When Gerry Maguire joined the civil service 36 years ago there was a quota to employ 3% staff members who have a disability. The target is now to bring that quota up to 6% within the lifetime of the current government.
“This does not sound like a lot, but we are trying to get as many people as possible with a disability into the workforce for the first time, or back into the workforce,” explains Gerry, who is a Special Adviser to Minister Finian McGrath, TD.
“A lot of people with a disability are concerned that they will lose benefits if they take up work, trying to make sure that they are informed and know that they will not lose benefits like their travel pass.”
Gerry, who lives with spina bifida, says that the Government must also communicate to employers that there are grants available to accommodate people with disabilities and to encourage employers to take people on with disabilities.
“I said to the Taoiseach recently that it is good that we now have a Disability Inclusion Strategy. It is good to have it but changing employers’ mind-set is a totally different thing and no strategy is going to do that,” he says.
“That can only be done by giving people with a disability a chance.
“I am conscious of the responsible position I have as I have had to prove myself all through my life – some people thought I got the job as Special Adviser because of my disability, not because of my ability.
“There is still that mind-set after all these years. I have to work on changing people’s perception; getting them not to see the disability, but to see the ability - that is the key and a lot of work needs to be done to achieve this goal.
“This is something which we, as people with disabilities, need to work on ourselves. People ask me when they are applying for a job do they need to say have a disability.
“I respond that it is a personal choice, however, why go in on the back foot, letting employers have the option to be prejudiced before they even meet you.
“There are grant facilities available if employers can be bothered, but it seems easier to take an able-bodied person on even if they are missing out on an incredibly talented person with a disability.
“So many people with disabilities just want a fair crack at the whip and to be given a chance.”
Working continuously since he was 19, Gerry says that he has not experienced the feeling of frustration of not working, however, he can understand that it must be terrible.
“Working puts money in your pocket and gives a sense of value and of pride,” says Gerry.
“The first time I brought home in a pay packet to my parents I was putting money into the family pot for first time. I was playing an active role in the family and I had a great sense of pride in contributing to my family.”
In 1981, during UN Enable – International Year of Disabled Persons the civil service ran a competition for people with disabilities to apply as clerical assistants.
“I had been applying for jobs since doing my Leaving Certificate in 1979 and was getting sick of getting refusals, some of which I knew were purely on my disability, so I thought this was a great chance to get a job,” recalls Gerry.
When he arrived at the exam centre, he realised that thousands of people, in centres all over the country, were applying for just 40 jobs. Gerry did get called for interview and was asked if he was to get the job, what kind of special exemptions would be needed to accommodate his disability.
“I got really thick with them, saying that I went through 12 years of school without exemptions so why would I need them now,” says Gerry.
“I thought I had screwed it up but then I got word that I has secured one of the positions and I was thrilled.
“I was appointed to the Department of Health on 1st April 1981 as a clerical assistant. There was an embargo at the time, so it was eight years later before I got a chance of promotion to clerical officer, then executive officer, then higher executive officer.
“Last year the Minister for Disabilities was looking for a special adviser and I put in my CV. I thought nothing more of it, then I got called by a HR company for an interview to whittle the competition down to three or four candidates.
“A couple of weeks later I was told I was one of the four being interviewed by Minister McGrath and then on 1st September 2016 I was offered the job.
“I was told that the reason why I was given the job is that I came across as someone who would not take any nonsense from anyone!”
In his role as Special Adviser, Gerry represents the Minister at functions when he is unavailable; attends the weekly Monday meetings of all advisers to discuss the government agenda for week.
With Minister McGrath’s portfolio running across three departments – Health, Justice and Social Protection – Gerry has to fact check more than 100 Parliamentary Questions; attend Cabinet committee meetings and meet with different groups and individuals on regular basis.
“It is a very responsible job, I have to have my facts right all the time. You cannot bluff your way through or you will be found out very quickly,” says Gerry.
“I complain that there is not a lot of time for a personal life, but really I love just love my job.
“There is something about going through Leinster House and Taoiseach’s Department and thinking of the history of the place and the people who went before. You really feel a part of something, of being involved in the machinations of the country.
“Some people think that because I have a disability that I can sort out all problems for people with disabilities overnight. But you cannot solve everything; I have to be aware of the budgetary constraints as we do not have a bottomless pit of money.
“I take a lot of things home with me in my head. I wake up during the night thinking about a particular person’s problem which has been brought to my attention,” says Gerry.
“I do not know if I can change that, but I do not know if I want to change that as it shows I care and I want to do something while I am here in this role - I do not know how long the Government will last and if there is a different Minister, I might not be kept on.”
Gerry says that he feels a sense of responsibility to the people and groups campaigning to have UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) ratified.
“However, people do not realise the amount of work that is going on in the background to move it forward to try and get the legal processes in place,” he says.
“Other countries have ratified it without the legal processes in place and it is not worth the paper it is written on – I want it to mean something for people with disabilities.
“For example, the Inclusion Strategy has been set up in such a way that it will address things like having to give 24 hours’ notice to Irish Rail with travel plans.
“The Department of Transport recently gave the Minister a briefing saying Irish Rail is bringing it down from 24 to four hours’ notice,” he says.
“They wanted pat on the back for this but I told them when they bring it down to zero hours’ notice, it will be a success - I will call out on it when needs be.”