Taking disability allowance off a disabled young person will not take away that young person’s disability, writes Victoria White.

People are not disabled because the State is paying them to be so. They will not take up their beds and walk into a job because their disability allowance is removed.

In its 2017 report, Making Work Pay for People with Disabilities, the Government is arguing with a straight face that paying a disability allowance to disabled young people aged 16 to 18 is condemning them to a life of welfare-dependency.

“Early intervention is critical”, warns the report, “to support initial employment, or early return to work, before joblessness becomes established.”

It beats me how the payment of €190 a week to a disabled person of 16 or 17 will stop that person getting a job. Many factors would promote job opportunities for young people with disabilities, but having no money is really not one of them.

There is so much willful blindness in this proposed policy change — which is currently out to public consultation — that it is quite horrifying.

First up, let’s face a few facts: most disabled people of 16 and 17 are not able to join the workforce.

Most non-disabled 16- and 17-year-olds aren’t, either.

In this country, education continues until the age of 18 or, increasingly, 19, for 90% of people.

Even in very disadvantaged communities, the culture of sending a young person off to work at 16 is dying. The expectation that disabled people would be working at 16 is ludicrous.

Here’s the next fact, which is more difficult: most disabled people will never get a paying job.

I know there are thousands of disabled people doing brilliantly in careers, but that just underlines the fact that the word ‘disabled’ is wholly insufficient.

How can you possibly consider in the same group a young man with mild Asperger’s syndrome, who is a bit jumpy, but brilliant with computers, and a young man with a moderate-to-profound intellectual disability?

How can you compare a young woman who has a visual impairment and an enquiring mind, to a young woman who is too intellectually disabled to feed herself?

To pretend that, with a bit of help, all disabled young people can turn into the desk workers or the power-drillers pictured in cheery illustrations in the ‘Making Work Pay’ document, is ridiculous.

It betrays a divorce from reality that is almost a disability in itself.

It’s not as if the Government doesn’t know this.

Research in 2015 classed 58% of disabled people as unable to work.

Thirty-four percent expressed an interest in working part-time with the right supports, while 8% expressed an interest in working full-time.

Why, then, is our entire philosophy around the support of people with disabilities based on whether or not they are in the workforce?

This is no doubt because, increasingly, we are buying into the idea that everybody has a price.

Women are only liberated if they have jobs. Even lone parents who have children over the age of seven must be in the workforce.

The infamous cutting of one-parent family payments, in 2012, was part of a policy loudly praised in ‘Making Work Pay for People with Disabilities’ as being part of a transformed social-welfare policy.

No more will people just get hand-outs, goes the thinking. Now, we will help them to help themselves.

Work makes people good and it makes them free. Work is redemption.

If you think like that, how can you ever value significantly disabled people, except as a numerical fraction of a functional worker?

As the mother of a young person who has autism and an intellectual disability, I want people valued for their intrinsic, unique humanity.

“Why do I love you, Tommy?” I frequently ask my son and he answers: “Because you just do.” His level of independence will not be the measure by which I will judge his success as an adult. I will judge his success by how contented he is.

Clearly, being contented, for some disabled people, means having a job, but it doesn’t for most. Being part of a community is, however, intrinsic to contentment for nearly everyone.

Our focus on the rights of individuals is often misplaced when it comes to people with disabilities. We need to be thinking, instead, of the rights of communities.

The disability allowance is a case in point. It is stupid to pay disabled people of 16 and 17 €190 a week, because they are too disabled to work.

The stupidity is underlined by the fact that if these young people are still in education — and most of them are — they are still receiving child benefit. So the State is paying them because they can’t work, and also because they are in education, which would mean, in any case, that they couldn’t work.

However, in 2010, when the then-minister for social and family affairs, Mary Hanafin, attempted to return disabled 16- and 17-year-olds to the much lower domiciliary care allowance, until they turned 18, there was uproar.

Predictably, Hanafin u-turned, but not before making the serious point that the money is relied upon by the families of disabled people, whose work opportunities have been limited.

The families of people with disabilities are mostly stuck for cash. They are stuck for services.

The families of disabled people of 16 and 17 are in a state of panic, because their loved-ones must exit child and adolescent services at the age of 18, no matter what their care needs, and there is usually no certainty as to what is ahead.

I am trying to stock-pile Tom’s cash, in case he gets no service in a year’s time.

Disabled young people are judged by how they approximate to non-disabled young people, and are forced to ‘mature’ at 18, like their non-disabled peers.

They are adults at the age of 18, even if their mental age is 11. There is even a recommendation in the ‘Make Work Pay’ document that the disability allowance scheme be changed for young people between the ages of 18 and 22, “to encourage them to take part in education, training, and social-inclusion activities”, mimicking the four years needed for many college degrees.

How could their families possibly support these young people when, in most cases, the traditional bonus paid to college graduates will never be forthcoming?

When will we start getting real about disability?

When will we learn to love our disabled young people for who they are, and not for who the Government wants them to be?

- The questionnaire on the proposed reform of the disability allowance is on www.welfare.ie 

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