Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 17 February 2022
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Disability Matters
Aligning Education with the UNCRPD (Resumed): Discussion
Apologies have been received from Deputies Cairns, Canney, Phelan and Wynne, and Senators Higgins, McGreehan and O'Loughlin.
The purpose of today's meeting is to resume our discussion on aligning education with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Kerry Lawless, Ms Catherine Kelly, Mr. Barry McGinn and Ms Paula Prendeville. Brid and Ms Madeline Hickey are also with us.
I remind members that they are only allowed to participate in the meeting when physically present within the Leinster House complex. In this regard, members who are joining us remotely must confirm they are on the grounds of Leinster House prior to their contribution. Ms Wendy Newman is here with us in the committee room and the other witnesses are accessing the meeting remotely. I ask people to bear with us if there are any technical issues.
Before we commence formal proceedings, I must begin with some formalities and advise our witnesses on privilege. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise or make charges against any persons or entities by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I must advise the witnesses giving evidence from outside of the parliamentary precinct that the constitutional protection afforded to witnesses attending to give evidence before committees may not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether or the extent to which the evidence is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature. Persons giving evidence from outside the jurisdiction must be mindful of the domestic statutory regime. If you are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter, you must respect that decision.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make a charge against a person or entity outside the Houses in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Ms Kerry Lawless:
I thank the committee for having me here on Zoom. I am one of the people for whom Covid is not over yet so I appreciate the facility. I will talk about my experience of third-level education. This is a very important area for people with disabilities but it is overlooked because we presume the supports are in place. People think that everything must surely be in place at third level and postgraduate level, which I am going to talk about, to make education possible for people with disabilities, but it is not. There is a huge gap between what we say we do, what actually happens and what is possible for a person. I am conscious of the time so I will talk about three main things: how funding is set up for third level, particularly postgraduates and PhDs; how the social welfare system prevents people with disabilities going on to education and training; and, for those lucky people who do make it in to third level, the problems that come up with the fund for students with disabilities and the disability services within third level
I am only one person and I am only one person with a disability. I was in a particularly bad mood when I wrote my submission what seems like 18 months ago, so I have tempered my remarks. I encourage the committee to extend its consultation and talk to a wider range of people with disabilities who are studying at third level, particularly postgraduates, because there is a lot more to it than what I am about to say.
I will tell the committee a little about myself to set the context. I did not do particularly well in school. I had dyslexia, which was not diagnosed until I was in my 30s. That was not unusual as I went to school in the 1970s and 1980s and if we had heating, we thought we were blessed. I was born with a couple of other health issues as well. I went into the workforce, meandered along and got a little education along the way - a certificate here, half a diploma there. I managed to get an MA in my 30s because DCU allowed me to do an MA without having an undergraduate degree, but that is a story for another time. Things were going well and then, about 15 years ago, I got sick. I got very sick and I just could not get better. This mystery ailment ran right through my system and damaged my eyes, my balance, my nervous system and my hearing, and left me with lots of life-altering impairments and disabilities. I have neuroborreliosis, which is late stage or chronic Lyme disease. Even though I managed to get treatment a few years ago, it had gone through my system to such an extent that it has left me with visual impairments and everything I see is blurred. I am hard of hearing but I also have tinnitus so I cannot wear hearing aids all the time. I fall over a lot as my balance is gone. I have vertigo, migraines and chronic pain. There is a whole list of things. My immune system is suppressed so I get everything that is going around. That includes Covid, which I have gotten twice now despite being very careful. My hands swell from Lyme arthritis so I cannot read or write very well.
I am going through this list just to show that disabilities are not one thing. They can be multi-systemic. They affect different people in different ways and are not always visible. Just because you cannot see someone has a disability or an impairment does not mean it is not there. People with chronic Lyme, MS, Lupus or any similar disability have good and bad days. Members cannot see it because of my nice backdrop of San Francisco but right now I am holding onto the kitchen table to keep my balance. I will be able to do that for ten minutes and then I will sit down and participate in the rest of the meeting from more of a prone position. It is quite hard to do that in education and it is obviously very hard to do it in the workplace. I have had the benefit of some higher education and had a very good job. I was the research manager at the National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA, before I got sick and I managed 14 people. I think I have a lot to contribute but I need to go back and upskill, get a new qualification and update my academic qualifications because I need access to well-paid but flexible part-time work.
Why is that so hard? On paper, it would seem all these things are already in place. Do we not have the disability access route to education, DARE, programme, the fund for student disabilities and a range of things that are just waiting for me to pick them up and take advantage of them? We actually do not. Someone with my type of disability only has so much energy and capacity per day and I simply cannot go back to college full time. I need part-time options. As I am also on social welfare and in receipt of an invalidity pension, I need funded education opportunities. At third level, particularly postgraduate and PhD level, all the supports, including those from SUSI, the Irish Research Council and scholarships from individual universities, are provided with the expectation that the recipient studies full time, so I and people like me are automatically excluded. Why is that? Are we not studying the same thing? Do I not end up with the same qualification, even if it takes me that little bit longer? Am I not getting the same skills and knowledge? We are saying to people that full-time education at third and postgraduate level is good but part time is something else and they have to fund that themselves. They cannot access the huge amounts the Government is quite rightly investing in third-level education. The Government says it wants us to be a high-skill economy and that it wants people like me, with disabilities, back in the workforce if we are able. It says it wants us back in some capacity. It says it wants our skills, talents and passions but that is only if we can do it full-time.
At a university level, when there are scholarships available, not only are students meant to study full time at a PhD level but they also have to teach and do work to be eligible for the scholarship. That just means people with disabilities are automatically excluded. The vision statements and nice flowery words that universities, the Minister and the Department of Education use about inclusivity and equality do not mean anything if the very structures they have set up are excluding people who need to study part time. Obviously, this does not only affect people with disabilities. There are lone parents and people in rural areas in these situations as well. However, people with disabilities physically cannot do it full time. That is not the case with everyone but it is for people like me who have my type of illness and disabilities. That is the big thing. I want to go back to education but I cannot because I cannot afford the fees and the only funded options are full time.
The second issue is social welfare. As members probably know from their constituents, the main two social welfare options for people with disabilities are the disability allowance and the invalidity pension. While the disability allowance is not perfect, it has inherent flexibility. People can dabble in education or work a little bit and as long as they keep it under certain limits they can keep their payment and none of their secondary benefits, like the very precious medical card, are at risk. The invalidity pension is not set up like that. The medical criteria are the same for the disability allowance and the invalidity pension but one is means tested and the other is not. That is the only difference. However, the invalidity pension is administered in a completely different way and is a very inflexible payment. If someone on the invalidity pension wants to go back into the workforce they have to go on the partial capacity benefit, which means they risk losing at least 25%, if not 50%, of their payment. It also puts at risk things like the medical card, home help and all the supports that have probably taken them a decade to build up. For many people like me, that is too high a risk. It is just because of the misfortune that I happened to qualify for the invalidity pension and not the disability allowance. It is the same amount of money and the same medical criteria, but one group of people with a disability is trapped and one group is not. Disability allowance is far from perfect but it has advantages that the invalidity pension does not. Why is that?
Bringing in funded part-time options or more flexibility for people with a disability within the social welfare code would not require huge changes.
Yes, they would probably require additional funding, but not huge changes. We do not need committees set up. We do not need research groups. We do not need years and years to think about this. We just need to look at it and ask whether it is right and how we can change it over. Otherwise, we are talking about a snakes and ladders situation in which you manage to get in somewhere but something knocks you back and then you try to look at it from another angle and try to do something else and all your energy and time goes into doing things that should be straightforward.
Let us say you manage to get onto a third level course. You have family support, get outside charity support and find a particularly flexible university that is able to cover your fees, with no living grants or other expenses, but you get in there part time. Once in there, there is no top-up grant for people with disabilities, even though we know people with disabilities have higher living costs. A research report launched just last December set out in definitive terms the higher cost of living people with a disability face just by existing. It just costs us more. It costs us more to travel and to get around the house. We need extra supports. Then, when we go back into education or training, we need more supports again. Some of them are funded; some are not. There is a need, therefore, for some level of matching top-up grant, especially for people with more extreme disabilities.
The third and last point I wish to make is about the fund for students with disabilities. The name is a bit of a misnomer because it is not actually for the students but for the educational institutions to help them cater for the students. The money goes into Trinity, UCD or DCU - I am in Dublin so all my examples are of Dublin institutions - and then the university decides how and when that money pays for supports for the individual students with disabilities. That is all ifs, whens and maybes. Nothing is guaranteed and it is all at the discretion of the university, so the fund is not necessarily based on the student's needs but on how well the student can negotiate.
I refer to simple things. If you look at the small print for the fund for students with disabilities, you see lots of words like "may". Students may ask for presentation overheads or lecture slides to be given in advance. They may ask; they may not get them. They may ask for this accommodation or that accommodation. Again, there is no guarantee they will get it. I hear of students having to ask three times for overheads in advance, not getting them for some time and, finally, getting them on the day of the lecture. They need them to enlarge the font. They need them to make them in some way more accessible. That is a simple thing and it is not automatic.
Why are we still delivering education and training in such a way that students with disabilities must ask for accommodations? Why are we putting the onus on the individual student to ask for these accommodations and to negotiate access to them? Why is it that one student can go to the disability service in one university and get this type of assistive technology while another student in another university cannot get it? People with disabilities can be told access is not possible and told to check with the students' union or the university head. They can go back to the disability service and say it actually is possible, push a little and be difficult, and then they can get the support they need. Why is that the case? The whole way in which disability supports and services are delivered needs to be looked at. To be fair to the disability services, they are very under-resourced, understaffed and overwhelmed. Evaluation after evaluation has shown that, yet nothing is happening.
There are two sides to this. The disability services need more money and more staffing to do what they do, but also the whole system needs to be focused on the student, not what the universities need to make accommodations. The universities should be making these accommodations anyway. There should be no need for accommodations. One should not have to ask repeatedly for subtitles to be put on. It is as if no level of disability-proofing goes into this.
