It was both an honour and a privilege to be included as a member of the Irish delegation of the 5th European Parliament of Persons with a Disability on 23rd May. I knew it would bring together over 600 delegates with disabilities from across Europe, representing the diversity of the European disability movement. In 2024 there will a European election which meant this would be a great opportunity to push the disability agenda.
In preparation for my trip as the Rehab representative in the Disability Federation of Ireland delegation I spoke with a focus group of Rehab service users. I spoke to a group of six people who had applied to be a part of the delegation. My main question was “had you been successful in your application, what would you have said in Brussels?”. The conversation was hugely beneficial because they were able to bring forward topics that I would never have thought of. They came to me with topics such as the sexual health of women with a disability, discrimination of blind people in education, the adoption of the Scottish model for employment etc I began to look forward to the trip even more because I felt I now had plenty to say if I were to speak with any of the Irish MEPs.
Day one of our trip started in Dublin airport as each member of our delegation filtered through security towards the gate, gathering and putting faces to the names that we had seen only on Zoom calls up to that point. Unfortunately, it was not long before the reasons we were travelling to Brussels became all too apparent. The sense of optimism and excitement we all had mixed with pride and determination was palpable as we all sat around at the gate waiting to board our flight. However before we ever left the terminal the issues that disabled people face on a daily basis came to the fore yet again. As we waited patiently and watched all other passengers board ahead of us we were met by just two members of the disability support team who would be in charge of our safe and comfortable boarding of the plane. It quickly became apparent to any of those of us who had flown before that they would be out of their depth attempting to board a delegation of 13 people with disabilities when there were only two of them. Of our group I could see at least five would need to be fully lifted onto an aisle chair, wheeled down the aisle, and lifted from one seat to another until we reached our required window seats. The airline had been notified of how many people with disabilities needing support would be travelling on the flight but still they and the support team had only arranged for two people to be responsible for bringing this number of people aboard the plane.
The now increasing sense of dread was heightened when a Ryanair member of staff in charge of cargo walked around our party visually sizing up each of our chairs. Strolling around the group like a farmer deciding which turkey was plump enough for slaughter at Christmas, he finally settled on Carolyn and informed her that her chair would not fit in the hold. Panicked, she swiftly took out a set of allen keys and began dismantling parts of her chair in the hope of making it fit in the plane. In the meantime the rest of the delegation began boarding the flight and one by one each of us needing a lift on board the plane were wheeled on the tiny aisle chair through the planeful of now disgruntled and delayed passengers. A dignity sapping and dehumanising experience of being wheeled on like a prize nobody wanted was only made worse by an announcement by the pilot apologising to the other passengers for the delays as we wait for “the wheelchair passengers to board”. The undignified entrance and the onus was now put on us for any annoyance that our fellow passengers may have felt. The humiliation of being singled out and reduced to the wheelchair people was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many and complaints were made resulting in a face to face apology from the Captain.
Once we were settled in our seats we all hoped that that was the end of the drama of our journey only to see the man in the high-vis jacket back again, knowing full well that he was not the bearer of good news, making his way down to Carolyn’s seat. He informed her that her chair would not fit in the hold of the plane despite efforts to make it smaller. She was left with only two choices: give up on a huge experience and return home or venture on and leave her chair, her independence, and much of her dignity behind. She chose to go anyway, knowing there would be a humiliating wait at the other end as somehow they tried to source a wheelchair for her, knowing the pain she would experience when the alternative chair would not meet her full requirements, and knowing that during the few days her independence would be massively curtailed. These are the realities of air travel for persons with a disability. These are not the exception, these are the rules, these are the things we were going to Brussels to try and change.
Our visit to the Parliament the following day meant an early start so we would all be bright eyed and bushy tailed for the registration and security checks to enter the Parliament buildings. The security checks were what you would expect with an important intergovernmental building. The airport style security really cemented in our heads the importance of the day ahead. Much of the interior of the building seemed like the inside of any other civil service building but all that changed once we got to the Hemicycle. The Hemicycle is the main room that you see on television when you see MEPs debating with one another. It’s a huge room, an auditorium, a colosseum of democracy with hundreds of seats behind desks with microphones focusing in on one main desk flanked either side by two large screens. These screens would, throughout the day, broadcast images of each speaker with subtitles underneath and the signed language interpreter to the right of it. Along each outer wall ran darkened glass behind which were rooms with language interpreters. As we pulled into position behind the desk marked with a sign saying Ireland I really got a sense of pride that: “I’m really representing Ireland and this might be somewhere I might make a difference”.
