I have always been a firm believer in playing to your strengths. As a young disabled person, that is certainly the motto I go by. So let me ask you one thing: have you ever been penalised for trying to play to your strengths?
Contrary to what many believe, I do not look through the lens of my achievements “in spite of my disabilities”. Instead I have achieved despite the system. That is the social model of disability. What disables me are not my physical impairments but what is outside my front door.
In this particular scenario I am disabled by Government policies.
I was recently offered a PhD scholarship to continue my studies at Dublin City University. I was overjoyed that my work had been recognised. My research topic relates to the journalism and political-communication response to Covid-19 in Ireland. It came on the foot of the completion of my master's in political communication. I completely devoted myself to the course and to my thesis. Notwithstanding this, I researched and wrote all of my thesis in Achill Island while cocooning. I was ranked first in my class and received first-class honours.
The potential of doing a PhD right after my master’s was on my mind. I wanted to play to my strengths.
Some time later, after much difficulty in sourcing information, I found out that if I were to accept the scholarship on its original terms I would lose all of my disability allowance and secondary supports associated with that.
I was devastated. The shock made me feel weak at the knees. I immediately sought a review from the deciding officer at the Department of Social Protection. The reply said the decision was unchanged. The scholarship grant would be viewed as means if I were to accept it. I would lose everything that helps me to stay afloat and survive.
I initially heard this news over the phone. I cried on the call with the agent. I had not eaten, because I was so taken up with making phone calls to chase up my case. Here I was, in my kitchen in Achill Island, in my pyjamas, crying to someone in Social Protection, blubbing out “But why? This is so mean.”
She could only say how sorry she was and to get started on an appeal. Two deliveries arrived during this exchange. The first was of two books for my research on journalism studies. The second was a bouquet of roses from my boyfriend on the other side of the country, because he knew it was a tough week for me.
A scholarship grant for a PhD is a very modest sum. It is meant to alleviate the cost of PhD studies: for rent, equipment, materials, publishing work, travel and so on. Once it is safe for me to do so, I will be back living in campus accommodation, to be near my learning spaces, academic resources, training and teaching. Most of the grant will go towards this.
I hope I don’t need to remind people of the hidden costs of being disabled, also. If I were to accept the scholarship grant and lose my disability payment, I would be well below the poverty line. I cannot physically work on top of my studies. That is the reality. This is the penalty I am handed down for trying to better myself and to carve out a career. I am penalised for playing to my strengths.
Everyone I spoke with told me to raise this with my local representatives. This required hours of calls, drafting letters, proofing them, emailing, following them up: you name it, I did it.
This resulted in the matter being raised in the Dáil this week by the Sinn Féin spokesperson for higher education and research, Rose Conway-Walsh. She highlighted my case in particular but called on Tánaiste Leo Varadker to address the issue as a whole. "It sounds like a mistake to me," he said yesterday. It certainly does, but unfortunately I am not alone. This is a deeply systemic issue, and it is a significant barrier to education.
The issue of PhD scholarships affecting disability benefits comes at a key time. The State is preparing a report for the United Nations on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention is intended as a human-rights instrument with an explicit social-development dimension. Ireland ratified this three years ago. In the State's draft report to the UN (which is available online), under article 24, for education, there's a shocking and complete lack of policies and measures to ensure equity of access to postgraduate education. In fact, if you search the 62-page document for "PhD", "postgraduate", "master's" or "research", you will not find a match.
This says two things to me. First, as a government and society, we do not expect disabled people to receive hard-won scholarships and progress in higher education. Second, if that were to happen, we do not have the awareness or the instruments to make that a smooth process.
The beauty of draft reports is that they can be changed and amended. But this is bigger than a mention in the report. This is across the Department of Higher Education and the Department of Social Protection. It should not have to resort to the mention of a private citizen's full name and their case to be stated on the floor of the Dáil to highlight that we are missing out on serious talent. We are letting people down. Both society and the economy are at a loss, also.
I have always enjoyed working on my own, even as a child. I have nurtured my curiosity amid turbulent times in life and in the surgical treatment of my impairments. I want to turn this curiosity and research into a career. I want to provide meaningful findings.
I want to contribute back to society when I am in a position to do so.
Allow me to be safe in the knowledge that I am not penalised in my educational pathway.
Allow me to play to my strengths.