Social Affairs: Queen’s University academic tells of her concerns over disability policy

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Brightness, passion and determination are qualities which Dr Bronagh Byrne, above, who lectures in social policy at Queen’s University, Belfast, has in abundance. In a recent interview with VIEW, the 37-year-old academic, who is from County Down, told of her passion for disability issues when it comes to striving for equality.

“I’ve been deaf from birth. That’s probably why I’m so passionate about disability issues.

“I went to a mainstream primary and grammar school and I was the only deaf person there. It was interesting but frustrating at times. You had to raise other people’s awareness all the time, but I also didn’t want people to identify me as that disabled person or that deaf person. I felt very independent and I was determined to be the same as everyone else.

“I would have been resistant to anyone who was trying to patronise me. I didn’t want people just to think of me in terms of being deaf. We all have something different about us. For some people it could be about being a single parent, their background or where they live.

Bronagh believes that society still has a long way to go in terms of equality for people with disabilities.

“We have made some progress over recent years in terms of legislation or at least what they look like on paper. We’re very good at producing lots of lovely glossy pieces of paper but we usually end up putting them on the shelf and forgetting to look at them again.

“I also think it’s a really a worrying time for disability policy. The current economic upheaval around Brexit is a concern and disability has not even been mentioned in terms of the debate around it. People need to remember that a lot of the progress we’ve made in disability policy has come from being in the European Union, for example building regulations which made them accessible, and the legislation and EU directives that underpinned it.”

Bronagh believes that there has been some progress in terms of disability and public awareness of it.

“We are seeing a lot more disability cases emerging in recent years and a lot more media coverage around it. I don’t know if that’s because there are more examples of discrimination happening. I think it’s more the case that with an increasing awareness of legislation we are seeing more people making a complaint. More disabled people are becoming aware of their rights.”

She also voiced her concerns that whilst disabled people have been making noises for a long time, they also haven’t been taken seriously enough.

“I think we need a much stronger disability movement in Northern Ireland. We don’t have a very co-ordinated body of disabled people compared to the rest of the UK.

“I also think we’re in a sort of ironic situation at the moment. In 2017 we’re in a position where disabled people have never had more rights internationally than they do at the moment, but then various countries are seeing funding being cut. We are also seeing disabled people become more invisible and the imposition of welfare reform. Even though disabled people have never had more rights, those rights are becoming increasingly violated.

“We have made progress in terms of disability legislation. It’s been piecemeal but it’s still been progress. Society is much more accessible than it has been in the past. But we also are a position where disabled people are seen to be expensive – almost like a threat to society. There’s almost a tendency at the moment where we need to rein disabled people in. We need to make sure they’re not ‘too independent’ because that’s ‘too expensive’ and ‘we won’t have the money to do that’. It’s a very concerning time for disabled people, not just in the UK, but globally.

“We’re also in a position where the numbers of disabled people across the world are growing rather than falling. We have more older people, we have more disabled people living into adulthood and we have better technology.

“We should be doing much more to uphold the rights of disabled people, but instead we see an increase in poverty and benefits being cut and independence reduced. We’re almost going back to the old injustices of the world where we’re trying to marginalise disabled people even more.”

• To see the online version of our equality issue of VIEW, go to http://eepurl.com/cDo47P

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