Frank Conaty: No going back to reduced rights for people with disabilities

Frank Conaty: No going back to reduced rights for people with disabilities

The pandemic may usher in an even more unfair society for people with disabilities, a scenario that must be strongly resisted, writes Frank Conaty

Frank Conaty: No going back to reduced rights for people with disabilities
Blind man walking with a cane

The future is a place of concern for most of us in these extraordinary times. However, for people with disabilities, the future is a very uncertain place.

Many people with disabilities who have underlying health conditions are facing the prospect not just of being locked down for weeks, but, in fear of basic survival, are envisaging a self-isolation period stretching to months and even into 2021.

However, beyond the immediate focus on the challenges thrown up by the current crisis, there is a deeper and longer-term fear that for people with disabilities, Covid-19 will see a turning back of the clock on their participation as equals in our society.

The Disability Advisory Committee of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission recently convened to consider the current response to the virus. 

This expert group, the majority of whom are disabled people, articulated clearly their fear of a rolling back of their autonomy, an erosion of their independence and effectively being ‘re-institutionalised’ in their own homes. 

They also pointed to the risk of a return to outdated attitudes towards people with disabilities. Specifically, seeing disabled people through a medical prism as patients to be ‘treated’, and a ‘burden’ on society, rather than autonomous individuals who will contribute to Ireland’s recovery. This could be the lingering and lamentable legacy of Covid for disabled people.

As Chair of this Disability Advisory Committee, it is clear from listening to its members that people with disabilities have serious and immediate concerns about how they are to be facilitated in responding to the exceptional COVID measures, and to the potential barriers they may face in accessing necessary health and other supports. Their fears, however, run beyond the immediate threats from the virus.

The history of how people with disabilities have been treated in this country is one that chronicles abuse, neglect, stigma, and inequality. In recent times, positive gains have been made to move away from this past.

These gains have been waymarked by important events such as the landmark Report of the Commission on the Status of Persons with Disabilities in Ireland (1996), the enactment – however flawed and incomplete – of the Disability Act 2005 and subsequent additional legislative initiatives. 

These culminated in Ireland’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2018, albeit as the very last EU State to do so, and with significant and continuing opt-outs.

While material gaps and shortcomings in Ireland’s approach to supporting people with disabilities remain, and in society’s treatment of their fellow citizens, we have, nevertheless, made progress in the move from an old charitable, medical model of support for people with disabilities, towards a more holistic rights-based perspective, supporting people to live inclusive, independent lives.

As a society, every one of us is having to live with exceptional disruption to our own normality: to work, to education, to elective medical treatment, to exercise, to our social lives, even to the right to move around freely. 

However, in having to accept ‘temporary’ roll backs of how they are facilitated in accessing and expressing their rights in a time of COVID, people with disabilities are pointing to the vulnerability of the gains they fought hard to win.

Roll backs that include being asked to be ‘dependent’ once again for basic living requirements. Roll backs that include being excluded from important public health information and announcements, because they are not in an accessible format. 

Roll backs that include having their access to vital personal assistants curtailed. Roll backs that include having their needs bundled in with overall health services. 

But what role does the health service have in getting a student back to university, or an employee back into their workplace, or an artist back into their studio or an athlete back training?

People with disabilities are often described as ‘vulnerable’. Intrinsically they are not, but are often rendered so by systems vulnerable to retrenchment, neglect, or erosion. 

This crisis has rapidly revealed just how vulnerable the gains, and the systems and supports which underpin the autonomy and independence of people with disabilities, still are. At significant risk are people with disabilities, and others, in congregated settings who do not have the capacity to live on their own or advocate for themselves.

These are exceptional times. As a democracy, the Irish people have agreed that we need exceptional measures. But we all expect and will demand the return of our personal liberties, and to hold once again those small but precious freedoms we miss so much at the moment.

People with disabilities also expect that their personal Covid sacrifices will see them returned to a society which sees them as equal participants, playing their part in Ireland’s recovery, and as valued drivers of our future creativity and success as a nation. This is not something we owe. It is not a favour. 

Participation and human dignity is their right. If we are all in this together, it is essential that we all come out of it the same way.

* Dr. Frank Conaty, Commission Member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and Chair of the Disability Advisory Committee 

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