My Journey Into Activism
By Sarah Fitzgerald
(This blog has been inspired by a group of stories which I hope will be published soon, called Conversations about Activism and Change)
It was never my life ambition to work in, or to have much to do with the disability sector. I came from a background where much of the focus was on self-improvement, on getting better, on fitting in. The closest I had experienced to disability activism as a teen was when I stayed in Clochan House with a group of seven other disabled teenagers, (including my future husband!), and we decided to keep in touch. We worked together to raise money to go away for a week to Cuisle in Co. Roscommon, which was run by the Irish Wheelchair Association. I remember feeling lazy and as if I’d let the group down because I wasn’t comfortable with the notion of raising money.
I remember one of the fundraisers entailed holding a raffle, and so I ventured out around my housing estate on my blue tricycle, knocking on doors for money. Some of these families could barely feed themselves. I remember going to one particular door. The garden was overgrown and the front step was unkempt, the paint chipped away. When I rang the doorbell an elderly lady answered, looking frightened. I think she was expecting to be mugged. She saw my money bag and the raffle tickets, and she felt sorry for me! This turned my stomach. I remember wishing that I could make a real difference, without having to blackmail others for money.
Having the privilege of availing of mainstream education had its drawbacks. I spent so much time trying to prove myself and fit in that I never gave any real thought into my identity as a disabled person. I always maintained that I wasn’t ashamed of my impairment, but yet I refused to embrace it. In secondary school, when I was exhausted from studying for my Leaving Cert, I was offered the use of a manual chair, but I turned it down. I thought that using it would mean that I was lazy and that I was somehow “less than”. Even though I realise now that some of the other students would’ve had learning disabilities, diagnosed or otherwise, I was one of three visibly impaired students in a school of seven hundred girls, and I couldn’t afford to draw more attention to myself. All I wanted to do in those days was fade into the background, pretend I didn’t exist. At times I wanted to do more than pretend and I know now, from hearing the stories of other disabled people, that I wasn’t alone in feeling isolated.
When I started my English undergrad in Trinity, my impairment didn’t seem to matter. From day one, the focus was very much centred around what could be put in place to make my life at university not only easier, but enjoyable. I was offered a laptop, a library assistant, notetakers, the use of an electric wheelchair, help with laundry and housekeeping. At first, I thought the disability service had gone overboard and that all these provisions would make me lazy, until I realised that the only thing standing between myself and a First-Class Honours was my attitude to my studies. All of the other barriers had been removed. This was my first true introduction to the social model, and it was empowering. When I completed my first year exams in Summer 2004, I decided to stay on in Dublin and I worked for Trinity’s Student Disability Service as an “access auditor”, possibly the toughest two months’ work I’ve ever done. Undertaking the audit taught me to approach inclusion from a cross-impairment perspective and to think of creative ways to remove the barriers to full access. Later, in 2011, when a pathway was constructed through the infamous cobbles in Front Square, I saw that even the seemingly immovable barriers could, in fact, be removed.
I learned so much living in Dublin for those four years, and most of it had nothing to do with English Literature. By the end of my second year, I was hungry for another summer living in Dublin. My Personal Assistant at the time tried to get me a job with PWDI [People with Disabilities in Ireland], but that didn’t work out. Trinity did not have the funding to take me back on that summer (although they took me back on for the following summer break, the summer of 2006). I started to panic. Trawling the small ads in College was unfruitful, and although I did secure some work as a freelance audio transcriber, it wasn’t enough to pay the bills. It was then that my PA came across a man called Martin Naughton, who said that he might have a job for me. I found this very weird. How could a man, who didn’t know the first thing about me, have a job for me?
Intrigued, I donned the cheap Dunnes Stores suit that I kept for job interviews and went with my PA to Chief O’Neill’s in Smithfield in Dublin. I remember waiting in the main seating area when a man in a red hat and red jumper whizzed into the room in his wheelchair. I remember feeling nervous and incredulous all at once. I’d never met a disabled person before that had that aura of self-importance, that sense of self—worth before. He was confident and unapologetic, and after five minutes of meeting him, I found myself wanting to be more like him. Little did I know that day that I was chit-chatting to one of the main founders of the Irish Independent Living Movement.
