Joanne O’Riordan, a totally limbless teenage girl with the heart of a lion, persuaded the Irish government to do a U-turn on its budget pledge to slash disability benefits for young people.
The embarrassing U-turn was forced on Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny when the day after last week’s budget it was revealed he had promised 15-year-old Joanne in his pre-election campaign last January that he would not touch the disability allowance.
Within hours of the budget decision to axe the allowances, footage of Kenny’s pledge to Joanne was on the Internet, placed there by her brother Stephen, a 27-year-old documentary television filmmaker.
Disability allowance was due to be cut for under-18s and slashed from €188 to €100 for 18 to 21-year-olds and from €188 to €144 for 22 to 24-year-olds. Rates for under-25s cared for by a qualified adult also faced reductions.
During a radio interview by government ministers defending their budget, Stephen went on air and he fought back tears as he criticized them for bailing out the banks and paying un-guaranteed bondholders while a verbal promise to his sister that disability benefits would not be touched was broken.
“All our lives my family and myself have fought for my sister to live an independent life, and that money would have helped my sister to go on to a third level education,” Stephen said.
In the face of public outrage, a humbled Kenny told the Dail (Parliament) that disability allowances to new claimants as young as 16 would not now be cut.
“The government doesn’t get everything right all the time. There’s an issue here that is of great sensitivity and we’re reviewing it on that basis,” he said.
Joanne, who lives in Millstreet, Co. Cork, and was born with no legs or arms, is one of just seven people in the world who suffers with a rare condition known as total amelia. She also has scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. None of this fazes her.
She is a bubbly transition year student at her local school and a Gaelic games fan who has laughed off all the plaudits she has received from disability groups and opposition politicians.
She told the Irish Daily Mail, “Please don’t call me an inspiration. This isn’t about me anyway.
Thankfully my family has an income and we can pay for things, but there are loads of people who desperately need the disability allowance.
“I hope things change for them because not everyone can come forward and speak their mind.”
Her father taught her when she was a baby to roll. Since then, although confined to a high chair and a special wheelchair, she has learned to write, feed, text friends on her cellphone and study on her laptop with her mouth.
Joanne sits her Leaving Certificate examination in 2014 and then plans to be a journalist or broadcaster. She also has plans to move to Dublin or New York.
She recalled the meeting at her school with Kenny before he won the election in February.
She said, “I was going to meet him and that was it. My teacher let me go to see him, so I got my way in the end. I normally do.
“I was a bit nervous but I made myself known to him, and that’s when I asked him would he cut my allowance if he got into power, which he said he wouldn’t do.
“I bet he regrets meeting me ever since but I still love him and I know he’ll do that right thing. I want to make it clear that I don’t have a problem with Enda. I have a problem with the decisions the government made.”