Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Topical Issue Debate
Services for People with Disabilities
Today is international day of persons with disabilities. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise the important issue of Wi-Fi access for staff or service users, which creates a digital divide for people with disabilities.
Earlier today, I attended an eye-opening briefing from Inclusion Ireland where I heard first hand about the difficulties experienced by persons with disabilities. To quote one speaker, Mr. Adrian Noonan, people must look at their ability not their disability. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was signed by Ireland and is due to be ratified following the enactment of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill 2013. I welcome the Government's approach to ensure this key reform will be in place shortly. However, having listened to persons with disabilities today, I fear we are still not actually listening to the voices and needs of people with disabilities.
Persons with disabilities have a vote but many still do not feel equal. They want to be included not excluded. They want to have more input into decisions. To repeat what Sam O'Connor stated today, they want us to talk to them and not about them. We must ensure the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill is written in language people can understand so they can contribute to it. Simple English should be a prerequisite for the Bill and language that is difficult to understand should not be used.
We must ensure the service we provide fits the person and not require the person to fit the service, and I will elaborate on this point. Today I heard from one particular person with a disability about attending a particular learning centre with no access to Wi-Fi This year's UN international day theme is "Break Barriers, Open Doors: for an inclusive society and development for all". I therefore ask the Minister of State how he plans to break such barriers and create an inclusive society when several service providers and users are still unable to access Wi-Fi. Does this not instead reinforce a digital divide and barrier for people with disabilities?
The Internet is an invaluable education tool, providing an enormous amount of educational information and is a great reference source for educators and students. Some staff, and the majority of service users, are unable to access Wi-Fi and beneficial interactive learning and teaching tools. Access to the Internet can provide a wealth of opportunity for persons with disabilities, opening up avenues for e-learning, independent learning, entertainment, self-expression and socialisation. With regard to self-expression, the Internet also affords an opportunity for people with disabilities to present themselves outside their disability. Another major benefit of the Internet is its ability to minimize distances and provide communication services efficiently and with very little cost. At present, service users have to travel to local libraries to access the Internet. Unlimited opportunities for training and learning are being lost. Internet use has become an integral part of daily life. Realising the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society should include full online inclusion at the very least.
In responding to Deputy Mitchell O'Connor's question I will outline the measures being adopted by the Department in addressing what she quite rightly describes as the digital divide. It is also important to note the very important work being done by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, in rolling out the national digital strategy and the serious ambition on his part to provide a minimum of 30 Mb broadband connection to every community in the country. This is something I applaud and am confident will become a reality in the lifetime of the Government.
The ICT in schools programme supports the integration of ICT in teaching and learning in primary and post-primary schools. Centres for adults with intellectual or other disabilities do not fall within the immediate remit of Department of Education and Skills. Wireless networks have the potential to deliver educational benefits to support teaching and learning in a number of ways in our schools. It can help to facilitate classroom situations which are more supportive of a student-centred active learning model.
Facilitated by the 100 Mb fast broadband programme for post-primary schools, there is a significant shift in terms of ICT, where computing devices being introduced by schools for learning are increasingly mobile wireless devices and not fixed or desktop computers. At the launch of the consultation phase of the Department's digital education strategy yesterday a number of excellent examples were outlined by school principals where wireless technology is playing a major role in the provision of learning in schools throughout the country.
In October 2012 a working group on wireless ICT in post-primary schools was set up in the Department with a remit to develop a guidance document for wireless ICT systems in new schools. Its priority was to focus on post-primary schools initially arid then primary schools, to include special schools. The remit further expanded to developing a more comprehensive guidance document with enhanced guidance for all schools. The guidance document provides advice and direction regarding wireless networks in post-primary schools in Ireland, including on infrastructure, design, procurement, management, technical support and pedagogical guidance on wireless systems. The target audience includes school principals and management, ICT co-ordinating teachers, boards of management, design teams and other parties involved in the planning, provision and support of wireless in schools. The document includes non-technical and technical sections and will be published in the very near future. Work has commenced on the development of an advice document for primary schools.
At present in the case of a post-primary building project, such as a new school or an extension to an existing school, the school is given the option to have wireless installed, and the network will be provided as part of the building contract. Wireless is the preferred option of the Department of Education and Skills but ultimately the decision is made by the school itself. In the case of an existing school where no building project is being undertaken, the installation of wireless is an operational matter for the board of management of the school. Funding for the installation is provided by the schools themselves. It is of utmost importance that consultation should take place prior to the decision being made. The cost and other implications must be fully considered by the boards of management.
The assistive technology scheme provides funding to schools towards the purchase of equipment for pupils who have been assessed as having a special educational need which requires specialist equipment to access the curriculum. I have seen at first hand the power of the equipment and the software one can access. It certainly empowers students with special needs to learn in the very unique way required as a result of their needs. Grant aid is available for this specialist equipment. It is pupil-specific, as it should be, and is based on the pupil's needs as determined by an associated professional. There is no upper limit to grant aiding this assistive technology.
I welcome the response of the Minister of State and I appreciate the good work done in primary and post-primary schools. However, I was referring to learning centres for persons with disabilities over the age of 18. Given the ongoing revelations about the generous remuneration and top-up payments of senior managers, some of whom are working with services for people with disabilities, I would like to be assured that money is allocated to those who need it most in these learning centres. Finland has become the first country in the world to make broadband a legal right for every citizen. Is this something we should consider?
I agree with Deputy Mitchell O'Connor's final remark. It is something we should at least contemplate. Perhaps we should examine the significant body of experience, learning and wisdom amassed throughout our primary and post-primary school system in recent years with regard to the use of technology in education, and then use this wisdom to determine how best we serve the needs of the learners referred to by Deputy Mitchell O'Connor. I am more than open to discussing the matter with her in the future and perhaps engaging with my colleagues at the Department of Health on making it happen.