Why Every Socialist Needs to Understand Ableism

Every time I hear a socialist commentator talk about “Working people” or “the Working classes”, I get a jolt of exclusion. I wonder about all the disabled people who never get an opportunity to work, who never imagine that they can work, or who have to contort themselves in order to work. What, then, does it mean if a whole sector of society – disabled people – are excluded from class analysis?

I have long wondered (and worried!) about where in the class system I and my immediate family reside. I grew up in a middle class area, with middle class educational aspirations and middle class guilt. But I didn’t grow up with money. I internally attributed this to the “artsy” nature of my parents’ work, which in itself straddled traditional class identifiers. For example, my dad played French horn in an orchestra, but he was shop steward for his union. My mum taught music in an affluent private school, but her part-time contract left her with a very paltry pension.

So, culturally, I grew up broadly middle class. But my adult life has been spent living on social welfare and in social housing. My mum and brother also live in social housing, and my dad is living in a house he inherited (along with debts and mortgages) from his mother.

And my reliance on social welfare is down to disability. In Ireland, as in most post-industrial nations, legal definitions of disability are inextricably linked with ideas of productiveness. Most supports for disabled people are provided on the basis that being disabled is identical to being unable to work. Indeed, a recent case at the Workplace Relations Commission featured the arbitrator saying to the disabled plaintiff seeking workplace accomodations; “Either you are fit for work or you are unfit for work”.

These binaries reflect precisely nothing about the experiences of disabled people. Yet, time and again, supports and schemes aimed at getting disabled people into the workplace are based on Victorian capitalist ideas of citizens as productive cogs in the workforce production line. As an example, one scheme introduced by the Irish government a little over ten years ago (based on my memory, not on documents!), was structured around compensating employers for the burden of employing disabled people. One element of this compensation was based on the idea that a disabled employee would be between 50% and 80% as productive as a non-disabled colleague. In other words, the scheme could not imagine, and did not strive for, the existence of a disabled person being just as “productive”, or (dare we say it) more productive than a non-disabled colleague.

Here’s the thing about work that is recognised, measured and rewarded. It is entirely performative. Disabled people work bloody hard every day. That’s because it takes work to negotiate an environment that puts pointless barriers in your way. It takes work to withstand the barrage of ableist assumptions you meet in every interaction with non-disabled people (and a fair proportion of disabled people). It takes work not to burst into tears when you’ve had to adjust your route home for the fifth time because some idiot has parked on the pavement or blocked your bus stop.

It takes oodles of work to navigate a social welfare system that presumes you to be a liar and a fraud, just to get some primitive assistance to get over these pointless barriers. So by the time a disabled person show up for work, for a job interview or even to fill out a job application, they have already done several days’ work if we are measuring effort and time.

But this is work that does not feature in profit-making calculations. It may have immeasurable value to a community, to the individual, to the world of ideas and cultural production. But if it is not seen to contribute to profit-making, it is worthless, and counts as a net drain on the economy.

This is a model of work that goes back to industrial revolution capitlism, when citizens and communities became workers and consumers. A disabled person was wholesale rejected from the capitalist equation, forced into work-houses and beggary. The term “handicapped” has its root here – disabled people on the street, cap-in-hand, dependent on scraps and breadcrumbs labelled as “charity”.

For the overwhelming majority of disabled people in 2022, we are still in workhouses or begging on the street. The workhouse may be dressed up as a day centre, supported or sheltered “employment”, and the “street” on which we beg is now GoFundMe or JustGiving.  Given a genuine choice, the majority of the 79% of disabled Irish adults would gladly go to work or develop a career.

It is hard, then, when 4 in 5 disabled people are systematically excluded from the world of work, to get behind an activist or organiser who represents “working people”, the “working class” or simply “the workers”. It feels as though we don’t even qualify as an oppressed group in society. If contemporary socialists really want to dismantle the capitalist systems of exploitation and inequality, why continually use the class identifyers put in place by early capitalism? Why are we not reimagining class structure to reflect society as it now functions?

If you consider yourself any shade of socialist or communist, you need to understand how and why disabled people have been so utterly excluded as to be invisible in your own discourse. Then we can talk about what a just society might look like.


I Can’t Afford to Get Paid

She says nothing.

I say nothing.

