In February 2011 I made a decision to contest the General Election –a decision that has changed the course of my life.
For ten years I had been trying to advocate on behalf of people with a disability when my son was diagnosed at the age of three with a moderate intellectual disability. He had attended early intervention services with the HSE until the age of four. However as soon as he entered a St John of Gods school I was dismayed to be informed me that he was no longer eligible for HSE services and could instead only receive them from St John of Gods despite there being no services available there. And there started the long journey that is familiar to every parent and carer of a child with a disability –the road to find services, to access services and to keep informed.
I joined the Parents’ association in the school, later joined the board of management and continued over the next ten years to advocate locally for better services in respite, physiotherapy, speech therapy, occupational services all of which continue to be so difficult to access.
In 2010 my son had an operation which required him to remain in a wheelchair for several months and I saw for the first time the additional obstacles that wheelchair users have to overcome. I was horrified to discover that we could not access wheelchair transport despite a wheelchair bus travelling in our locality to the school on a daily basis.
I wrote to the Department of Education, wrote to Ministers and tried to point out that their proposed means of transport was in fact costing them and us more money and that there really was a much simpler answer. However my letters, phone calls and pleas fell on deaf ears. I became more vocal and frustrated as I received one line standard replies from Ministers and officials. In January 2011 I relayed my deep concerns in a conversation one night and was surprised when I received a phone call from the Labour Party Head office the next day to meet and discuss the forthcoming General Election.
Over the following week I had a series of meetings with Labour head Office where we discussed my running for Election. At first I dismissed the suggestion, citing family commitments, work commitments and numerous other reasons not to run. However I realised that there was no point in me complaining about the system if I was not prepared to do something about it. So I decided to make a stand. That was probably the most monumental decision in my life to date.
Within hours of reaching my decision to contest the election, poster photos were taken and I was drafting Election Literature. My life had taken a completely different and daunting direction.
I had nineteen days to canvass. After half an hour on the road I was hooked. I was heartened by the support I received from people who fully supported my efforts and the many people who had similar views and experiences to me and who encouraged me every step of the way.
My main goal for standing in the General Election was to highlight the huge gaps in services and supports for people with a disability. I was delighted to receive 4,500 first preference votes and an overall final vote of just under 7,000 votes. Despite not being elected I felt I had achieved a great deal. This was supported when I was honoured to receive the nomination to contest the Seanad Elections from Inclusion Ireland. This was a different kind of election and involved travelling around the country to seek support. Once Again I narrowly missed being elected. However I had gained so much from my experience. On May 20 I was honoured to receive a Taoiseach’s nomination to the Seanad.
Since then I have acted as Seanad Labour Spokesperson on Disability. I am delighted to receive constant support from Minister Kathleen Lynch in this area. I welcome the opportunity to meet with and support the work of disability groups throughout the country and the many representations that I have received from parents, individuals and organisations alike. It is a difficult time to be in government. Huge challenges remain in all areas of disability. The economic downturn has seriously impacted on all sectors of the community and the Government cuts in the area of disability have been hard to say the least. The recent decisions on the cuts to Respite Care Grant and on the Motorised Transport Grant and mobility allowance in particular have caused widespread concern throughout the country. However some of the proposed alternative cuts would have been much more difficult and I continue to work to ensure that cuts in the disability sector can be kept to a minimum.
There are many strong advocates for disability in the Seanad- people from all parties who have firsthand experience in the area or who have worked with people with a disability for many years. It is important that the voice of the disabled is heard at all times and I welcome the cross party support in the Seanad for many disability debates that have come before the house in the past two years.
Life has many unexpected twists and turns. Sometimes we wonder at the direction it takes. I am so grateful for the opportunity that I have been given in the Seanad and know that I would not have had the courage and determination to undertake this journey were it not for my son, and the many people I have met who strive daily in many different ways to achieve a better, more equal world for people with a disability.