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Dublin: 16 °C Wednesday 23 July, 2014

Column: Being known as ‘Miriam in the wheelchair’ still annoys me

Miriam Murphy wanted to change things for people with disabilities – so she went into politics. Here she explains how she did it.

Miriam Murphy

MY BEGINNINGS IN political life happened over many years. I am someone who believes that every man, woman and child in society has a voice and has a right to be heard in all levels of life. I have a physical disability and have used a wheelchair all my life.

In the early eighties I became involved as a member with the local Irish Wheelchair Association Branch in East Wicklow. My involvement lasted twenty one years. This is when the word “disability” and the phrase “rights for a person with a disability” came into light. I recall the words as the “buzz” language being spoken by people in power – policy makers, planners, health boards and people who thought they knew it all.

During that time I sat for two years on the National Executive of the Irish Wheelchair Association which for me was when I began thinking ‘political’. It also gave me huge experience of meeting other people with disabilities – meeting other women with disabilities which gave me an insight into the barriers that other people in society were channelled with every day of their lives.

Also, women that are only seen, like myself, as “Miriam in the wheelchair” – which stills annoys me today. My needs as a woman would never be thought of – like for example the right to a career, relationship or becoming a mother.

Over the last twenty years I was involved in local committees and always brought to the table access issues (or the lack of). I discovered that to make changes and to change attitudes, there was knowledge that I needed to learn. Knowing who to work with on issues, who had the contacts that would  assist me in getting what I wanted or helping me get people to view the wider picture.

‘I didn’t want to hear ‘disability awareness’. We needed to move’

I realised I needed to sit where the first decisions where being made – that was at local level and at town council. I needed to be sitting with policy makers, decision makers, and town planners. These people were going by what was written down on paper but not hearing it from those who were experiencing the barriers every day – in a wheelchair – people who were visual impaired, with mobility problems, parents with buggies.

One of the committees that gave me insight was (and still is today) Wicklow Local Authority Access Group (WLAAG). The WLAAG was set up about ten years ago.  Local disability action groups were set up around Wicklow and then fed back into Wicklow Country Council. For me this is where politics starts, local and county level. We – people with disabilities – were now asked to come together and give their input into what barriers needed to be addressed and what needed to be given priority. But I did not want to hear “disability awareness”. For me that had been done for the last twenty years. We needed to move.

In all of this, I find that people with disabilities are not coming forward and getting involved in politics at local level – which I believe is where one must start. This is also because no one encourages people with disabilities from lobby groups or consultations groups to think along the path of politics. But we have to change this. We have to lead the way in getting into government so that people with disabilities can be a part of our society.

Local party politics meetings are held upstairs in pubs and are nearly held in secret. So if you’re interested, you first have a barrier of where the meetings are held – and secondly a barrier of fear of asking anyone about a different venue.

‘Women in Government will come eventually in bigger numbers – but not to the level of men’

The 2009 election was the big decision. Everyone was saying to me “You have to run for election this time, it’s now or never”. So I had a good discussion with my husband and family and I got the green light to go, even just to get it out of my system. I am so proud of myself and the supporters who gave me the strength to win the election – but I have to admit on reflection I wonder what will the next five-year term hold for me.

I am now in my third year and every year I have become stronger in my way of working and speaking up on all areas for council work. In my second year, I was elected as mayor of Arklow. This was a great honour for me. In doing the work as mayor, not once was there a problem with gaining access to anywhere local which shows that access has improved greatly.

I feel that youth clubs, youth councils, Macra na Feirme and women’s groups should be educated and introduced to the political agenda. But are women with disabilities involved in the groups I have just listed? I think there must be a very low rate.

I think there are five barriers that must be addressed if more women are to enter into politics – childcare, cash, confidence, culture and candidate selection. I would hope the barriers will be broken down so women and women with disabilities can go into politics. Women in Government will come eventually in bigger numbers – but not to the level of men.

Miriam Murphy is an independent town councillor in Arklow, Co Wicklow. Elected in June 2009 – her first time entering the race in local politics she was also elected mayor of Arklow town in 2010. She is a lobbyist and activist and also has a physical disability having used a wheelchair all her life.

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