We both know there are no words

For the misery of women.

from Mamó: A Story of Geraldine Plunkett; ÓBrolcháin Carmody, Isolde (2016)

These are the final lines of my one-woman show, Mamó; A Story of Geraldine Plunkett. It is based on my great-grandmother’s accounts of her family’s involvement in the 1916 Revolution, including the execution of her brother, Joe Plunkett, as the youngest signatory of the Declaration of the Irish Republic.

You probably haven’t heard of my play, and you probably haven’t heard of me. But I’ve been working as an artist for over 20 years. I worked on this play from 2005 to 2016. As the story of a woman’s role in the 1916 Revolution, 2016 made a natural deadline to bring the work to audiences.

I worked with the generous and tireless Donal O’Kelly as director, and together, we devised techniques that would account for my impairments in producing the work. We recorded the script as an audio track because my visual impairment means I couldn’t read a print script. I performed the majority of the show sitting down to account for my chronic pain and fatigue. Finally, we filmed the show to minimise the physical toll that touring and performing would take on my body. All of these choices gave the piece a unique form and aesthetic of which I’m very proud.

I didn’t get to tour the play in 2016 as I had planned. This was largely down to funding: if I had received sufficient funding to tour the play, it would have counted as income according to Social Welfare. It would have counted as “means”, and my basic weekly Blind Pension payment (currently €203 per week), on which I depend to survive, would have been immediately slashed. So even if the tour had been funded, I couldn’t have afforded to pay for anything, let alone a tour. A gal gotta eat!

So without funding, and living below the poverty line on my Blind Pension, I couldn’t afford to tour the show during 2016. I couldn’t afford renting a wheelchair-accessible van plus driver to get me to and from venues. I couldn’t afford the hotels to stay in (B&Bs rarely have accessible bedrooms). I couldn’t afford the research to find theatres with accessible back-stage areas. Besides which, in 2016, I was waiting for a new powerchair, since the old one didn’t work in the rain. And I wasn’t granted extra Personal Assistance hours to help with navigation when my guide dog got too sick to work and then died.

Over the last 18 months (since the first lockdown), I have been sought out and offered money for my arts work like never before. The switch to online living meant that I could work without the constant torture of navigating a world built by non-disabled people. So I decided to register as self-employed with Revenue. For anyone else, it would feel like my career was really taking off, and that my work was being valued.

But, as a disabled artist, this is fraught with dangers. Any earnings over a mere €140 per week (recently upped by a generous €20) start to count against my basic Blind Pension income. And once this income starts reducing, the secondary benefits are immediately put at risk too. I have been on Blind Pension (BP) since I turned 18, and have relied on it, (along with the Free Travel Pass, Medical Card and Household Benefits Package counted as “secondary benefits”), to survive. (Interesting side-note: I am one of only 1,069 people currently on this strangely anachronistic payment, which is overseen by the Old Age Pension office. It’s different to Disability Allowance, for no logical reason I can ascertain).

And while I feel like I’ve been earning money for my creative work lately, here is a list of the things my paid arts work have paid for over the last 18 months:

  • New underwear
  • Dog food and vet bills (for my guide dog)
  • An update to my screen-reading software (the latest release was the first to support hosting Zoom meetings)
  • An iPad (the only device with good built-in accessibility)
  • One phone bill (my phone is also my internet connection)
  • Some toiletries

The screen-reader and iPad are tools without which I can’t work at all. To be honest, I couldn’t actually function day-to-day without them. There is no dedicated funding for assistive technology for the blind, yet we get left further and further behind our non-disabled peers without it.

The rest are the kinds of expenses you might hope would be covered by a basic social welfare payment. But they aren’t. The basic weekly rate is €203. Even if I was earning that magical extra €140 per week, it still doesn’t add up to the €350 per week which was deemed the minimum ammount for PUP when it was introduced. And living with disabilities is expensive! Note, for example, the need to use Apple products as the only devices guaranteed to have a high level of built-in accessibility.

There have been recent changes to the laws governing Disability Allowance (DA), called “Catherine’s Law”, which mean that a disabled student or researcher can take up a scholarship or research grant without it counting against their basic DA rate. There is also a disregard of €50,000 in savings which will not count against DA. The rate for the 1,069 Irish people on Blind Pension is €20,000, and Catherine’s Law has not been extended to those on BP.

