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Parents fight against closure of special needs pre-schools

A mother speaks for her son: ‘I’m disabled but I am here. I am disabled but I want to attend school. I am disabled but I’d like to live my life.’

Image: Pre-School via Shutterstock

A NUMBER OF parents of children with complex special needs have vowed to fight against the planned closures of two specialist pre-schools in the area.

The HSE says it will close St Agnes Specialist Pre-School in Donegal town next year, while Ballaghderg Pre School in Letterkenny will cease operations some time in 2015. The agency hopes to integrate those with intellectual disabilities into mainstream pre-schools and the Donegal Intellectual Disability Services are developing a project to allow for such a move.

However, parents of students in the two schools are worried about the 5 per cent who will never be able to attend mainstream pre-schools.

Gina Grant, whose son lives with mitochondrial disease, says Ballaghderg is the only centre able to fulfil her family’s needs.

“I am horrified at this as it leaves me with no options for my son,” she told TheJournal.ie.

“In his school there are two registered nurses and all the equipment and sensory toys available for him. Francis has difficulty swallowing, he silently aspirates which means he chokes very easily. He cannot drink ordinary fluids – but they are only small issues he has. He would need to be closely monitored to make sure he is not choking. He also has epilepsy, which means he has four different types of seizures daily.

These are some of the reasons why a mainstream nursery would not get insurance to cover my sons attendance.

Her other son, five-year-old Christopher, has Down Syndrome and is currently schooled in a mainstream system.

“I fight for the support needed to help him in mainstream,” she notes. “I am fully in support of integration, But it has to be child-led. Not all children will be able to attend mainstream. This is unfortunate but it is true.

“It was hard for me, as a parent, to come to terms with it and now they are taking away the only option that children with a severe disability have. If this facility wasn’t there, my son would be at home with me all the time.

“I’m devastated by the lack of care and consideration given to children of this need. Because my son is unable to voice his own opinion,  I have to do it for him. From him, I’d like to say: ‘I’m disabled but I am here. I am disabled but I want to attend school. I am disabled but I’d like to live my life.’”

No ‘one size fits all’ solution

Donegal County Childcare Committee, which has participated in the HSE’s Pre-School Transitions Committee, says its main concern is to ensure that appropriate support is provided to each individual child as their disability requires.

In its report from the May consultation meeting for parents and pre-school services, it explains: “This means that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not always feasible in some circumstances where high levels of specialist care is required. In addition, DCCC believes that parental choice should always remain an option.”

More than 100 people attending the consultation on 16 May, during which parents and providers discussed the challenges and experiences of working with children with special needs.

DCCC said, “Following a range of inputs, there was a sense of palpable anger and frustration from both parents and then in turn from mainstream childcare providers in terms of the practical implications of the integration of some children with specialist care needs into mainstream pre-school.

“It was strongly argued that the reason specialist pre-schools existed in the first place is because mainstream services are not equipped to cater for some children and that this situation has not changed.”

A unanimous decision was eventually taken to oppose the HSE decision to close specialist pre-schools.

During the meeting, a community childcare manager said the service was “torn between an obligation to accept the child and the knowledge that we cannot safely provide for them.”

Another service which currently caters for seven children with special educational needs says it “cannot see how it would be possible to accommodate additional children with more complex needs if the systems remain as they are, given that they are already stretched”.

The HSE says it plans to work with funded specialist providers, issuing grant aid to community pre-schools. It admits that about 5 per cent of children will not be able to integrate to a mainstream setting, but assured parents that all plans will be discussed with them.

However, parents are already angry at the proposals.

“Parents need to fight this, it shouldn’t even be being considered,” said one, while another asked if children in mainstream services have been considered.

“It’s not fair for them to have to see another child having an extreme seizure and you can have all the emergency plans you want in place but if a seizure happens, some of them are going to see it. It’s difficult enough for us as adults who’ve either already seen one happen or been warned what to expect but it’s going to be so traumatic for a three- or four-year old to witness.”

Another meeting of parents, providers and other stakeholders to organise the campaign against the closures will be held this evening.

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