While I have been silent for a long while, I have been busy. One of the most popular decisions in the Fingal People’s Programme was providing better working opportunities for the disabled. Right around the same time we closed the People’s Programme, I received an invitation to “Making It Work: Employment and People with Disabilities” run by the Disability Federation of Ireland. I decided that I would start by attending this conference in order to give myself a better idea of the present state of affairs.
I’m glad I went, because the outcomes were really crystal-clear, and gave me a very definite idea of where we need to be going on this issue. Here are the main points that surfaced:
- The current system that provides benefits to people with disabilities is a labyrinthine mess of bureaucracy, lacking transparency. The various forms of benefit (eg. invalidity pension, partial capacity benefit, illness benefit, disability allowance) are not joined up, there can be enormous delays in transferring from one type of benefit to another, and people are afraid that they will lose their benefits if they start working. This is particularly worrisome, as a disability may incur significant medical costs, and some disabilities can recur in an unpredictable manner, eg. those brought on by MS.
- As Vivian Rath, who spoke at the conference said “[e]mploying people with disabilities is not charity, it makes sense”. However, in an environment where many able people are also unemployed or underemployed, it is increasingly difficult for those with disabilities to find opportunities, as potential employers frequently underestimate them.
- Work gives meaning to life. Enforced idleness takes a toll on mental health and leaves people feeling helpless.
- Anyone can become disabled in the blink of an eye. Actually no one at the conference mentioned this. It just occurred to me over the course of the day that we tend to think a lot in terms of ‘disabled’ and ‘not disabled’ while ignoring the fact that there is a lot of movement between the two. Despite one of my friends having been paralyzed in a car accident as a teenager, I, like many people, tend to block this possibility out of my mind. Why? Because it’s just too terrible to think about.
But we have to ask ourselves as a society, why is something that can happen to anyone through no fault of their own such a tragedy above and beyond the physical impact? Perhaps we like to believe that we are more in control of our lives than we are. But anyone could suffer a stroke, or develop a brain tumour or be hit in the eye from a stone thrown off a vehicle. In the case of my friend, the driver of the car was not driving recklessly. In fact, it was a minor accident that through a freak occurrence damaged her spinal cord on impact. It could have happened to anyone.
While medical progress has been amazing, there are still some things we cannot undo at this point in time. But wouldn’t it be wonderful – were a tragedy to strike – if the technical impact of the disability were the only thing you had to contend with? Wouldn’t it give us all a great sense of security to know that if you lost your sight, e.g. through macular degeneration, you’d lose your sight (bad enough, I think we can all agree), but not necessarily your entire career, ability to provide for your family, etc? It would just make you feel so much better every day to know that, right? So, purely selfishly, we should all be supporting this.
- Something that I was unable to ignore at the conference was the fact that the downfalls of the present disability system were beyond well-known to the vast majority of participants. Many of the people I spoke to felt that such events were little more than a talking shop that merely reiterated what everyone already knew, but attended because it was a good opportunity to meet other people working in their field. In other words, there is no great mystery here about what needs to be done. It is purely a matter of political will. Since that will obviously does not exist on a national level at the moment, I will be pursuing how we can make improvements through local organizations for the foreseeable future.
- I was able to do some networking of my own during the group working session portion of the conference, as it seems like everyone from Fingal gravitated to the ‘transportation’ discussion group. Here I met the Fingal Disability Network (check out their FB page here), who told me about some of the issues they face in taking public transport, such as the fact that many Bus Éireann buses are not equipped for wheelchair access, and that people with large prams often already occupy the space on Dublin Bus (and as we all know, Dublin Bus doesn’t come around very often).
I will continue to update on my efforts on this point. If anyone would like to work on this with me, please feel free to get in touch.