I think I have kept within my five minutes and said everything I wanted to say. Those are the three issues: the fact that all the funding, with the exception of one or two small cases, is full time; the way in which social welfare is set up, with no top-up grants; and the fund for students with disabilities. It is a matter of small changes just to make things better.
Ms Catherine Kelly:
On behalf of WALK, I thank the Chairperson and the members of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters for the opportunity for Gavin Gilvarry, a gentleman with lived experience of disability who overcomes daily barriers to achieve tremendous personal outcomes, which he will discuss with the committee later in his presentation, and me to present on the key issue of education. I acknowledge and thank especially Senator Seery Kearney, a member of the committee, for the tremendous support she continually provides to WALK.
By way of a brief introduction to WALK, we are a progressive community and voluntary section 39 organisation that has been supporting people with intellectual disabilities and autism for more than 50 years. We are based in Dublin and Louth and, as for education, we have developed and continue to deliver the innovative Providing Equal Employment Routes, PEER, programme. The programme supports students with special educational needs to transition from special school to mainstream further education, training and employment. The services and supports WALK provides are rights based and rooted in the belief that all people have the right to live self-determined lives in an equal and inclusive society.
In our engagement with the committee today we will focus on the topic of education. We ask the committee to consider a more holistic and integrated approach to the achievement of equality in education. If we are to make schools truly egalitarian institutions, we must consider the inclusive process for respecting differences not only in the culture of education but also in the curriculum, the pedagogy and the assessment systems that typically exclude people with intellectual disabilities from progressing on their pathway to lifelong learning. Education has a significant impact on all our lives, and being educated opens doors for us. Schools and colleges are major institutions of selection and stratification for the labour market. Many people with an intellectual disability, however, leave school never having attained a QQI level 3, 4 or 5 standard of education. This prompts us to ask what measures are in place to determine the standard of education a person with an intellectual disability receives. The answer is "None". It is perfectly acceptable for these people to leave school without any QQI qualification and transition into a life of services as opposed to a life in which they direct their own supports to achieve their educational, training and employment goals.
Some people whom WALK supports need additional accommodations to reach educational milestones. For example, we have worked with one individual who left school with no educational qualifications and limited literacy skills. He was, however, an extremely driven and capable individual who had not been given appropriate supports in school. He had a dream: he wanted to work with children. WALK supported him on his journey. The first thing we looked at was paid work experience for one hour per week to decide if this was really what he wanted to do with his life. It was, so he did a QQI level 3 course with support from a PEER mentor, which took him one year. He then did a QQI level 4 course with support from WALK staff, which took two years, while also taking up a part-time job in a restaurant to support himself. He then did a QQI level 5 course with support from WALK staff, which took him three years, while taking up a part-time job in a restaurant. Then he took on a community employment, CE, scheme of 19.5 hours per week in childcare and has now commenced his QQI level 6 childcare course with support. That is just one example of a very capable person who was let down very badly by the school educational system.
This raises two questions. Who is monitoring the quality standard of education for children with an intellectual disability, and how is it acceptable for a child to leave school with no educational qualification? We do not expect other children to leave school and commence a PhD immediately because we recognise that years of educational foundations are required before a person can reach that level of academic competence. We have an educational pathway designed for this journey.
Why have we not designed an educational pathway through school for children with intellectual disabilities? Would it not seem like the logical approach?
In our society, this inequality manifests itself as a problem of access, participation and outcome, arising from unequal distribution of resources, supports, accommodations, alternative learning options and, fundamentally, an institutionalised one-size-fits-all educational system. If a student selects the mainstream path after leaving school, there is a massive gap to bridge in trying to access appropriate further education, because they all start at QQI level 5. There is very little support to bridge the gap into the mainstream and, therefore, without a good educational foundation, children leave school with limited further education, training and career options. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 states:
That people with [disabilities] shall have the same right to avail of, and benefit from, appropriate education ... to assist children with [disabilities] to leave school with the skills necessary to participate ... in an inclusive way in the social and economic activities of society and to live independent and fulfilled lives.
However, as already outlined, the lived experience of people with an intellectual disability is contrary to this.
There is no provision for career guidance in our special schools or comprehensive transition planning for our young citizens with special educational needs that begins early enough to have a meaningful and positive influence on a young person’s life choices and decisions. Therefore, the educational foundation required for progression into mainstream that should begin in schools only begins, for the lucky ones, when they are young adults.
Training settings such as the WALKways programme that operates in Tallaght University Hospital and the Oireachtas work learning, OWL, programme that operates here in Leinster House provide a real and applied learning experience to the trainees in a busy work setting, to support the development of skill acquisition required to access paid employment in the open labour market. Sadly, programmes such as this are extremely limited in Ireland.
The distribution of economic resources plays a pivotal role in determining the quality of education a person receives and because education is such a powerful determinant of life chances, equality in education cannot be thought of separately from economic equality. People with intellectual disabilities have a right to education. With a view to realising this right without discrimination and based on equal opportunity, States parties are tasked to ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning. I would like to introduce Gavin Gilvarry, who has kindly agreed to share his lived experience with us all here today.
Mr. Gavin Gilvarry:
I will tell the committee a little bit about my journey in education over the past few years, from when I left school up to where I am now. When I left school, I was not sure what I wanted to do. It was hard to find options to suit me and I felt a bit lost. From 2016 to 2018, I did some Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, courses to try to develop my skills. I did courses in career exploration and Microsoft Word and Excel. It was good to try to do those courses, to continue my education and get started on the path to employment, but parts of the courses could be difficult. They did not always suit my learning needs.
I also did some work experience placement but I was still finding it hard to know which way to turn. My family have always been a great support to me and, outside of my family, I was looking for support with my further education and getting into a career.
From September 2018 to July 2019, I took part in the WALKways Tallaght University Hospital programme. I got to do work experience, three placements in three different departments in the hospital; medical records, facilities management and in the warehouse. In September 2019, I moved on to the OWL programme at Leinster House to continue with my skills development. During my time on the OWL programme, I did work experience placement in the inquiries office and HR unit and remote working tasks for the Parliamentary Questions Office.
While we were doing our work experience placement on those programmes, we did classes during the week with the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire education and training board and the City of Dublin education and training board. Each week, we would have two class sessions. The classes we did were work experience and career preparation. The classes were made in order that they were at the right level for everyone on the programme. This meant all of us trainees could really learn the course work and put it to practice.
Our course work was related to the work we were doing in Departments and offices. We would take what we learned in the class and use it in our work experience. It was a helpful way to learn and provided me with the employment skills I needed to grow in confidence and take the next step. I learned so much about the working world and I felt that I could learn at my own pace.
It also helped me to move the next stage, which was updating my CV, applying for a job and going for an interview. In December 2021, I did my first big job interview for a job in the civil service and came first on the panel. I hope to start working in a clerical role soon. An important part of my journey was to learn at my own pace in a way that suited me. I am so proud of what I have achieved and I have always known I am not in this world to do nothing. I cannot wait to see what this new year brings me.
Mr. Barry McGinn:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak this morning. It is a privilege to be here and I commend the committee on its work, since its inauguration, in highlighting issues that affect many people with disabilities in Ireland.
I have been the chief executive of the Rehab Group for the past few years. I am joined by my colleague, Ms Bird, who is the director of the National Learning Network, NLN. I am delighted to be joined by Ms Newman, who is in the committee room. She is a former student of NLN and will share her personal experience with the committee.
The Rehab Group provides services for more than 10,000 adults and children per annum, and champions the values of diversity and inclusion for persons with disabilities or disadvantage in their communities, throughout Ireland. We support people to live the lives they choose by providing care, education and meaningful employment opportunities.
The NLN is the education and training arm of the Rehab Group.
We deliver education and training services on behalf of the Government. We offer four core education and training services, namely, bridging and transition services with the HSE on a national basis; specialist vocational training, including employer-based training, with the education and training boards, ETBs; education support services with higher education and some further education and training institutions; and individual placement and support services with the HSE mental health services in a number of locations across the country. These services span inclusive education at all levels and support equity of access in education, lifelong learning, and employment for people with disabilities. Through these services, every year we support between 6,000 and 7,000 people with a disability or a health-related support need, including school leavers and those who need a second chance at education. We have 50 centres across the country, serving both urban and rural Ireland. We are a pan-disability service. Disability diagnosis is not so important.
As we know, disability affects people in different ways. We meet people’s needs and work to remove barriers to inclusion. We work across age groups from 16 to 65. People choose NLN because of the way we work to support them. We adopt a rights-based approach in the delivery of our education and training services. The guiding principles of the UNCRPD are inherent in the day-to-day delivery of our services and this was the case long before ratification of the convention. Our approach to delivery is informed by the universal design for learning and we provide extensive wide-ranging holistic supports personalised to meet each student’s needs. These supports span psychological interventions, welfare supports, housing supports, money management and poverty alleviation, community inclusion activities, health and wellness. All ensure that basic human rights are met.
Students are central in all our work. Our recently published strategy, Delivering Our Future, states our intention to further enhance student involvement in consultation through co-design and co-production of future services. All programmes at NLN, from level 2 to level 5, are accredited on the national framework of qualifications. We are currently designing level 1 programmes to meet the needs of some young people who experience severe and profound disabilities and who are deferring day places. We are impact focused. Each year, approximately 500 of the students who complete their courses in levels 2 to 5 of rehabilitative training and specialist vocational training progress to employment and 950 progress to higher levels of further education and training or higher education. This equates to over 90% positive outcomes for those who complete their education courses with us.
