Dáil debates

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Adjournment Debate

Special Educational Needs.

10:00 pm

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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Both Deputy McHugh and I, with other public representatives in Galway, attended a recent meeting to address the issue that has been kindly accepted for discussion on the Adjournment. We were asked at the meeting to address this issue urgently and separate from the forthcoming general election.

There is an urgent need for the Minister for Education and Science to take such measures as will immediately lead to meeting the needs of hearing impaired children in the Galway area. Such measures must include the restoration of the service which has been suspended for five years and the appointment of two visiting teachers to be notified to schools and parents before the end of the current school year.

There is a further need for the Minister of State with responsibility for children to secure the rights of hearing impaired children in the Galway area, through an instruction to the HSE to recruit an audiological scientist and, if necessary, to fill such a position by immediate, appropriate advertisements in Ireland, Britain and other countries. If the rights of the child are to be vindicated, it will require the action of the Minister of State with responsibility for children to break through any cap that may exist on remuneration and conditions that would enable the post of research audiologist to be filled.

At the recent meeting, it was very moving to hear of parents' experience in this area. I found some aspects of what hearing impaired children must go through to be unsatisfactory and deeply distressing. For a start, there is an excessively long wait for diagnosis. People gave examples of individual cases of a diagnosis taking one year and then having to wait another year for hearing aids. It is appalling that in 2007 the capacity to replace lost or damaged hearing aids does not exist. In one case, there was no programming available for a digital hearing aid. The full-time permanent audiologist who retired in 2002 was not replaced. A visiting teacher for the deaf retired in 2004 and the service fell apart.

Hundreds of children are being deprived of a service. Three years ago it was agreed there was a need for six visiting teachers but there is still no service. Two visiting teachers for hearing impaired children should be appointed and the post for the audiological scientist should be advertised with such conditions as to make it attractive to an applicant.

Research on ensuring children's equality in education and opportunity states that the earlier the intervention, the better the result. The current situation is depriving the children involved of a fundamental learning right and self-development. I do not want a recitation of the work of additional resource teachers being applied in schools. The resource teachers are not trained in this particular area and it is unfair to expect them to deliver a service they do not have the capacity to deliver. Will the Minister discuss with the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, the rights base of taking exceptional measures that will address the fundamental breach of the educational, social and developmental rights of these hearing impaired children?

Paddy McHugh (Galway East, Independent)
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Some 320 hearing impaired children in Galway have been neglected by the Government for the past five years. That is some legacy for the Government after its five years in power during the Celtic tiger era when its coffers were full. Up to 120 of these children have been assessed to a degree but are being deprived of services, while a further 300 children are waiting to be assessed. Some of these children have been waiting for an assessment since 2002. I wish to set out clearly what is required in this situation so that the Government, particularly the Minister for Education and Science, and the Minister with responsibility for children know what is needed so that action can be taken immediately to right this wrong which has been perpetrated against 320 children in Galway, against many of them for the past five years.

A full-time audiologist scientist is required immediately. This position has been vacant for the past five years and the children of Galway have suffered as a result. There is a hit and miss, piecemeal service where a person comes from Kilkenny four days per month. That is totally unsatisfactory and inadequate. The position was advertised twice in the past five years, which is absolutely unbelievable. This is criminal and clearly indicates the HSE has no commitment to filling this post. I understand the position advertised was for an audiologist and for a six-month contract. This is a further indication of the lip service being paid to this problem.

What is required in Galway is an audiologist scientist, not an audiologist, and the position is required to be filled on a full-time basis, not for a six-month period. If one was to adopt the staffing levels employed in the UK, what is required in Galway are three audiologist scientists, not just one. I ask the Minister for Health and Children to act immediately to direct the HSE to recruit one audiologist scientist now to begin a service of sorts and then let us begin planning for the recruitment of the further two audiologist scientists required for delivery of a comprehensive service to the children of Galway.

Two visiting teachers are required. The Minister for Education and Science has been neglectful in attending to her duties in this regard. One full-time teacher who was in place retired from the position in 2004. Effectively, that position has remained vacant since that time, except for a period of approximately six months. The role of the visiting teacher is vital not only in visiting schools and offering advice to teachers but also in visiting pre-school children in their homes and offering support, advice and guidance to parents. Geographically, Galway is a very large county and definitely needs at least two visiting teachers now. The Minister has direct responsibility and she should act now, live up to her responsibilities and ensure the two teachers are appointed.

In September 2006, an advertisement appeared in a national newspaper seeking applications for the visiting teacher service. What happened after that? Did the advertisement elicit applications? If not, were further efforts made? Were applications invited from outside the country?

The ultimate question is why the Government is depriving 320 children of a basic service. Parents are concerned that if this neglect continues, children with hearing problems may end up with serious personal and social issues in adulthood. Will the Government allow that to happen or will it live up to its responsibilities and act immediately to ensure the audiologist scientist and the two visiting teachers are appointed now?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputies Michael D. Higgins and McHugh for raising this matter.

An objective of the Department of Education and Science is to provide a national visiting teacher service for hearing impaired students. This service is available from pre-school to third level. The national caseload is monitored and managed by the Department on an annual basis and a best fit of resources to needs is achieved to the extent possible. Since 2004 the Department has engaged in a recruitment campaign nationally to ensure that hearing impaired students in every county have access to a suitably qualified visiting teacher. The visiting teacher service is managed within the directorate of regional services of the Department. Currently, there are 27 visiting teachers for the hearing impaired in post, with two vacancies.

I assure the Deputies that the visiting teacher service in the Galway area has never been suspended by the Department of Education and Science. The post of visiting teacher for the hearing impaired for Galway city and county was filled in 2005. The teacher appointed opted to transfer to Dublin in 2006. In 2006, the Department offered the post in Galway to a candidate who subsequently declined to take it up. The directorate of regional services is now in the process of preparing to recruit two visiting teachers for the wider Galway city and county area and adjacent counties, and advertisements to this effect are being prepared for the national and international press.

In addition, for the first time, an advertisement will be placed with a source in the United Kingdom dedicated to recruitment of professionals in the education of hearing impaired children. On foot of this competition, it is intended that successful candidates will take up post in September of this year and parents and the relevant schools will be duly notified.

In the meantime, my Department, through its western regional office, has continued to provide priority cover at all times in Galway through the visiting teacher service in neighbouring counties.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 26 April 2007.