Opinion: it's time for people with disabilities to stop living in the shadows of others

In an historical moment in 1992, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed December 3rd to the the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This was done in a bid to increase awareness, and understanding, of disability issues, and to highlight the gains to be derived from the integration and inclusion of people in all aspects of political, social, economic and cultural life.

It's a day to celebrate the abilities and achievements of individual across the world. But while the celebration of this day is an important tool in promoting human rights, an international day on its own is not going to redress the discrimination which people often face within their own community.

From United Nations ESCAP, marking International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2019

Segregated spaces and lives wasted in institutional care have sadly been the historical experience of persons with disabilities in Ireland for years. Whilst things have improved during the last few decades, aided by the philosophies of normalisation and social inclusion, our role as a nation in combating discrimination and promoting inclusion and social justice has been limited. We must constantly continue to strive to galvanise a societal reform by de-emphasising the characteristics of impairment and elevating the importance of the presence of individuals in ordinary spaces enjoying the rhythms of community life.

The shift from segregated facilities to community settings did not automatically lead to social inclusion. Supporting individuals to achieve their goals and dreams has been far more positively achieved through social and human rights based models as opposed to the traditional medical model approach. It has been argued that reducing the number of people experiencing exclusion from mainstream society is the unifying principle of social policy. Sadly, the community status of some people with disabilities is to be physically close yet emotionally feeling like socially distant strangers.

Research identifies that pathways to a good life can be found by supporting institutional change within providers of vocational education and training programmes, third level colleges and universities and labour market opportunities so equal and equitable access becomes a reality. We must strengthen the capacity of such organisations to combat discrimination, to promote equality and to accommodate diversity. December 3rd must be used as an opportunity for us to compel the government to move from policy statements into action.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli show, the Irish Wheelchair Association and National Rehabilitation Hospital's Mark Berry on disability etiquette and awareness

The theme for this year's International Day of Persons with Disabilities, is building back better. In essence we are being challenged to create a post Covid-19 world that is inclusive, accessible and sustainable for those with disabilities.

But why are Ireland's current disability policies and strategies not key drivers of this change? Quite simply, policy analysis is focused on what is achieved and fails to capture and acknowledge the existence of abstinence, delay, waiting and other inertia. It also seems acceptable at every election to trot out the dated mantra that 'much more needs to be done' if we are to improve living standards and opportunities for people with a disability, without ever actually being held accountable for failing to put the steps in place.

We need to ask who are the political gatekeepers that are able to determine what issues or proposals will or will not feature on any governmental disability agenda. This is an extremely important question, because how gatekeepers view disability issues informs policy, which in turn logically should affect practice.

For far too many years, people with disabilities have lived in the shadows of others

People with disabilities are sick of being fobbed off with pre-election promises with limited execution. It is high time that inaction is challenged by decentralising political power and supporting the voice of the person with lived experience to influence political decisions. Public policy analysis needs to develop a more robust understanding and sophisticated evaluation of inaction. Let us not continue the momentum of missed opportunities and diversity and inclusion failures.

We are currently at the cusp of a society where the voice of the person with lived experience may finally be heard. The powerful impact of individuals embracing disability identity and organising and advocating for disability rights is beginning to gain momentum. There is no stronger advocate than a self-advocate who has the appropriate support to create solutions for challenges that they experience by having a sense of ownership, power and control over their own situation and life.

For far too many years, people with disabilities have lived in the shadows of others. We need to remove the social policy tokenism within the disability political discourse and consider self-advocacy as a policy option through which the citizenship of people with disabilities can be asserted. Because, quite simply, disability matters.   


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