18 September 2003 Edition

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Society needs to be fixed, not the disabled


Sinn Féin is found out what the equality agenda means for disabled people at an innovative meeting with representatives of the Forum of People with Disabilities this week. On Monday, the party's TDs in Leinster House, their parliamentary assistants, the five equality officers from each of the regional cuigí, head of the equality department Lucilita Breathnach and Six-County EU candidate Bairbre de Brún, met with representatives of the Forum of People with Disabilities to discuss the party's development of its disability policy.

Mary Keogh (Director of the Forum), John Doyle and Peter Kearns conducted the workshop, the first of its kind to take place with a political party. They made their point very clear from the start - people with disabilities do not experience disadvantage because of their medical impairment, but rather because society has created environmental or social barriers that disable them from fully taking part in mainstream activities.

The workshop was different to what many people there had either expected, or attended, before. First, the group experienced what it was like to be disabled, when they were asked to try to pass a cuddly toy around without using their hands or the same part of the body that somebody else had used. While this provided huge entertainment (there are only so many body parts you can use in place of your hands), it also drove home the coordinator's point - that it was he who had disabled them by saying they couldn't use their hands.

Packed with insights, anecdotes and thought-provoking exercises, the afternoon was educational for both Sinn Féin and those presenting it.

The presenters asked that certain provisions be made to ensure disabled people can participate in the democratic process.

These include making constituency clinics accessible; making political material accessible to people with sensory disabilities; creating transport for disabled people to get to meetings; using accessible buildings and inquiring if sign language is needed. While this year's Ard Fheis incorporated many of these provisions, much of the party's local activity does not.

They also asked that the Sinn Féin group pass the message on that it is society that needs to be fixed, not the disabled.

The meeting was just the first of many Sinn Féin has planned with this group and others, so it can further develop its rights-based policy approach for the disabled community. The party will also be pushing the government on its promise to publish comprehensive rights-based disability legislation in November 2003.

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