This is following up on my previous post about Ireland’s pending ratification of the UN CRPD.
Blind people have to shoulder costs of living which do not apply to people with eye sight.
This circumstance is relatively easy to grasp – it is not some abstract notion but rather a pretty obvious fact. There are countries, such as Germany, where these costs are taken care of by the social state through a universal monthly payment to compensate what has been agreed upon by legislators and experts as recurring blindness-related costs of living.
However, not so in Ireland!
In Ireland blindness support payments are means-tested based on the income of the entire household. The blind pension is therefore treated like any other social welfare payment, just with another label. In the light of the pending ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) I furnished Ministers Leo Varadkar (DSP) and Finian McGrath with my views on the matter. Here is an excerpt of the response.
The primary objectives of the illness and disability payments administered by this Department are:
· To provide income support for people of working age who are unable to engage (either fully or partially) in employment arising out of a health related condition, and
I am well able to work despite my blindness; and it is characteristic of the DSP’s attitude and the resulting legislation that I even have to use the words work, despite and blindness within the same sentence. By implication, if a blind person has found employment, they are deemed too fit to receive blindness support payments, which leads me directly to the following passage.
· To encourage and assist people with disabilities and long-term illnesses to identify and take up available employment, training, educational and other self-development opportunities, where appropriate.
“(…) Where appropriate.” Wo defines what is appropriate? The Irish government? Democratically elected individuals who claim to take care of their citizens, who signed the CRPD ten years ago but have yet to demonstrate their effort to put it into action?
To encourage people: If I find full-time employment, I lose my blindness support payments. Hence, I have less disposable income than my workmates with the same qualification and salary. I have to use my salary to compensate the effects of a condition
• which I did not choose,
• which has had me face many barriers and prejudices towards blind people and
• which has cost me more effort, time and money to get there at all.
The department’s concept of encouragement translates into real-life social welfare terms as follows: I refer to a senior civil servant who said to my wife that she is “a fool for working”, and that the two of us would be better off financially if we were both on the dole.
The most telling statement by the Minister
In the Irish context, cost of disability is mostly understood as being defined as the extra income required by a disabled household to achieve the same standard of living as an equivalent household. While the basic concept of a cost of disability is not disputed, it is not the function of the income support system to address the additional costs associated with a disability.
Here is the Minister of State for Disability Issues reducing the fact of disability-related costs of living to a mere concept. Mr. McGrath, this is not a debate whether Pluto matches the commonly accepted concept of what defines a planet. Moreover, I am talking about humans, their every-day lives and their struggles therein – humans of whom your government takes care, apparently. The terms disabled household and equivalent household. alone give people the impression that this government has spent little time even thinking about the CRPD.
It was then highlighted that there are other payments, for example, from the Health Service – also means-tested – and tax reliefs.
I can claim a VAT refund on assistive technology such as screenreader software or my laptop with built-in accessibility features, to which I say: Well, yes! Whilst funding is being made available to make houses wheelchair-accessible, and recurring blindness-related costs are ignored, a one-off VAT refund is the least we can expect.
My wife enjoys an income tax relief of €600 per year. This might sound decadent, but it amounts to less than €12 per week, which does not even pay for one return taxi ride per week when my wife is at work and unable to give me a lift.
Accordingly, the Department of Social Protection has no plans to establish a cost of disability payment within the social protection system.
This leads me to my last question: What is the government going to do instead? Tweets and Facebook posts by ministers and TDs gaining publicity for others’ successes – “Today, I visited (insert random organisation of choice) to congratulate them on the successful launch of their (insert random charitable project of choice).” – might not suffice to convince the public nor the UN that this government takes the ratification of the CRPD seriously.
Minister McGrath, at the end of your term as the Minister for Disabilities, what will be your achievement about which you will say: “I did that.”?
Minister Varadkar, current Minister for Social Protection, you have recently claimed leadership of the ruling party and the country. Are you going to link your present position and your leadership competence? When is your government going to ratify the UN CRPD? Are you going to make inclusion happen? Are you going to enable blind citizens to become more active participants in the labour market without the present financial constraints for themselves and their spouses?
This is my blindness and not my spouse’s!
Blind people have moved on from making brushes and bird houses, and the legislation should follow.
The pending ratification of the CRPD may just be the right time to rethink this legislation.