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How the disabled are left on their shelf

There are 350,000 people with disabilities among our population. Disability affects 25 to 30 per cent of the population. That's a lot of votes, and yet the government does little or nothing, says Paddy Doyle

The present government has not, contrary to what many people in the disability ‘industry' would like us to believe, been good for people with disabilities, for their families or friends. Undoubtedly, Bertie Ahern and his colleagues in government will trot out lines about the great strides made by his government on behalf of "the disabled", but those of us with disabilities and those who work or have worked in that field know the reality is very different.

So why are things no better now than they were five or ten years ago? The government has formally ‘committed' itself to implement the recommendations of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, ‘A Strategy for Equality', a report hailed by many as being one of the greatest insights into disability and people with disabilities ever published in the entire world.

However, as with so many reports relating to people with disabilities, it appears the government has in reality decided to shelve this one. There is no full minister at the cabinet table who directly represents people with disabilities, despite the huge numbers of people whose lives disability affects. A Strategy for Equality estimates that there are approximately 350,000 people with disabilities in Ireland. When families are added to this, the number of people affected by disability can be safely estimated to be close to a million or more. Based on current population figures, disability affects 25% to 30% of people in Ireland, directly and indirectly.

It is often said that the hearts of various and successive government ministers are in the right place. This is an anatomical fact, and must be interpreted only as such. It is also a fact of life that "having a heart" does not move the barriers - and not just physical barriers - encountered by those with disabilities forward one proverbial inch.

While the government and a sizeable proportion of the population saw the ‘Special Olympics' as a turning point for people with disabilities, the real beneficiaries of the games were large financial institutions, motor car dealers and various other corporate bodies. The games are long since over and little if anything is now heard of people with disabilities except when a social worker or psychologist decides that parents are not capable of minding their own sons or daughters and take them into ‘care'. Unemployment rates among people with disabilities are nothing short of scandalous, standing as they currently do over 70%. Even the casual observer can see that discrimination against people on the basis of a disability is alive and well in Ireland.

While quota systems for the employment of disabled people exist, they are not underpinned by legislation and thus are meaningless. I've lived with disability for over 40 years and despite the pious platitudes of governments and others I still find I am at the bottom of the social pile and often relegated to the status of second-class citizen. It is now time that a constitutional referendum was held which would make it a criminal offence to discriminate against a person with a disability on any grounds.

In recent years there has been much talk about an improvement in services to people with disabilities. On close examination it is not hard to see that these ‘improvements' in services are nothing but a figment of someone's over-active imagination. I have been waiting for more than four years for neurological services — of any kind. Other people with physical disabilities, who need services such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy or speech therapy within their own community, find such services as difficult to find as rocking horse manure. It is not unusual for people to have to wait anything from six months to a year to be ‘assessed' for a wheelchair, let alone get the actual chair.

The frustration brought about by not being able to avail of services essential to ensuring the best possible quality of life to a person with a disability is everyday, long-lasting and intense. Meanwhile, quality of life deteriorates and depression sets in, compounding an already difficult situation and further diminishing quality of life.

Much needs to happen to enhance the lives of people with disabilities and their families. The process must begin immediately, as further procrastination can only further marginalise a very sizeable group of people who have had merely minimal attention to their needs from this society for far too long.

And in case you think it is no concern of yours, don't forget that disability is not confined to those of us who already have disabilities. It can happen to anyone — it can be the result of an accident, or the onset of conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease or dystonia. Disability is, too, part of the ageing process. It's pretty hard to escape, really.



Paddy Doyle is a former winner of the People Of The Year award. He has suffered with idiopathic torsion dystonia since the age of nine, an incurable condition which produces frequent — almost continuous — muscle spasms. He is author of a best-selling autobiography, The God Squad, and maintains an informative and amusing internet presence at www.paddydoyle.com His e-mail is [email protected]


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