It has been a busy month.
When the Paralympics began I like many other people with disabilities wondered what the impact would be on the attitudes of the general public, primarily whether messages of rights and equality and respect would outweigh expressions of pity and sympathy.
I didn’t know that during the Paralympics in Ireland we would see the single most important action by people with disabilities against a government decision whilst our Paralympians were putting in record performances in London.
The discussions about the decision to cut Personal Assistant hours, home help and home care packages continued over the month with more attention given to policy and place of people with disabilities in Irish society. (Opinion piece by Donal Toolan in the Irish Times and analysis by Deaglan De Bradun are still worth reading.)
This government have failed to equality and poverty proof the measures they have taken since coming into office. When I have called for discussion regarding equality and rights based measures I’ve been told by politicians and analysts alike that these things are not important. Despite pointing out that there may be opportunities to save money and improve the quality of life of many people with disabilities by both listening to people with disabilities and their supporters and including them in the decisions, reform has remained off the government agenda.
Labour Party politicians in particular point to the protection of primary social welfare payments as an example of how they have protected the most vulnerable. What the demonstration and turn around has shown is the equal importance of services for many in maintaining a quality of life and inclusion in society.
Before that protest I watched Inside the Department where ministers and advisors and civil servants appeared to spend more time talking about how something would look rather than the substance of any policy area. I am sure that there are serious discussions held on policy areas and indeed we saw discussions with the sectoral interests but they appeared to be going through the motions.
I didn’t see any passion or any values (beyond those of spin) during the programme. Throughout this government I have seen championing of small moves and u-turns as huge victories by the Labour Party. However equality and rights have been replaced by the insipid mantra of ‘fairness’ with no interest in examining what is fair and how you measure it. When the cuts to HSE funded home supports were initially announced there was largely silence apart from Colm Keaveney and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.
Politicians talk about how they know about ‘these people’ when asked about people who use Personal Assistants and home helps – largely however people are seen as clients or people who attend TD’s offices not as those who live full lives. The failure to introduce rights based legislation in 2005 is largely ignored, the failure to conduct assessments of need remains unspoken. Those who live in congregated settings are not mentioned. In the past 12 months Disability has been spoken as a drain on the public finances, in terms of those in receipt of social welfare payments and the services which we are provided with.
Earlier this year Minister Kathleen Lynch held a listening exercise with people with disabilities, the results of which have yet to be published. From my table I heard people talk about transport, the environment, equipment, assistance to access communities and employment and education. I also heard people who are employed talk about the cost of medication, transport, increased energy costs and how they receive no support towards these. There was very little talk about social welfare, this is not to say that income is unimportant, however services and supports, the respect and opportunity they afford and how they are provided are clearly very important as we could see by the efforts of those who protested at government buildings this month.
I was asked at the time if I thought the protests by people with disabilities was this governments ‘medical card’ moment – referring to the previous decision to cut medical card entitlements for some older people. I said no. I didn’t think this will damage the government fundamentally. I do think however that for people with disabilities and their interaction with government that something has changed. The general public have seen people with disabilities at home and abroad in a new light. Elite athletes competing for their country and themselves and people with disabilities ‘putting it up’ to the government over cuts to services.
Those who were present at Paralympic events were invited to stand if they could at the medal ceremonies. At home many others stood with people with disabilities while they said that they would not return to the institution be that a formal or informal (family care) one.
The government have this week been damaged again by politics over policy, politics over passion as Róisín Shortall resigned after months of difficulty and a lack of commitment to policy, transparency and accountability by her own party and their partner in government. Senior ministers trot out excuses about the country having lost it’s economic sovereignty – however for many living in this country values, dignity and respect remain important.
It appears that these dilemmas of values and policy and resisting reform and no more looking after number one have evaded senior members of the Labour Party. They are locked into a programme for government and repayments to gamblers and bullheaded senior ministers who can get on with no-one which leads to 44 people being held captive in acute hospital settings when they do not need that care for the past six months and hundreds of others for weeks and months on end. The country continues to be in a shambles economically and morally. We’ve had resignations before but Róisín Shortall’s is very different from the likes of Willie Penrose – she opposed a decision being taken to feather Reilly’s electoral bed and she criticised the lack of commitment to the Programme for Government including free GP care for the most ill, care in the community for the most vulnerable. Equality, fairness, values and passion from someone who could stand.