GERARD HOWLIN: People with disabilities need jobs, not condescension and handouts

LAST Saturday, the Irish State re-enacted the oration of Padraig Pearse at the graveside of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa

Invidiously, there are those for whom the declamatory refrain that “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace” is a reality about to be re-enacted again. Their colonisation is set to be reinforced by the sympathy and consideration of the Irish state.

It’s funny how some principles are free, but others come at a cost we won’t pay. In February, 2011, three days before the last general election, Miriam O’Callaghan, on RTÉ, in the final leader’s debate, put forward three key social issues to Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and Micheál Martin. They were: gay marriage, a children’s referendum and disability. The party leaders were fulsome in their commitments on disability.

Since then, we have had successful referenda on equal marriage and children’s rights. They are landmarks for equality and mark cultural change, the full impact of which will take years, maybe decades, to unfold. Critically, both were successfully sold on the basis of including the disenfranchised in the rights the majority already enjoy. Voters in those referenda were overwhelmingly straight, able-bodied adults.

There was a lot at stake for vulnerable children, and for gay people. Part of the learning curve of Irish society is that extended families, and communities, include vulnerable children and gay people. The mainstream was opened up and that is mature. But for all the talk, people with disability remain outside the normal narrative. Condescension and sympathy are as corrosive as discrimination.

Resources for the disabled are important, but only the tip of the iceberg. Attitude is central. We all remain mutually belittled in a ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude. Horrified that ‘they’ are not properly taken care of, we overlook what is fundamental. There is no ‘them’, only ‘us’. ‘They’ don’t want to be taken care of. The care agenda is a means of ‘us’ othering ‘them’, and simultaneously feeling good about ourselves. It is the suffocating sentimentality of some people, infantilising others.

Our continuous ‘othering’ of people who are different is a condescending, corrosive social apartheid. Many disabilities are lifelong, not temporary. But the difference itself is only temporary. Very few of us will be fully able-bodied, or free of cognitive impairment, all of our lives. God always forgives, man sometimes, nature never.

Two of the key drivers of dependence, and all it entails, for people with a disability, are unemployment and poverty. Being disabled in Ireland means you are, if not incapable, deemed less capable. Your place in public policy is to be cared for and maintained, rather than enabled, by our health and social protection systems. It’s different for the rest of us, the temporarily able. The policy objective for us is to get us educated, get us a job, and get us on our way. The expectation is that we work, we contribute, and live independently with as few supports as possible, for as long as possible. Periodically unemployed or sick, we fall back on the system, if we have to.

That sense of self-sufficiency gives ‘us’ a false sense of being different from ‘them’. It is very recent, indeed, that women were almost absent from the workforce and gay people were invisible everywhere. But have a disability, and the chances are that your abilities will count for much less. Your chance of accessing higher education, or a job at any level, are hugely diminished. Your job is to be dependent, and maintained at survival levels by our health and social protection system.

This is the reason for the unending arguments about resources in the public conversation around disability. When it’s all there is, it’s everything.

And public resources are very important. The ESRI estimated, in 2014, that living with a disability in Ireland can have extra costs ranging from €207 to €276 per week. The Disability Federation of Ireland shows that families in which the head of the household is unemployed due to chronic illness or disability are among the poorest in the country. Of those not at work due to disability or illness, 53% experience enforced deprivation, an increase of 30% since 2008. It’s a misery index. It’s a trap that inculcates dependence, and leaves those who must be supported sharing resources with those who, if they got a hand, could get on.

It’s astonishing that we have a national jobs strategy targeting unemployment blackspots, but we have no mainstream jobs policy for the most endemic jobs blackspot of all, which is disability. This is the colonisation of the disabled, by the State, within the care and welfare systems.

In contrast, last month, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation published a €250m jobs strategy for the South-West, promising 40,000 extra jobs for Cork and Kerry. It is impressive and mainstream.

The job strategy for disability won’t come from the Department of Jobs, however. It will be published by the equality section of the Department of Justice. It will be well-intentioned, a workhouse for the deserving, but unequal.

As anyone who knows anything about how government works, it is an approach doomed to leave people with a disability on the margins of the economy.

Last week, before the State gathered at O’Donovan Rossa’s graveside, Inclusion Ireland sent out a press release reminding us how, in 2014, “despite a direct intervention by An Taoiseach, Ministers Joan Burton and Richard Bruton refused to take lead responsibility for employment of persons with a disability”. It castigated “the farcical situation that the Department of Health and the HSE provide employment supports to persons with a disability”.

Unlike gay people or children, people with disability remain stigmatised as ‘special’ in our society. Only three out of 10 adults of working age who have a disability also have a job. It’s sugar-coated employment apartheid.

Perpetuating a healthcare and social welfare approach to disability is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Cuts do cut deeper, because of dependency on supports and payments. Amazingly, although 13% of people have a disability, it is not ordinary to have a work colleague who is disabled.

The Irish workplace harks back to a time when women were not let in, and gay people were not allowed be out.

The tragedy is that this challenge is not mainstreamed by government. Its jobs strategy is successful and there is clearly some talent in the Department of Jobs. It should be the unequivocal commitment of every party at the next election to lead on delivering jobs, training, and employment supports for people with disability. Now, condemned to be cared for, and unaccepted as fully autonomous adults, disability in an Irish policy context is a continuous, insidious cultural colonisation. Policy-makers can do better than aping white missionaries, bringing benignity to the afflicted.


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