According to the 2016 Census, there were over 643,000 people living in Ireland with a disability. That means 13.5 per cent, or one in seven people in Ireland with a disability. Data from 2015 told us that 132,000 people with disabilities were living in consistent poverty.
I can only imagine what that figure is now. For too long successive governments have failed to adequately fund resources that assist and support people with disabilities to live a life of decency, respect, and independence.
As a married father with three teenage boys, I know the hardships that come with raising a family while being disabled. For 38 years I lived the life of an able-bodied person. For the last 10 years, I have been living the life of a disabled person. Those last 10 years changed my life dramatically from a physical, emotional, and financial perspective.
I wasn’t able to work in the job I had prior to my accident because of the physicality involved. Emotionally, I was having (and still do occasionally ) persistent nightmares about that fatal accident that left me in a pool of my own blood, bleeding out, thinking I would never get to kiss my wife and tell my children goodbye.
The deafening sound of an accidental gun discharge that would result in 13 operations to save my life...the 14th to amputate. Weeks of rehabilitation ensued where I would learn to walk again, this time with a prosthetic. Session after session of counselling to help me deal with all the after effects of the accident.
And then one day, that was it. Mounting financial pressures such as school bills, mortgage payments, heating, electricity, the list goes on... I found myself in a place of deep despair and emotional solitude.
Thanks to my loving wife, wonderful children, and my local community, I found purpose again. Since becoming a local councillor and Deputy Mayor of County Galway, I have been privileged to hear the stories and meet so many members of the disability community that share my journey, but also concerns.
These concerns relate to resources and supports that enable them to live like any other able-bodied person, to be meaningful contributors to society, and realise their potential like everyone else.
For far too long successive governments have failed to adequately resource our disability sector, to prioritise disabled people in the same way bankers and bondholders were prioritised during the 2008 Financial Crisis, and to elevate the voices of our grassroots disability activists who exist right across our country. The lack of visible representation in national politics is a reflection of the marginalisation people with disabilities face every day.
From Inclusion Ireland to Social Justice Ireland, Budget 2020 failed to significantly improve the lives of our most vulnerable. Budget 2020, however, is only the latest budget in a long line of government budgets to have fallen dramatically below acceptable terms for those of us in the disability community.
The invisibility of our pain and frustrations is only further compounded by the lack of meaningful action at a national level to ensure those of us on the fringes of society have the tools, resources, trainings, and supports to realise our potential.
Looking at the Framework Document recently released by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, whilst recognising that document is more aspirational and seeks to invite additional voices to further conversation surrounding a Programme for Government, it must be pointed out that there are still some considerable gaps:
1. People with disabilities are four times more likely to be unemployed than their able-bodied counterparts. Additionally, 31 per cent of working age people with a disability were at work compared to 71 per cent of those without a disability. Therefore, it is vital that any further discussions involving a Programme for Government include hard numbers as to how the incoming government will prioritise those with disabilities and specific measures the incoming government will take in relation to getting more people with disabilities into the workplace.
2. Article 28 of the UNCRPD recognises the right of people with disabilities to have an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families. In Ireland,132,000 people with disabilities were living in consistent poverty in 2015. Five years on, it is paramount that the UNCRPD underpins every piece of legislation that directly affects those with disabilities. That means any action taken by the incoming government should not negatively affect people with disabilities (i.e. equality proofing budgets ). Furthermore, any incoming government must explore and take action with a greater sense of urgency, immediate measures that can be taken to increase independent living for those with disabilities.
3. Rural connectivity is a stark reminder of the disparities between urban and rural areas. Not only that, but people with physical disabilities living in rural isolation face unique and extremely difficult challenges. The National Broadband Plan (NBP ) has been a disaster since day one with a litany of issues making the rollout almost impossible. Since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak with restrictions on social movement implemented, the marginalisation and social isolation of rural Ireland has become more stark. The current COVID-19 social and physical restrictions that able-bodied people are currently experiencing should also serve as a living example of what people with disabilities face each and every day. The incoming government m5ust realise, accept, and make tangible efforts to combat these issues without delay.
My message and appeal to the incoming government, whomever that may be, is simple: People with disabilities have the ability to contribute to our communities. Encourage our participation in society. Acknowledge us. Support us. Count us in.
Gabe Cronnelly is a disability activist and Independent Councillor for the Athenry-Oranmore municipal district. He is also currently serving as Deputy Mayor of County Galway.