I will address some of the issues in delivering a right-based approach to education and training, based on our direct experience as a provider and the lived experiences of the people we support. One of the main areas for improvement is the need for more formalised transition planning from second level to further and third levels for persons with disabilities. There is a lack of comprehensive knowledge about post second-level training providers, including specialist provision like NLN, so students lose out on inclusive education and training opportunities because they simply do not know about them. Another big challenge is the lack of career guidance in special schools. This area is under-resourced and means students with disabilities do not get the chance to look fully at all their education and training options. Another transition piece is the journey from training into employment. This can be quite challenging for some and we have heard about that already this morning. Post-training support would be a highly effective intervention and deserves consideration by the Government. Significant changes are also required to the funding model to support the delivery of inclusive and flexible educational services. A capital investment plan for infrastructure and technology-enhanced learning is also required. Current provision must expand to cater for students with profound and severe disabilities who are leaving second level and who, for the first time, can defer their day service places and continue in education. Provision needs to be authentic in meeting these students’ needs and available close to their vital family supports.
NLN is, therefore, proposing six areas that we believe would be impactful in aligning post second-level education with the UNCRPD. Our first recommendation is to improve transition programme planning for persons with disabilities from second level, with appropriate levels of funding and upskilling for career guidance. Second is investing in career guidance in special schools in order that students do not lose out. Third, we should invest in post-training support services for people with disabilities exiting training into employment. Fourth, we should put students’ needs first by ensuring informed choices for people with disabilities accessing education that suits their needs and preferences, whether that be mainstream or specialist, such as by promoting specialist services as part of the further education and training college of the future. Our fifth recommendation is to deliver a capital investment programme and provide a multi-annual funding allocation model. Finally, we should support the development of programmes for people with moderate, severe and profound disabilities who are deferring day places, and recognise these as vital for a more inclusive future.
I again thank the committee for the opportunity to bring these matters to its attention. The members would be most welcome to join us at any of our centres for a visit at any time. We would be delighted to arrange that. Ms Bird and I would happy to take questions. I will now hand over to Ms Newman to share her personal experience.
Ms Wendy Newman:
Dia dhaoibh a chairde. Tá sé go deas bheith ag caint libh. I am here to talk about my experience with disability and education, and how education has helped me and played a big part in my recovery. I have an acquired brain injury, which happened when I fell off a horse in 2015. I went head-first into a brick wall. I had very serious head injuries and was airlifted to Beaumont Hospital where I was in a coma. I was in hospital for a long time. I could not walk, I could not talk and I could not move at all. I relied on others for everything. I could not continue in my job with Comhar Naíonraí na Gaeltachta because I was so bad. My only income was from social welfare and I was very depressed. I was lost. At times I did not know where I would end up. I thought my life had no meaning and I did not have a clue what I could do next.
Then someone told me about the NLN. From the minute I heard about it, I felt it was something that would suit me. If nothing else, it would get me out of bed, get me organised and encourage me to plan and have a social life again. From the moment I walked in the door, I could see smiling, welcoming faces and I knew this was the right place for me. My tutor, James Conroy, knew about the fatigue I suffered from and he chatted to me about it. He gave me a chair by the door and told me that if ever I needed to get up and walk out to catch breath or get a cup of tea, I was more than welcome. This gave me peace of mind and I knew then that this was right for me. That little bit of understanding made all the difference.
In NLN, I studied IT and office skills. I found it challenging at first but over time I rediscovered myself. I grew in confidence and learned that I had something to offer. I am happy to say that I now have a job at the reception of a local company. What I have learned on my journey is that training services need to be supportive, understanding and approachable. People must be able to take training at their own pace. The social side of training, such as a smile, a conversation, a happy face, a coffee and making friends, was just as important as the certificate I got at the end of my course. I also believe that there should be better support once people leave training. A brain injury is for life so a bus pass or medical card should also be for life. I have spoken to a lot of people about these issues. I am happy to answer any questions the members have.
Go raibh míle maith agat. Ms Newman is the first witness to attend the committee in person since its inception at the end of 2020, so she is making history today. I call Ms Prendeville of the National Council For Special Education, NCSE.
Ms Paula Prendeville:
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht an cuireadh don NCSE teacht agus labhairt leis an gcomhchoiste inniu. I am here in my role as head of policy and practice in the NCSE. I am joined by my colleague, Ms Madeline Hickey, who is our specialist sensory lead. Her role is to provide advice and support to students in our schools who are deaf or hard of hearing and students who are blind or have visual impairments.
The NCSE's vision is for an inclusive society where children and adults with special educational needs are supported to achieve better outcomes in their education to enable them to develop skills for life to participate to their fullest potential in society. This vision is realised by activities that are set out by our functions identified in the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. These functions include planning and co-ordinating educational supports for children and young people with special educational needs, conducting and commissioning research, and advising the Minister for Education on policy pertaining to special education. The 2004 Act also identifies our role to review and advise on educational provision for adults with disabilities. It is within the context of this function that we warmly welcome the opportunity to speak to the committee today about aligning education with the UNCRPD, to discuss topics that include life after school and transitioning from school to further education and-or employment for young people with special educational needs.
With Ireland’s ratification of the UNCRPD, the NCSE recognises that, in its role, it will take time to support the development of a progressive realisation of an inclusive educational system. The UN acknowledges that significant change takes time to implement. Article 24 recognises the right of persons with disabilities to education, to provide for an inclusive education system at all levels and to support lifelong learning opportunities that enables the development of each person with disabilities to their fullest potential. This article also provides for the provision of reasonable accommodations to include effective individualised support measures consistent with the aim of full inclusion. This includes the NCSE’s role in supporting and advising on the provision for learning for students with disabilities, using various forms of communication, including ISL, and embedding the tenets of a universal design for learning approach.
The NCSE is supporting developments of an inclusive educational system in a number of ways. In September 2019, the school inclusion model, SIM, a new pilot model of supports for schools, was established and it aims to build schools’ capacity to include students with additional educational and care needs in our schools. The NCSE assists in the implementation of this model. This capacity building model includes a joined-up thinking, wraparound support where teachers access the supports of therapists, including speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and behavioural practitioners, along with our colleagues in the National Educational Psychological Service. This model enables capacity building in schools by raising awareness and understanding of the specific needs of our students with disabilities in our schools.
Along with this pilot, there is a fully-funded Department of Education training programme in University College Dublin for 3,500 special needs assistants who provide for the care needs of our students with disabilities. The overall aim of this initiative is to assist in building an inclusive culture in our schools. An evaluation of the first year of this therapy project identified the positive impacts of this project that included teachers’ acquisition of knowledge from engaging with therapists that enabled these teachers to identify the needs of students. This included differentiation of instruction and creating more positive interactions in school settings. However, notwithstanding the benefits of therapists in school settings, there have been challenges in accessing therapists in these roles due to the current shortage of available therapists. The NCSE also provides funding for teachers to upskill in areas such as ISL, braille and access to postgraduate training in the areas of support for deaf or hard of hearing students or blind or vision impaired students in our schools.
We are in the process of finalising policy advice on the education provision for students in special schools and classes. An interim progress report that informs this policy, published in 2019, outlined the view of the NCSE that all children should be educated together, with the appropriate supports in place, unless there is strong evidence to support the contrary. The final report on this advice is scheduled for publication this year.
Under Article 7, the NCSE recognises the importance of capturing the voice of students in regard to their education. Under Article 27, there is a requirement of the State to support the rights of persons with disabilities to work on an equal basis with others and to work in an environment that is open, inclusive and accessible for all persons with disabilities. In response to this article, the NCSE has completed a number of initiatives. These include guidelines for students with special educational needs and their parents or guardians, entitled “Planning for Life After School”, which supports the preparation and planning for students and their parents. Topics in this document include further education and entering the workplace, as well as supports for students with high support needs.
We have also published two research reports to inform pathways for young adults. Our research report No. 14, Moving to Further and Higher Education: An Exploration of the Experiences of Students with Special Educational Needs, provides information from focus groups that were interviewed to seek their views on the pathways for students with disabilities moving to further education. This report examined the roles of the institutions involved, the supports that were available and the students’ experiences, issues and barriers, as well as best practice and strategies to support students transitioning to further and higher education. Our research report No. 15 reviewed literature on what works in the provision of higher, further and continuing education, training and rehabilitation for adults with disabilities to assist adults with disabilities to participate in and progress from education, training and rehabilitation. Key findings from this report included the necessity to set clear targets and objectives, identifying barriers and resolving these, and adopting an inclusive approach. It was noted that legislation was not enough to ensure adequate provision and that staff training was also required.
The NCSE is also on a steering committee to support action 1.3 of the comprehensive employment strategy, the aim of which is to provide access to all school leavers requiring specialist supports to an appropriate transition programme. Significant background work has been completed to develop this project and it is a priority project for education to address significant issues in regard to the provision of supports for young people with disabilities. Notwithstanding the delays that have occurred as a result of Covid-19, the NCSE is looking forward to supporting this project and supporting the development of resources to assist young adults with intellectual disabilities in transitioning from our schools.
Déanfaimid gach iarracht na ceisteanna a fhreagairt anseo inniu agus is féidir linn scríobh chuig an gcomhchoiste tar éis an chruinnithe le heolas breise más mian leis. Tá mé sásta agus ag súil le haon mholadh atá ag an gcomhchoiste maidir lenár seirbhísí a fheabhsú do dhaoine le riachtanais speisialta a chloisteáil.
I thank the witnesses. That was such an informative discussion and very uplifting to hear some of the lived experiences. However, as these committee meetings often do, it also raises quite a lot of questions and very valid concerns on policy issues that we, as a committee, take very seriously, want to have influence on and want to help to change.
I will start with the comment from Ms Newman that summed up a lot of what is wrong with our system. A brain injury is for life. A bus pass and a medical card should also be for life. Ms Newman could not have put it any more simply and in any more practical terms than that. We need to see how we can modernise and update our systems so we are not putting people under annual or biannual pressure to complete forms, with the extra administration and extra hassle, in order to answer questions that are blatantly obvious to anybody who is looking at them.
I appreciate that much of the time, computers are doing the work and scanning the information in but someone looking at it can tell. We need to take some of that humane way in which a person would deal with an application and try to incorporate it into our technologies, processes and systems. In my view, that is absolutely critical.
