International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Statements

Posted on December 04, 2019

Ivana Bacik

Senator Ivana Bacik

I welcome the Minister of State. It is welcome this week that we are marking International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which was yesterday. It is a United Nations day aimed at promoting the rights and well-being of people with disabilities in all spheres of society and development, and increasing awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life. It is worth remembering the purpose of the day when we are reflecting on the current state of society for persons with disabilities here in Ireland. I have listened to the other contributions and acknowledge the work done on this issue by our colleagues, particularly Senator Dolan, whom Senator Ruane rightly commended for his unstinting work in highlighting issues for persons with disabilities and inclusion and equality since the start of his time in this Seanad in 2016. I also acknowledge Senator Conway, who has really been to the fore on this issue for Fine Gael.

As Senator Conway says, undoubtedly we should acknowledge the immense progress that has been made on advancing the rights of persons with disabilities in recent years. In schooling and education we now have much greater resourcing and recognition of the need to ensure supports for children with additional needs and to ensure accommodation for persons with disabilities in education. That is fairly well established. We also have increased awareness about inclusion, which is part of the United Nations aim, through initiatives like those which others have mentioned, the exhibition that was launched yesterday, Someone Like Me at City Hall, and the Purple Lights campaign that has been promoted by the Disability Federation of Ireland. The Labour Party website went purple yesterday to mark the Purple Lights campaign. These are all important initiatives to enhance and increase visibility. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade and we have pushed to ensure that there is inclusion of disability and disability-proofing in our international development programmes. I commend Irish Aid and the Government's work on that issue. That is all positive.

I note that the Minister of State has also referred to highlights and milestones that the Government has reached. However, it has to be said that there is still a significant gap in achievement and some really serious issues are being raised. The Minister of State mentioned the issue of employment of persons with disabilities. He cited the figures from census 2016 that only 22.3% of the total disabled working population is in work. It is a stark figure. People with disabilities are still only half as likely to be in employment as others of working age. Clearly that is a major concern, particularly when the theme of yesterday's United Nations day was promoting the participation of persons with disabilities and their leadership, taking action on the 2030 development agenda. A key component of that must be the support and promotion of workplace opportunities for persons with disabilities and clearly that is somewhere we are falling down. I ask the Minister of State to address this in the work that is being done on the national strategy, which is most important. Senator Conway has also rightly highlighted it.

Another glaring issue that has been raised in this House on a number of occasions, even just in recent weeks, is the issue of funding for disability groups, NGOs and those who are providing essential services and supports. We had a debate in this House on the Save Cuisle campaign, which was raised by colleagues on all sides of the House. It is very worrying to see the closure of a crucial respite centre in the west. Just yesterday we saw the launch of the Disability Action Coalition, which seeks to highlight how rising insurance costs threaten the future survival of disability organisations. That is a particular issue and I would like the Minister of State to address it in his response. I was shocked to see the figures. Enable Ireland says its insurance premium this year alone rose by €100,000. We know the impact of rising premiums on small businesses. We have had debates on that and are well aware of it. This is a really particular issue for disability organisations. When budget 2020 was announced in October, the Disability Federation of Ireland highlighted the more general issue of the lack of funding for disability groups and indeed referred to persons with disabilities as the forgotten vulnerable, given that the budget, as they said, will not alleviate the fact that the number of those with disabilities who are in poverty has increased. These are really serious problems that need to be addressed.

Senator Ruane referred to the impending closure, announced yesterday, of the National Platform of Self Advocates. We are seeing signs of organisations closing. We all received an email about that. I am not sure if the Minister of State received the same email. These are worrying developments at a time when there should be funding available for these groups and organisations. It links closely with the promotion of opportunities in the workplace and in employment for persons with disabilities. It is crucial that we see organisations that are adequately funded that can provide the necessary supports. I had the pleasure and privilege of being invited to speak recently with a group of young people with Down's syndrome as part of Down Syndrome Ireland training and to hear from them about their experiences in the workplace, the difficulty some of them have experienced in getting work but also about the enormous pleasure and satisfaction and indeed the importance of receiving a pay package that comes with being employed. As others have said, there are some really notable employers that are doing a lot across the country to ensure opportunities for those with disabilities and that have really strong positive action programmes. There are private sector organisations delivering but we need to ensure that organisations like Down Syndrome Ireland which provide the necessary training and supports for young people and all those with disabilities seeking to enter the workplace are adequately funded so they can continue to provide training programmes.

I refer also to the welcome ratification by Ireland last year of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Minister of State referred to it. I commend the ratification but I also wish to ask when we will be in a position to ratify the optional protocol, which I understand has not yet been ratified and which would enable individuals to make complaints against Ireland at the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That is an important part of the international legal framework for recognition and acknowledgement of the rights of persons with disabilities. It is unfortunate that we have not yet been in a position to ratify it. Last year the Minister of State told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality that he hoped to ratify as soon as possible but at the latest in two or three years' time. That is clearly beyond any projected lifetime of this Government.

Following last night's vote in the Dáil, the lifetime of this Government is looking increasingly short. Nobody is putting it at any longer than five or six months from now. It is a worry that we will not see ratification of the optional protocol in the lifetime of this Government, unless the Minister of State can enlighten us further on it. It is important when marking International Day of Persons with Disabilities that we note the importance of ensuring there are transnational frameworks in place through which people who are still suffering discrimination and exclusion and who are not getting the equal opportunities that others get have a mechanism for making complaints under the convention.

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