Here is my response to a recent article by Tom Clonan on the Journal.ie regarding the Government’s approach to disability:
People with disabilities need good advocacy. Without that we will not affirm our rights. In my view, good advocacy should be characterised by assertions that are true, arguments that are based on facts, and an ability to acknowledge progress made to date while also demanding more.
I was born in 1974 with congenital cataracts in both eyes which together with other complications left me with 16% eyesight for the rest of my life.
This situation presented my family with serious challenges and difficulties which solutions had to be found for.
One of the biggest decisions to make was around my education. The options available were limited in the extreme compounded by the fact that we lived in rural Co. Clare.
My family made the decision back in the late 70’s not to send me off to the special school for the blind in Dublin.
This would have meant me leaving home at 4 or 5 years of age, being away from my family, my community and the people who loved me.
The decision was made to send me to integrated education within our local community. It was going to be a difficult daily slog both for me, my family and my teachers.
There were no SNAs, resource teachers or any other assistance apart from a visiting teacher for the blind who came to the school once or twice a year.
In spite of the incredible difficulties and enormous challenges, overall school went well for me.
I succeeded in going to university and getting a degree which ultimately led me to Leinster house where I am now a member of Seanad Éireann and the first ever legally blind member of the Oireachtas. I was elected by my Fine Gael colleagues in the Dáil and on local councils. They saw my value as an individual and never mistook my disability to be a liability.
My story so far is a positive one and while I have had many barriers and setbacks to overcome and no doubt there will be lots more challenges along the way, I believe that I have a part in building the Republic of Opportunity which Taoiseach Leo Varadkar talks about.
We need to create a society where everybody gets a fair go and it is the Government’s responsibility to create that equality of opportunity.
The State can neither discriminate for or against any citizen. Whatever supports are needed to allow all our citizens to reach their full potential need to be put in place as a right.
This is one of the principal reasons I entered politics – to use my own life experience of fighting inequality to help build a society where the pitch is level for everybody, so that everyone has an equal opportunity to live, work and enter education.
I know Leo Varadkar believes in this as we have spoken about it many times over the years and that is why I supported him to be leader of Fine Gael and Taoiseach of our country.
Fine Gael in government has shown it is committed to creating a Republic of Opportunity that offers help where it’s needed most, supports our most vulnerable citizens and empowers everyone in this State to reach their full potential, while providing a safety net where it’s needed.
Let me be very clear – under no circumstance would anyone with a disability be regarded as a liability in this country.
While everybody acknowledges we have a long way to go, Fine Gael’s record shows that we are making great strides in this area particularly in recent years.
Over the course of the last year, my colleague Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, while Minister for Social Protection, personally secured increases in Disability Allowance, Carers Allowance to better support the needs of people with disabilities and those providing vital care for them. These were the first increases in 8 years. While they do not fully reverse the cuts made in weekly payments by Fianna Fáil, it is a good start. Carers also now continue to receive their weekly payment for three months after their caring duties end. This was another initiative by Leo as Minister.
Spending on disability services has increased significantly under this Government. An increase of €92 million was secured in Budget 2017 for Disability Services, bringing the annual total to over €1.65 billion.
This funding is being used across the country for on-going service improvement in emergency residential supports, as well as providing for new initiatives, such as the commitment to meet the needs of school leavers with disabilities who require supports from the HSE at one of the most crucial points in their lives.
Additional therapy supports including speech and language and occupational therapy were put in place in 2016 and have been further augmented by increased funding for the Government’s Progressing Disability Services Programme for children and young people with disabilities.
This funding also contributes to the provision of appropriate supports for children with disabilities attending pre-school under the new Access and Inclusion Model.
I regard the provision of medical cards with no means test to nearly 10,000 children in receipt of Domiciliary Care Allowance to be one of the most significant and meaningful reforms that I have seen in the lifetime of this Government.
Another 40,000 children are now exempt from reviews. Under previous Governments, children with severe disabilities could be refused a medical card because their parents earned too much.
I know firsthand the crippling additional medical costs from endless doctor appointments facing families caring for a child with a disability. I hope that this contribution has gone some way towards alleviating some of the pressures facing these families.
Fine Gael in Government is committed to supporting people with disabilities to reach their full potential. Speaking as a person with a disability, I have warmly welcomed the big increase in spending on special education in the last year. This figure is now greater than the amount spent on the Higher Education sector.
A total of €1.68 billion has been invested in special education in 2017 – almost a fifth of the entire education budget.
The number of Special Needs Assistants has increased from just over 10,000 in 2011 to almost 14,000 this year – the highest number ever.
I was also pleased at the Government’s decision to provide an additional 900 resource teachers, bringing the total to ensure children with special needs access the teaching supports they deserve.
I know the difference classroom supports would have made to me, my teachers and my family back in the 70s, and I’m delighted the children of are afforded this extra assistance. This is the Republic of Opportunity in action.
Over 150 new special classes were sanctioned for the last school year, while a further 160 special classes have now been approved for the coming school year, giving a total of 1,292 special classes, which compares to 548 special classes in 2011.
Some 125 special schools also provide specialist education for those pupils who need it.
This Government is committed to furthering the rights of people with disabilities. Just last month, the Government launched the National Disability Inclusion Strategy for the next five years.
This all-of-Government Strategy is aimed at significantly improving the lives of people with disabilities in a practical sense, and also in creating the best possible opportunities for people with disabilities to fulfil their potential. Now it needs to implemented.
Finian McGrath sits at Cabinet as Minister of State for Disabilities. So for the first time we have a voice for people with disabilities at the table where decisions are made. He, An Taoiseach and Government have committed to ratifying the Convention on People with Disabilities later this year. Unlike some other countries, however, our ratification will be meaningful and we’ll pass all the necessary laws before we ratify it.
Recently we saw the publication of the Making Work Pay report by my colleagues the Taoiseach and Minister for Health Simon Harris. The report aims to make it easier for people with disabilities to re-enter work or training.
As part of this initiative, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also extended the entitlement to a free Travel Pass to five years for people who move off a long-term disability payment into a new job. Minister Harris is working on legislation to raise the medical card income limits for people on disability allowance. So many people with disabilities fear losing their medical card if they take up work or work more hours. That’s a barrier to opportunity we are going to remove.
Minister Regina Doherty has published legislation to end the requirement that such work has to be rehabilitative in nature. That’s a very old fashioned idea we will see the back of this year.
Work on policy proposals for the new Transport Support Scheme are at an advanced stage, and the next step is to legislate for it. I’ll be pressing for the new scheme to be introduced in 2018.
HIQA inspection and regulation of residential facilities for people with disabilities was only brought in during 2013. We have seen since then that the regulatory body is committed to excellence and has succeeded in raising standards across the sector. The conditions in some of these facilities are unacceptable. This difference now is that we are up front about it, take action and inspect again.
We’re proud of our achievements to date, but know that these achievements are not enough. There is always more to do.
Collaboration is the key ingredient to forward progress, and advocates are most effective when appealing to people, rather than attacking them.
So let’s work together to continue this journey, and build a Republic that really does provide opportunity for us all.