It was really interesting to hear of Ms Lawless's experience. Many people receive diagnoses later in life and it can be difficult for people to come to terms with their diagnosis at that point. It is more important than anything, therefore, that we provide the assistance and support they need.
Ms Lawless clearly outlined some of the challenges in that regard, as did Mr. Gilvarry, who talked about the fantastic support he received from WALK to enable him to fulfil his full potential. One can see quite clearly how bright and articulate Gavin is and that he has a bright future ahead of him. It is critical to understand not just the benefits that organisations like WALK bring but also the challenges they help people overcome. It is great that organisations like WALK are there to overcome and break down those challenges but would it not be great if the system did not have them in the first place. I am interested in hearing, perhaps from Ms Kelly, about what we could do to enable that transition to be better. Perhaps she will also indicate whether individuals can transition to her service instead of a day service because that was not clear to me.
My next question is for Ms Lawless, who spoke about assistive technology. It is something we discuss week in, week out at this committee. We hear stories of how assistive technology is sometimes only available in one sector of employment, and that it is a little bit easier to obtain from a private sector perspective if a person is working in the private sector as opposed to the public sector. I was interested and even concerned to hear that Ms Lawless had to negotiate to get it into her university. I would love to learn a little more about that and what processes and policy changes she thinks we could introduce that could change that for other people in that situation.
I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who spoke. I only have five minutes so I cannot pose a question to everybody. The three witnesses might perhaps respond to those questions. I thank everybody who came in today and shared their experience and expertise.
Ms Catherine Kelly:
I am happy to take the first question. I thank the Deputy very much for her comments.
When we talk about how we can improve the transition from schools to WALK, we are looking at the special schools. It was very welcome to hear Ms Prendeville's news from the NCSE. One of the programmes we operate in counties Louth and Dublin is to provide support to people in special schools from the age of 15 years until they leave. We do a career guidance programme with them on their careers and where they are going. We also look at where they are on the FETAC scale and what qualifications they require. We need asking how is it okay for somebody to leave school without any QQI qualification and, where this happens, what we are doing wrong. It is really and truly about providing the appropriate supports and accommodations to enable people to follow that trajectory in their school education. The foundation of that is important for people. We all know that the foundation of education determines where we go in our lives. Not having that in place can be a real barrier for people.
On the issue of people coming to WALK, some years ago, we ran a traditional day service. We had to take a look at ourselves, which is great because it is all about reflecting to see if what we are doing is actually appropriate for the people we are supporting. We saw that people were coming into our services but we asked ourselves when they were leaving whether they were really contributing in society. Were they being supported to be as independent as possible? Were they living their own lives? We had to conclude that they were not and we completely changed what we do. Now we do not deliver the services but provide supports that are appropriate for people. People like Gavin come and tell us what they wants in their lives. Then we see how we can support them or ask what they need from us to achieve what they want in life and we look at how we do that. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It is about what is appropriate for the person and how we can support that.
Ms Kerry Lawless:
Assistive technology and I are perhaps not the best fit. In terms of this issue, again, I can only talk about my experience. I think the committee needs to talk to a wider group of students at third level, particularly at postgraduate level.
For me, the issue is quite basic. I have been out of the workforce for quite a while. Things have moved on. Yes, I can manage a computer and use Microsoft Word but there are a lot of basic skills I do not have and there is a presumption at third level that people have these skills. However, there is no provision to bridge that gap. If I was to meet the assistive technology officer in the disability services of a university, I would be told this and that is available, look at this app or YouTube video and do this and that. I would have no idea what they were talking about. I am more than capable in my area, which is science and health communications. I am more than capable of doing things like that but I do not know how to operate much of the assistive technology. The disability services do not necessarily have the funding for the staff to give me the sort of support and training I need to bring me from where I am to where the supports are available. That is one big issue. There can be issues when someone tries to access those supports.
I am not making this up, in case anyone thinks I am, but I had this conversation yesterday. I found a part-time course in my local area of Finglas in Dublin 11 to do basic IT and improve my skills. I am on the invalidity pension so there are no fees. It is very hard to find these part-time courses because, again, even at FETAC levels 4, 5 and 6, they tend to be full-time. The course had already started and I asked if I could go along. The answer was "Yes" but I was told the only seats they had available were at the back and asked if that was a problem for me. I said it would be a problem because I have visual and hearing issues and asked if there was any way I could sit at the front. I was told all the seats at the front were gone and that I would have to wait until September. I asked whether we could change the seats around and see if somebody was willing to move for me. The person to whom I was speaking was a very nice, helpful woman. She was not being difficult. She told me that they had set up the seating, everybody's work was on his or her computer and the only seats available were at the back of the room. She asked why I was not put down for the course in September. I am not particularly IT literate but even I know it is a 15-minute job to take somebody's work off a computer, keep it clean, protect the person's privacy and transfer it to another computer.
If people are coming up against those sorts of barriers, how on earth are we expected to survive at third level, again with apps and so forth? That is one area in which there is an institutional and cultural issue. There is an expectation when someone says "reasonable accommodations" but they are not actually that reasonable at all.
The second point I mention is that if a student in a university is looking for higher tech assistive technology, the particular third level institution may or may not have the funding for it. It varies widely. Other people will have different issues but for me, the biggest issue is that I need to bridge the gap, even for the IT that is there. I need someone to show me how to use it. It is no good telling me I have been set up on a transcribing service and off I go. They may as well be giving me a JCB and telling me to get in and drive it away. I am more likely to get on the JCB and give it a go but I am not going to do that with transcribing.
Again, that this is all negotiated is a huge issue for me. I was told at one stage I was not entitled to a scribe to help with, say, assignments, writing funding applications or research ethics. I was only entitled to a scribe to work on my thesis. Again, I thought: "What? Is writing not writing?". If I need support with writing, does it matter what element of writing it is as part of the academic programme? When you do a postgrad or PhD, you do not only write a thesis. You write to get research ethics. You write to submit papers and hope to get them published. You write funding applications. You write emails and updates and you give presentations. However, I was told the scribe was only available for the actual words that were going to go into my thesis. As members can tell, I am fairly mouthy and fairly able to stand my ground, and yet I was asking "What?". Luckily, I happened to know another PhD student who said that is not true at all and that I should go back to them and say A, B and C. You have to go back and say A, B and C because the system is set up that you are looking for reasonable accommodations and you are negotiating every part of it. That includes something as simple as automated transcription and a scribe.
It should just be that for what students need, they ask for it, prove their eligibility for it, get it and get trained in how to use it. It should not be this way where every single student has to negotiate for every single thing. I am sure other people have stories of how easily it worked, how well it worked for them and how all their needs were met, but my couple of examples are of how easy it is for things not to work. It should not be like that. As I said, these are simple changes that could be made about how the fund for students with disabilities is set up.
I thank Ms Lawless. That is very valuable feedback. I do not know if is symptomatic of the agenda we set but, unfortunately, it is that kind of experience we hear about at this committee more than anything else. We feel she is certainly not on her own.
I thank everyone for presenting at the meeting. I especially thank Ms Kelly, Ms Lawless and Ms Newman for sharing their lived experiences with us. I commend all the organisations, namely, WALK, National Learning Network and the NCSE, for the work they do as well.
We are talking about education and further education and training and we have referenced Article 24 of the UNCRPD, which is around inclusive education. When I speak to parents of children with additional needs about inclusive education, they get very fearful because they think their child with an additional need is going to be sent into mainstream school and not have the supports he or she needs. We are all nervous about our children starting school, whether it is primary or secondary school especially, but if he or she has an additional need and you feel the supports are not there, you feel extra nervous about it.
I am interested in our guests' vision of inclusive education and how that can be achieved. We are hearing about many students with intellectual disabilities leaving school without qualifications, so we obviously do not have inclusive education. We do not have an education system that works if students are leaving second level without any qualifications and are having to pursue other avenues to obtain one. It is proven that, with the proper supports, they are very capable of obtaining the qualifications and moving on.
I am very interested in the school inclusion model Ms Prendeville referenced and ask that she expand on that. I think it is a pilot programme at the moment. The new progressing disability services model is being rolled out. We are hearing supports are being taken out of special schools. Speech and language therapists, occupational therapists or psychologists are being removed from where they have always been before, that is, supporting the students. Parents are very annoyed because this is being done without a risk assessment. The students with very complex needs are especially nervous because they feel there is a real danger to them in this being done. By contrast, Ms Prendeville is talking about a system where we are putting therapists into schools to support students in schools. That is an excellent model. I am aware there is a difficulty there with front-line healthcare workers in that there are not enough of them and that needs to be looked at and planned for. What we are seeing now is students have to be taken out of school and brought to a service. That is when the services get up and running and provision is being given, which is not happening at the moment, but we are hoping it will. It means removing a student from a school for perhaps hours in a day, whereas if the services were available in the school, he or she could receive them there.
When the therapists are working with the teachers, the teachers are learning as well. Teachers in particular must have disability training as part of their teaching programme and that is not happening. It is very limited. I come from an educational background so I know it is not given. Many teachers and parents will tell you that while many teachers in a school will do their utmost to support their students, not all of them do. Some of them have very archaic attitudes. Training is, therefore, very important. Training for employers is very important because many of us, as a witness said last week, are not familiar with disability. How do we get familiar with it? We do so by having disabled people in our schools, our workplaces and so on but we cannot do that until people are willing to have the training and to open up and accept people.
The cost of disability has been mentioned again. The Indecon report published before Christmas indicated the cost of disability is anywhere between €9,500 and €12,000. Ms Lawless mentioned the lack of flexibility to pursue courses in college that might take a someone with a disability longer than someone without one. There is also the fact there is no top-up grant, and the fear of losing the disability payment and the secondary entitlements is another issue that must be tackled.
I have mentioned a good few things there. The presentations were excellent and I would love to hear further comments on what I mentioned.
