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"My Opinion My Vote" report with Michael Gannon

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

'My Opinion My Vote' is a Grundtvig Multilateral Project financed by the 'Lifelong Learning Programme for European Education, Audiovisual & Culture Agency'. The project aims to empower people with learning disabilities through active citizenship and participation in political elections.

The other members of the delegation are:

Orla Hannon, Sixemile Bridge Co. Clare
Declan Murphy, Waterford
Cathy Soden, Dundrum, Dublin
John Sweetnam, Cork
David Clarke, Drogheda.

Michael Gannon aged 29 has Down Syndrome and is from Newbridge Co. Kildare.
Michael has never let his disability hold him back from his ambitions, despite sometimes negative public reaction. He holds a FETAC level 2 Certificate in Acting Skills and Techniques & Performance Craft.
Michael volunteers at the Kildare branch of Down Syndrome Ireland. He has volunteered in the Ark Theatre and has been an extra in Fair City. He is involved with Newbridge Pantomime Group and the local musical society. He is currently representing Ireland on the European voter education training project (MOTE)

Grainne Murphy National Resource Team Down Syndrome Ireland. Grainne was also in Budapest with Michael.

Can you explain what "My Opinion My Vote" is all about?

My Opinion My Vote is European project involving six European countries.
The overriding purpose of the My Opinion, My Vote (MOTE) project is to make people with learning disabilities more aware of their political rights and to create better opportunities for them to exercise these rights. It is based on the premise that all citizens should have an equal opportunity to exercise active political influence but with a learning disability population this is not the case.

How did Ireland get involved?

The Down Syndrome National organisation in Italy have a long working relationship with Down Syndrome Ireland mainly through Mr. Pat Clarke. Dr. Paola Vulterini of the Italian association came up with the concept for MOTE about 2 - 3 years ago and built a project team through five other national organisations and sought funding from the European Commission.

What other countries are involved?

Italy, Malta, Hungary, Spain & Denmark

You addressed the parliament officials in Hungary what did you get to speak to them about?

I spoke about the current situation in Ireland.

Irish legislation does not deal with the question of voters with intellectual or learning disabilities. The common law has held that a person must have the legal capacity to vote. In general, legal capacity involves the ability to understand the nature and consequence of the act of voting. There is no system in place for assessing legal capacity.

Therefore, all Irish citizens aged 18 years and over have the right to vote in Ireland. However, we are in relatively unchartered waters in Ireland at present in that the number of people with learning disability coming through mainstream education is ever increasing and thus there are a large number of electors with LD who are aware of their rights and are demanding more in terms of third level and employment opportunities etc. The state as of yet have not addressed this group as a minority group in that they do not provide public or political information that is linguistically accessible to the group.

I also explained how far Ireland had come in the past 20 - 30 years, in that people with LD are attending mainstream education up to the age of 18 and in some cases people are entering into employment and are integrated fully into community life.

Is this project unique to Europe?

It endeavors to promote that people with Disabilities have a right to political participation not solely in relation to disability issues but all issues i.e. environment, economy etc. As such promoting the language accessibility of political & public information is of paramount importance to the project. The project does therefore not assume that people with disabilities are only interested in disability issues. The project is also unique in that he advises people with LD & their families that the movement for change has to come from them.

What are the objectives of the project?

. To investigate how extensive the exercising of political rights is in the six member states. To investigate the European/national/local citizenship awareness of people with ld and to identify examples of good practice
. To design, develop and test an education programme (on people with learning disabilities and professionals together) comprising two modules containing ten education units.
. To set up a European pilot group of adults with learning disabilities who will meet three times and contribute to the design and testing of project outcomes.
. To launch an awareness raising campaign, utilising specific tools to address people with learning disabilities themselves, their carers, professionals, decision makers, and political parties.
. To foster dissemination and exploitation of results to as many people with learning disabilities as possible, through setting up a European centre for the exercising of political rights of people with learning disabilities.

Where is the funding coming from?

