Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
10. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the plans that are in place by his Department to expand third level programmes for persons with intellectual disabilities, such as a facility (details supplied) across the country; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49762/21]
I would like to ask the Minister about the opportunity to roll out programmes in higher education for students with intellectual disability, recognising only 1% of people with intellectual disability have the opportunity to go university and I would like a statement on progress.
I thank the Deputy for all her work, interest and engagement with me on this issue. I am pleased the allocation we secured yesterday in the budget for the national access plan specifically references students with intellectual disabilities. We have made a great deal of progress, as a country, and we have more to do on a number of disabilities. Based on the figures the Deputy gave, we have a long way to go on intellectual disabilities. I am determined to make progress on this. Our new national access plan will, for the first time, include the issue of intellectual disabilities, as well as a broader range of disabilities.
Inclusion is one of the core strategic goals for my Department and my ambition is to ensure we provide supports and opportunities for learning for all. This means responding to the needs of different learners, including vulnerable learners, people who are more marginalised and those who have special and additional needs. This means assisting people in accessing and progressing through higher and further education and training.
For higher education, these aims will be reflected in our new national access and inclusion plan. This will be published in the coming months and I hope by the end of the year. I have recently announced five performance funding awards totalling €5 million in the higher education sector. This included €1 million in funding for UCC's inclusive education pathways for students with intellectual disabilities. This award was based on innovative programmes that support inclusive education pathways for students with intellectual disabilities. I have referenced the €5 million we secured yesterday as part of budget 2022. That specifically relates to a dedicated pilot called a pathways project in higher education for students with intellectual disabilities, which is important.
We have made significant progress at primary and secondary level. I will make sure the cliff edge has not just moved to the end of secondary level by working with the Ministers of State, Deputies Madigan and Rabbitte, and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to put in place a pathway project to help students with intellectual disabilities transition from second level education on to further or higher education. We have been engaging extensively with learners, their advocates and a number of representative bodies. My intention is to hold a round table with learners, stakeholders and institutions to hear their views on how best to use this funding for pathway projects. I will be doing that in the coming weeks. I also acknowledge the good work that has been going on in the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities. I thank the Deputy for introducing me to that work. It is a model of best practice. I am also examining how we can expand that and encourage other institutions to do likewise, because, what is going on there is quite magical.
I thank the Minister for meeting representatives of the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities. University is not for every person, with or without an intellectual disability, but it should be an option. It gives dignity to have a student card, be able to be on the Frisbee team, or whatever it is a young person chooses, and be properly included and given the confidence. I met a young man who is a graduate of the centre last weekend and now has a full-time permanent position in a commercial firm in Dublin. He has worked through the pandemic, in his own way, and is now a board member of Inclusion Ireland as a self-advocate. Those programmes give confidence because of the inclusion and dignity they afford to young people. They give them the opportunity, instead of assuming it is okay to send them to day care or something of that nature, to work in commercial companies, have a lanyard, pay tax, have the dignity of grumbling on a Monday morning getting on a bus the same as everybody else. That is real inclusion. We must conceive intellectual disability in the same way as everything else. I thank the Minister for his work so far and ask him to respond to those points.
The Deputy is 100% correct. I recall from my time in the Department of Health, there would be a discussion on school leavers every year. I found it slightly insulting, because the discussion was on what we would do about a day care or a respite place. These are very important provisions, on which we need to do more, but they are not the totality. At the time children were talking to their parents about what they would do next, we seemed to think our only responsibility, as a State, was to provide the health service piece and we did not always get that right either. We need to know talk directly to the students, at an early stage in second level, as to what they want to do when they leave and put the supports in place. I had good meeting with Down Syndrome Ireland, but I will always remember one of the mothers telling me I had no idea how hard it was, in that not only not did she not watch her child progress when he or she left school, she was actually watching the child regress. That is a disgrace and a shame on all of us as a collective. I am determined, if my Department does nothing else, to apply a real focus to this. We have many good initiatives going on, including a fund for students with disabilities and good supports and examples, such as Trinity, but they are still examples. It needs to be embedded. The Deputy is correct in that it is not just higher education; it could be further education, training or higher education. It is about the same diversity of choice. With €5 million, let us get on with a number of projects, led by learners and grounded in the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.
I could not agree more with the Minister. The point he made about regression is especially appropriate. I recall one graduates from the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities who did not have a job to go to and went back to a day care facility. By the time of her graduation, she did not have the confidence to stand up from her seat to go to get her certificate. That is the scale of regression. We need to work with Irish business which has been so responsive to this. It is inclusive for everybody working in business to see somebody with intellectual disabilities on the reception desk, at the forefront, working in HR and in meaningful, real jobs that are part of the organisation, instead of regressing. This is about empowering those people who choose to go to university. The Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities is an especially strong model; it is a gold star. As the Minister said, the challenge is to extend that all other universities and make that accessible, irrespective of what part of the country one is in. These are viable options and parents of young people with intellectual disabilities should not be frightened of that day when they cease to have the learning sports around them that help them continue to progress. I thank the Minister for his work.
I ask the Minister to examine the issue of people with intellectual disabilities in rural areas getting to the centre of further training, education and so on. It can be a massive challenge. They do not qualify for the second-level school transport scheme. Their parents are quite often working and they cannot get to the centre, which may be many miles away and very often, the distances between certain workplaces and centres can be lengthy. That is causing a massive challenge and huge stress. I ask the Minister, with his colleagues, to examine this as a matter of urgency. Has the Minister engaged with the Open Doors Initiative which has done considerable good work in this area?
I am glad we are discussing this topic, about which the Minister has heard me contribute on many times previously, because one of the greatest tragedies is what we lose out on when we do not invest properly in young people with disabilities.
I am glad the Minister referred to the Minister of State with responsibility for special education, Deputy Madigan. I welcome this initiative and others that will follow but we must address the issues at second level. I know of a 15-year-old boy with autism who has not been at school since last September. The school is looking for the resources but the SENOs and others are refusing to give them. In fact, they are working from the point of view that the school must somehow be wasting hours or something. I was glad to see 1,000 new SNAs announced in the budget yesterday but if we go on another three weeks and people do not get what they need within those schools, we are not giving them the chance. I will work with the Minister in whatever way possible to make things happen for young people with disabilities, and autism in particular.
I thank all colleagues for contributing to this debate and Deputy Carroll MacNeill for tabling this question. I will certainly follow up on the points they have made. I do not believe I have met representatives of the organisation Deputy Stanton mentioned but I will make it my business to do so. I fully agree with Deputy Conway-Walsh's point. I do not profess to be an expert on this, but I think the lack of transition planning is a big issue and I know my colleagues, Deputies Madigan and Rabbitte, think that too. It is not for me to tell the Oireachtas committee what to do but perhaps we could delve into this in some detail at a meeting of the education committee with myself, the Department of Education, the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities. There is a lot of good work going on but it is fragmented and it needs to be joined up. I will work with people across the House in doing this. Crucially, it cannot be us telling the people with disabilities what we are going to put in place. I know we all agree on that. It has to be about listening to them and what they want. On the rural issue, the ETB network has a role to play here. The ETBs are in every community in Ireland and we need to look at how we can expand their role and support them to do that. I would love to explore this in more detail with the Deputies.