Ms Paula Prendeville:
I thank Deputy Tully for all those comments. She certainly covered an awful lot so I will do my best to respond to them in the order she made reference to them, if that is okay. First of all, we in the NCSE are very much looking forward to launching our policy advice. It is at an advanced stage of development so it will be forthcoming in the next few months. As I mentioned in the opening statement, the NCSE has a vision of an inclusive educational system and recognise it is going to take time to have that progressive realisation of a fully inclusive system. The Deputy brought up some interesting comments and it is great she is coming from the perspective of teachers because, certainly, when you are on the ground and you see what is happening in schools, you have a very real sense of what is going on.
The Deputy first mentioned progressing disability services and its national roll-out. We do not have a role in that. It is a matter for the Minister for Health and his colleagues with regard to how that is progressing and the changes to the provision of supports in special schools we have.
On the school inclusion model, the first iteration of that was a demonstration project where we worked in tandem with our colleagues in the Department with responsibility for children, the HSE and the Department of Education to pilot a project where therapists were working in early years settings and in our schools to support that model of practice. The first iteration of that was early years settings and primary and post-primary and special schools in 75 early years and 75 school settings. There was an initial report done on that which I referenced in my opening statement.
It was certainly very well received.
Then we had Covid and therapists from the HSE were removed from the schools because they had to address front-line issues that were cropping up so the project was paused and it had to reviewed with regard to moving forward from the recommendations of that early demonstration project, how it could be embedded and the school inclusion models developed as a result. That project was paused. We have had difficulties accessing therapists for this project simply because there are not enough therapists qualifying and on the ground to be able to fill these posts so that would be the concern across health and education. Our therapists and behavioural practitioners return to school in October of this year in collaboration with our NEPS colleagues. Obviously, the data has not yet been gathered on this but we have been told in schools that in respect of the early supports they had prior to the project being paused, when teachers went back into schools, they were still using and embedding those supports and it really demonstrated on the ground that this capacity building model is working very well in schools. For example, our therapy colleagues have developed a sensory spaces booklet, which is being disseminated to all primary schools, and also provided supports to post-primary schools around movement breaks to address the sensory needs of students. Those practices have continued and are being very much embedded. The early experiences of teachers having access to therapists to build capacity in the schools have been very positive to date and have been very much welcomed in schools and teachers are very open to that support.
It is important for the Deputy's constituents' wider community to recognise that the building capacity model means the NCSE and its colleagues in education develop a knowledge base and understanding of disabilities and schools via teachers and teacher professional learning initiatives. Teachers work in collaboration with SNAs to support the care needs of very high-needs students and ensure they are embedded. It is not about therapists working directly with students. I mean the therapists in the NCSE - speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and behavioural practitioners. Our colleagues in NEPS still work on a one-to-one basis with students, which is different. It is really important that people recognise that. Research has demonstrated that capacity building models have a far greater long-term impact on students compared with the one-to-one therapy approach. I know that is a mindset that needs to change over time because we recognise that we can reach and support a higher number of students across the entire system not just students who have disabilities. This benefits all students with a school community to build an inclusive culture in our schools. This is something that is really important for us to recognise.
The philosophy of embedding a universal design approach, which was raised by other speakers today, is very important to the work of building capacity. It involves looking at spaces in schools and being creative, open and supportive around that to ensure our students are supported as much as possible within the school space. I am not sure if the Deputy has any other questions that address the main issues she raised with me earlier.
Mr. Barry McGinn:
To respond to Deputy Tully on the question of vision, from our presentation, she will have seen that NLN and the Rehab Group operate within the mainstream and a specialist setting. Our vision would be to promote access to education for all people with disabilities. We envisage a model where all of the needs of people with mild, moderate, severe and profound disabilities can be met within an overall education ecosystem with mainstream provision, student support services and specialist training for people who need higher levels of support.
In my presentation, I alluded to an example of the further education and training, FET, college of the future, which is something our colleagues in SOLAS and the ETBs have been taking from page to stage over the past 18 months since the launch of the FET strategy. That model envisages multi-campus delivery with effectively one front door albeit virtually. From our point of view, segmenting services as one thing or the other does not serve anybody. Many of the concerns that have been expressed here today have been around transitioning and moving - whether that is from secondary to post-secondary or training to employment. This suggests that we have a good bit of work to do in respect of achieving this seamless movement. The model should be that there is a level of need that is met by different agencies or organisations at different times and in different ways with some people requiring more intensive support at certain times and later being able to progress to less support or different forms of support over time. That would be our vision for the FET space.
Ms Kerry Lawless:
I return to the point Deputy Tully raised about the financial side of it. It is significant and it is significant for anyone with a disability at any level trying to get back into education. The Deputy mentioned the report released last year that showed the disability tax - that every single part of our lives costs us extra. The more profound the disability is, the more it costs. I am quite fortunate in that I live in Dublin and want to attend a university there. However, even though I live in Finglas and DCU is the university I attend, getting the bus there from Finglas south is quite a big deal. It takes quite a while, walking is involved and if you want to do it more quickly, you have to change bus so it is much easier for me to drive. The cost to all of us of trying to keep a car on the road is high. Try doing that with a disability payment and when you have been in receipt of one for over a decade. You do not have the resources or savings, are struggling day to day and then have these extra expenses. There is no provision anywhere in the system such as through the community welfare officer.
This is true for people with disabilities going back into work as well. If we are honest and if we want people with a disability or multiple disabilities to get back into training at whatever level and to be able to re-enter the labour market, we must recognise those additional costs. I spent two months last month trying to attend university remotely on my phone because I dropped my 12-year-old laptop and this time there was no resurrecting it. It was gone. It took me two months. In the end, I did manage to find a little pocket of funding and get a laptop but it took weeks to do that. That was it because I do not have the resources. I am very advantaged in many ways but I do not have the financial resources or that family support for things like laptops, the type of phones you need, the apps and other stuff you need. They are not covered. Again, if we are looking at people with disabilities who also have economic disadvantage and come from low-income areas or personal situations, we must be realistic. Unless there is a top-up grant and we provide certain things as a given, it is all just nice words.
It is a little bit like the assistive technology I spoke about. We are saying all these things are over here but you need to take these four steps to get there and we are not going to help you with those four steps. There is a presumption within all the social welfare models I have ever used for disability that you have a family that supports you and that you are not a full-grown adult who has been living on your own and supporting yourself for quite a while. The presumption is that people have families that will come in and make up for the gaps that are there. We are going to find more and more people like me who have acquired disabilities - people who survive terrible falls and brain injuries such as those we heard about today or the type of illness I got. Hopefully, more of us are going to survive and live for longer.
We want full and meaningful lives. Education is part of that but we need the Government to give us the social capital and resources we need to access it. It is a little bit like that cartoon that we all know, where all the different animals are asked to climb a tree. One is an elephant, another is a monkey and they are all saying that it is an equal opportunity and everyone just has to climb that tree there. We need a little bit of honesty and we are either willing to recognise the disability tax and the fact that it costs us more to live and increase the social welfare supports accordingly, or we are not. To be quite honest, we then need to stop with all of the aspirational talk. We are either serious about allowing and helping people with disabilities to access education and giving them the extra resources that they need, or, again, we are not.
Ms Catherine Kelly:
I thank the Chairman and Deputy Tully for her insightful points. I have always seen that Ireland produces fantastic policies. What we do not do very well is put these policies into practice. We do not do change management well and we need to start with zero tolerance for exclusion and to look at the standards and how we measure these, which is what we are not doing. We need to look at the beliefs and attitudes that exist around people with disabilities within the school and how we support them. Until we do that and do a piece of change management and really nail what the culture which we expect is, that change will not happen.
We also have many pilot schemes in schools. When research shows that they are very effective, however, they are never converted into programmes that just operate as part of the school system.
We have a programme that runs in Louth and in Dublin, and have very significant research that shows that these work and creates amazing outcomes for people who have an intellectual disability but they are still pilots. We are still going back every year with a begging bowl to see if we can get funding to sustain these pilots. These should be programmes now. It is not just our programme; a significant number of great programmes out there are pilots and so much time is wasted trying to get money and to find the strength to sustain them rather than letting us get on with the job that we need to do, which is actually on the ground floor.
Ms Wendy Newman:
Bear with me for a moment, please, because sometimes it is hard for me to find the words for things. There are two things I wish to speak about. One is the bus pass and the second is the difference for me monetarily now that I am working and have a job.
On the bus pass issue, before my accident I drove everybody everywhere and it was my independence, even if it was just to go out into the car and turn on Radio Nova, to have a singsong and get away from everybody. This is what I did. That took away my independence. Before I got my bus pass, as I said, I was transporting everybody.
When I had my accident, however, I was not able to drive and was relying on everybody. When people were dropping children to school, we had to take time out and do a rota for me so that I could get a lift to get to the places that I needed to go to and I was dependent on everybody. I had such joy when I got my bus pass. This is my key to the outdoor world and I do not have to ask anybody. It did not come easily at all and I had to go through a great deal of paperwork to prove many things. I had to pay doctors €50 just to sign a form, money I had to borrow. My ask is to please make the bus pass available for life. I am going to have my disability for life and this will make my life easier but the main thing is that I will have peace of mind.
Second, the NLN gave me the initiative and the help to go out to get a job. This was a delight and the people in the area that I work in are all understanding, reasonable and just lovely people. They would do anything for you. When I got my first pay cheque, what did the Government do? It did not take all but it took a big chunk of my money in tax. I am not sure why this was so or where to go to find out why. At the Citizens Information bureau, one goes in, gets a ticket and is waiting for hours and that does not help.
I also lost my invalidity pension just like that. I got a letter before my first week was over informing me that it was being taken off me. I was happy because I know now that I do not have to get my bus pass renewed until 2025. That gives me some time but the money I have in my pocket was greater when I was on the invalidity pension than it is when I am working now. The real reason I am working is for my mental health. I can get out and socialise. When Covid-19 was going on, I was in the NLN doing a course with the wonderful James Conroy and was socialising with people.
He sorted out where we were broken into two groups. One group worked from home on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other group worked in the office on Wednesdays and Thursdays and we mixed it up in that way, which was very good. Where am I going with this?
