Access to Educational and Other Opportunities for People with Disabilities: Motion

First Stage: 24 Sep 2014
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Ivana's Contributions

Motion: 24/09/2014

Access to Educational and Other Opportunities for People with Disabilities: Motion

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Senator Ivana Bacik:   I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for coming in to take this motion, which was put forward on behalf of the Labour Party Senators. I commend my colleagues, Senators Moran and Moloney, on putting forward this motion and on their long commitment to the issue of equality of access for people with disabilities to educational and other services. It is deliberately a broadly-framed motion. It is very much interdepartmental in its nature and cuts across many different Departments and several different themes. However, the overarching theme is one of equal access for persons with disabilities to educational and other public services. We have sought to ensure that it was broadly worded and rather open ended to ensure that all of us who speak on the motion would be able to put forward our ideas and bring forward our expertise, experience or observations on the issue.

  As others have said, the Seanad has a proud record of debate on this issue, of putting forward the rights of persons with disabilities and of holding the Government to account in ensuring that it remains a Government priority to ensure a commitment to provide equality of access to persons with disabilities.

  I listened with great interest to Senator Zappone's speech. She put forward some innovative ideas and effective ways in which we could look to improve the position of pupils with disabilities within the educational system. I have in mind in particular her comments about the longer school year. This was a point of interest and something certainly worth examining. Senator Mary Moran has a particular expertise on this issue as an educator and as someone who has been a long-term activist on disability rights. I commend the work of the Minister of State and his commitment to equality in education generally not only in his current role but also in his previous work as a teacher.

  Some specific issues arise from the motion. These were touched on in the comprehensive speech from the Minister of State. He put forward various measures that have been taken by the Government. The Minister of State rightly pointed out the need to confound the myth that there have been cuts in the allocation of special needs assistants and he gave us the figures on increased numbers of SNAs in place. That is important.

  As a University Senator I wish to highlight the matter of access to third level education for persons with disabilities. I urge the Government to give continued support to the Disability Access Route to Education, DARE, programme, a third level admission scheme offering places at reduced points to school-leavers with disabilities. I am pleased the Minister of State referred to the matter in his speech. We operate the programme within Trinity College, one of the 18 institutions operating the scheme and it operates successfully there. The programme is resource intensive. The Minister of State pointed out that higher education institutions must have disability officers. The disability officer in Trinity College plays an important part in ensuring adequate supports are in place for students with disabilities who are going through the educational system. It is most important that disability officers build up personal relationships with academic and administrative staff to smooth pathways, in particular for people with physical disabilities. Some obvious issues arise in trying to ensure this, especially on an old campus. Generally, we must ensure that structures are in place for dealing with people with learning or intellectual disabilities, including people with conditions like dyslexia and so on. Every third level institution has made concerted attempts to ensure better access.

However, it must be well co-ordinated, which is the advantage of the DARE system.

  The Department of Education and Skills is finalising the national plan for equity of access to higher education which will ensure there are targets in place for people with disabilities accessing and participating in higher education. Of course, there are also important commitments to ensuring access for other groups that are disadvantaged and for non-traditional groups entering third level education, in particular, for mature students and students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and the designated disadvantaged schools. It is still shameful how low the numbers are for those entering third level education, particularly universities, from disadvantaged schools. The law school in Trinity College Dublin pioneered a scheme for set-aside places for students coming through the Trinity Access Programmes schools. It has been hugely successful and rolled out across the college. That model requires real support and I am glad to hear from the Minister that the Government is continuing to support these models. I hope there will be an even more streamlined programme with the national plan for equity of access to higher education for the next two years.

  As a parent of primary school children, I wish to comment on the new model being rolled out for children with special educational needs in primary and post-primary education. Senators Katherine Zappone and Martin Conway made the point that when trying to improve equality of access to education, it is not just a resource issue in many instances but of how we structure models of access. A good example is the current model for allocating teaching resources for students with special educational needs. As the Minister said and as the former Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and others have pointed out for a number of years, there is a problem with the current model as it requires a diagnosis. In many cases it requires parents to obtain private diagnoses for their children. There are also other issues around the child perhaps internalising a label where a diagnosis is offered when it might not, in fact, be necessary. A much fairer and more equitable system of supports will be put in place through the new model being considered. It will be an allocation model developed for schools and will not require individual diagnoses. I commend the Government on its work on it.

  We should also discuss other aspects of equal access for persons with disabilities, not just to educational opportunities but to other opportunities in training and employment. The national disability strategy is the Minister's area of responsibility and we are all concerned about the low numbers of persons with disabilities in employment. The Labour Party Senators previously tabled a motion on the need for the provision of personal assistants and a potential statutory framework. I will speak to the Minister of State again about this; I have already spoken to the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, about it. It is an example of the type of support that might be necessary to ensure greater participation levels by persons with disabilities in the workplace.

  I thank the Minister of State for his commitment to this issue and my Seanad colleagues who have contributed and will contribute to the debate. The Seanad has a good record of bringing forward this issue and keeping it to the forefront of the Government's priorities. We will continue to do so.