There has also been recent coverage of a pilot scheme for guaranteeing a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for artists. It has already been pointed out that this scheme will not benefit the lowest-paid artists as it will impinge on the secondary benefits associated with Job Seekers’ Allowance, such as Rent Allowance payments. This applies equally to disability-related payments.

Catherine’s Law does not benefit disabled artists. UBI does not benefit disabled artists. Getting paid for work does not benefit disabled artists. That is why a group of Disabled Artists and Disabled Academics (DADA) has begun meeting to find a way to change these repressive and discriminatory systems.

However, most disabled artists I have met with to discuss these issues are afraid to publically discuss them. We are afraid that it may trigger a Social Welfare review into our meagre finances. We are afraid that it may brand us as “difficult” with funding bodies. And most of us are keen to spend our energies in our arts practices.

To me, these are screaming alarm-bells of systemic and institutional oppression of a group of people: disabled people. If Ireland is serious about being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), the government will undertake an urgent restructuring of how disabled people are supported. In particular, Article 27 of the Convention which guarantees our right to meaningful employment.

Blind Pension and a Free Travel Pass felt like independence at the age of 18. But I’m in my 40s now. The gradual erosion of disability-related benefits and services, especially since 2010, means that I’m living much further below the poverty line now than I was then. And I need to work. I can’t sit around doing nothing. If you are an artist, or live with an artist, you’ll understand why. I will quote my old comrade, Tim Hannon, from a piece called “Why I Write” which we published in our independent school literary magazine, EatMeDrinkMe:

Sometimes I think I confuse the need to eat with the need to write… Why do I write? I write because I’m hungry.

“Why I Write”, Hannon, Tim; EatMeDrinkMe, Dublin, 1994

It’s my f**king money….

This post is going to be about what it’s like to manage your money while blind. I’m sure there is plenty of prurient interest in the best way to scam a blindy, but I’m not going to cover that here. I am going to talk about just how useless, ableist and thoughtless government agencies and banks are when it comes to treating us as human beings with rights like everyone else.

My metaphorical eye (actually my ear) was caught by this Irish Times headline on 7th April 2020:

Coronavirus: Lack of electronic transfers for blind allowance causing hardship

The article by Social Affairs correspondant, Kitty Holland, was discussing the piecemeal approach of the HSE when it comes to issuing the Blind Welfare Allowance.  Some regions are offering to issue the payment via Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT), while other regions persist in sending out a physical cheque, which needs to be taken to a physical bank branch and physically lodged into an account. In this era of social distancing, self-isolation and cocooning, this presents a real challenge to blind people trying to stay healthy.

But the problems are deeper, further back in time and more bizarrely convoluted than that. Strap yourselves in…

You’re blind, not disabled….

If you are “registered blind” in Ireland, you are special. I mean that in the worst possible way. In terms of social welfare supports, we’re not treated like other disabled people. We receive the Blind Persons’ Pension, not a Disability Benefit. As the “Pension” part of our payment suggests, the payment is managed by the Old Age Pension office – just one of many examples of structural ableism, lumping the disabled and the elderly together. I’ve been a pensioner since I was 18.

Here’s one example of just how ludicrous that system is. While I was at university, I went onto the “Back to Education Allowance” – another misnomer, as I had been in education continuously since the age of 2. The allowance meant I could access an annual book allowance, and could essentially hang on to all my other benefits. When I finally left university, I was setting up as a self-employed sole trader, and wanted to switch onto the “Back to Work (Enterprise) Allowance”. Again, a misnomer, as I hadn’t been technically unemployed. Again, this was a scheme that facilitated me hanging on to benefits while setting myself up as self-employed. Imagine the day when I rang up the Old Age Pension office:

“Hello; I’m currently on the Back to Education Allowance, and I want to switch to the Back to Work Enterprise Allowance.”

“Ummm…. Hang on there while I transfer you to someone else.”

I got transferred about 5 times. Sure why would anyone in the Old Age Pension office know the first thing about either Educational or Work benefits?

So what’s this Welfare Allowance thing?

