Activist Dr Shubhangi Karmakar advocates for YES NO vote in Irish referendums

As voting continues in the Family and Care referendums, Dr Shubhangi Karmakar shares their perspective.

Activist Dr Shubhangi Karmakar, who advocated for yes no vote in the family and care referendums, sitting on a rock with the sea in the background.
Image: Dr Shubhangi Karmakar

Disabled medical doctor, law student, hopeful future barrister, and trustee of an international disability rights organisation, Dr Shubhangi Karmakar reflects on their experience of the referendums and advocates for a Yes No vote.

Today, Irish voters take to schools, parish churches, and nursing homes – many places where care happens between people, to show their care through two referendum votes. The first is cited as the expansion of constitutional recognition to “durable relationships” outside the marital family, and the second is to not solely remove the outdated role of the woman in the home, but to lock disabled people’s prospects and ambitions behind their family home doors.

Unlike Repeal or Marriage Equality, the abbreviated lead-up to today’s referenda has deprived many Irish people of the most important places votes are built – over a coffee, chatting with the taxi man, around the dinner table. Worse still, through the State rejecting the recommendations of the Citizen’s Assembly, three choices have effectively been bundled into two referenda, causing widespread confusion.

Double referenda are not uncommon – but it is seldom that people have rapidly been asked to make their minds up, in a binary fashion with little unbiased information, in a referendum with four voting options. Minister Roderic O’Gorman appeared to mandate that any “progressive” organisations who had taken pride in representing their diverse communities in 2015 and 2018 had to justify not supporting the State line of a Yes Yes vote. It seems that coin counts for more than advocates’ conscience at a dangerous time where the State’s conscience for disabled people and carers is reflected in Leo Varadkar’s words: “I don’t actually think that’s the State’s responsibility to be honest”.

I may be a new citizen, but I have almost a decade of experience, a few years as a doctor, law student and advocate for disabled agency internationally, and one full referendum of campaigning under my belt.

I am not unfamiliar with the pain of the fight to exist as the disabled queer person of colour, even in campaigns supposedly supporting us – to have my name spelled correctly by “progressive feminists” mispronouncing the name of a dead Indian woman on their banners, or to have my friend, a wheelchair user, told they couldn’t be accessibly uplifted to their afterparty. It often hurts more than the hollow attempt to have an earnest debate with those who’d tell me to my face they would rather I didn’t exist.

And yet, I felt so lucky in 2018, to see the character of the Irish public at large in constitutional change. It gave me hope, that in changing our highest national law, Ireland in the last 10 or 15 years had embraced warmly an agenda of choice. It is choice that is laid open to us today. I have seen much to frame this referendum as full of “imperfect choice”, and I simply cannot agree that an imperfect choice is better than none.


The YES YES and NO NO campaigns have made their choice and have seemingly been quite happy to leave disabled people behind. The supposed ‘nationalists’ have forgotten that Ireland is built on personal and interstate “durable relationships” of unconventional kinds, in the shared goal to fight oppression. The “progressives” have forgotten that even if you remove the word woman from the Constitution, “dréim” to represent ‘strive’ in the Bunreacht as Gaeilge, has a synonym with merely “endeavour”, and it doesn’t do anything to progress rights for disabled people and carers, who are in reality still a majority of women.

Although both sides may choose to leave us behind now while they are not affected by disability and care, would they feel the same if put in our position? While some people are born disabled as they are born migrant, trans, queer or brown, it is important to note that a person can become disabled at any stage. Disability may not impact you today, but it could impact you tomorrow.

Perhaps if I did not know what the reality of disability was from the ages of 8, 15, 18, 22, I might pick the “imperfect choice” and internalise what the State thinks should be my private shame. Perhaps if I weren’t a migrant without access to State supportsagre, surviving on the loving support of my durable relationships and worrying who gets to see me in hospital when I get sick, I might pick the “imperfect choice”. Perhaps if I hadn’t worked with disabled people internationally, and seen how affirmative support for lifelong, acquired or terminal illness and disability can raise a society of equals, I might be tempted to make an “imperfect choice” that makes inequality for disabled people the written will of Ireland’s people.

But I can’t unsee these challenges, and I’m not alone. The Citizens’ Assembly recommended that the role of wider relationships be acknowledged and that the role of the State in providing care reflect the relationships and needs of our community. And yet “progressives” are now asking Ireland to choose, to leave meaningful change to chance. To entrust the hands of the State with the care of current and future disabled people, hoping they won’t wash them fast enough.

A Yes vote for families brings to light the choices of Ireland, the love, solidarity, connections and support we offer one another as ‘saoránaigh’, free and willing citizens. But a Yes vote for the Care referendum only shows that we choose symbolic hope over significant change.

Disabled people have repeatedly been told, “If not now, then never” about the Care referendum. It is a mistruth that does not reflect that the biggest constitutional changes, queer marriage or divorce or reproductive rights, came from choices – to accept and reject change, that we thought was or was not enough.

To accept that kind of repeated change, maybe you have to think about the Constitution as the “living will” of a nation’s lifetime, not just your own. Maybe for me, living with progressive disabilities, it’s a bit too easy to accept my own mortality, to not expect that I will ever get to enjoy much of the change I advocate for.

Disability won’t give you a choice. But the choice to wait for the rising tide and not get distracted by white horse promises; the choice to say No today to an ill-conceived amendment that would shutter my agency behind the doors of a family I don’t even have; the choice to say Yes to expand what family and care mean to disabled people from all walks of life… That Yes No vote is worth fighting for in today’s referendums.



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