After bullshitting my way through the interview, which was more a rambling conversation about the definition and purpose of the ILM, I was told that I was the Dublin Leader Forum Coordinator and that I had to set up the Forum as per a working document written by Eugene Callan, who transpired to be nothing short of an absolute gentleman. I was offered the job much to my relief – the finances relied solely on it! – but at the baby-faced age of twenty-one, I hadn’t the foggiest idea what I was doing. And when I went to google Martin Naughton, it kept drawing blanks. I would soon learn about this great man and how his actions, alongside other activists, had such a profound direct impact on my life. Through working with Martin, I also had the opportunity to meet other people including Donal Toolan (from Inside I’m Dancing), Eileen Daly, Rosaleen McDonagh and Hubert McCormack. But these people were like no other disabled people I’d ever met before. They were talking about rights and taking back control from service providers and just fighting to live their best lives. I had never heard disabled people speak like this before. I just assumed it was a given that we had to fight for things and that we had to conform in some way. That summer changed my entire life, though I didn’t know it at the time.
In 2007 I graduated from Trinity with that all-useful English undergraduate degree and found myself pondering on what to do next. I did an interview for an internship with HP in Leixlip and I also wrote to Offaly CIL offering my services as a Creative Writing tutor. I got offered both jobs, but I turned down the Leixlip job, because it wasn’t worth the wages minus the rent in Leixlip at the time – the height of the Celtic Tiger. I still regret this; it may have altered my career path. A couple of months later, I was offered a FAS scheme as a “researcher” for OCIL. I was doomed from the outset. Having worked with Martin, I knew what independent living was supposed to look like but, being funded by the HSE, we had to be careful about projecting the conflicting messages of independence and restricted freedom. Furthermore, by September 2008, the threats of cutbacks to services started to become real, and I was reluctant to preach a message that could result in me losing my job. I constantly felt an inner conflict between wanting to keep my job and keeping true to the Philosophy. It was a miserable time that adversely affected my mental health. I went from being an occasional smoker to smoking heavily for two years. I lost interest in reading and writing. I even found myself sucked back into the throes of a dormant eating disorder. The most frustrating part of it was that I was passionate about Independent Living, about rights and equality for disabled people, but yet it felt like Independent Living was succumbing to the medical model. Often, I would go into work and spend the five hours scrolling through the internet. I would smile as I read about Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann and the emergence of a worldwide movement. But it felt like something that was “out there,” that I was not part of. And I yearned to be part of something exciting, something to be proud of.
In 2011, I decided that it was time to be brave and give my career a facelift. I was starting to feel like a liability in OCIL and I didn’t feel comfortable continuing as the tokenistic cripple in the office, so I contacted Declan Treanor in Trinity, who said he might have a job for me. I also started writing again in earnest and after a few months, set up my own blog – a Blogspot one – and starting sharing random scribbles and thoughts, which were surprisingly well received. Seasoned blogger Suzy Byrne even asked me to do a guest blog for her highly popular Maman Poulet, which was widely read and well received – an honour so early in my writing career. Declan asked me to interview the Provost of Trinity prior to his departure, in the hopes of pitching the article to the Irish Times. Things were starting to look up when, damn! – my brain stopped working for no apparent reason. Why was I so tired? I put it down to the extra work I was doing, on top of the job with OCIL, but I told myself I had to push back against the tiredness, that I’d have to get used to it. I was eating healthily, lots of exercise, going to bed early, but was still so drained.
On 18th June 2011, John Paul said to me, “Your last period was the second week of May, wasn’t it?”
Oh I’m hardly pregnant, I thought. I’m just drained from all the extra work I’m doing.
On 20th June, I did a pregnancy test. To my surprise (and I won’t lie, a fright also), it was positive. Of course, this changed everything, but little did I know it – she – would be the best thing to happen to me. Because of the pregnancy, my brain continued to jellify over the coming weeks, and soon I had to abandon my plans of impressing Declan Treanor with my words. My focus was now preparing to welcome our child into the world, which involved countless meetings with public health nurses, physios and OTs. Pregnancy was such a magical but draining experience. I was so tired all the time and I secretly wondered how I was going to muster up the energy to look after a small baby. I continued to work until a month before Alison was born. I was never going to win any “Employee of the Year” awards, but I managed to keep punching in time until the first week in January. I couldn’t really afford not to.
