Thursday, 10 September 2020
Services for People with Disabilities: Statements
Pauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
Has a budget to be provided to facilitate the reopening of day services for people with disabilities? I was led to believe a budget for this was meant to come to Cabinet last week. If so, how much has been allocated to ensure the full reopening of services? If not, will it come before Cabinet and what does the Minister of State envisage the amount will be?
A stand-alone budget needs to be provided for this very important service and it should not be part of the winter action programme, for example. A budget was provided to schools for their preparations to reopen in their entirety. This was done to accommodate the vast majority of students on a full-time basis.
I welcome the reopening of the services. Most of them have reopened or will do so in the next two weeks. I commend all the staff involved on getting the centres open at very short notice and in exceptionally difficult and unprecedented circumstances.
This partial reopening is welcome, but is it not the case that people with disabilities are being discriminated against? Day services for adults are reopening at much reduced capacity. I have been told that people who were receiving, say, five full days' services before Covid are now getting one, two or, if they are lucky, three days' services. Should they not be treated on a par with beneficiaries of equivalent services that have reopened? Day services are education and training services for adults and school leavers with disabilities. Schools have now fully reopened, so why not the day services? To end the discrimination and allow day services to open safely, financial assistance is required from the Government. A ring-fenced budget for this is very important but there are additional staff costs because I think the HSE is advising staff in these centres to divide into teams, which sometimes means additional staff to cover staff absences, rental of extra space if needed for cleaning requirements, additional work premises or extra PPE or sanitiser costs. All these costs are very difficult to cover, especially for section 39 organisations. They do not know whether they will receive funding from Government towards the costs. They cannot be expected to fundraise, especially in the current climate. Many section 39 organisations feel quite aggrieved at being told to prepare to reopen in August because they were not given any support from the HSE to do so. They would have welcomed even just advice but they felt that was not forthcoming in a lot of instances.
Having talked to many service providers, I understand that transport to the day services seems to be the biggest challenge at the moment. Capacity on buses has been drastically reduced as a result of the 2 m rule and the fact that many of the service users cannot wear masks. Therefore, some service providers are not providing any transport at all. Others are offering transport perhaps on only one day. Users are therefore dependent on family to get them to the services, and if their family is not available they cannot use the services. One service in my constituency owns a 15-seater bus but it can only take three people due to the 2 m rule. It is doing several runs, but that is incurring extra costs because of the extra diesel, the extra wear and tear of the bus, increased wages for the bus driver and additional PPE. Will the Government cover these costs? If they are not covered, I feel the service providers will be unable to reopen fully and discrimination against people with disabilities will continue.
People living in residential settings and those availing of the limited respite currently being allocated are being denied access to day services, according to HSE guidelines. That is totally unfair and must be addressed. The practice of using nursing homes to house people with physical and intellectual disabilities is still being applied and it is totally unsuitable. It is soul-destroying for the person forced to live there, not to mention very costly. Therapies such as occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and physiotherapy have not resumed either. They are vital services for people with disabilities. For example, stroke survivors need rehabilitation and community care. That will enable them to improve disability outcomes and their quality of life, reduce the likelihood of long-term residential care, even reduce their time in hospital and reduce their risk of another stroke. Without this care, however, the opposite is true. I am told that therapists are not available to carry out this work because they have been redeployed to contact tracing and testing. That has to stop because these are vital services and we need those highly-qualified staff back doing the job they should be doing.
I think we all know how devastating the past six months have been on service users. These people were suddenly cut off from friends and their daily routines. It has been extremely harsh on many, who have said they feel lonely, frustrated or bored, sometimes not even comprehending why these services have been stopped. It has had a very serious impact on people's mental health. Services are not fully reopened, with many service providers indicating that they cannot see that happening for the foreseeable future. This needs to be addressed urgently to ensure the full resumption of services for people with disabilities.
An issue with some school transport to special schools has also been brought to my attention. I do not know if that is within the Minister of State's remit or whether I should talk to the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, about it. School buses going to special schools are treated as school buses to primary schools so they are operating at full capacity even though there are teenagers using those services. This is causing a lot of concern to some parents.