Good question. On top of the weekly Blind Pension, whereby I qualify essentially for the maximum amount of social welfare, there’s a means-tested Blind Welfare Allowance. I get this monthly, and it’s meant to “offset the additional costs associated with being blind”.  It’s not enough to pay for specialised eyewear, magnification, Braille production, assistive technology or even having a working iPhone, (rapidly becoming the de facto do-everything assistive bit of kit for blindies). My Welfare Allowance tends to cover getting an order of toiletries, some books, new underwear…. anything that isn’t a daily or weekly expense, but requires a bit of capital. Shouldn’t that kind of thing be covered by the weekly basic payment? Yes; yes it should, as many people on emergency benefits during the Covid-19 crisis have discovered. As soon as there was a massive increase in the number of people signing on for unemployment benefits, those who expected their jobs back afterwards kicked up shit about how little money they were expected to live on, and the government increased that payment from €220 per week to €350 per week.

I dream of such riches.

But there’s Braille on ATMs, right?

On to the banks. These are becoming less accessible as time goes on. The Braille markings on ATMs are really just adding insult to injury. Fine, I can tell that this is button number 1 and that is button number 6. But there’s no way in hell of finding out what those buttons actually do. I once tried to use an ATM that had a little headphone socket to hear what  was on the screen. In fact, I deliberately moved my account to that bank (which no longer exists) because they had a lovely ramp up to their door, push-button doors into the branch and this magic ATM. Imagine my surprise when no audio came through my headphones. It might have had audio information when it was first installed, but no-one had checked that it was still working. They might never have checked it at all.

But I’m sure many bankers have seen those Braille-marked buttons and assumed that it made the machines totally accessible. The concept can be quite difficult to explain to Ableds. I once had to explain to a local authority that their info-terminals were no use to a VIP, even with JAWS installed. If you can’t see the touchscreen, how do you know which part of the screen to touch to make it talk?

Then there’s the increased automation of bank transactions; a transparent move by corporations to save money by employing fewer humans. This is the same trend that has seen smaller, rural branches cut to destruction. My local bank branch has a load of machines which they do everything in their power to make you use instead of going to a counter and speaking to a human. By “everything in their power”, I include the practice of charging 600% for a “staff-assisted” transaction in comparison to an automated transaction. I’ll say that again. If you go to a counter and lodge your Blind Welfare Allowance cheque with a member of staff, it will cost you 6 times as much as using one of the machines.

Why not just use the machines?

I sincerely hope, dear reader, that you can guess where this is going. The machines are not accessible to VIPs. Furthermore, in my local branch, they are surrounded by privacy shields which don’t provide enough space to get near them in a wheelchair . So disabled clients have no choice but to make “staff-asisted” transactions, and pay 6 times as much for the privilege.

I’m not even going to approach the tawdry history of my struggles with online banking, especially with the use of card-readers with tiny buttons and invisible screens. Back to the Kitty Holland article…

Cheques and Balances

Aside from the usual thrill of coming across any mention of disability in mainstream media, this article grabbed my attention because I had just been sent a letter about this very issue. And yes, I mean a letter. In tiny print. In the post.

I could tell that it was from the HSE because their logo was on the envelope. So I didn’t even bother opening it until my trusty PA came round. She’s my trusty PA because she’s the one I trust to see me naked, file my private papers and have access to my bank details. When she arrived for work, I handed her the letter, saying “This is probably another normal-print letter from the HSE saying: We’ve just realised how ludicrous it is to keep sending you cheques when you’re not supposed to leave the house at the moment, so here’s a form you can’t read so that we can finally lodge the money straight into your account, which will also save your extravagant bank charges.” To my astonishment, my PA said “Yes, but not in those exact words!”

To recap, this was a letter and a form being sent out exclusively to blind and visually impaired people. Neither the letter nor the form was in an accessible format, and the form required filling in by hand. Their only nod to alternative formatting was the possibility of emailing the completed form back to them. So when I emailed it to them, this was the body text I included with my message:

Please find attached my form requesting a change to receiving my blind welfare allowance.

  • The letter should have been sent in an accessible format – I use Braille
  • The form should have been available in an accessible digital format.

My rights to financial autonomy and privacy have been violated, as I had no choice but to get a third party to fill in this form. Further, the form was not specific to people in receipt of benefits, and as such, was confusing and made us feel like an after-thought, not a priority.

As you are managing a fund specific to blind and visually impaired people, you should instigate policies of informational accessibility as a matter of urgency. It is your obligation under the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), to which Ireland is a signatory.

Why do I still have to send these messages to government agencies? Especially those tasked with supporting VIPs and disabled people? It’s getting old, and the novelty is wearing very thin.

