‘They must stop punishing people with disabilities — disability is not a crime’

Leigh Gath isn’t looking for an easy life — just a bit of fair play.

She never had it easy, anyway.

A thalidomide survivor born without arms or legs, she knows what it takes in physical, mental, and emotional toil to keep going day to day.

For her, and many more who live with disabilities, the personal assistance scheme that began in the 1990s was fair play, a godsend that ensured a measure of independent living.

Now that is being eroded to the point of non-existence.

“It is just ludicrous,” she says of the Government’s decision to slash funding for one of the most cost-effective medical services on offer.

“The number of cuts over the last four years has been horrendous and now the Government wants to make an appalling situation even worse. It doesn’t even make economic sense. Without a personal assistance service, disabled people like myself have two choices: Stay at home without even being able to out of bed or become institutionalised.

“Neither choice is acceptable. The Government must wake up to the fact that helping disabled people to live independent lives is very cost effective and makes sense in so many ways.

“These cuts are illogical, and counter to Government policy. They will increase costs to the exchequer and will deny people basic fundamental rights to live with dignity and choice.”

The trouble is that the Government and Department of Health do not appear to be listening.

Leigh and her fellow travellers are planning to change that, descending on Government Buildings in Dublin today to make their voices heard. She is part of a non-aligned group of people with disabilities who use personal assistance services and have formed a leaders’ alliance.

“There are a lot of very frightened disabled people in Ireland at the minute,” says Leigh, who plans to protest with her son Karl, 17, on the day the Cabinet meets for the first time since the summer recess.

“We are not asking for a lot, just to let our personal assistants do their job. I have no arms or legs and get around on a powered wheelchair. I have someone for 11 hours a week, which is not a lot, but it makes such a difference. She helps prepare the dinner, change the beds, as well as helping me shower and wash my hair.”

Her husband, also a thalidomide survivor, doesn’t need that kind of assistance. Although he has no legs, he has long arms and is able to use a push wheelchair.

“The Government is saying they will look on needs on a case-by-case basis but this is ludicrous, as anyone in receipt of personal assistance has already shown clearly that they need it,” says Leigh.

She accuses the Government of trying to use scare tactics by suggesting that the cuts must be imposed because people are refusing to pay household charges.

“This is a ridiculous notion and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are simply testing the water with these cuts to see if there is going to be a backlash or not.”

If so, the powers that be may be in for a shock as Leigh and other protesters are determined to stay as long as is needed to get the message across.

“I am going with my son and I don’t know if we will be there for a few hours, days, weeks, months or whatever. My husband ... can’t come but Karl and I will remain outside Government Buildings until the Government sees sense.

“They must stop punishing people with disabilities because disability is not a crime.

“The first lot of cuts meant that services were cut by around 15%. The madness must stop.”

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