Grundvig lifelong living & learning programme (part of The European Commission) are funding approx 75% and Down Syndrome Ireland the remaining 25% for the Irish participation in the project.

Michael tell us about your experiences in Budapest:

I had a great experience in Budapest. We met with the five other countries - Spain, Hungary, Malta, Italy, and Denmark and of course Ireland.

First of all we did a presentation on Living with a Disability in Ireland including the political rights we have.

We heard from all the other countries about what it is like for them.

In Hungary for example if you have a disability you cannot vote because their rights have been taken away from them. They are what are called interdicted. This can happen without anybody meeting them or knowing who they are. Anybody can go to court and say that a person is not able to make their own decisions. The court then appoints a guardian. The court decides who the guardian is. George, who was with us was not allowed to vote in the last election. He cannot get a disability allowance because it is paid to his guardian. Only after all this happens is the person with disability told.

We went to the Parliament and met politicians from different parties.
We explained to them about the MOTE programme which is short for My Opinion My Vote. George told them about his life in Hungary. He was very upset not to be allowed to vote. Monique from Italy told them about her life in Italy and the education programme. She told the politicians that we are good people and should be allowed to vote. Paola, the leader from Italy explained all about the education programme. Grainne the leader from Ireland and Laura the leader from Denmark also explained how life is for people with disability in their countries. The politicians reacted in a positive way by listening to us.

We visited the office of the ombudsman. Again we spoke about the rights of people with disability. They told us they are trying to change the situation.

We visited the Down Foundation in Budapest. This is a place for people with disabilities to work and learn things. Here we learned that at the age of 14 years you are no longer allowed to go to school. So their rights to an education have been taken away. At 14 they have to stay at home and live with their parents or go to a workshop. The workshop was ok but I would not like to be there every day.

In the MOTE education programme we split up in groups and talked about politics. Referendum and Petition were the subjects we talked about. We did role play.

Tell me about the MOTE Programme - My opinion My Vote

How did you become involved?
Through Down Syndrome Ireland. They did a training programme telling us about voting and our political rights. We went to Cork University with Dr Mary Murphy. She gave us a lecture on voting and human rights. We met Colm Burke who is a member of the European Parliament.

You visited Brussels I believe?
We went to Brussels and we met Maread McGuinness and visited European Parliament and European Commission. We learned about voting. The second phase of the programme was in Budapest, Hungary. Our team had to do a presentation on Living with a Disability in Ireland. It was about our lives and our rights as a citizen.

Did you learn anything different about the other countries?
Yes , in Hungary if you have a disability you cannot vote in the elections because their rights have been taken away. They have been interdicted by the court. That means that their rights have been taken away. A guardian is appointed for them.

Tell me about George?
George who was with us in Hungary was very upset because he couldn't get married, he got no disability allowance and he couldn't vote. A guardian was appointed for him and nobody spoke to him about it.

Did you meet any politicians in Hungary?
In the Hungarian Parliament we met the politicians. Monique from Italy told them about her life and the MOTE programme. George from Hungary, told them about his rights being taken away because he was interdicted by the courts. The leaders spoke about the MOTE programme and asked them to think about the situation in Hungary for people with disability.

Where else did you visit in Hungary?
I visited the Down Foundation. I learned that at fourteen years of age there is no schools allowed if you have a disability. So you have to stay at home with your parents or go into a centre and work there.

What did you think of the centre you saw?
They were making key rings and jewellery.

Tell me about your visit to the Ombudsman's office.
This is the office you go to if you have a complaint about your rights. We spoke about the rights of people with disability in Hungary.

What are they trying to do for people like George?
They said they are trying to change the situation for people like George.

Do you vote Michael?
Yes, I vote in all the elections and in the referendum.

How do you learn who to vote for?
I read the information from the politicians, and on the internet and on television. Then I make up my mind.

Is it difficult for some people with a disability to vote?
Sometimes people with a disability can't read so they need help to explain what the politicians are saying.

What happens at the end of the project?
At the end of the project an education programme will be put on the internet. We have another visit to Rome to finalise the programme.