Fergus Finlay: It's inequality, not disability, that is holding back people like Calum Geary

Ireland doesn't merely tolerate inequality for people with disabilities — it insists on it. We need to cop ourselves on, listen to the Geary family, and end this shameful stupidity
Fergus Finlay: It's inequality, not disability, that is holding back people like Calum Geary

When twins Calum and Donnacha Geary and their dad Andrew appeared on 'The Late Late Show' in April, all three clearly articulated the difficulties Calum faces — not due to his deafness, but to prejudice and structural inequality. Picture: RTÉ

Andrew Geary is a garda with a distinguished record. He’s a patriot, willing to do anything in the line of duty for his country. He and his wife, Helen, have four fine-looking sons, and they are a resilient and strong family.

And he is battling what seems like insuperable odds, on behalf of one of his sons. He often says publicly — and said it to the Irish Examiner last April again — "I love my country, and I can’t understand why my country doesn’t love my son". 

I’ve never met Andrew. I’ve spoken to him on the phone, and we’ve texted several times. I want to meet him, in a particular context, and I haven’t succeeded in arranging it yet, largely because of Covid. 

Let me tell you about the context first, and then I need to tell you about our State and Andrew’s son, Calum

Working to remove barriers the State puts in place

I work with a group of public servants. We’re called an implementation group. We meet regularly, together with another smaller group of representatives of the disability community. They’re all good and highly motivated people. They have a mandate from the Government, and that mandate is a simple one.

As a group, we’re guided and advised by the National Disability Authority, and our job, essentially, is to remove as many barriers as possible between people with disabilities on the one hand, and the world of work on the other.

The work of the group has been going on for some time now, and we’ve had a number of successes and some setbacks (I’m saying setbacks because it might, with a bit of luck, be too early to label them as failures). I’m not going to go into all that here, because that’s not what this article is about.

But the reason we exist is because someone needs to implement the Government’s Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities. That strategy was drawn up because of one simple fact: If you have a disability in Ireland, it is going to be much harder for you to get a job, hold a job, or build a satisfying and fulfilling career. 

You may not ever break into the workplace if you have a disability, and you may not ever be made welcome there. But that’s not because of you. It’s because of the rest of us.

I’ve been involved with disability most of my adult life, and I’ve formed an unchangeable philosophy about it.

There was a time — and it lasted for generations — when, if you were born with a disability in Ireland, there was something wrong with you. Maybe it was something doctors could fix, but if it wasn’t it was something best left to charity. Charities would mind you, look after you. You were taught to be dependent from the earliest age. And so was your family. 

In that sense, disability carried with it a strong form of second-class citizenship. You begged for what your child needed, and you settled for whatever was readily available.

We’ve grown away from that, of course. At least we think we have. But the State gives billions of euro every year to organisations called service providers. That’s because these organisations provide services for people with disabilities. To a far too great an extent these are not services aimed at enabling and encouraging independence. They far too often promote more dependence.

But at least now, many of us recognise one thing. If you have a disability, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It means there are more barriers and obstacles than there should be between you and the fullest life that is possible for you.

That’s why the work of groups like the one I described is essentially about removing barriers. When the State recognises that part of its responsibility is to remove barriers, a lot of them are easy. Some of them are hard — because the State can draw cruel limits. There’s only so far the State will go.

And that’s why I really want my group to meet Andrew Geary and some parents like him. 

It’s not their fault we haven’t met him, it’s mine and Covid’s.

The meeting matters because Andrew Geary knows about intractable disabilities — and there are some — and he knows exactly how tough the State can be when it draws the line.

Even from a much earlier age, the State — acting on my behalf and on yours — set out to provide far better resources for Donnacha Geary (right) than for his twin brother Calum. That is not right or just or fair.
Even from a much earlier age, the State — acting on my behalf and on yours — set out to provide far better resources for Donnacha Geary (right) than for his twin brother Calum. That is not right or just or fair.

Andrew’s son, Calum, aged 12, is profoundly deaf, beyond medical intervention or cure, because he was born without an auditory nerve. He’s one of a small number of children in Ireland who may never be able to complete his education for that reason, and that’s a huge hurdle when it comes to the rest of his life.

The only thing that will make it possible is a translator, accompanying him in class, and enabling him to use his undoubted intelligence to scale that barrier.

Disabled by profound inequality

The failure of the State to provide an interpreter for a student who needs one means that Calum is now, and will be, subject not just to profound deafness, but to profound inequality. The State will of course provide second-level education, and third-level education too, to Calum’s twin brother, Donnacha. He’s just as bright as Calum but has fewer hurdles to negotiate.

You see what that means? The fewer barriers you have to cross, the more support you get. That’s the nature of the gross inequality Calum faces, and it’s an inequality only the State can remove.

Our State turns a blind eye to inequalities like this when it costs money to fix them. There may be 100 children in Ireland like Calum, whose first language is sign language. It wouldn’t break the bank to make certain they all have access to education in their primary language, but we — Ireland, that is — don’t apparently want to do it. There’s a small cost, and huge benefits. But that doesn’t seem to matter.

We haven't tolerated inequality. We've insisted on it

Back in 2009, an equality officer found that the State was illegally discriminating against a different boy with a twin brother. One twin had an intellectual disability, the other didn’t. The twin with an intellectual disability (surprise, surprise) needed more time to complete second-level education. But he was ordered out of school on his 18th birthday because that was State policy. His twin, without an intellectual disability, would remain welcome in school until he was ready to leave.

That wasn’t an example of discrimination and inequality that the State tolerated. It was an inequality the State insisted on. It is still public policy that the State’s commitment to the constitutional right to an education ends at the age of 18 — but the only people who ever suffer from that are people with disabilities. Not just cruel, but mad.

Time to end the State's shameful behaviour

I understand that Calum’s family are thinking of risking everything on a legal challenge to this gross inequality. It mustn’t come to that. Calum faces enormous barriers. Despite his courage and determination, he needs Ireland’s help to climb them.

Our State must see that, and act. Get rid of the barriers in Calum’s way, and in the way of others, and our State opens up a world of potential based on equal citizenship.

Refuse, and our State deserves nothing but shame for callousness and stupidity.

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