So, I have always been quite vocal about the challenges we faced as disabled parents when Alison was born. I feel that if my story can be used as an example of how new parents with disabilities shouldn’t be treated, then my story serves its purpose. The experience really shook me because I had lulled myself into a false sense of security. I thought I’d done the sensible thing by reaching out to the “professionals” for help before my daughter was born. Once Alison was in my arms, the attitude quickly shifted and I confess, I was not strong enough to argue back like I once might have done. I found myself compromising instead of fighting my corner out of fear that if I didn’t, I would be bringing home an empty carseat from Mullingar Hospital. I initiated breastfeeding even though I had never intended on feeding her myself. I was willing to do anything to be able to bring this little baby home. As a result, after being told I would be a danger to my own baby, JP and I reluctantly agreed to have the Public Health Nurse visit on an almost daily basis. These “visits” lasted around six months, to the time I went back to work with OCIL. JP was understandably quite angry about the whole thing, but I was petrified. I wanted to just keep my head down and behave myself and not draw any attention to myself. Alison was about three months old when I realised I had PND. It is only this year that I finally sought professional help for this, and although it is hard, I do feel that I am healing at last.
After six months I went back to work and I enjoyed it for a while, until I became frustrated once again by the movement away from the true philosophy of IL. I really thought I was going mad and at every staff meeting I was getting myself into trouble by saying things like “care plans have nothing to do with the philosophy.” Coupled with the PND, I could barely get myself out of bed in the morning. I dreaded work, but couldn’t see a way out. Again, I was torn between my passion for equal rights and my need for a job. I was the PRO, but how could I send out a message about the philosophy of independent living that, because of the medicalisation of services, wasn’t being put into practice? I must say at this stage that OCIL were great employers. It wasn’t their fault, they were working in the face of constant threats of cutbacks, which was very stressful.
In September 2012, a group of disability activists staged a three-day “action” outside Leinster House in retaliation to proposed cutbacks to disability services. Had these cutbacks gone ahead, I would’ve lost my job and PA service at the same time, which in turn would have subjected me to further scrutiny about my parenting abilities from the HSE. Luckily for many leaders like myself across the country, Health Minister James Reilly was forced to back down and reverse the proposed cutbacks. But of course, this was not the end of our woes, and to this day I still hear stories of hours being reduced to allow a disabled person the bare minimum to get up out of bed in the morning and go back to it in the early evening. What kind of life is that for anyone?
The 2012 protests awakened a sense of radicalism in me, and I began to question my own beliefs. Did I truly believe in equality for all disabled people, or only for some of us? Was everybody truly capable of Independent Living? I decided that if I didn’t truly believe that everyone- regardless of the nature or severity of their impairment – were entitled to live as they wished with the support that they needed, that I was not as progressive as I imagined myself to be. I realised that in order to be an activist, I needed to unpack my own internalised oppression, which I think will be a lifetime journey for me. I needed to trust in myself and my own worth, and I needed to be open to learning afresh what independent living meant – for everyone.
In 2014, depression took over and paralysed me. When you’re drowning and gulping in deep water, you can feel yourself sinking; you can feel the gravity sucking you down, but you can’t shout for help – at least, that’s how I felt. In July 2014, I wasn’t sleeping at all between Alison having the normal childhood illnesses like chicken pox, and feeling completely restless and depressed at once. The accumulation of depression and sleepless nights led to an incident where I attempted to take my own life. It remains the most frightening moment of my entire life. I remember abandoning the plan at 6am that morning and going to bed, only to get back up with Alison at 7.30am to get her ready for the childminder and me for work. That’s the lowest I’ve ever been, and touch wood things have never been so bad since.
That day, my colleagues took me aside and told me that they thought it best if I took time off work to sort myself out. I think they had said the words that I’d been so desperate to hear. I just needed a break, a bit of headspace, and to learn how to be kinder to that sad-looking lady who stared back at me from the mirror every morning.