Here is the text of what I said in the above video:



You may or may not know that, for the first time in the up-coming referendum, blind people – finally – have won the right to a private ballot. Up until now, there was no way to have a private ballot if you couldn’t read the ballot paper and write on it yourself.  As a  work-around, for many years, people like myself have been entitled to the postal vote. But in fact, this was a system that was set up for people who could not physically get to a polling station on the day of the vote. So it was used as a way of ensuring that people with disabilities, particularly in rural areas, could still manage to get a vote.

However, it was not a guarantee if you had a disability. A couple of years ago, in Dublin, my mother was turned down the postal vote because she had a guide dog and access to public transport.  It was deemed that she could get to her polling station without any extra assistance. So then it became an issue of: How are you supposed to vote privately when you can’t see the ballot paper?

Robbie Sinnott succeeded in taking a case to the Supreme Court [*] under the Equality Act [**]. It means that, this time around, in polling stations around Ireland, there will be a Braille and large print template that will sit over the ballot paper, which will facilitate people with visual impairments and blind people being able to vote on their own. However, this does not extend to the postal vote.

I am going to demonstrate to you why it does need to be extended to the postal vote. I have difficulty leaving the house sometimes. My pain condition fluctuates massively from day to day, as do my energy levels. It could well happen that, on the day of a vote, I would not be able to get out of bed or out of my house. I am also visually impaired. So I am going to show you why the postal vote needs to have that template as well, in order to make sure that I also have the right to a private ballot. Which, currently, I don’t.

[In this section, I am going through the papers in the envelope containing my postal ballot paper]

This arrived in the post the other day. [Opens envelope.] Inside, there is… well, there’s a big paper-clip, so I know there’s a load of things clipped together.

So, that is what looks like the ballot paper. Now, in this case, it’s a referendum, so there’s only a yes or no. That’s relatively simple for me to work out. However, I’ve been presented with ballot papers with twenty-plus names on it. In that case, trying to make sure that you’re writing in the correct box beside the correct person is a real lottery.

If there’s one thing an election shouldn’t be, it’s a lottery.

It also includes forms, and these forms and directions and all the rest of it – they’re all just in ordinary print.

I can’t read that!

In fact, I have to get my Personal Assistant to go through all the forms, fill out any bits of information that need to be filled out, and she just puts an X where I need to sign – and I sign it. Also, she has to determine which is the correct envelope to put the correct bit of paper in. I’ve been given two here and… [shrugs] I don’t know what’s on them!

And then… I think this is the instructions, which, again, my Personal Assistant has to read out to me.

Given that it’s a referendum, obviously it’s quite straight-forward. There’s a “Yes” and a “No”, and I’m pretty sure the “Yes” will be on top and the “No” will be underneath. Nonetheless, the principle of me also being able to access a Braille and large print template, which is a frame that would fit over the ballot paper… I think it has all the text, but in much larger print, and it also has Braille. I’d be able to lay it on top of the ballot paper, read the Braille, then there would be a nicely, clearly marked tactile box. I’d be able to stick a pen into the correct box and make my mark.

I can’t do that under the current system, and therefore the government has not yet actually extended the private ballot to all the citizens of Ireland of legal voting age in every other respect – apart from disability.

That needs to change.

Remember to get out and vote, however and wherever you’re doing it.

The referendum on repealing the 8th Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland takes place on 25th May, 2018… unless, like me, you’ve already voted!

[* The case was won in the High Court]

[** I was thinking in terms of the Equality Act 2000, which has had a number of updates since. The link takes you to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the statutory body for protecting and advancing human rights and equality in Ireland]

Web Accessibility – why bother?

So you have a working computer, an internet connection and some assistive technology.  That means you can access any webpage, right?


It can be hard to explain what “web accessibility” is all about.  I thought I might furnish you with a couple of examples and a couple of general pointers. First, the examples…

Bouncers of the Internet – No blacks, No dogs, No blindies!