Ms Wendy Newman:
Money is very hard. My husband supports me. I have my bus pass, which is my independence for getting out and about but now that I am working, I am paying money towards everybody. I am proud to be able to do so, but the system is not doing me any favours. Why would I not just continue to receive the invalidity pension and take it off the Government? I have pride and like to support Ireland, I suppose. I thank the Chairman and the committee very much.
Ms Newman has done a very good job, along with Ms Lawless and Mr. Gilvarry, in outlining how everybody’s situation is completely unique, how everybody has different family supports, and how everybody’s financial situation is so different. One of the comments she made in her opening statement was how important it was to be able to go at her own pace when she was trying to access education. Could she talk a little bit about that, please? I will come to Ms Lawless in a minute because the question of how one supports someone at a higher level is very important. For Ms Newman, how important for her was going at her own pace?
Ms Wendy Newman:
The NLN is not like regular school. There are exams that people need to do but they do not do them until their tutor thinks that they are ready to do them. It is not a question of having exams in September with a great deal of worry. One is prepared for the exams so that the person and the tutor are aware of this. Mr. Conroy is so good, follows the rules, and when we are doing the exams we go into a room where there is nothing on the desk so we do them properly. There is peace of mind in knowing that, come September, there is no worry because the course can be taken at the person’s own pace and when he or she is ready for it. I suffer a great deal with fatigue and had to get out of the class but I never fell behind because my tutor realised how much I needed to get outside or I would have basically cracked up. At the end of the day I did my exams when I was ready to do them and I passed them. I am working now at the end of them.
I will go to Ms Lawless and then I will come to the representatives from the organisations. Ms Newman made important points on her experience of supports going to the institution rather than the person. In this committee we often talk about the UNCRPD being about the person at the centre of everything but still have a model where the supports go to the institution and not necessarily to the person. Ms Lawless has outlined that because everybody is unique and has so many different things happening in their lives that when and how they might need supports is varied. Do we put the person at the centre of the supports that are available in how we structure them?
Ms Kerry Lawless:
I can only really talk about what I know about third level. We heard Mr. Gilvarry talk about the wrap-around of services he had and how well supported he was and Ms Newman talked about moving at her own pace. That is not necessarily there at third level. There is a presumption that once you get to third level you would not need it. We know that people with disabilities in third level the figures from the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability, AHEAD, show that they are increasing but when you look into it the figures are increasing because more people are identifying with dyslexia, which I also have, and getting accommodations for that, which I have had. That is out of proportion with other disabilities so in a way this welcome increased in reporting of students with dyslexia is overshadowing the fact that other areas like visual and hearing impairments and mobility issues are not increasing at that same level. When you look at figures for postgraduate students with disabilities the numbers have fallen. The figures were not high and they were unrepresentative in the first place but the numbers are falling in the most recent figures I have seen. That is because the tailored level of services is not available. The educational institutions need funding for their disability services. I am not talking about taking from one area and giving to another. I question why any course is being delivered that needs accommodations for people with disabilities to take part because at this stage those accommodations should be built in at third level.
I want to ask a follow-up question. I tend to think of the likes of assisted technology as being like a hard support that is easy to track when it is implemented. Then there are soft supports like peer supports or assistants and I am particularly thinking of people with visual impairment who might need guidance around a campus, for example. Do we have the balance right in how we apply funding to those more trackable supports like assisted technology and then to the softer supports like peer support or assistants?
Ms Kerry Lawless:
Some of my colleagues within the school of communications would have had a personal assistant and that would have worked well. I am not very knowledgeable of the area but that seems to work well among the people I know, except that it might not be available outside of term time. If one is not working outside of term time then preparing for exams or assignments or doing research seems to be a big limitation. I am concerned with the absence of practical supports, as I said earlier. We have this array of technology but we do not necessarily have the support for staff to teach them how to use it. There is an absence of lower level IT or maths skills. In terms of my needs there is an overemphasis on people talking to me about coping, planning, mental health and procrastination. That is all necessary and it is there but then there is a big gap in the practical skills that you need. It would be helpful to have somebody sit with you for longer and show you how the library system works, for example-----
Ms Kerry Lawless:
-----and show you how you can do referencing automatically now because in my day 20 years ago we had to do it all longhand. Now there are lovely software packages and the library services are great and they offer training but I need more training than that. That might be what the Deputy means by soft skills.
Ms Kerry Lawless:
I need someone to sit down and go through it with me one-by-one and then go through it again because, like Ms Newman, I get incredible fatigue and my brain shuts down every so often. I need small amounts of continual training and I probably it for longer than anybody expects. Then I will know how to use the library system because without that, every single thing I do takes me longer and takes more effort than it does for someone without a disability. It takes longer and more effort than it should do if I was getting the supports I need.
I agree that the way funding is administered is a problem. I am aware that I have been critical today but in defence of the disability services - and countless reports show this - they are incredibly under-resourced and understaffed. They are good people who are overwhelmed and trying to do their best with what they have. The structure needs to be looked at and there has to be an automatic right to these supports, rather than this negotiation. We must really look at what people need, including these soft skills and one-to-one peer supports that the Deputy mentioned.
That brings me to my last question to some degree. I am not sure who wants to take this; it might be for Ms Kelly or Mr. McGinn. Mr. McGinn mentioned formal transition planning processes in his opening statement. Based on the conversation we are having this morning I wonder whether he is talking about further education, vocational training or higher education. There is a version of this which is almost like an educational care plan where the person is tracked and the funding more specifically follows the person than it has done so far. Would anybody like to speak to the idea that we would have a full plan for each person as he or she moves through particular education access points? Does that have a meaning for the likes of personal budgets?
Ms Lucianne Bird:
I want to comment on the previous mention of pace. It is really important that there is flexibility in the timelines, the duration and the way people get the opportunity to learn. We describe the NLN as classrooms within a classroom so that every person learns in his or her own way at his or her own pace. Another point is continuous intake and being able to join a programme when you are ready to do so. I was taken by Ms Lawless’ comments earlier on and a lot of people need to be able to join when they are ready to do so, which is a feature of the service we provide. Flexible and student-centric approaches to learning, breaking things down and making the supports available at the right time and in the right place in the person’s life are all critically important. Needs are diverse and responses have to be diverse to be able to meet those needs.
Flexibility of funding is critical and that has come up a number of times. There are rigid criteria set around funding at further educational level, whether that is the progression to HSE-funded services or the specialist vocational training provided within the FET sector at the moment, there are rigid criteria around allocation, utilisation and funding models that do not really allow enough flexibility to be built into the system and the service. That is something that can be looked at. We have raised it with the funders and we are in discussions with them. When some changes are brought about there will be opportunities for change, innovation and new ways of developing services to be discussed and put on the table.
The idea of the educational plan is what we were speaking to in the transitional comments Mr. McGinn made at the beginning. People should have a pathway through the education system, from second level into further education and training, FET. There should also be combined funding models that would combine care and HSE-type supports with educational supports funded through the FET sector. It is very important at that level, as is having a plan to go through that meets the needs of a very diverse population of people. It is not all about one group of people. We deal with people with intellectual, physical and sensorial disabilities. We deal with a very large number of young people who have high anxiety levels and who are not able to function socially in their communities. We deal increasingly with people with autism. This needs, therefore, a broad and flexible range of responses to be able to ensure every young person with a disability or with a significant health condition has access to further education and training and, through that, can build his or her pathway to higher education.
The comments about supports in higher education that Ms Lawless has made are pertinent. Our support services in higher education are supplementing gaps in existing provision. These can be, could be and, I am sure, will be grown to be a lot stronger. However, they really are highlighting the gaps in services that exist. I would emphasise the points that have been made on the basis of my experience. People need an awful lot of support to know how to use the systems, to get to the systems and to navigate their way through the systems. They are incredibly difficult. They are incredibly challenging. People are exhausted. I would say service providers are exhausted trying to navigate the system.
My appeal would be for flexibility in the funding. Personalised funding is a slightly different concept from personalised budgets and I would support both of them. We need to speak about diversity of provision. We have very diverse needs and we therefore need diversity of provision. Mainstream and inclusive does not negate the need for specialist. It is not one versus the other. Both are needed in a twin-track model, which is recommended by the UN, and this is the way forward for a progressive society. Ms Prendeville’s comments about progressive realisation is very pertinent. There is a long way to go and there is a huge amount of capacity to be built within the system. There are elements within the system that are powerful, strong and effective. Looking at how that existing capacity within the system can be further utilised and maximised is important. For instance, specialist training provision is part of the FET system but it is never promoted and it is never branded. It is actually one of the most difficult areas on which to find out information at the moment. We are told in NLN that we are one of the best kept secrets in Ireland. That should not be the case. The information and the knowledge should be there. People should be able to access the services much more easily and to navigate their way through the systems much more easily.
Those are my comments. I am very heartened by the debate and by the range of comments. Recognising that diverse responses are required is critically important.
Ms Catherine Kelly:
I thank Deputy Hourigan. What I am hearing from everyone, and what our experience is, is that while this is about transitions, there are no alternative pathways in place for people with intellectual disabilities or disabilities. The systems, of which Ms Bird spoke very eloquently, are an absolute nightmare to navigate. When somebody comes to us with a dream, we have to try to figure out how we can support him or her and how we navigate the system so that he or she can achieve that dream.
An example of this was in 2018, when we supported a person with an intellectual disability. For the first time, a person with an intellectual disability went to TU Dublin to do his degree course. However, for him to do that, he needed a basic level of education. The only way we could navigate it was because I am an associate lecturer with TU Dublin. It was through my relationships that we were able to work together with the university to figure out alternative pathways. Ms Lawless spoke about support in terms of accommodations. In the case of this individual, for every four hours he did in the class, he needed someone to support him for 12 hours so that he could begin to understand the concepts that were being discussed within the classroom. However, he was willing to put all of that time in. He brought huge diversity to the classroom. The person skills and the social skills people in the class learned from him were unbelievable. He overcame all of the barriers and we overcame all of the systems with him so that he could finish his degree. However, that was done on a relationship basis. Every time someone else comes to us and that is their dream, we have got to go and navigate it again. It is nearly like we are asking for concessions. What we actually need are alternative pathways. They need to be developed.