Within a week, I’d decided that I needed to step back from independent living for a while and focus on forging a writing career of sorts. I signed up for a journalism course with Kilroy’s College and was surprised to learn how much I’d missed writing. I decided that I needed to make writing a priority for my mental health. It felt like writing was the only thing that would make me feel like myself again. But in one of the lessons, the instruction was to write about what I knew. What did I know the most about? – Independent Living. I started writing about independent living in a way I’d never felt comfortable doing before. In my blogs, which I would say are entirely my own views and opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of any organisation or people, I questioned the status quo of how services were funded and provided to disabled people in Ireland, and how, since the recession, disabled people had lost so much control over every aspect of their lives.
I had always felt so alone in my frustrations, so it was a huge surprise to see that when I started sharing the blogs, people were agreeing with what I had to say about the realities facing me as a disabled person in Ireland. I started writing about myself, but in no time at all, “I” became “we” and I had the support of a like-minded community I didn’t even know existed. The blogs started to be widely shared and discussed -my humble words that I wrote in the secrecy of my office, enveloped safely in my oversized bathrobe – were being read by activists and allies across the globe. It’s quite humbling and also frightening because I keep forgetting that it’s a global platform – more often than not, I treat it like my own personal diary, which I probably should stop doing… after this post, of course.
A year of blogging, writing novels and articles, and doing a Creative Writing course flew by, and my confidence was growing. I was moving away from Independent Living, and I missed it, but still felt conflicted. Then, just as I had given up hope of contributing anything valuable to the Irish disability movement, my friend and mentor- the guy who had taken a chance on me in 2005 – the great Martin Naughton, passed away in October 2016. I didn’t expect to feel so upset and lost. Nor did I expect to be given an opportunity to show him how much he had meant to me. A week after the funeral, Susan O’Brien from Carmichael House contacted me and asked would I like to get involved in organising an event to commemorate Martin and other activists. I jumped at the chance.
A group of us met in Carmichael House in Dublin to discuss what form this event would take. There, I met the great John Doyle who I’ve written about before, and Ann Marie Flanagan, Dermot Hayes and Shelly Gaynor, who I now regard as one of my closest friends. From day one I felt accepted, although I’d never met any of them before. They were talking about rights and they were so energetic and ambitious, and I yearned to be a part of that. I offered to set up a blog promoting the event and to be trusted to do that was the highest honour. I also offered a piece of drama which my peers encouraged me to perform at the event in the Mansion House in September 2017. These people were pushing me far beyond my comfort zone in every way, and I loved it.
The event became a catalyst for the regrouping of the Independent Living Movement. To my absolute glee, I found that there were people like me who wanted to bring back passion and excitement to the movement. Hearing the stories of more seasoned activists ignited a hunger in me. I was warmly welcomed by my peers and I felt a real sense of community that I never felt before. I felt like I belong. In April 2018 I was co-opted to the Board of what became a new, vibrant organisation – Independent Living Movement Ireland. Had I not found my own writing voice, I might never have been offered that opportunity. I need to stop underestimating the power of this humble little blog!
It’s been a busy time, and over a short period ILMI has progressed from being an organisation that only a few people had heard of, to being one of the main promoters of disability rights in Ireland. During the pandemic, ILMI has actively facilitated the growth of the modern-day Independent Living Movement via Zoom, ensuring that even in these difficult circumstances, the voices of disabled people are heard. Over the last three years, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to write a short dramatic monologue, several articles and blogs, and even to compile a collection of twelve activists’ personal journeys. ILMI have been very good to me, and I am thankful to them for that.
Going forward, I hope to do more writing. Life is too short to regret the words not written. Of course disability is not everything, and I want to write about other things, and I have a few projects and stories in the pipeline that I hope will come to fruition, but I’m not ashamed to be a disability blogger. At least people can take or leave it, and I’m not going around the neighbourhood looking for stray coppers. I want to play a part in making improvements – wider societal improvements that’ll benefit us all – that will lend us a sense of equality and belonging.
Sarah Fitzgerald is a disabled activist and writer and blogs at wobblyyummymummy.com
She is also secretary of ILMI.
She has written this piece in her own capacity.