Thursday, 24 January 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Disability Services Funding
As there are three Members who wish to contribute and only four minutes in which to speak, I know the Acting Chairman will exercise a degree of leniency. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Catherine Byrne, is here, but I really believe that the responsible Minister should be here in the first instance.
The Irish Deaf Society is the representative body of the deaf community in Ireland and provides services to 50,000 people across the deaf community annually. Every year it faces a struggle to secure core funding to support these necessary services.
No State body will take responsibility for the provision of education and support services to vulnerable deaf people, who struggle to engage successfully with State and other services through the first language, English, which is a deaf person's second language. For them, the first language is Irish Sign Language.
Despite promises from the HSE in November, the Irish Deaf Society has no indication of when a final decision will be made. The IDS is now paralysed and unable to make key business decisions. The HSE and Government are fully aware of this situation and, more worryingly, of its implications.
I remember very well the recognition of Irish Sign Language as an official language of this State declared on the floor of this Chamber only one year ago. The Irish Sign Language academy, the adult literacy programme, the advocacy service and awareness-raising efforts are all now under threat of closure. The deaf community is planning protests while the IDS is currently planning for closure of much needed services and, more seriously, of the organisation itself. The IDS has this week decided to cancel all its classes from the end of February. This is the first operational decision it has had to make in acknowledgement of the society's serious lack of funds. As the next month approaches and proceeds, it will be more and more difficult to reverse these inevitable actions. This is a most pressing matter and I urge the Minister of State to ensure that funding is approved immediately.
Thank you for selecting this matter, a Cheann Comhairle. I speak not only for myself but for all members of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, including my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, who has also signed up to this.
We are deeply concerned. Approximately 200 people from the deaf community attended an emergency meeting last Saturday in Deaf Village Ireland to get an update on the imminent closure of vital services that are provided by the Irish Deaf Society, which is again facing financial crisis due to a lack of structural funding.
The IDS is unique. It is deaf-led and it provides services through and does its work through Irish Sign Language. It is an absolute irony that those of us in the committee that was proud to deliver ISL as an official language of Ireland are now seeing the organisation at the helm of delivering the services and access to supports for this language facing imminent closure. We are shocked and deeply concerned. Without the Irish Deaf Society it will be virtually impossible for the deaf community to access these services. Many people at the meeting at the weekend questioned whether this is happening because they do not get access to the airwaves - in that sense their voice is silenced.
We should be in a position where the society is looking at expanding services and where ISL is taught to hearing people so that deaf people can become an integral part of our communications. The society provides advocacy services and deaf literacy and the Irish Sign Language academy is needed now more than ever. We really need this issue addressed now in the short term. Moreover, we need a more long-term structural funding basis and support for the society.
The issue of funding does not lie with one Minister. A cross-departmental strategy is needed. It was always going to be needed if we were realistically to implement the provisions of the legislation passed by the House on Irish Sign Language 13 months ago.
We cannot realistically do that without the input of the organisation that has played a central role in providing support for deaf people for the past 38 years. The depth of the experience, history, legacy and trust of the Irish Deaf Society is extraordinary. The social capital of the IDS cannot be replicated by another agency.
The money needed to keep the services open is not vast. The society is looking for €150,000 to keep the doors open or else it will face closure in March. We need to engage in some joined-up thinking between the Departments with responsibility for health, education, public expenditure and justice to ensure that adequate funding is in place for the future. It makes no financial sense to see this organisation closing its doors. What if the society is forced into closure? Who will provide the advocacy service? Who will provide the awareness training? Who will provide Irish Sign Language classes? Who will liaise on behalf of the deaf community? It makes no sense.
There is a song called "I Don't Like Mondays" but I am starting not to like Thursdays, to be honest, because I seem to be the only one here on Thursday evenings. I welcome this Topical Issue debate and I thank Deputy Wallace, Deputy Daly and Deputy Ó Caoláin. I will set out the prepared response but I will respond to some of the comments made as well.
On behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy McGrath, I thank Deputies Wallace, Daly and Ó Caoláin for raising this important issue and for the opportunity to respond to the House.
The Government is committed to providing services and supports for people with disabilities that will empower them to live independent lives, provide greater independence in accessing the services they choose and enhance their ability to tailor the supports required to meet their needs and plan their lives.
Significant resources have been invested by the health sector in disability services in recent years. This year alone, the Health Service Executive has allocated €1.9 billion to disability services programmes. People with disabilities, including those who are deaf, hard-of-hearing and deaf-blind, can access the broad range of acute care, primary care and community-based services that are provided by the HSE. They can also avail of specialist disability services, which are provided in a variety of community and residential settings in partnership with service users, their families and carers as well as a range of statutory, non-statutory and community groups.
Several non-statutory organisations are specifically focused on addressing the needs of the deaf community. Services offered include family and support services, active technology and active listening devices, community and lip-reading classes, information and advice and sign language classes as well as a mental health and deafness service. Most of these organisations receive funding from the HSE either through local grants of various amounts or direct funding. The HSE had 35 separate service level agreements with organisations providing services for the deaf or hard-of-hearing in 2018. The largest provider of such services is the National Association for the Deaf, which received significant core funding from the HSE of €6.7 million in 2018. The Irish Deaf Society, on the other hand, focuses its service delivery on advocacy and training and development as distinct from the delivery of services and social care supports to deaf communities. For this reason, the Irish Deaf Society does not receive core funding from the HSE.