I’m sure you will have come across a “captcha” – that image of warpified text that claims to sort the machines from the humans.  Maybe you’ve even had a whinge about how difficult they can be to see.  If you don’t know what I’m on about, here’s an example from a Google page:

Screenshot of a visual captcha window from Google
Google Visual Captcha

I tried to understand the audio alternative about 15 times, then started to record my effort.  Bear in mind that I use JAWS, a screen-reading program that gives me audio feedback about what’s happening on my screen.  Every time you hear the word “Enter” and a slight pause, I have tried to submit my effort.  Instead of hearing the same audio again, a new audio file loads. I will give you some kind of prize if you think you can understand the words in any of the 16 captcha samples on this audio recording:

And that’s assuming the Captcha challenge even has an audio alternative, and that the button to request the audio alternative is tagged so that JAWS can detect it. These are by no means givens.

PDF – the universal format

PDF has come to be a standard way to access all kinds of texts. Sometimes, I receive a PDF attachment to an e-mail, which is supposed to carry all the information the sender wishes to communicate with me. Often, PDFs are used online for brochures and publicity – often graphics-heavy publications. They are also the standard format for academic papers and articles.

PDFs have plenty of accessibility features… if the author of the document has bothered to use them. More often, the author is concerned with how the text looks on the page, with neither thought nor care for the underlying code that orders the text. Weird things can happen to words in the most straightforward documents, with headings read as if each letter were on a separate line.

Here’s an example of how JAWS interacted with a price list for spa treatments. See if you can figure out what any of those treatments were or how much they cost…

Universal Access to All Knowledge?

The biggest kick in the teeth has to be my attempt to continue academic work. There are digital and online resources available now that I would have given selected body parts for when I was still officially a student. At the time, which is over 10 years ago now, I even attended conferences about digital humanities specifically to make known how they would be indispensible from an access point of view.

However, the effectiveness of digitisation varies wildly. The wonderful Internet Archive project, of which I’m a huge fan, still has no accessible means (i.e. keyboard-only) of uploading content. A search result has to be navigated using “G” to find graphics, rather than marking search result headers as headings. And then there’s the quality of the digitised texts themselves…

The quality of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software seems to have progressed incredibly slowly down the years. Many OCR Engines seem to imagine that long text documents use an awful lot more random punctuation than I’ve ever come across. Exclamation marks (!) often appear instead of letters I and L, and capitalisation seems a matter of taste rather than of syntax. The word “arc” is apparently more commonly used than the word “are”… I could go on. Really. I could.

The fact is, if OCR is to have ANY value, it needs to be proof-read by a human being. Even then, JAWS will pick up the odd lower-case L that has been mistaken for an upper-case I. But just scanning a book and lobbing it up on the internet does not count as “Universal Access to All Knowledge”.

I have no desire to single out the Internet Archive as an offender. As I said, I love the project. It’s what the Internet was sent from Heaven to achieve. The most recent culprit (and I find at least one a week) for bad access I’ve run into (face-first) is Academia.edu. Never mind invisible buttons and menus that can’t easily be reached. Here’s an article I tried to read this evening. Apparently, it’s about Disability Arts. Here’s what JAWS says:

And here’s a few screen shots. I use visual themes on my PC which hurt my eyes less when I need to read the screen (at least I can still do that). The size of the text at the top of the first image should give you an idea of how big it has to be before I can read it. My mum uses similar settings, although she doesn’t use screen-reading software. So this is pretty much what she’d be faced with:

NOTE: This is NOT the fault of contributers to the site. It’s down to the programmers.

First Screenshot showing a paper on Academia.edu

Second Screen shot from a paper on Academia.edu

Third Screen shot from a paper on Academia.edu

Fourth Screen shot from a paper on Academia.edu

Fifth Screen shot from a paper on Academia.edu

That’s all I have the energy for right now. This is a big topic, and it affects me every single day of my life. No doubt, I’ll need to rant on it again soon…

Further thoughts on the Disability Arts Sector in Ireland

After recovering somewhat from the shock of the Irish Arts Council withdrawing from the ADAI scheme, I finally remembered another piece of news from December that sheds a different light on this decision.

Arts and Disability Ireland announced the Ignite programme, three large-scale commissions of work by professional artists with disabilities for 2014.  I was interested when I first read the headline, “Ignite Commissions Announced: Largest ever investment in Ireland’s arts and disability sector”.  But I felt a bit let down as I read the accompanying press release, since it wasn’t a call for submissions, but an announcement of a fait accomplis.  Three established professional artists with disabilities have already been commissioned to produce high-profile works with community groups of people with disabilities in Cork, Galway and Mayo.

