Dáil debates

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Services for People with Disabilities: Statements


1:45 pm

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)

I congratulate the Minister of State on her appointment. I welcome change in this Department because it is much needed. I wish the Minister of State lots of luck and I look forward to working with her.

The past few months have been an incredibly challenging time for people with disabilities and their families. I refer to the issues of underlying health concerns, the absence of day and respite services for months, a lack of therapeutic services and uncertainty about work and the list goes on. The pandemic has highlighted the absence of a rights-based approach for people with disabilities, as well as years of underinvestment in social and healthcare services by the State. As too often happens in Ireland, family members and voluntary organisations have had to step in to fill the gap of the State’s shortcomings. If there is a single lesson we can take from the pandemic, it is the absolute need for a massive investment in disability support services, which are grounded with a rights-based approach.

At a meeting of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response in July, representatives for the sector all highlighted how many people with disabilities are living in congregated settings. There are an estimated 2,900 people with disabilities residing in larger settings of ten or more people, along with the 1,500 in nursing homes, although they are under-65. All of these people have been put at unnecessary risk by the State during the pandemic due to their living arrangements. Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities guarantees the right to live independently in the community rather than in institutions. Successive Governments have failed to ensure the provision of this right. Mark O’Connor from Inclusion Ireland explained that:

A policy has been in place for almost nine years to move people out. It saddens me to say that up to this point people in these settings have had as good a chance of passing away in a congregated setting as being moved out to a community setting.

That is an incredible statement indicating the continuing and disgraceful treatment of people with disabilities. Dr. Frank Conaty, of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, pointed out that throughout the restrictions residential settings had been essentially shut down, which confined these people without access to family. This has knock-on effects as many of these people need access to family as their immediate advocates. HIQA’s recent annual overview report on disability services in 2019 highlights both progress and issues in this sector. It identifies inappropriate living conditions, residents being at risk of abuse due to non-compliance with the basic requirements of safeguarding and practices which restrict basic dignity of people, such as not being able to access their own money independently.

It seems that people in need of independent supported living, in west Cork, for example, can only get it if they are elderly and even then it is after considerable struggle. This leaves so many people without options. One of my constituents is stuck in a psychiatric ward, despite being ready to leave, because there is nowhere else for him to go.

The pandemic did not create these conditions, it has merely highlighted their impact. I ask the Minister to prioritise the right of people with disabilities to live independently in the community. This will involve the provision of suitable housing and supports to enable people to live with dignity and appropriate autonomy, including considerable investment in homes, healthcare services and advocacy.

A horrific, ongoing case in Cork has shown what happens when this basic infrastructure is not put in place. A father and son have been living in an abandoned bus since being evicted from their one-bedroom apartment. Patrick Walsh is caring for his son Adrian, who suffered a brain injury after an accident. Patrick has to stay with Adrian, as he suffers from blackouts. They have fitted the bus out with a small kitchen and beds. They have been living there for four years without running water, electricity or a toilet. State authorities and the council are aware of the situation. I know this session is about statements, but I would love if the Minister of State could intervene immediately in that situation because it is so heartbreaking. It is in the newspapers today and on the radio.

We have all received countless messages about the full reopening of day services. Research carried out by Inclusion Ireland shows that the closure and restriction of these services is having a significant impact on mental well-being. Some 38% of respondents indicated an increase in behaviours of concern, while 36% indicated an increase in loneliness and 33% indicated that their family members had increased anxiety. It is essential that the Government's living with Covid-19 strategy includes clear provisions for the full reopening and provision of day services.

Those in the sector have also raised concerns about the redeployment of senior HSE therapists to work as Covid-19 testers and contact tracers. Therapists, such as speech and language therapists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, do vital work in supporting people who are born with or acquire disabilities. Additional staff should be recruited, instead of reallocating essential staff.

Finally, I urge the Minister of State and the Government to ratify immediately the optional protocol in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which will provide formal mechanisms for persons with disabilities and advocacy groups to challenge the Government and the State and to hold those in authority to account to ensure the rights of people with disabilities are respected.


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