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Holly Cairns Government must not forget disabled people in this cost of living crisis

Holly Cairns of the Social Democrats says many need help from the government in the upcoming budget, but disabled people are particularly vulnerable.

LAST UPDATE | 6 Jul 2022

EVERY DAY BRINGS a new grim milestone in the cost-of-living crisis. Inflation is now at nearly 10pc – driven by soaring energy, housing, food and fuel costs.

Last week, a report from the Parliamentary Budget Office found that pensions have fallen in value by €12 per week, and more than €1,000 has been wiped from average workers’ pay packets, because of the inflationary spiral since last year.

We know that it is not possible for the government to insulate people from the full impact of these price shocks, but they could help. If the political will was there.

The Social Democrats have already outlined a €1.3 billion package of measures that could be introduced tomorrow to provide relief to those who need it most – low and middle-income earners.

Another way

Our interim package would entail putting €300 back in the pocket of workers earning up to €50,000; a €10 increase in core social welfare rates; a €100 million hardship fund and a ban on rent increases.

This is the minimum that is required now – to ensure more people don’t fall into poverty or go into significant debt, just to pay for the basics.

Regrettably, the government is refusing to act. This is despite the publication of the Summer Economic Statement on Monday which revealed taxes are surging and it has the capacity to intervene now and provide some relief.

While the government continues to turn a blind eye to the suffering being caused by the cost-of-living crisis, the plight of one particularly disadvantaged group must be highlighted – disabled people and families of children with disabilities.

A recent study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), found that lone parents and adults with disabilities experience “distinctively high rates of income poverty, deprivation and consistent poverty”.

Those high rates of poverty were endemic even before the current cost-of-living crisis, so the situation has undoubtedly deteriorated this year.

This is not new

The government should be aware of this given its own research – a Cost of Disability report published in December 2021 – found that having a disability leads to significant additional costs of between €8,700 and €12,300 per year.

Disabled people, and families who have a child with disabilities, spend disproportionately more on things like heating, transport, therapeutic equipment and medical expenses – meaning they are under extreme financial pressure.

They also have a limited capacity to defray these additional costs. Irish people with disabilities have one of the lowest rates of employment in the EU – just 36pc – meaning the majority are unable to supplement State supports with private income.

Why is this? A major factor is the lack of services for disabled people. To give just one example, there are no longer any effective personal transport supports for people with disabilities. Two schemes, the Motorised Transport Grant and the Mobility Allowance, were closed in 2013. At the time the government promised to introduce replacements. We are still waiting for those replacements to materialise.

A third scheme, the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers Scheme, is so excessively restrictive that it is almost impossible to qualify for support.

A scathing Ombudsman’s report last year said: “Many people with disabilities are stuck at home unable to engage on an equal basis in employment or in their community as they can’t access government support to help with their personal transport needs.

“This social isolation casts a shadow on us as a country and on our commitment to equality and social inclusion for all.”

A more comprehensive Capacity Review of disability services was also published last July. That was tasked with identifying gaps in a range of areas – residential care; respite; day services; personal assistance and home help; and specialist disability and therapy support.

That Capacity Review found there were “significant levels of unmet need” which were going to worsen unless action was taken. That was 12 months ago. The government hasn’t even managed to publish an action plan arising from that report yet.

A group ignored

To give one example of the kinds of gaping holes that exist in services, there are currently an incredible 732 vacant posts for therapists in the public healthcare system who provide services for children with disabilities.

Is it any wonder then that more than 34,000 children are currently on community health waiting lists for essential therapies like occupational therapy and speech and language therapy? The government continually tells us it wants to prioritise disability services. Where is the evidence of that? The only thing it seems to excel at is commissioning reports, which then gather dust.

There are now just two weeks left before the Dáil rises for the summer for two months – and, when we return, most of the decisions informing the forthcoming budget will have been made.

For that reason, the Social Democrats have introduced a Dáil motion on the cost of disability which will be debated in the Dáil tomorrow.

We want the government to put its money where its mouth is and introduce a cost of disability payment of €20 per week as a first step to addressing the significant additional costs of having a disability.

We will also be asking the government to commit to increasing the disability allowance by at least €15 per week; publish its action plan on the Capacity Review, including how it intends to fill the hundreds of vacant posts in disability services; and publish its Action Plan for the Cost of Disability report.

These measures will not be a panacea, but they are a start – and would at least show that the government is serious when it says it wants to address the hugely inadequate services and high costs associated with disability.

Holly Cairns is a Social Democrats TD for Cork South-West. She is the party’s spokesperson for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

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