Thursday, 29 April 2021
National Autism Empowerment Strategy: Motion [Private Members]
We have had a very constructive discussion. It has been a very unifying process. Every testimony we have heard from my colleagues in the Labour Party and others represents a life and a family that the State has sadly failed. It is an indictment of all of us, quite frankly.
There has been a failure to make early interventions that can transform lives, assess, invest, support families and carers, prioritise and provide the humanity and basic simple compassion we ought to expect from a State and society that trades on a well-honed reputation for justice and humanitarianism. This is not how things should be in a rich and diverse republic. We are a republic in name only if, time and again, we fail to meet the threshold of decency and egalitarianism for all of our citizens. Nowhere have we failed more than in our approach to the rights of citizens who have autism. There has been a growing awareness and understanding of autism in recent years, but this has sadly not been met with a corresponding change to meet the escalation of unmet needs. The history of the State's treatment of autistic people is a catalogue of failure and disregard.
I recall in the early 2000s the hope that was generated by the prospect of the then Government trialing what would be a rights-based approach to a new disability Act. At that stage, in a previous life I worked alongside key advocacy groups and the National Disability Authority on a campaign to pass new legislation that would transform our approach to disabilities and the rights of disabled people. That Government, unfortunately, resiled from its initial promise to put human rights and the right to basic services at the very heart of our laws. The Disability Act 2005 turned out to be another false dawn in a long list of false dawns for some of our most vulnerable citizens.
Due to harsh experience, the expectations of citizens and campaigners are low. One of the most sobering things to have emerged from the revelations around the keeping of dossiers in the Department of Health is that none of us are surprised. Those who were the least surprised were our autistic citizens and their families and advocates. When one wakes up every morning and every day involves a battle with the State and its agencies to get the assessments, interventions and supports one needs to get a decent shot at the kind of life I have the privilege of being able to take for granted, nothing the State might do would come as a shock. This is an indictment of all of us as legislators.
I regret to say that all too many autistic and disabled citizens have been met with hostility and crucifying bureaucracy if they have the audacity to insist on the services that they should be entitled to as of right.
I note the Minister of State's plans, the plans of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and the presence here this evening of the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. That is a powerful statement of support in terms of what all of us are trying to achieve in the best interests of those we all represent. We have heard the defence of the Government's record. We have heard much of this previously. I do not doubt the Minister of State's compassion and the compassion of other Ministers but compassion alone will not change things and neither will a mere tinkering around the edges. Additional investment and resources are required, and they are welcome, but what will make a real, long-term difference is a paradigm shift and a complete change of culture that puts the autistic person at the very heart of the planning and decision-making processes that will determine how they live their lives. We must empower, which is an important word, move beyond words and translate that into actions.
One important way in which we could achieve a potentially transformational change of direction is by taking our inspiration from Malta, as referenced by Deputy Ó Ríordáin earlier. Its 2016 Persons within the Autism Spectrum (Empowerment) Act is pioneering. It provides, for among other things, the establishment of an autism advisory council to advise and guide government on autism strategy.
Our Climate Change Advisory Council holds the Government's feet to the fire on climate. We should enable the experts in this area, namely, autistic people, their families and advocates, to design strategy and hold all of us to account in respect of autism. I plead with the Minister of State in the work she is doing to have the confidence in her own work to enable that to happen and to move along with them in step.
The Minister of State is not opposing the motion but there is a difference between opposing a motion and supporting it. We want action to be taken to deliver on the central tenets of this motion in the interests of all of those we represent. The Government, in this term, has a history of supporting Labour Party motions. We did the job for it on remote working. We did the job for it on sick pay. We are now doing the job for it on this particular issue, which has been a real problem in our society for far too long. We are asking the Minister of State to not just not oppose the motion but to back it. I trust she will do that and use her good offices to move forward on it, resource this area and work to empower individuals with autism in our society to be full, active citizens and contribute as best they can to our society and the Republic.