(The Irish Times) A woman with a serious disability who requires the support of a personal assistant has been told she cannot take part in any political activity if her PA is with her.

Christine Fenton, who has been living with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) for almost 30 years, told a seminar held in UCD to highlight the barriers to political representation and activism for people with disabilities, that a contract she recently received from an organisation providing personal assistants to people with disabilities had prohibited her from using a PA “to involve myself in political activities.”

She said the contract stated that if she did not use her PA she could attend political meetings. “But I am unable to go to any meetings or events without a PA,” she said.

She stressed that political engagement was “a basic rights of any individual and it has been stopped, it is an abuse of power”.

The seminar was organised by disability rights advocate Vivian Rath who told The Irish Times that barring people with personal assistants from engaging in political life was “a significant issue”.

He stressed that there were other obstacles standing in the way of people with disabilities from engaging in political discourse and activism, and he pointed out that people with disabilities remain hugely underrepresented at all levels of the political spectrum.

He added that the issue had yet to be addressed in a substantive way by those in power. “I feel we need to open a discussion about this. For a start I think people with disabilities would like to see people in the Dáil that represent them and their experience. There are a lot of people out there with disabilities who are very capable of taking leadership roles but we need to support them.”

His theme was echoed by Independent MEP for Connacht Ulster Marian Harkin. She said that although “work has been done” which is aimed at making civic life more inclusive for people with disabilities “we have an awful lot more progress that we need to make”.

She suggested that if those who in power are “serious about including people with disabilities in public life, in political bodies and other groups” quotas systems should be considered at local, national and EU level.

She said “not all disabilities are obvious” and said she had an acquired disability. “I have been diagnosed with vocal dysphonia,” a condition which impacts on the vocal chords and can ultimately see those with their conditions lose their voices. “But I don’t shout about it,” she continued. “I can’t shout about it.”

Keynote speaker Prof Mark Priestley of the University of Leeds said disability inequality was “not just about voting”, pointing to the challenges people face when joining a political grouping or going to a political meeting or signing a petition or going on a demonstration or a protest march.

He said issues that need to be addressed include access to polling stations and to political material broadcast on television and radio. He also highlighted concerns over the accessibility of voting procedures and questioned he arrangements “put in place for people who are unable to leave their place of residence.”


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