INTERVIEW WITH MARY GORDON, DISABILITY LEGAL RESOURCE

Interviewed by Liza Kelly (The office of the Disability Legal Resource is at Carmichael Centre, Coleraine House, Coleraine St, Dublin 7; Tel: 01-8728764.)

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How does the political process facilitate improvements for people with intellectual disability?
The political process is an excellent forum to facilitate improvements for people with intellectual disability. It is through democracy that change is most effectively enacted and the needs of the people are reflected through legislation and political strategy. The politicians are representatives of the people and this includes persons with a disability.

How does the political process inhibit the lives of people with intellectual disability?
Unfortunately, many political processes are cumbersome and confusing. This can lead to people shying away from utilising the political sphere as a means of asserting their rights. We must clarify political mechanisms to create an all-inclusive society. We must also draw politicians’ attention to the needs of people with intellectual disabilities and the correct way of affording these rights, based on the personal wants and needs of people with intellectual disabilities.

What advice would you give to a campaigner for the rights of people with intellectual disability about how to fully vindicate those rights?
To fully vindicate rights it is of paramount importance to clarify rights, entitlements and avenues of enforcement. It is vital that campaigners for the rights of people with intellectual disability are equipped with the requisite knowledge and awareness of legal rights to empower disabled people to access existing legal mechanisms, resulting in a more inclusive society where people with disabilities are treated as equal citizens. Through rights awareness and legislation training days, such as the ones facilitated by the Disability Legal Resource, campaigners and people with disabilities realise the importance of being aware of their rights. It highlights to campaigners the ways and means a person with intellectual disability can assert these rights. It is also up to campaigners to lobby the government on behalf of people with intellectual disability and to place the rights of people with disabilities on the political radar.

What are the shortcuts that can speed change through the political system?
To speed up change through the political system it is imperative that the campaigners and their respective groups stand together is getting rights-based legislation. A strong voice is needed to make the political forces take notice, and for them to take the rights of people with intellectual disability into account when enacting legislation and policies. To speed up change it is vital that campaigners strengthen existing ties with the politicians and create new links for future growth. Campaigners fighting for the rights of people with disability are essential. At the crux of this is the need for people with intellectual disability to trust campaigners to create such links within the political forum.

If you were a person with an intellectual disability and wanted to obtain a service that you were entitled to but were not getting it how would you go about getting it?
To receive a service that you are entitled to, it is fundamental that people with intellectual disability are aware of organisations that are there to help them. An objective third party can often intervene and act as advocate for a person with an intellectual disability to help them to procure the service that they have been denied. Comprehensive but easily-understood publications listing support groups should be made available to persons with intellectual disabilities to enable them to assert their right to a particular service. It is also vital that people with disabilities are aware of their rights and that, if those rights are violated, they are aware of means of redressing such violation—or at least of a group that can assist them.

What relationship should exist between politicians and campaigners for people with disabilities?
I believe that the current relationship between the politicians and campaigners for people with disabilities is too ambiguous. Campaigners in the disability sector realise that promises are often made, but sometimes are not followed through. It is a common problem that campaigners from the disability sector are consulted, but are not really listened to. This can sometimes leave campaigners with a degree of apathy and disillusionment. To remedy this, it is necessary that the politicians listen to campaigners and members of the disability sector. Effective consultation is needed to lead to effective change, with the rights of those with disabilities at the forefront. Politicians need to be educated on the merits of and need for rights-based legislation. This would result in a more collegial approach to the effective vindication of the rights of people with disabilities.

Are politics relevant at all or is change primarily brought about through the courts, the media or direct action?
To bring about lasting and effective change it is necessary to utilise the influence of all of the above avenues. Politics and political decisions are often the catalyst for change as politics is based on the will of the people in a democratic society such as our own. This is then reflected in legal decisions of the courts, which set down the precedent to entrench such positive change based on the will of the people into every decision that follows. The courts make such decisions, keeping in mind both domestic and international documents such as the Irish Constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights, thus leading to a decision that is based on the rights of the person. This is of particular significance in the present climate with the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into Irish domestic Law. Consequently, every decision made in the Irish Courts must be made while taking into consideration this rights-based international document. Finally the media are the greatest fora through which change can be enacted. It is often hugely beneficial to bring to the general public’s attention the need for change and to illustrate this point through personal stories. This leads us back to the influence that politics has vis-à-vis change. If the need for change is brought to public attentionm then the politicians are often left with no choice but to take the needs of the vulnerable into consideration.

Do you think the system should operate through the application of political influence?
I believe that the application of political influence is vital, but it needs to be coupled with extraneous influences such as the judiciary and the media. It is critical that the needs of people with intellectual disabilities are brought to everyone’s attention and that it is demonstrated to every cross-section of society that these needs are not being met.

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