First, I should introduce myself. I am a man with cerebral palsy and a wheelchair user. For more than 30 years I have been involved, to different extents, in the disability rights movement. I am the author of Rebel on Wheels, the biography of Liam Maguire 1943-1983. Without doubt Maguire was one of the first in Ireland to lead the way towards bringing disability onto the political/legal stage and away from being exclusively viewed as a matter for charity. However this is not really about Liam Maguire.
I am writing during the last week of November, when the media is full of the accounting debacle in FÁS. Like a lot of people I am more than a little annoyed, especially when this is contrasted between the mean mouthed attitude of this government towards the equality and rights agenda. First the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, proposed the merger of the five independent bodies working in the area. Then in Budget 2009 the Minister for Finance decimated the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission by recommending cuts of 43% and 24% respectively. This would have made Liam Maguire very angry because, like myself, as he matured as a campaigner he realised he could not be concerned about the rights of people with disabilities to the exclusion of other marginalised groups.
On the 9th of September I attended the Equality and Rights Alliance’s press conference. It was good to be there; it made me feel strong. When working with disability groups it is easy to think that it is people with disabilities against the world. I was reassured that there was other people from other sectors who are not, and never will be, prepared to let the powerful in society ignore those who are marginalised. Although it was a very different world when Liam Maguire was active 30 years ago, I believe he got the same kind of strength and support from his involvement in the trade union movement.
On the 13th of November I attended a photo wake up call for Minister Ahern; I thought it was very clever and well presented. However, it got absolutely no media coverage. It seems that these kinds of services are not noticed because it is not as tangible as Medical Cards for the elderly. Even within disability, advocacy is described as a “soft” service. I cannot help but worry that the term “soft service” means it is not as important as a personal assistant service or the acquisition of a wheelchair. However, similar to software in a computer these services can and do make the tangible happen.
You could say that taking legal proceedings is the ultimate form of advocacy. My first experience in this area was when writing Liam Maguire’s biography. From 1967 when he was brought to court because of his refusal to pay car tax Liam Maguire used the legal system to further many disability issues - indeed sometimes he had two or three proceedings going at the one time. The benefits people with disabilities now have around private transport undoubtedly flowed directly from Liam Maguire’s actions in 1967. Remembering now, it seems I was given a condensed law course by solicitor (now Judge) Pat McCarton and Mary Robinson (former President of Ireland) over five or six meetings when researching Liam’s attempt to sue the Irish State for releasing him from Jury Duty against his wishes because of his disability. Because of my ability to read and understand semi legal language since then I have twice successfully challenged the former Eastern Health Board and more recently the Department for Social and Family Affairs with regard to my disability allowance. Recently the Minister said in the Dáil that he would not finance organisations to produce fancy brochures. In August this year Phyllis Fahey was awarded €2000 by the Equality Authority following Ulster Bank’s refusal to give her a car loan on the grounds that she was too old. I don’t think even I would have known what to do if I was refused a bank loan because of my disability. This indicates that the Minister is wrong and there is a need for these bodies to further publicize themselves so that more people could become like Liam Maguire and learn that the law is not exclusive to the rich and powerful. Perhaps this is what the Minister and his minions in the Department of Injustice, Inequality and No Law Reform are really afraid of. The emergence of the Equality and Rights Alliance is very important and it needs to continue and develop.
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