make up a volume of evidence, which will be presented to political leaders and candidates during the general election.

Elaine Howley is a Board Member of the Disability Federation of Ireland and is CEO of NCBI Services

Irish Independent

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