I have no wish to take away from the importance of high-profile professional art created in Ireland.  But it now appears that this project has been undertaken instead of continuing to support a range of artists with disabilities in progressing their careers.  With the withdrawal of the Irish Arts Council from the cross-border Arts and Disability Awards Ireland, there is no longer a support mechanism for those of us who are not yet (nor may ever be) in a position to work full-time as artists and get international recognition.

This got me thinking about an issue that has nagged at me since my days at university.  People with disabilities are not expected to have careers.  Some of us may get jobs, but we are not presumed to have a specialist skill-set, personal ambition or take a hand in deciding just what we want to do with our lives.  For example, an employment scheme set up by government agencies to “encourage” employers to take on one of these dregs of society is structured on the assumption that an employee with disabilities will be between 50% and 80% as productive as employees without disabilities.  The scheme is designed to compensate employers for the inevitable loss of productivity associated with taking on a lesser person. This precludes the possibility of an employee with disabilities being either as productive or even more productive than other workers.

The shift of focus from the Irish Arts Council from supporting career development to high-profile projects, which involve only 3 artists who are already established in their arts careers, is another example of the neglect of people with disabilities’ wishes and ambitions.  I feel that this initiative is a way of making it look as though we have a thriving disability arts sector while simultaneously withdrawing the means for developing that sector.  This feeling is intensified by the structure of the Ignite commissions, where the work will be created alongside voluntary participants from community-based disability groups.  The majority of us are expected to be participants, not leaders or instigators.

Again, while I support the overall work of Arts and Disability Ireland, (the Republic’s counterpart to the Northern Irish Arts and Disability Forum), I have long felt that they have not prioritised supporting the career development of artists with disabilities. Rather, their focus seems to have been on people with disabilities as spectators, audiences, passive consumers of “mainstream” art.  I have no complaint about the availability of audio-described theatre productions, (even if they are mostly in Dublin and mostly mainstream popular shows), but this does reinforce the vision of people with disabilities as a passive, homogenous mass without individual tastes and desires.

It’s unsurprising, since most impoverished and excluded groups are treated this way by a thoughtless “mainstream”.  Gay men are not expected to have various tastes in clothing and music. Moslem women are not expected to have differing opinions about their role in society. The poor everywhere are expected to take the scraps they’re given and be pathetically grateful. So while it may not seem as though this move by the Irish Arts Council and Arts and Disability Ireland will affect many people, it is nonetheless symptomatic of an out-dated attitude from which we in Ireland have never really broken free.

Sad News for Irish Artists with Disabilities and Deaf Artists…

I have just received this via e-mail from the Arts and Disability Forum, from whom I am now even more glad to have just received funding! This is a dark day for Disability Arts and artists with disabilities and deaf artists in Ireland.


Arts Council of Ireland withdraws from cross border awards scheme


A unique cross border scheme which has benefited dozens of disabled and deaf artists has come to an end after An Chomhairle Ealaion, the Arts Council of Ireland announced it was withdrawing its support.


The future is now uncertain for disabled and deaf artists as this signals the end of the Arts and Disability Awards Ireland (ADAI) scheme which has allocated £526,274 to 216 projects on the island since its inception.


The decision was revealed in a letter to Chris Ledger, Chief Executive of the Belfast-based Arts and Disability Forum (ADF) which has managed the scheme on behalf of both Arts Councils since the year 2000.


The ADF received the news from the Acting Head of Arts Participation of the Arts Council of Ireland. The Council’s letter stated that, as a result of an 11% reduction in its own funding, it has decided to explore alternative ways of meeting the needs of the arts and disability sector in Ireland.


Ms Ledger thanked the Arts Council of Ireland for its support over the years, adding that the scheme had been valuable in promoting the careers of disabled and deaf artists.


She said: “Of course we understand the pressures on funders but it is sad that the scheme is ending. The ADAI programme has been extremely valuable in providing dedicated year-round support for disabled and deaf artists who are on a professional career path. It has enabled them to compete in a very tough market.


She continued “Artists from both sides of the border who have received ADAI bursaries have gone on to win awards, commissions, recording or publishing deals and major grants. For example one of ‘our’ artists was shortlisted for the Hennessey Literature award last year, two albums were released, a Wellcome Trust award was granted and artist who got started with an ADAI grant has won no less than seven international awards in the past couple of years! The funding loss is not about supporting us as an organisation; the ADAI funding wasn’t about us! It levelled the playing field and enabled talented artists to overcome barriers that they face simply because they happen to be disabled or deaf.


