Thursday, November 23, 2006

Sod ‘em they’re only spas, anyway

I can imagine the conversation that took place in 2001 in the State Examination Commission office.

Civil servant 1: Don’t forget to attach those notes to that load of leaving certs in the pile over there

Civil servant No 2: What, you mean those yokes to do with the exam accommodations?

CS1 : Them’s the lads.

CS2: Might we not upset them a bit, like we’re after suggesting how they got it easy in the exams, an all?

CS1: Don’t be after worrying your head about that. They’re dyslexics they’ll not be able to read ‘em anyway. Bleedin’ spas.

It surprises me not one iota that the Department of Education here intends to appeal the Equality Authority decision that they had discriminated against two students because annotations regarding the support they were given to enable them to take their Leaving Cert examinations were appended to their results.

Nor does it surprise me that someone came up with the crackpot idea of attaching such a codicil in the first place.

In my opinion, the approach to disability issues in general in Ireland stinks to high heaven. While we regard ourselves as a caring and compassionate nation, unstinting in our support for those less fortunate than ourselves, the reality, particularly in the case of the disabled, is quite different.

I worked for 5 years in a college here which, if its glossy brochures were to be believed, had an active and welcoming policy towards disabled students. Unfortunately, had a wheelchair using student decided to take up the céad míle fáilte, s/he would have found him or herself unable to have independent access to lecture theatres, the library, my office for tutorials or the student cafeteria. Not much of a learning environment left after that really, is there?

Even at Trinity, a much bigger institution which did at least make some accommodation to the needs of disabled people, there were problems. A student using a wheelchair could pretty much get unaided access into the sociology department (but not to my office). Had there been a fire during their visit, however, their chances of survival would depend very much on the willingness of some hero to carry them bodily out of the building.

Out on the streets it’s as bad if not worse. Getting around means negotiating bags of rubbish and wheely bins awaiting collection scattered randomly along the main streets, little or no ramping of kerbs and cars parked on pavements. Only the other day I watched an elderly man in a motorised chair dice with death on one of our busiest roads due to inconsiderate parking by not one but several motorists

Few buses and almost no taxis are wheelchair friendly, something I imagine breaches EU regulations these days. Our Georgian city might be the delight of visiting tourists, but only for the physically able. For the disabled it must possess the charms of an army assault course.

Most ludicrous, but entirely symptomatic of the general attitude towards disability came last year when Dublin Corporation removed the beepers which enable blind people to know when it is safe to cross from a number of pedestrian crossings on O’Connell St. The reason for this was that the Corpo had been informed that the sounds were distracting for sighted pedestrians!

The Irish State ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1989 but the first attempt to introduce disability legislation in 2002 ended in a shambles amid an outcry from disability groups because of its inadequacy. In the same year the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), noted “persistence of discrimination against persons with physical and mental disabilities, especially in the fields of employment, social security benefits, education and health”.

The second attempt, this time in consultation with disability groups, ended again in disarray. As the Disability Legislation Consultation Group, the consultative body set up to advise on the re-drafting, stated in May 2005:
This is now a totally flawed and fundamentally inadequate piece of legislation. It fails to meet the needs of the disability sector and we are appalled that the Government is determined to ram it through the Oireachtas in the face of opposition from the very people it was originally designed to benefit

Sean Love, the executive director of Amnesty’s Irish section, sees the cause of these problems arising from the unwillingness of the state to frame adequate ‘rights-based’ legislation in accordance with the ICESCR in case they should find themselves the subject of very costly litigation for non-compliance with their own laws. The preference is, in Bertie Ahern’s words, for a strategy which is ‘rights based, but not lawyer driven.’

But the problem lies not with a fear on Bertie’s part that the state will find itself besieged in the Four Courts by mobs of angry wheel-chair users and barking guide dogs, assuming they could get up the steps and into the court in the first place. Nor even does it lie with penny-pinching politicians who’d rather support the big wheels rather than the users of smaller wheels.

Needs & Rights in Ireland 2006 And why would a cripple be after wanting to go to the shops on his own, Willie?

The problem, it seems to me, goes very much deeper and is rooted in the nature of Irish society itself. Unlike almost every other European society, the Irish state and the culture accompanying it is not at heart easy with the notion of rights, human or otherwise. In its dealings with the disabled, the homeless, the mentally ill, the poor or almost any other marginalised group the approach taken is primarily needs based, rather than rights based. It is not intended to encourage civic participation, but rather to stifle it.

Part of the reason for this lies with the kind of catholic social teaching which dominated the state for most of its history, a form of 19th Century social interventionism which divides the disadvantaged into the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’. The marginalised are required to bear the predestined stigma of their marginalisation in a quiet and becoming manner. In such a context the privileged offer their beneficence to the less privileged in the form of ‘good works’, in return for which the latter should be thankful for what is offered. In the meantime we despatched our stigmatised to places out of sight and out of mind.

The other element derives from the colonial legacy in which citizenship is understood in terms of access to social privilege and influence and not embodied in the person at all. We inherited this and successive administrations have done bugger all to change the legacy. Anyone threatening to rock the boat was traditionally encouraged to get on one if they didn’t like things the way they were.

The fact is that Ireland is not a rights-based society, it is a privilege based one, where the privilege is based on a mixture of wealth, birth and position in the social hierarchy. It is a society of peculiar moral judgement in which the deviant of any kind lacks standing, often literally.

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