Carers and their families were failed spectacularly during Covid crisis

The clamour to fight for the economic wellbeing of ‘workers’ and ‘ordinary’ people is worthwhile, but it has revealed the lowliness with which the political class regard us carers
Carers and their families were failed spectacularly during Covid crisis

Michael Mulligan, who is a carer to his sister Jodie. 'We are ordinary people, we are workers and we deserve political and economic parity.'

The pandemic has been a troubling and anxious time for everyone, but for people with disabilities and their carers it has been a hellish journey — navigating the twists and turns of lockdown as we sink ever lower in the minds of the well and able.

Just last week, those of us concerned watched Dáil proceedings as the Minister for Disabilities Anne Rabbitte defended her Government’s commitment to the sector, simultaneously admitting that she had to fight for every cent of the inadequate funding provided.

At the start we were told that we were all in this together, but if you’re honest, you — the probably able reader of this piece — know that those with disabilities and their families have been spectacularly failed by the State and by society over the course of this crisis. Much of this year’s political discourse has been debatable, but there is no version where the disabled community have been treated with parity.

There is a significant overlap between the vulnerable and the disabled population — and so, as you can imagine, the initial lockdown hit our families hard. 

Many of us couldn’t go to the shops and delivery slots for supermarkets were being greedily gobbled up by people who didn’t necessarily need them. 

For those of us with vulnerable households, this was the first glimpse of how we would continue to be treated as the pandemic continued.

Without warning, welfare payments became fortnightly rather than weekly, causing financial havoc for many vulnerable people. Bills, standing orders and direct debits had to be hastily rearranged — not an easy task for many people with an intellectual disability, who might have simply feared that they hadn’t been paid at all.

That disability services shut down at the start wasn’t a surprise — safety came first and these amenities just weren’t equipped for the safe delivery of services with the virus lurking about. As time went on though, it became clear that disability services were not a priority at all. 

You won’t find any mention of disability services on the National Framework for Living with Covid-19 that recently arrived through your door, and on that you’ll find the scant recommendations for the vulnerable and elderly right at the bottom, listed after every kind of business, building and institution.

Schools, rather than services for the disabled, are the great talisman by how our Government has chosen to measure success in the time of Covid-19. Described as “a key priority of government”, Taoiseach Micheál Martin stated that schools would remain open “to ensure that the life chances of our children were not impaired.” 

People with disabilities all over the country are suffering from extreme isolation, worsening mental health and in some cases, acute regression. If only services for disabled people had been considered as much of a priority as schools. If only their “life chances” could be spared from suffering impairment.

We are left at the back of society’s hasty and meandering queue to normality, and this is the case with social protection too. The Government’s key welfare response, the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP), was initially set at €350 to aid those who found themselves out of work due to Covid-19. I welcomed this as an appropriate response of the welfare state to people facing hardship.

But it begged the question  — why €350? Carers and people with disabilities have been subsisting on much lesser amounts of money for years and it is easily argued that the latter groups have both a greater ‘need’ and a reduced capacity to derive an income from the labour market. 

Carers in fact, are strikingly similar to those on the PUP as they often lose their jobs to an unforeseen crisis.

The difference, of course, is that carers must provide care for at least 35 hours per week in order to receive €219 — in other words, €131 less than anyone on the full rate of the PUP. Likewise, people with disabilities who receive disability allowance live on even less — just €203. 

Both payments are substantially below the €284.46 that Social Justice Ireland consider to be the poverty line.

Opposition parties have been almost unanimous in their calls for Government to restore the full rate of the PUP to those affected workers, but I ask, genuinely — if standard welfare isn’t enough to live on for the unemployed, why have carers and people with disabilities been left to languish in poverty for so many years? 

The clamour to fight for the economic well-being of ‘workers’ and ‘ordinary’ people is worthwhile, but it has revealed the lowliness with which the political class regard us.

There has been much talk about reassessing our personal and societal values in the wake of Covid-19. I welcome this, and I ask everyone, government, opposition, policymakers and the public, to stop ranking carers and people with disabilities beneath the ’worker’ or the ‘ordinary person’. 

We are ordinary people, we are workers and we deserve political and economic parity.

Whether consciously or not, as a society we seem to have accepted that poverty is a natural consequence of disability, but this isn’t true. 

It is a political choice that is made by parties and voters alike – I say we must choose better.

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