On the Oireachtas work and learn, OWL, programme, the Civil Service has done a huge amount of work to develop alternative pathways for people on the OWL programme into the Civil Service and into employment and careers there. If it can be done through that system, it can certainly be done through every system in Ireland. Until that happens, people will be coming with their cap in hand, asking people for an opportunity when, in fact, it is a right people have. Our responsibility becomes to develop alternative pathways for them. As Ms Bird said, we as service providers are exhausted from begging for these pathways to be opened. If they were there, the work we could do, the supports and accommodations we could provide, and the dreams and goals people have to be contributing within society, which is what most people want, could be realised and achieved.
Like other political colleagues, I have been enlightened by listening to the witnesses this morning. I compliment each and every one of them for their presentations. To Mr. Gilvarry, all I can say is that was wonderful. I am not trying to pick out anybody over anybody else, but he did so well and I think everybody will agree with that. I thank everyone for making their comments today.
One thing that has always been a concern to me is the way we in this country have treated people with dyslexia. Many a person has had a sad life, sitting in the corner of their house and never getting out to a job because of the way society treated dyslexia. The reality is many people went to school and they could not do their books. Their teachers gave out to them. Their parents gave out to them. They were told they were lazy, that they did not want to work or to get on. The truth was, however, they had a problem with reading and writing. I am glad to see there is now more of a focus on dyslexia.
I would also like to see, now that we are putting so much emphasis on apprenticeships, that where there might be students who have dyslexia, it would be brought up by teachers, lecturers and politicians so that the issue of dyslexia would be on the programme and brought into the arena for discussion rather than people being frightened to talk about it. Having said that, I notice that parents and teachers are very good nowadays at establishing why a child might not like school or why he or she is afraid to speak. Sometimes it is an issue of dyslexia, but in the past it was treated in the wrong way. This is not to say all teachers and all parents did it. Many teachers spotted situations where the issue was that a person could not read or write properly.
We now have World Dyslexia Awareness Day. We have more discussion about it.
Some of the most intelligent people I have ever met are dyslexic. When I speak to groups, I sometimes give the example of when I had a summer job in my cousin's shop. A couple who used to come in would buy hardware, groceries and so on and they would pay by cheque. It was one of these country stores with everything. They used to ask me to fill out the cheque for them, with their name and the sum, and they would then sign it. You would not know from looking at how the signature had been scribbled that something was not right. It was only years later that I found out that dyslexia affected both of them, and they were two of the most intelligent people I have ever met, and very successful people.
Much has been said about education during this meeting. The same model of education does not fit every case. What level of engagement are our guests' groups having with the Department of Education? Is it an ongoing process? Are they fighting for more of something? If there is an ongoing discussion, is any progress being made? If we as politicians were to ask them for one quick change that could be made to address some of the problems they have highlighted, that is, if the Department could come on board and make one quick change, what would it be? What could be done quickly to improve matters?
I again thank our guests for a very good and important engagement.
Ms Kerry Lawless:
I wanted to add to the point other people were making about exhaustion. Ms Newman mentioned paying a GP €50 or €60 to sign a form. I used to work for the Irish Trade Union Trust and the National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA, so I know my way around this system. If I am exhausted, how exhausted are people who are further distanced again, who do not know the system and did not know it before they acquired a disability, and whose families were not connected?
To respond to the Senator's point about dyslexia, we all think in different ways and have different talents. I got my dyslexia diagnosis in my 30s, when I was working, and I paid for it privately. That is the reality for most adults with dyslexia or any other sort of neurodiversity. To get access to the supports, you need a diagnosis, and to get the diagnosis, very often you have to pay privately. There are still people, therefore, with reading and writing difficulties, whether dyslexia or ADHD, who have those issues but have no way of proving that, so they cannot access the services. This financial barrier is in place. For example, I needed a letter from an ear, nose and throat, ENT, doctor to confirm my hearing impairments. I spent four years waiting in the public system. If I had been an undergraduate, I would have had to go through my entire degree without that piece of paper that confirms my impairment, which would have meant I could not have gotten the supports and services on offer because I could not afford to go private to get the letter that confirmed my diagnosis or to get the tests that led to that diagnosis. All of this has to be reconsidered.
The Senator asked whether there is one quick fix. Other people are better qualified to answer that question than I am, but for me it relates to social welfare. It should be a matter of building in flexibilities, recognising that people with disabilities have higher costs of living, letting them retain their payments and secondary benefits and letting them get back to education, training and employment. They should not be penalised in the way Ms Newman has been penalised.
Ms Wendy Newman:
I come from a large family and I had a lot of help from them. Information is the key because knowledge is power. I had people to help me wade through all the junk and I knew how to deal with it, and I was fortunate to have my family and friends around me. A quick fix would be to make information easier to find and readily accessible. We should not have to queue for hours, take a ticket, go out for coffee and come back and hope we have not been passed by. Information is the key and that would be a quick fix. I do not know what it would be like to have to get that information on my own. I am fortunate with my relationships. Paul, for example, is here as well. There is always someone I can go to for help, but if I was a person out there on my own, I would not know where to go and I just would not bother.
I thank all our guests. In particular, I welcome Mr. Gilvarry, whom I had the great privilege of meeting last year at the graduation event for representatives at the Red Cow Inn. He was a very fine representative and I came away with a long list of tasks to do as an Oireachtas Member as a consequence of the great representation and advocacy I received that night. I note from his submission to the committee - I apologise for having missed it being read out - that he placed first on his interview panel for the Civil Service. I congratulate him on that and give him an opportunity to comment if there is anything he would like to add before I ask my questions.
I had the privilege on that evening last year of meeting members of Mr. Gilvarry's family too, and family is very important. Everyone lives within a family who want to see and share in his or her success, and I know that Mr. Gilvarry's family want to share in his.
My opening questions are for the NCSE. If I were to try to summarise what I have heard and read during this meeting, it is that there needs to be a presumption of access and entitlement, whereby we need to remove the idea of ableist privilege, something I keep returning to. Every experience regarding education or access needs to be seen through the lens of people with disabilities and to ensure it is proofed against their experience.
There needs to be a presumption - I liked Ms Lawless's point - that someone or several people with a disability will be on courses, not just that we have a bespoke over-by-the-side almost paternalistic provision that everybody feels good about. In fact, we need to be mainstreaming the access to everything at all times. This committee meeting has been super. It has been a great experience for me to listen and hear people explain how that ableist privilege is experienced by people in not having the reasonable accommodation built-in in advance.
We need pathways to all levels of education. I hear loud and clear the cost of living with disabilities and the fact that people have additional expense. I am appalled by Ms Newman's experience and I am grateful to her for sharing it.
Returning to the NCSE, my home constituency of Dublin South-Cental has a multitude of schools where there is no place for a child with a disability to go into and that have no special classes. Parents, even if they are trying to access the schools that have special classes, are given a list by a special educational needs organiser, SENO. They are not really supported. They are given a list and told to go off and do it themselves while they are perhaps caring for and trying to support and encourage their children into education. If their children get into education at primary level, there is no guarantee that there is a follow-on to secondary school. That has to be fought for tooth and nail by parent after parent. I was taken by Ms Kelly's point that when they have a person with an ambition for a particular thing, they are asking for concessions. The parents in groups such as Involve Autism would say that their daily life is about that arguing for concessions rather than entitlement.
I suppose I would welcome the opportunity to hear about the inadequacies of the section 37 process. Is there someone on the NCSE board with disabilities because the committee's motto, which is also that of all those who we hear, is that there should be nothing about us without us? I would be anxious to hear that. We cannot aspire to third level and post-secondary if the basics of a full schooling experience are not experienced. We have people who are looking at a primary or secondary school directly across the road from them in their home communities and yet they have to travel miles to go to a different one. I encounter the outrage of that on a daily basis. It is something I would love to see us solve.
I could be on this soapbox for a long time such is the rage that I experience from parents.
Ms Paula Prendeville:
I thank Senator Seery Kearney for her comments. From the NCSE's perspective, we absolutely recognise the challenges that families have in her constituency with regard to accessing places. In relation to our policy advice, we would recognise that every child should be entitled to access local schools in their local communities, and that accessing those schools in the communities means they are part of the community and everybody has an awareness of their need. It is very much the case that they should get the supports in their own environment.
We have SENOs on the ground. I appreciate the Senator speaking about the dissatisfaction in south Dublin with regard to school placements. We have made inroads in that space. As recently as yesterday, two senior Ministers opened a new school - Our Lady of Hope School, which caters for children with significant needs in that area. Notwithstanding that, there is still a significant need for placements for children in schools. At cross-sectoral level, they are mapping the need for placements, not only for September but in the upcoming years, so that at least within the Department of Education we are mapping those supports and requirements and planning on the long-term basis.
The matter of opening schools and opening special classes in schools is a matter for each board of management. I am aware that there are SENOs who are continuously engaging with schools in seeking those supports and accessing and asking boards of management to open places for children.
We are aware that there will be places for all students that we currently know about for September and the subsequent years. What is happening, however, is that when classes open in schools and parents go into the schools to seek those places - we recognise this as an organisation because when parents contact us directly to say they are living in a certain area and they are looking for support, our SENOs would be aware that there are places available - it turns out that some of those places end up being taken up by students who are currently in the school. The allocation of those places is a matter for the boards of management and school principals. Even though the planning is done, when it comes to mapping out the children who get access to those classes, some of those places are taken up by students who are already in the system. Due to data protection, etc., we cannot turn around and ask schools in advance how many of their current students will access those classes so that we will have knowledge and awareness of the students who will need the support in those schools. I clarify that in relation to where we are coming from. We have an extremely committed group of staff who engage with the Department on a weekly basis and with the schools on a daily basis, and the archdiocese, etc., to ensure that all children have places.
