With over 15,000 people with disabilities living in Waterford (according to the 2011 Census), it’s high time that this significant portion of our population made its voice heard at the ballot box.
That was the clarion call issued by Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI) representative PJ Cleere at the Waterford Disability Network’s (WDN) Employability Conference, which was held at Dooley’s Hotel on Tuesday last.
“It’s worth noting how much goodwill there is for people with disabilities throughout the city and county – and it’s as genuine as it’s welcome,” said Mr Cleere, who is the DFI’s South East Support Officer.
“And we heard several positive testimonies this morning, both from an employee and an employers’ perspective about the equality that’s being achieved in workplaces here in Waterford (including Costa Coffee, Ardkeen Stores, Toymaster and The Granary Café), and it’s wonderful to see genuine progress being made when it comes to employing people with disabilities. It’s no longer merely an aspiration – it’s happening.”
But more, Mr Cleere added, needs to be done, and that message needs to be broadcasted loudly and clearly by advocacy/support groups for people with disabilities between now and the general election.
“I believe the true unemployment figure for people with disabilities is closer to 80 per cent than the 60 per cent figure which is regularly referred to,” he claimed.
“It’s worth pointing out that people who are not on the Live Register are not included in the unemployment figures – and people with disabilities in Ireland, of which there are at least 600,000 people – have never been included in the Live Register figures.
“And because of that, there are many job activation programmes which people with disabilities cannot avail of due to their not being on the Live Register.
“And the cost of disability remains unaddressed, and was not addressed in the recent Budget. It’s been shown by the Central Statistics Office and the ESRI that having a disability costs about a third of your income. We’ve asked for this to be taken into consideration for a long time by successive Governments, but unfortunately we’re still waiting.”
And given the range of issues which Mr Cleere feels has yet to be fully addressed by the Government, he has challenged conference delegates to start beating a pre-election drum.
“We need to ensure that people with disabilities are factored into Waterford City & County Council’s new six-year Community and Economic Plan, and I made that point to Mayor (John) Cummins earlier – and he’s the chair of that particular committee. So I hope that people with disabilities here in Waterford can and will be included in some strategies that can be realised here locally, and it was welcome to be able to make that point to him.”
Mr Cleere added: “The voices of people with disabilities need to be heard in every way…after all, according to the last Census, there are 15,635 people in Waterford with a disability – that’s one in seven of the total population of this city and county.
“And while not all of that significant number of people are old enough to be in employment, one way or the other, you’re still talking about one in seven people in Waterford.
“And we need to make the voices of people with disabilities heard during the general election campaign, they need to be visible and they also need to be informed. DFI is looking for spokespeople on the ground, advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, between now and the election, and we hope that we’ll get some support for this in Waterford, South Tipperary and right across the south east. And when we’re talking about those with disabilities who are unemployed, we are not saying that they are unemployable. And when you factor in the family, friends and carers of the unemployed, it’s abundantly clear that the issues impacting upon people with disabilities has a consequence on a number greatly in excess of 15,000 people in Waterford. We need to speak up, and it’s time to speak up.”
WDN Chairperson John McDonald echoed PJ Cleere’s call for action from people with disabilities ahead of the hustings.
“The general public were clearly engaged and energised by the Marriage Equality referendum campaign; yet that change in the law will directly impact on a smaller proportion of the population than any Government measures taken in relation to people with disabilities,” he told The Munster Express.
“Groups like DFI and ourselves, we’ve been trying to put in place a framework where we’re all working together coherently on an issue, be it transport, be it employment, in the hope that one clear voice can emerge and advocate for people with disabilities so that we can become a more effective national lobby group. The days of operating at cross purposes or sending out mixed messages have to be put behind us.”
John McDonald added: “If we, as a proportion of the population, were represented in the Dáil on a per head issue, you’d be talking between 18 and 20 TDs in Leinster House – but let’s face it, we’ve never been anywhere near that level of representation. If we had, there’s no doubt it would make a big difference to us and would give us a much stronger voice when it comes to legislation, when it comes to amending work activation measures and so on.
“There are some politicians who have their finger on the pulse, such as Senator David Cullinane, who hardly ever misses any WDN event, and it was great to have Mayor Cummins here, to not only address the meeting, but to listen to some of our speakers and speak with delegates. But of course, we’d be much better off if we had more political representation, and PJ is right: we’ve got to put election candidates to the pin of their collar between now and election day.”
Mr McDonald lamented the absence of many high profile employers at the conference (a total of 140 invites were sent to businesses throughout the city and county) and was disappointed that neither Waterford Chamber nor the Waterford Business Group were formally represented at Dooley’s on Tuesday last.
Nonetheless, he was enthused by the positive feedback and interaction of employees and employers alike.
“There is a lot of goodwill in the city and the county, and it’s great to have so many employers in Waterford on board and walking the walk on this.
“Equality can take many, many years to bring about – don’t I know it – but the more employers we can positively engage with in Waterford, then I know we can get more people with disabilities into the workplace and contributing in a more meaningful sense to the economy of our city and county.” (We’ll have more on the WDN Conference in future editions)