Joanne McCarthy: Ireland worst country in western Europe to have a disability

Our outdated approach focuses on disability as a health issue. This must change

On Thursday the Cabinet meets, with disability as the main item on the agenda. This is unprecedented and we welcome the long overdue focus on a sector in crisis.

Everywhere we look, and we imagine the Cabinet looks, disability is in crisis. Their legacy will be a shameful one unless they take immediate and decisive action at this meeting.

There are 643,131 people in Ireland living with a disability. That is more than 13 per cent of the population and their chances of living in consistent poverty have more than doubled in the past decade, now at 24 per cent, up from 11 per cent in 2011.

This is the worst country in western Europe to be a person with a disability. The good news is we have solutions – comprehensive solutions. Poverty, unemployment and social inclusion are interrelated problems and the measures that address them must be across all Government departments.


But first, let us briefly consider how we got into this mess, to better understand getting out of it.

We finally ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) in 2018. It joins many more fine aspirations we have on disability. In practice, we have a very outdated approach which focuses on disability as a health issue. There is much more to life with a disability than health concerns. Taking a wider approach would be a huge step forward.

However, funding to the disability sector and services has never been restored since the savage cuts of 2008. It is estimated that there is at least a €40 million shortfall to the funding of services provided by voluntary organisations.

Starved of cash

At the same time as the sector has been starved of cash, statutory regulations and demand have risen. The Disability Federation of Ireland and its members are dedicated to improved standards but must consider the grim choices imposed by extra demands with no extra cash.

Take one example. A disability service provider often has to choose between doing repairs to outdated buildings and funding activities to enrich lives lived now. One causality of such dilemmas is progress on de-institutionalisation is painfully slow. Lives are on hold because providers must maintain buildings at the expense of moving forward. There simply is not money to do both.

The Government can point to small increases in spending on the disability health budget. However, 90 per cent of this budget goes to supporting 5 per cent of the population living with disability, many in residential settings.

This is not in line with the new century or decade. The UN convention promises equality for people with disabilities; not special treatment and not segregated care. If this is a radical notion for some readers, consider the late Stephen Hawking and the productive life he was able to lead with both the proper technology and people to support him. This is the cost-effective future and not an isolated incident for a rare genius.


We urgently need to see the following commitments from Cabinet.

  • Get serious about UN CRPD and establish a Joint Oireachtas Committee on its implementation.
  • Invest in community services for people with disabilities. This will involve an initial investment of €211 million each year – from 2020-2024.
  • Address the additional cost of disability. Having a disability costs money. Jobseeker's allowance and disability allowance are both €203, but having a disability costs money.
  • Proper supports for people in the jobs market. People with disabilities are four times more likely to be unemployed even with record numbers at work. Proper supports could address this and reduce poverty and exclusion.
  • There is also a housing crisis for people with disabilities. Accessible housing, adaption grants, and living supports packages are urgently required.

There will be an increase of about 20 per cent in the number of people with a disability by 2026

These measures are agreed on across the disability sector. We in the Disability Federation of Ireland are part of a cross-party Oireachtas disability group involving all major disability groups.

What happens if we continue to ignore this crisis?

We cannot, and I do mean “we”. There is no them and us in disability. One in four people acquire their disability between the ages of 18 and 65, as I did myself. The likelihood increases with age.

We know that as the population changes there will be an increase of about 20 per cent in the number of people with a disability by 2026. This is a club any of us may join – and right now you certainly would not want to.

Because, typically, what happens is this: your disability makes it difficult to stay at work; State supports are totally inadequate in the workplace or any place; any savings you have will quickly evaporate and you and your family will bear the cost.

Dr Joanne McCarthy, head of policy and research at the Disability Federation of Ireland. DFI has more than 120 member organisations in the voluntary sector providing vital services to people with disabilities.