In relation to planning supports over the long term, I have heard from all speakers today about considering transitions, not only as students leave school but also throughout the lifespan of the student in school. The Senator's question today is around students who need access to those placements at the start of their school lifespan. We encounter some students who need supports due to different variations that can happen. For instance, they may have debilitating conditions where they start off a school trajectory in a mainstream environment without needing any access to extra supports, but while they progress through the system their needs can vary greatly to the extent that there could be significant mental health needs that occur towards the end of their trajectory. We welcome that idea of having that lifespan approach and mapping out skills for life across the trajectory of the needs of the young person.
While there is that requirement, we also recognise in the NCSE there is a demand for children to access specialist placements when they start in school. Our experience would be that in the early years in primary school in a mainstream setting, within junior infants, senior infants, first class and second class, it is very much a play-based curriculum that we now have in place with the Aistear programme. We recognise that for an early intervention process to be inclusive of all children with all needs, there are significant benefits for young children to access mainstream supports within schools and access additional supports. The focus of the planning would be that the children with the greatest level of need would get access to the greatest levels of support. Our view would be that every child obviously has access to an education and that there would be merit in parents recognising for young children starting schools that while there is significant anxiety among parents around children getting a diagnosis of a disability, recognising the considerable needs and wanting to have the greatest level of support, there is a significant level of support that can be gained from students accessing a mainstream setting where they can learn from their peers and access those supports around the holistic capacity-building approach that is in schools.
The Senator may have further questions or may want me to discuss that further.
I appreciate the extent of Ms Prendeville's answer. I disagree that the NCSE cannot ask because of data protection. It is essential that the NCSE asks so that there can be proper planning for children.
I welcome that Our Lady of Hope School was opened by the two Ministers.
I acknowledge the ongoing incredible work by the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. I also acknowledge her drive. She works very closely with the NCSE. I question this being a board of management decision. I believe we need a greater sense of intervention. I know of a case where a board of management filled in a report stating that it did not have capacity and when it was checked out, it actually had capacity for a special class. The decision was overturned once the NCSE intervened and once we had the on-site inspection team. The kindest word I can use to describe boards of management is "conservative". Other terms I could use would be "prejudice" and "downright bias" towards discrimination on occasion. We need to root that out firmly. I thank the witnesses for coming.
I also thank the witnesses. I regularly meet a constituent from Carlow who had a very bad accident resulting in a brain injury. His biggest concern is that if anything happens to him, he must go to Dublin if he is worried about an issue. There is no outreach support locally in Carlow. He has a great GP and that is not the problem. Rural areas, for example Carlow, do not have proper infrastructure. We do not have buses to take people around the town like the cities have. People with disabilities living in rural areas are at a major disadvantage. My friend who has the brain injury regularly tells me that it is like an invisible disability. If he needs anything at all, he needs to go to Dublin which is something we need to address.
There should be some automatic entitlement to medical cards. It is unfair for people to have to fight for them. We also need to address the position regarding bus passes.
The cost of living is very important. The failure to provide additional supports places people with disabilities at a marked disadvantage. Students with disabilities often need additional financial supports and it should not be allowed happen. I have worked very closely with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and I am delighted that we will now have a technological university for the south east. We should ensure that our technological universities provide support for people with a disability. There needs to be some change there. We have never had so much funding for third level education. If we do not prioritise people with a disability now, it is unfair. We cannot allow it to happen.
At second level, there is career guidance available. There is something available at third level; I think it is called accessibility or something of that nature. I am not sure of the name. It is important that the Minister is also aware that we are meeting the needs of people with disabilities to encourage them to go to third level education. That should be our goal from this meeting. We should write to the Minister about this.
I know I am harping on about my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny. We are very blessed to have Rehab and the Delta Centre in Carlow.
I have been told that some students with a disability who go out on work placement do not get a payment. These people are breaking many barriers, meeting people they do not know and it is outside their routine. It is something we need to look at. I am not sure it happens in all cases, but one or two people have told me they did not get payments. These are small things but can be quite important and we need to ensure they do not happen.
We need to look at a payment plan in respect of postgraduate fees. Anybody who wants to go to third level, particularly if they have a disability, should be encouraged to go. Based on today's meeting, it should be a priority for us to ensure that nobody who wants to go to third level or to do a degree would face any barriers related to resources or funding. It is hard enough as it is.
Many of the questions I was going to ask have already been posed. It is great that we highlighted the need and it is important for us to make people aware. It is harder for people with disabilities who live outside Dublin and the other cities. They are often forgotten and it is something that this committee needs to address. I have been listening to some of the witnesses' stories and I thank them.
I have one other question. I am dealing with a school in Carlow which is looking for an ASD unit. We have been working with SENO, and it has decided it is not needed. The school has advised me that it is losing students to other schools with ASD units. When I contacted the Department, I was told that SENO needs to recommend. How do we cross these barriers when schools are looking for them? I know some schools might not have the room to extend. We have been through a pandemic and for the past two years it has been very hard for families to get assessments for their children. This will be a major issue with so many children waiting to be assessed. SENO has informed me that this school in Tullow does not need to build an ASD unit and I am very concerned about that.
Ms Paula Prendeville:
I will start by answering the Chairman's question about the early intervention classes. The AIM project is currently being evaluated and the draft report is being reviewed. It would be useful for the committee to wait for that report to be published to see what the plan for early intervention classes is. The Chairman may be referring to newspaper reports about an early intervention class in Cork. Any planning done at local level is based on the what is required at a local level. It would probably be useful to follow up with the committee when we get the evaluation of the AIM model and how it will fit in with the early intervention classes that are specific for children with ASD. Would it be okay that we could respond directly to that?
Ms Paula Prendeville:
Deputy Murnane O'Connor asked about autism classes. I come from a background of working in those classes. I have worked in them as a teacher and as a clinician on the other side of the fence. I very much understand where the Deputy is coming from. I also recognise the challenges with the backlog and assessments. I will now answer her question wearing my NCSE hat while acknowledging that I have a sense of the overall issues that are occurring.
Recommendations for special classes are based on reports provided at local level.
To respond specifically to the Deputy, it would be useful if the NCSE could follow up with her directly on those queries. It is difficult for me to address those queries when I do not know the intricacies involved. When there is an identified need for these places in the NCSE and our SENOs recognise that need, we do our utmost to ensure that classes are established for children in specific areas. That probably would be the best approach to respond to the Deputy's question. I can follow up with her after the meeting, if that is okay.
Okay. We will go to the witnesses in the order they contributed at the start and give them a few minutes to respond to any outstanding points raised by Senator Seery Kearney and Deputy Murnane O'Connor. I call Ms Lawless.
Ms Kerry Lawless:
I am appreciative of the opportunity to be here. I have been heartened by the discussion and the questions that were asked. The committee is trying to do a lot. It is trying to look at primary, secondary, further and higher education. I ask the committee to give itself the time to be able to give every area the attention it needs. It should not be a competition between all the areas. It is important that children now coming up through the education system get every support but we must also remember there are people aged 25 and above who did not get those supports first time around and want to get back into education. We should not be in competition with each other for resources.
Somebody mentioned the considerable amount of money that, quite rightly, is going into third level. We are saying we want to upskill and become a high-skill economy but that is not translating into including higher numbers of people with disabilities. People with disabilities are a very broad group. I can talk only about me and people with disabilities like my own. If we have the right supports, we can access flexible, part-time and well-paid work but that can happen only with the supports and if the threat of losing our social welfare is taken away. That must go. Going back to education cannot be a high-risk endeavour. I should not be worried that I might lose this or that when I go into education. That is another area where this committee's responsibility crosses over with that of the Department of Social Protection. There is only so much that can be done within education without also correcting the anomalies in social welfare. It will not work otherwise. I do not envy the committee because there is a lot of work involved. However, I have been heartened by what I have heard today.
Ms Catherine Kelly:
From our point of view and from people's lived experience, we are hearing that early career guidance is important. People's transitions throughout their educations are important and lifelong learning is a part of that. It is about creating a culture of zero tolerance of exclusion within schools and colleges. We must make sure that if students who are capable of achieving a QQI level 3, 4 or 5 are leaving, we assess why they continue to leave schools without that achievement and ask why the appropriate accommodations are not put in place for people. If pilot projects prove to be successful, we must examine why they do not become mainstreamed in educational systems. I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak today. I appreciate it.
Mr. Barry McGinn:
I will reiterate the things we are asking the committee to consider. The transitions after primary school and between training and employment have been watermarks across this committee's discussion today. That is an area the committee should be minded to focus on. I appreciate the intelligent way in which that has been engaged with. The committee has been probing. As Ms Kelly said, better career guidance is important, as are the improvement of post-training supports, the development of options for people with moderate, profound and superior disabilities, and a better funded system. I will not repeat the difficulties in navigating the social welfare system and the system more generally, because Ms Newman and Ms Lawless have already articulated those. Those are interesting points that have stuck with me. We have used the terms "navigate" and "negotiate" at various stages and with great frequency at this meeting. It should not be the case that we have to navigate and negotiate a system. That should not be the case in particular for people who are already experiencing disadvantage. We need to be better at that. We should be leading and not negotiating and navigating.
Ms Wendy Newman:
I ask that none of you take offence when I say this, but nobody at this meeting looks as if they have a disability. Do I look like I have a disability? The answer is "No". My disability is hidden. One cannot recognise that I have a disability by looking at me. If people are making decisions for disability differences, they must involve people who have disabilities because they are actually living the disability, as are their families. Why not go to them and ask what they think of a particular decision? If you ask me, I will give an honest answer.
We are awaiting the access and inclusion model report. Am I to understand that no decision is being taken on early intervention classes until that report is published? Is my understanding correct?
That is okay. We will await that. Our guests empower us every week and give us information. We must try to deal with that information and move things on, and we are committed to that. I thank our guests for their participation and our members for their dedication to the job at hand. I also thank our team for how they have organised everything.