The ADAI scheme itself is a past recipient of an Aisling award for cross-border co-operation.


Chris Ledger pledged that the ADF will continue in its work to promote excellence among artists who are disabled or deaf, saying that the ADF is now in discussions with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, exploring new possibilities for Northern Ireland artists.


She added: “We are saddened that this important cross border work has been lost but the ADF will continue to keep in contact with artists in the Republic and even though we can no longer offer money we will still showcase their work through our gallery space and events like Bounce! Arts Festival.”


Ms Ledger started to break the news to artists at the launch of ‘Ebb and Flow’, a new exhibition of landscape paintings at the ADF Gallery in Royal Avenue by talented visual artist Cathy Henderson, a previous recipient of an ADAI grant. Ms Henderson is an ideal example of how disabled artists have forged positive relationships on both sides of the border and gone on to thrive.


Born in London and living in Dublin, in 2010 she was awarded a commission from the Museums of Northern Ireland and also an RoI Artist in the Community Award. Since 1998 Cathy has taken part four times in the Great Northern Arts Festival in Canada and in 2011, with funding from Culture Ireland, she held a solo exhibition of relief prints in Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon Territory. She recently completed a commissioned project with the Dublin painter Robert Ballagh to design a commemorative artwork celebrating  the centenary of the 1913 Lockout and the establishment of the ITGWU.


Messages of support for the Arts & Disability Forum’s work can be sent to chris@adf.ie.


Notes to Editors


The ADF has received a total of 390 applications since the ADAI scheme began in 2000. From that, 218 projects from both jurisdictions have been awarded a total of £526,274.


For more information: contact Gary Kelly on gary@kellypr.co.uk, 02893340275 or 07581282723

Local Coverage – A Small Step toward World Domination

Here’s a quick interview I did on local radio station, Ocean FM, for World Sight Day, Thursday 10th October. My less-than-15-minutes starts around 42 minutes into the show.


Mobility Allowance Scrapped

This was posted by my dear friend, Kiwi Katie, in her blog on her business site, Adaptable Solutions.  Katie works as an accessibility and inclusion consultant, and is not a woman to mess with!  She rants so well that I thought it simpler to re-post what she has written about the scrapping of the Mobility Allowance and Motorised Transport Grant.

Pile of Rubbish

Yesterday, the Department of Health confirmed mobility allowance and motorised transport grants would be scrapped, despite Ombudsman recommendation for them to be widened to include people 66 and over.

Worryingly it has taken 13 years, since the introduction of the Equal Status Acts, to realize that people with disabilities exist both under and over the age of 66. Did they imagine that a disabled driver suddenly would not require modifications to their car, over the age of 66? Or that people over 66 never develop disabilities? Honestly, this notion alone is quite laughable.

Assurances have been made that the €10.6 million fund, formerly earmarked for the mobility allowance and motorised transport grants, will be utilised to meet the transport need of people with disabilities. However if this was sufficient to meet the needs of all people with disabilities then the scope of these supports would have simply been widened, as recommended. No matter which way you look at it, the 5000 people that currently rely on these supports will face cuts.

As a wheelchair user and a business owner, I simply couldn’t live my life or do my job without access to a modified vehicle. As a rural dweller, even if public transport was universally accessible, the nearest inaccessible bus stop is over a mile away and services are limited to twice daily.

Whilst the government is all too willing to consider the financial ramifications of the Ombudsman’s ruling, they seem to be completely ignoring the social implications. People are being made prisoners in their own homes and this will impact on society as a whole.

People with disabilities are: Parents whose children rely on them to drive to schools, clubs etc.; Employees / Employers trying to get to work; Consumers that play a vital role in the local economy; Over 65’s with family and community roles that continue long into retirement; Children whose unlimited potential is being stifled.

What is most abhorrent is that the value of people, with disabilities (and their families), has been completely dismissed. In a time when the government is aggressively pursuing measures to bolster domestic activity, people with disabilities are isolated. Continuous cuts in supports and services render full participation in society and the economic recovery, further and further from possible. Not only is this counterproductive, it is simply cruel!