The Minister of State with responsibility for disability services, Deputy McGrath, is aware of the financial difficulties that the Irish Deaf Society is currently experiencing and of the concerns regarding its future sustainability. Several different funding options are available to the organisation and the Minister of State strongly urges the society to pursue them actively. I understand, for example, that it has received funding in the past from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in respect of its advocacy work. The society received €269,700 under that Department's most recent round of the scheme to support national organisations in the community and voluntary sector. This scheme is running for a three-year period from mid-June 2016 to mid-June 2019. The society has also been funded by the Department of Education and Skills and it has received grants from the Department of Justice and Equality and the national lottery.
I wish to emphasise that the Department of Health does not provide direct funding to organisations and any such funding is provided by the HSE. Furthermore, the HSE can only fund organisations for the purpose of providing health services on its behalf. However, in May 2018, one-off bridging funding of €195,000 was provided by the Department of Health to the Irish Deaf Society to allow it to resolve its financial issues. This was provided on an exceptional, once-off basis and the Department made it clear that it would not be repeated in the future. The Department urged the organisation to take immediate steps to resolve its ongoing funding requirements. It would appear that the Irish Deaf Society has not made much progress in this regard and it has submitted a further application to the HSE for core funding for 2019. The HSE has reviewed this submission and has again declined the society's funding request on the basis that it does not provide health-related services. This decision has been confirmed in writing to the Irish Deaf Society. I know that the Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, is currently in discussions with his Cabinet colleagues to try to resolve the Irish Deaf Society's financial difficulties. These discussions have been very positive so far and the Minister of State will be in a position in the coming days to confirm the outcome of these discussions.
I know this is not of the construct of the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne. Nevertheless, she has said the HSE can only fund organisations for the purposes of providing health services on its behalf. Who would argue that the provision of Irish Sign Language skills does not meet this requirement? Such skills provide the opportunity to be able to communicate to people who otherwise would be mute and non-communicate in every way and would have to cope with life in silence and isolation. I find it incredible.
It is a highly damning indictment of our governance that there is a situation whereby the HSE on the one hand and the Department of Health and heaven only knows how many other Departments on the other are all happily washing their hands of responsibility in this regard.
The deaf community is a substantial body of people who are coping with a significant disability in their lives. They are absolutely deserving of an immediate response from us. This is a most pressing matter and an issue the Government can solve quickly and without much difficulty. I understand the money has been committed. I urge the Minister of State to use her good offices to get her colleagues to do the right thing immediately.
I agree that this is a justice rather than a health matter. However, we did not nominate the Minister of State at the Department of Health to respond on this issue. We demanded justice for the Irish Deaf Society to enable it to continue to provide vital services for the deaf community when we make Irish Sign Language an official language. This is a necessity. The society's expertise cannot be replicated and its viability is imminently threatened. While I recognise that it is not the fault of the Minister of State, the response she gave is not good enough. We do not care where the money comes from. We are saying clearly that this organisation needs the Government to inform it that a stabilising strategy will be put in place. This can be done by means of a commitment from the Government to secure funding into the future. We do not mind where that funding comes from, whether the budget of he Department of Justice and Equality, Department of Education and Skills or elsewhere. Responsibility for funding lies with the Cabinet and the Departments, rather than us. The Irish Deaf Society would have liked a hint from the Minister of State that the Minister may have some good news in the days ahead. Our job is to say he had better have good news because this service cannot be sacrificed.
We hope that the Government sees sense and comes up with a rational approach to this matter. According to the Central Statistics Office, there were 3,809 deaf people or persons with a serious hearing impairment living in County Wexford in 2016. Members of the deaf community in Wexford have had zero access to services following the closure of Chime and the Wexford deaf club. The current experience of the Irish deaf community is one of extreme marginalisation due to a lack of Irish Sign Language recognition and provision. This manifests not only in the personal lives of deaf people but in their interactions with the organs of the State, including the education system, health service, courts system and national Parliament. Such systemic exclusion is not acceptable and must be addressed urgently.
I noticed the Ceann Comhairle liked the unusual shirt I am wearing.
I just knew. I was asked to wear it by the Irish ambassador to Malawi, Gerald Cunningham. I wear it today in solidarity with the people of Malawi but also in solidarity with a most special group, namely, the Irish Deaf Society. I ask the Minister of State to get the Government to do the right thing.
I think the Deputy's shirt is lovely. The colour suits him, although he always wears bright colours.
I do not have much to add. I have listened to the contributions and taken notes. I am sorry the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is not here in person. He has indicated he is working with his colleagues at Cabinet level. He will be in a position in the coming days to confirm the outcome of discussions on this matter. I have nothing further to add as I cannot promise A, B or C to the Deputies. I thank them for raising this matter and apologise, on behalf of the Minister of State, for his absence. I am sorry I cannot give the Deputies a fuller reply.
I have used the service provided by Sister Lydia for my children in the past. I understand how difficult it is for adults and children who are unable to communicate because they are deaf or deaf blind. I compliment all those who work in organisations for people with disabilities. They do an extraordinary job, particularly those who work with people who are blind, hard of hearing or deaf. I will make it my business to convey the Deputies' concerns to the Minister of State and to speak to him in the next two days.