Private Members motion on Disability – 24th Sept 2014 Comments of Rónán Mullen
This evening’s Private Members Motion is laudable in its aims, however I am not at all convinced that we will see any action whatsoever from this Government. As I mentioned on the Order of Business earlier today, in 2013 in a Private Members Motion I sought a commitment from the then Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn that he would implement the National Council on Special Education (NCSE) report and its findings on the issue of discrimination. Unfortunately very little has happened since that debate to improve the situation In July of this year we had the sorry spectacle of the Department of Education fighting two families in the High Court. The families were seeking, among other things, orders overturning the inflexible policy of the Department in giving additional support hours to children with Down’s Syndrome. It took the intervention of the President of the High Court, Mr Justice Kearns, to compel the Department to ‘see sense’ by strongly suggesting to them that they settle the matter by granting additional support to the children. The learned Judge directed the Minister to allocate four hours and 15 minutes additional resource hours weekly to the children’s schools. The Department’s principal concern, as articulated by their Senior Counsel, was not to concede any of the claims made by the parents, so as to avoid "an avalanche" of similar cases. That at least the merit of transparency, but little else to recommend it as an approach. This is hardly an enlightened way to go about to accommodating the needs of a vulnerable group of disabled persons NEW POINT – Of course all this follows a pattern of shoddy treatment of parents of children with Down’s Syndrome. We saw the fiasco during the summer where parents were asked to prove if their children ‘still had Down Syndrome’ in order to keep their medical cards. I have previously spoken about the National Council on Special Education (NCSE) report published in 2013. This report highlighted ‘soft barriers’ which certain children with disabilities face when enrolling. These barriers contribute to a perceived ‘lack of welcome’ for disabled children. Needless to say schools are entitled to put in place admission criteria; however, barriers discriminating against children on disability grounds are unjustifiable. In last year’s debate, I asked the then Minister to introduce a robust framework to prevent such discrimination. I note that the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2013 is on the Government’s priority list. We will have a full debate on that legislation when it comes before the House; nevertheless I welcome the Bill in so far as it may tackle unjustifiable enrolment barriers. I will be working to ensure that the Bill encompassed the recommendations in the NCSE report. In particular it was ‘strongly recommended’ that the Department introduce an enrolment framework for schools to ensure that:
• Every child with special educational needs is protected from school enrolment practices or policies with overt or covert barriers that block his/her access to enrolment in the school; • Every child with special educational needs may enrol in the nearest school that is or can be resourced by the NCSE to meet his/her needs; • A school must enrol a student with special educational needs if so directed by the SENO on the basis that the school will be provided with resources in line with national policy; • A school must establish a special class if so requested by a SENO.
However, the Bill is for the future; in the present it is disheartening that again this year I have spoken to parents who have faced the same ‘lack of welcome’ when enrolling their children with disabilities in schools. As I said last year this is chiefly due to the hoops that parents and schools need to jump through to gain resources, in particular for those children with Down’s Syndrome. Down Syndrome Ireland have related to me that parents dread the uncertainty associated over resource allocation each school year. Tonight’s motion calls “on the Government to take steps to ensure the equality of access to educational and other opportunities for persons with disabilities”. It may be news to some members that there is legislation languishing in Committee Stage which, if enacted, would secure appropriate resources for children with Down’s Syndrome. Deputy Finian McGrath’s ‘Down’s Syndrome (Equality of Access) Bill’ would provide for a regime whereby Down’s Syndrome would be regarded as a ‘low incidence disorder’. Therefore the inclusion of children with Down’e Syndrome under that catogrisation would secure them the extra teaching resources they need. Deputy McGrath has said that it is unfortunate that it has been left to him to bring this legislation forward. I wholeheartedly agree with Deputy McGrath. The real solution must come with the Minister for Education. At a stroke of a pen she could allay the fears of parents by allocating full resources to children with Down’s Syndrome. This is exactly what I called for last year. Unfortunately at that time my motion was defeated by Government Senators, including (it has to be said) by members tabling this motion. I assume they share my disappointment that so little has been done in this area. I would have to say in conclusion that unless the Government commits to making real and immediate changes for disabled people this motion and debate will have been an exercise in futility.