With a boisterous voice and grand posture Labour Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin fired promise after promise through Dáil Éireann during Budget 2016 declaration. You could almost see and hear fireworks, bells and whistles in the background, so grandiose were its premise. On the other side of the spectrum, people with disabilities were waiting anxiously. They were hoping that after the drip-feeding of Budget information before its actual release, it would still bring some relief to the 600,000 strong disability community in Ireland. They had been waiting since the 2011 Election promise that Labour’s one key social justice issue would be that people with disabilities would be looked after. The longer Mr Howlin kept talking however, the more they realised that yet again, people with disabilities were not the hero of this year’s Budget.
It would be presumptuous of me to deny the good news that this Budget did bring to some of the 600,000 strong disability community. Investment in social housing and in early childhood education for children with disabilities is the very start of that 2011 Election promise. An added €3 million funding to fund Free Travel scheme as well as a €2.50 weekly increase in Fuel Allowance is definitely welcome. But, while an increase in the home carer tax credit system, the restoration of the Christmas Bonus and respite care grant will help people with disabilities and allow for some extra flexibility for their families, it does pose the question, “Is this enough to square that now infamous 2011 Election promise?”
Sadly, it’s not. Budget 2016 is a pre-election test; nothing short of discriminatory; near-relentless in its object and a privilege for those still able-bodied, or similarly, able to work. Hope, equality, inclusion, no more worrying, access to medical and social services and a better financial outcome for people with disabilities have been wiped off the table. This community, my community, is now segregated even further. Consider it a cruel slap in the face of people who had hoped to see their Budget cuts undone.
Oh, Budget 2016 came with a lot of promise. Promises not kept in particular, if I may say so in a bold manner. Soon after, patient organisation groups started receiving emails and phone calls of concerned families. While some heard what they wanted to hear, others like myself felt betrayed and used as an election-gimmick in 2011. We are not a gimmick, however, and we refuse to be a social injustice.
Despite people with disabilities spending countless hours writing protest letters, engaging in advocacy efforts, listening to other people with disabilities, going to conferences trying to strengthen patient involvement, governmental support and societal understanding, Members of the 31st Dáil have come up short.
We can all agree that the "squeezed middle" has been soothed somewhat by Budget 2016. My question towards the government is this, ‘Does the 2011-2016 legacy of Fine Gael and Labour want to be one where the sensationally-squeezed bottom remain gigantically forgotten, as those with already below-par health as well as incomes have to wait perhaps another year for a reversal of their recession cuts?’
The government hailed the 2016 version as one that rewards those who contributed most during the recession. People with chronic illnesses and disabilities have sacrificed life and health through no fault of their own, and they cannot be forgotten at all. Michael Noonan very eloquently said, “The top priority of this Budget is to keep the recovery going, while providing relief and better services for the Irish people.” So, where is the sense of urgency towards the physically and/or mentally weakest in our proud society, an Irish society we all know is built upon the very notion that nobody gets left behind, that people will always help people?
Just as eloquently the resilience of the Irish people came to the fore, something I have long admired in my thirteen years (and counting) in this magnificent country. Dear ministers, I see how people with disabilities (including their carer) travel 250km to Beaumont Hospital for a 15min chat with their neurologist. I see their resilience, and it should and would astound any healthy person. It should and would also make you angry when you realise that your own government has not taken any steps towards improving neurological services that would provide severely disabled people urgent relief from their daily situation.
I also see how some people are better in packing punches caused by yearly Budgets or other governmental ideas. I sit with them, ask, listen, wonder and cry in silence because they provide inspiration and motivation when and where you least expect it. I realise that some people with disabilities are in fact more able than any TD, Taoiseach or just dear me sometimes gives them credit for. Imagine what a force of nature this inspirational group of people can be if they were given their dignity back.
Almost a decade of Budget cuts has left scars, disbelief, utter disappointment and sadness in almost everyone living in Ireland. While many have been able to find a new job and therefore have been able to increase their monthly income, many people with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses don’t have that option. They live in coexistence with a body that refuses to cooperate, making it impossible to ever return to the workforce.
When the Tánaiste spoke about Ireland now facing a decade of opportunity, I sadly realised that I too won’t have that chance or opportunity. Six years after having to retire from work at age 36 due to my own chronic illness, and 5.5 years after having applied for social housing in Fingal, I am still on that very list. There has never been an offer, or even an idea as to when it might happen, despite being called “a priority because of your illness”. You can consider me almost desperate for my own space where I can take care of myself as best as I can.
During my last neurological checkup I was told to stick to my daily regimen of lots of rest/sleep and as much medication to ward off new MS flares. Not something a 42-year-old person wants to hear after six years of early retirement, but you do what you can for yourself, but also to be able to help others in similar circumstances. Ireland is home, and I try to help all those Irish people who welcomed me into their arms and hearts, and try to realise their respect, raise awareness about life’s complexities with multiple sclerosis and indeed, trying to become beneficiaries of Ireland’s legacy.
Budget 2016 could have been the first where the weakest in our society were finally given their dignity back. Instead, we’re faced with a remedial Budget that has just a whiff of that 2011 Election promise to it. That one key social justice issue only feels half-realised, which is heart-breaking to those living with incurable, chronic, neurodegenerative illnesses.
*Please don't forget to check out Willeke's blog Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis and Me if you want to read more.