REMARKS BY PRESIDENT McALEESE ON THE OCCASION OF THE GRANT OF THE FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT INTERNATIONAL DISABILITY AWARD FOR 1998 TO IRELAND (New York, 5 May 1999)

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The Irish people take a real pride in being the recipients of this Award which is presented annually to a nation that makes noteworthy national progress towards the goal of full participation of citizens with disabilities as encouraged by the United Nations World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons. While we feel privileged and pleased to be the recipient country, we know this Award carries with it a serious moral obligation to ensure that we maintain and accelerate the momentum for change in disability related policies and service provision, which led to our selection in the first instance.

Growing up in Ireland as one of a family of nine children, one of whom, my brother John, is profoundly deaf, has given me some understanding of the sense of exclusion and loneliness which is the experience of so many disabled people. One might expect that the experience of my brother John in growing up among so many brothers and sisters, to say nothing of some 60 first cousins, would mitigate that loneliness which so often is the experience of deaf people; yet the sad truth is that the world organises itself and its affairs around the strong and able-bodied. What is true at the macro level is also regrettably true at the micro level. The other eight children in my family (all hearing) similarly organised our lives around the fact that we had the ability to hear and to speak. My strongest memory of John is of a tug at my elbow as the rest of us gabbled and laughed and played.  He would pull my elbow and sayóëRemember meóIím here tooí. John had to do a lot of tugging before we brought a consciousness of his problems into the mainstream of our lives. Even today he still tugs elbows.

That need to constantly ëtug at the elbowí is a metaphor which applies generally for the disabled in the world in which we live, the world that the able-bodied and those of us who can see and hear, have created. We organise our lives, our education systemsóevery aspect of policy makingóaround the fact that most of us have no disability. Those who do, are forced to remind us that they are here, that they exist, that they have particular needs. It is a matter of shame that they should have to remind us that they, too, need companionship and fulfilment in their lives, that they need to be included. That unless we shape our world to take account of those needs, they will be excluded from aspects of life that the rest of us take for granted.

That is what we must change. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to ensure that this situation is not permitted to continue. We need to shape our world, the decisions we take, the policies we make, in a way that takes account spontaneously of people with disabilities, their existence and their needs, without requiring constant reminders. Sadly, we are not yet at that point. We have failed our people with disabilities and, in the process, seriously damaged our society. How much talent has been wasted because people with disabilities have not been given the opportunities and means to develop their gifts? How much genius has been lost forever to our world because of this? That loss has not only been a personal tragedy for the individuals whose talents have remained untried ñ it has also immeasurably impoverished our society. In creating a world in which those talents are unlocked, those gifts allowed to bloom, we will all be the richer for it.

In the meantime, awards such as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award, are important reminders of the needs of the disabled, of letting their voice be heard, particularly where decisions are being made which concern them. In accepting this award I am conscious of the work that has been done by the many unsung heroesópeople who care for the disabled and who have contributed to the raising of consciousness for the rights of people with disabilities.

Let me firstly single out the Carers for particular mention, for they are the ones that bear the greatest burden of caring for and assisting people with disabilitiesóand they are so often forgotten when we congratulate ourselves on the progress we have made. Many of those carers are relatives of people with disabilities, sometimes ageing, coping with the fear of what will happen to their loved one when they are gone or are in need of care themselves. At huge personal sacrifice, they are the ones whose love and dedication has given basic dignity to the lives of people with disabilities, making up for deficiencies in services.  Theirs is a lonely and often thankless job. Today, I would like to say thank you.  Your efforts have made this world a less uncaring place. Your dignity and courage is a reminder that in a world often obsessed with the self, incredible generosity of spirit still exists.

I would like to commend also the many voluntary groups which have done so much to improve the lives of people with disabilities. They, too, are often forgotten, quietly but heroically carrying out their work day by day. They comprise countless men and women, lay and religious alike, often whose only reward is the knowledge that they have made an immeasurable difference in the lives of so many. We owe you our heartfelt thanks.

Over so many years, voluntary bodies representing people with disabilities have campaigned tirelessly for the rights of the disabled, for the provision of services which allow them to live lives of fulfilment, of basic human dignity. I will be pardoned, I hope, if I single out one such organisation for particular mentionóThe Irish Council of People with Disabilities. It is an organisation which comprises people with disabilities and was established just over two years ago, operating with the financial support of the Irish government. Its mission is to give a voice to people with disabilities in the decision making process in matters that concern them, giving meaning to the slogan used by people with disabilities ëNothing about us without usí. Apart from its achievements in giving a sense of empowerment to many people with disabilities, it was the Council that nominated Ireland for this award. I wish the Council well in the vital work in which it is engaged.

The award includes a prize of $50,000 which is to be presented to an outstanding non-government disability programme in Ireland. Accordingly, in recognition of their achievements in promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities, and, in particular, to mark the recent announcement that Ireland is to host the Special Olympics World Summer Games in 2003, it is appropriate that this will be presented to Special Olympics Ireland. I believe that in conjunction with the holding of the Special Olympics in Ireland, receipt by Ireland of this award will play its own significant part in raising disability awareness and in advancing the interests of people with disabilities in society.

We have taken important steps in building that world of which I have spoken, a world in which people with disabilities can take their place as of right, as equals in society. The Irish artist and writer, Christy Brown, whose autobiography My Left Foot, was later filmed so successfully, has written of how his own talent:
sang once in a rare moment
a small pure indomitable sound
escaping from twisted strings

There is still a long distance to travel before the talents and gifts of all people, regardless of disability, are allowed to sing; a long time before we as a society leave behind prejudice and rejudgement and notice only the beauty of the song. But I believe the momentum is unstoppable. I would like to thank all of you associated with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award for bringing that world one step closer.

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