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Jennifer Horgan: Yes vote would recognise care as beating heart in body of our State

Published: Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Some good has come from this care referendum. We are thinking and talking about care.

I will be voting yes to family, and yes to care.

Care is a significant part of every life, to varying and ever-changing degrees. I have been cared for, I am cared for, and I care. My work as a teacher is centred around care. My life as a friend, mother, wife, sister, daughter, all of it involves care, back and forth, omnipresent and sustaining. Care shapes us, and so it must be supported at every level. We all know that it is not. Although we seem divided, on that we must agree.

In 2019 my dad suffered a stroke that left half his body paralysed. The daily support he receives from the State, a single home help visit, is on weekdays only. By some miracle, his physical disability is meant to disappear at the weekend. He’s lucky to have children to provide weekend care, but many individuals are not so lucky. My mother is also physically disabled and uses an electric chair like my dad. She is offered home help at the weekends. This distinction between them has never been explained to our family.

My parents’ story, in the context of people with disabilities in Ireland, is a good news story. Most of us have no idea just how hard it can be. Most people have no sense of what it is to live in Ireland when you don’t fit the assumed mould. I still hear people complaining that there are too many disability parking spaces, to give just one example. The average person has little awareness that a person entitled to such a spot may have spent hours getting up, and washed, and dressed, and ready to leave the house.

This referendum has done some good then by raising awareness.

"But awareness is not the same as agreement. Some will vote no to the care amendment as it doesn’t go far enough. This is a legitimate criticism."

It is true that in an ideal world, the government would honour the exact recommendations of the Citizen’s Assembly, but they are under no obligation to do so. And how could we expect our government to suddenly commit to financially supporting care in our constitution? Such a turnaround would make little sense due to what has gone before, of the struggles of so many people in Ireland, for so many days, weeks, months, years, and decades. We cannot expect our government to go from zero to hero in one referendum. And we are far too close to zero when it comes to the rights of people de facto excluded from education, employment, and society.

"The inequality of our State goes far beyond physical disability; it stretches beyond what the eye can see, and it is insidious and cruel."

As a secondary school teacher, I also see how children with additional needs are penalised by our system. Their education, guaranteed by international and national law, is being denied.

I spoke with primary school principal Angela Dunne this week. She is also a parent of an autistic child. Before 2017, schools got support for children with additional needs through assessments. This was far from ideal as there were many children lost in the system, waiting for public assessments, and unable to afford private ones.

But the new system is broken.

“I calculated how many hours of support I would get in my school under the old system. This is only for the children with official assessments, not including the many students waiting on them. Under the old model, I would have received 88.5 hours of support. Under this model, I receive 52.5 hours of support.” 

Angela tells me that any appeal is arduous and unlikely to succeed. Like so many school principals she has nowhere to turn, but still she opens her school doors, andyfights to afford children their right to an education, alongside their family and friends.

We have so much work to do. We need to get started, and a yes vote provides this opportunity. A yes vote can lead to good if we, as a population united, buoyed by our interdependence, a strength not a weakness, push for it. Change in care will come, but it will come incrementally through changes in policy, and it will be hard fought for. My experience of the system makes me certain of that.

But what a yes vote on care does not do, and this is a point that’s being missed, what a yes vote does not do is make the position of carers, or those requiring care, any worse, and it certainly doesn’t prevent positive legislation from being passed in the future. 

"At worst, the new article meaninglessly moves the furniture around a very poorly designed and poorly resourced room."

Indeed the misinformation surrounding the upcoming referendum reflects a general misunderstanding of what constitutional change is and, more importantly, what it is not. Many are complaining of ‘woolly’ and ‘ineffective’ language — the word ‘confusion’ is echoing nationally.

Economist and academic Ursula Barry captures the nature of constitutional change when she argues that there “are no guarantees in the arena of constitutional change — as advocates for children’s rights and Senate reform know only too well. Political will and public pressure are needed to ensure that constitutional change will be translated into radical legislative and policy reform. Otherwise, it just doesn’t happen".

Our constitution is a starting point. The new wording in itself is not going to make anything instantly better, but it can provide a meaningful platform upon which positive change can happen.

The new wording removes sexist and demeaning language — that must not be forgotten. Our constitution must represent us, in the broadest sense, because that is its purpose. Genuine and concerned voices on the no side have become louder in recent weeks. I understand the frustration expressed by Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) and others, but it hurts my heart to hear people say that a yes vote on care trades sexism for ableism. That is simply untrue, and it is misleading.

Conversely, a no vote retains sexist and demeaning language and positions women, and not men, in the home. And although the sexism in our constitution has been made so very small over the last few weeks, it is not small. It is a deep and bleeding stain on the map of our little country, one that is remarked upon internationally.

Few online, and indeed few of our national newspapers, mention the people with disabilities, and carers, who are voting yes. Care Alliance Ireland will vote yes. Family Carers Ireland will vote yes. Social Care Ireland will vote yes. Kinship Care Ireland will vote yes. Family Resource Centre National Forum will vote yes. National Women’s Council will vote yes. These groups are not against people with disabilities; some have disabilities themselves; all want better; all want recognition for care as the beating heart in the body of our State. A heart that requires adequate and meaningful support. A heart that must not be left to survive on scraps, on charity.

A yes vote on care moves us forward in hope and solidarity within our communities and with a visible acknowledgment of care in our constitution.

A no vote leaves us exactly where we are, where all this pain and hurt is coming from, and where a woman is made to feel defined by her biological sex, in a way that a man is not.

I will be voting yes to family, and yes to care.