We started out with an address from the President of the European Disability Forum Yannis Vardakastanis. His address would set the tone for the rest of the day and it did not disappoint. It gave each of us a sense of drive and passion for what was about to come. For a long time the mantra for persons with a disability has been Nothing About Us Without Us. Yannis contended that this should be changed to a more simple but also more profound Nothing Without Us. This new mantra would encompass the need for people with disabilities to be involved in all aspects of daily politics, daily life, and daily living and that at any point where there was planning for how society would look in the future that disabled people should be involved in each step of this process. If this were the case the future of the EU would be created with the lived experience of a person with a disability in mind.
This outlook was central in the manifesto of the European Disability Forum. The manifesto outlined that disabled people need to be involved in each government process, whether that be to stand as local Councillors, TDs, or MEPs or even being able to vote in accessible polling stations. The manifesto seeks to have freedom of movement for people with disabilities across the EU. The practical solution to this is the EU Disability Card. Currently it is only on trial in eight countries and only for leisure purposes. While you travel between these countries you can enjoy the same supports: parking, concessions for entry to leisure activities etc.
This card could be pivotal in uniforming all services for people with disabilities across Europe to ensure that people with disabilities would have greater ability and freedom to travel around Europe and enjoy some of the key benefits of the EU. Since the EU’s inception the ability to travel abroad for study or employment has been what people have most enjoyed about the institution. This has never really been available to people with disabilities. If I wanted to move to Brussels after my experiences on the trip to become an MEP, I would have to do so knowing I would be leaving all my support services, personal assistant services, behind me in Ireland. This, in reality makes that impossible. The Disability Card would make it possible to bring those services with me until I’m fully registered in my country of choice.
The introduction of such measures would be particularly special from my own experience. I knew that in University when I was studying Hispanic studies that I had the opportunity to travel abroad for a year. Unlike a lot of my fellow students I stayed where I was because I knew that the opportunity of traveling abroad, as much as it would have been hugely beneficial for my spoken Spanish, it really was just a pipe dream at that time. I would not be given the opportunity to bring my PA support service that I had in Cork at the time with me to live independently in Spain during that year. I felt it the following year; in my final year I was met with a group of students returning from their year abroad. Their standard of Spanish had risen the bar completely. While I was toward the top of the class the previous year, this year I felt so much more behind in comparison to those around me. Not only had I missed out on the opportunity of a valuable experience of living abroad but now I was struggling to keep up with the standards of my fellow students.
Throughout the day in Brussels I was conscious of why we were there. I was able to nip out of the lectures that were ongoing in the hemicycle in order to meet with Irish MEPs such as Sean Kelly, Maria Walsh, and Ciarán Cuffe. We were able to have conversations about the European Disability Forum manifesto and also the topics that I had brought with me from my focus group back home. It was a great opportunity and insured the day would not only be informative but also productive. We were very fortunate to have another opportunity to meet some MEPs the following day too in the Irish Embassy where we got to play out those tropics again with Frances Fitzgerald, Deirdre Clune, and Grace O’Sullivan.
As we looked around throughout the day it was clear the scope and the magnitude of such an event, there were 734 activists there presenting a true representation of disability across the four corners of Europe. It reflected the true diversity that is involved with disability from physical and intellectual disabilities to sensory disabilities. Many stories stuck out in my mind as I listened to the speeches throughout the day not least the story of our own Carolyn Akintola who detailed our experiences on the flights over the day before and having to leave her wheelchair behind her in Dublin. Her Passion in her speech was clear and was not lost on those listening. Once she finished her speech there was an outpouring of applause, cheering, stomping, and waving. It was easily the largest reaction received throughout the day. Someone later pointed out that “to get a standing ovation at a disability event is quite the achievement!”.