Mask slips on a Government wounded in battle over disability cuts
Disability campaigners this week scored a swift victory against proposed cuts. Is this a significant setback for the Government?
ON TUESDAY night, a group of stylish Irish-Americans emerged from the Merrion Hotel in Dublin for an after-dinner stroll and started heading across towards the beautifully-lit Government Buildings.
Suddenly, one of them stopped and hastily put away her camera. Ranged around the imposing, locked gates, were people in wheelchairs, some of them clearly far from the pink of health, one holding a big, handwritten placard urging motorists to “Honk for equal rights”.
The motorists obliged, loudly and insistently. For the tourists, watching as duvets, pillows, food and reinforcements arrived, this represented a whole different side of the “homecoming”.
Tuesday night was not the first overnight protest staged by Irish men and women in wheelchairs. That happened back in June 1994 and shook up the politicians at a time when the notion of independent living was taking root but not yet understood as a right.
In his account of that week, Peter Young, who has cerebral palsy, described the public perception of people like him: “These were people who are supposed to have one desire: to go to Lourdes and be the subject of a miracle.”
Though a long way from the Lourdes grotto, the mood this week had a similar fervour and civility. “This was self-organised,” said Suzy Byrne, a disability advocate, service user and political blogger at MamanPoulet.com. “These people live very separate lives, they have able-bodied friends, they go to college. But they know enough that when there is trouble, they get together . . .”
Last Saturday, as anxiety heightened about the reach of the proposed cuts, members of the Leaders Alliance campaign group for people with disabilities met. They decided to target the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. The Center for Independent Living aimed their firepower at Wednesday. Press releases were drafted. The strategy was simple.
First, soften up your enemy with some sustained media bombing, then move in the tanks, aka the wheelchairs. The challenge of mobilising wheelchairs across city and country – many are too big for buses – must seem a lot like mobilising tanks. But the physical presence of the wheelchair users was crucial, and not just for visual purposes. “Up to this week, people hadn’t known about the political movement that was the philosophy behind independent living,” said Byrne.
Their fierce adherence to the slogan, “Nothing About Us Without Us”, meant that media interviews were focused squarely on the faces and words of the service users themselves, not on family members, personal assistants or organisations.
By Tuesday night, when Martin Naughton, Leigh Gath and Joe T Mooney finally rolled their tanks all the way into Leinster House, Minister for Health James Reilly and Tony O’Brien, acting chief executive of the HSE, were more than ready to talk. “Between Sunday and Tuesday they’d got a bruising it’s fair to say – they even looked bruised,” said one source. And much of the battering had been inflicted by troops from within Reilly’s own Coalition ranks.
On Sunday, campaigners were getting discreet messages from deep within the opposing camp to “keep up the pressure”. On Monday, word came that the cuts would not stand.
On Tuesday, the campaigners were pleasantly surprised by the very receptive demeanour of the Minister and O’Brien. “They didn’t come with a document, ready to read the riot act,” said a campaigner afterwards. “They were ready to listen and test our veracity. We pointed out that we had the power . . . We had the media and public on our side, we had expertise and specialists in our group. We asked them did they want to get this right? They said, yes, yes, they did. We said we were happy enough to work with them but would not engage in any kind of nonsense or pretend to the public that everything was rosy.” Pragmatists that they are, they recognised that a mutually trustful relationship with O’Brien could only be beneficial. Amid some “robust” exchanges, they said they could define certain areas where cuts could be implemented without damaging frontline services.