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Holly Cairns: Successive governments have neglected Ireland's disabled people - we must do better

The Social Democrats TD says Ireland’s record on caring for disabled people is entirely lacking.

Holly Cairns

TODAY IS INTERNATIONAL Day of Persons With Disabilities, an occasion on which we are urged to promote the rights and well-being of disabled people.

This advocacy is especially important in this country, where the rights of disabled people are continually ignored, undermined and, oftentimes, fully erased.

The evidence, for our shameful treatment of people with disabilities, can be found wherever you care to look.

Supply of basic services

First, let’s examine transport. The ability to easily move around is something most of us take for granted. That isn’t the case for disabled people. In fact, the State has actively hindered people’s ability to do so.

Back in 2013, two schemes – the Motorised Transport Grant, a payment of up to €5,000 for those who needed to buy or adapt a car to retain employment, and the Mobility Allowance, a payment for those who could not walk or use public transport – were abruptly closed.

These schemes provided a vital lifeline for disabled people, allowing them to travel to work, go shopping and take part in normal community life. In recognition of this, the then Fine Gael and Labour government was adamant that any closure would be brief and replacement schemes would quickly follow. Nearly a decade later, that has yet to happen and there is no indication of when those replacement schemes will materialise.

Ombudsman Peter Tyndall, in a report last month, was highly critical of the failure of successive governments – all Fine Gael-led – to replace these essential schemes. In a blunt assessment, Mr Tyndall said the reason for this failure to act was an unwillingness “to make the investment that is necessary”.

This failure to provide basic transport supports does not just increase the isolation of disabled people. It has very real impacts on their ability to work and move out of poverty. Irish people with disabilities have one of the lowest rates of employment in the entire EU – just over a third of working-age disabled people have a job. Shockingly, Ireland’s rate of employment amongst disabled people is just half the European average.

Uphill battle

It should therefore be no surprise that those with disabilities are more than twice as likely to experience poverty and deprivation as those without. It doesn’t have to be like this. A 2017 ESRI report found that if government policy were to facilitate the employment of people with a disability, an additional 35,600 disabled people could join the workforce.

The State’s failure, to meet its obligations to disabled people, is particularly stark when it comes to the 1,300 people aged under 65 who are being inappropriately housed in nursing homes.

Disability Federation of Ireland head of policy, Dr Joanne McCarthy, has said the practice of housing disabled people in residential care settings, rather than providing the home support they need to remain living in the community, is “a national disgrace”.

Try to imagine, for a moment, how it must feel to know that your own government would prefer you to waste away, inside a nursing home, rather than provide meagre supports to help you live a full and productive life? Consider the despair people endure on a daily basis, for just one reason. They have a disability and the State’s response is to lock them away.

As a member of the Oireachtas Disability Matters Committee, who regularly hears from disabled people about the myriad ways the State is failing them, it is difficult not to get angry when discussing this subject. The State fails disabled people at every stage of life – childhood, adulthood and old age.

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Lack of political will

For children, even getting assessed can often seem like an impossible task. Under the 2005 Disability Act, children have a legal right to an assessment of need within six months of an application being submitted – a deadline that was rarely met. Instead of working to meet this target, the HSE has now revised the entire assessment of needs process.

Instead of children receiving a multi-disciplinary and comprehensive assessment of needs, what they are now entitled to is a 90-minute evaluation by two physicians. This speeds up the assessment – and also happens to protect the State from legal action from families – but it does not meet the needs of children who need targeted interventions and support.

Earlier this year, a survey by the Psychological Society of Ireland of its members found that 89pc of those who had conducted an assessment, using the updated procedure, believed it did not assist children in having their needs met in a timely manner while 95pc said the new process was not fit for purpose.

It should be clear that disability services have never been a priority – for this government, or any other government. Too often disabled people, their families, or carers have to fight to receive and maintain access to services they have a right to. When they highlight these situations those in positions of power have been content to either pay lip service to their demands or ignore them.

Instead of issuing a bland press release, if the government wants to do something significant to mark today’s date, there is one option. It could immediately ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Ireland was disgracefully the last EU country to ratify the CRPD in 2018 but failed to sign the Optional Protocol then or since. This means that individuals or groups, whose rights under the Convention are breached, are unable to hold the government to account for any failure to uphold their rights.

The government has claimed it needs to do more work before signing the Protocol, but this is merely a delaying tactic. There is nothing stopping the government from doing that today – and ensuring the rights, contained in the Convention, are meaningful rights that the government is compelled to uphold.

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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