Thursday, 22 September 2022
New Innovations for People with Disabilities (Digital Assistive Technology): Statements
Martin Conway (Fine Gael)
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach. At the outset, I acknowledge the great work that an Cathaoirleach Gníomhach, Senator Seery Kearney, is doing as part of the Committee on Disability Matters in advancing the cause of people with disabilities and, indeed, the need for equality in this country.
We have spoken many times on these issues with the Minister of State and her enthusiasm never ceases to amaze me. Even two years into office, I see how determined she is to make a difference. She has made a difference. I consider the particular grant scheme she has spoken about to be a pilot because funding comes with success. If something is seen as successful, one would want to be a brave Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform not to provide the funding to keep it going.
As Senator O’Donovan said, €4 million will be seen as small money in the future. I have no doubt that each and every one of the projects that she has listed out will make full use of the money that is given to it, and I am sure the projects will commit some of their own resources to them also.
In my lifetime, there has been a revolution in technology. When I was in school, apart from a couple of low vision aids, that was all I had. Believe it or not, and the House will be shocked to think of it, I wrote my junior certificate exams. How anyone read them is beyond me but that is another story. When it came to me doing the leaving certificate in 1993, I believe, I typed it on a typewriter. If one made a mistake one was not able to correct it. I then went into UCD where I was lucky enough to do my exams on a PC, and at least I could run a spell check at the end to tidy it up.
When one fasts forward then to coming into the Oireachtas, I had an iPad and iPhone. I can therefore take pictures of something, enlarge it and read it. If I go into a restaurant and there is a menu, I can pick up the phone, take a picture of it, enlarge it and read it, whereas only a few short years ago I would have needed somebody to read the menu to me. That is fine because I do not have any chips on my shoulder and it does not bother me whatsoever, but there are other people who would find it very embarrassing to have somebody read a menu to them. That has now been eliminated with the use of the phone.
The Minister of State and I attended the launch of IA Labs, which is a National Council for the Blind of Ireland, NCBI, initiative to ensure that all people with print and vision disabilities will have access to technology, which will basically enhance and enrich their lives. Every single penny of Government money that is put into technology is worth it and I completely understand what Senator Clonan has just said in regard to people. If the people are not there to create the link between the technology and the individual who needs the technology, that then is an important cog.
My view is that we will have to spend millions of euro on personal assistants because there will be different types of personal assistants. We will need personal assistants who can take advantage of technology and assist people with it. There are other personal assistants in the area of healthcare. We have a serious job of work to do to bridge that gap. When the pandemic occurred I found the Zoom meetings very challenging simply because of the chat function on the screen. I could not read the chat function and it would come and go so quickly. I remember several times in our own parliamentary party meetings asking Ministers, if they were putting important information out there, to please not put it up on the chat function because I could not read it.
I made a request to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission for a big-screen. I got the big screen but it was 12 months late, in that the commission had to obtain three quotations and had to use the cheapest one. The screen ended up having to be imported from China, and by the time it came the pandemic was essentially over. Institutions will probably have to say that they will need to move with the times where, if technology is needed now, it is actually needed now. If we are going to be purchasing it anyway, do not take the good out of it by going through a convoluted procurement process for what is, in truth, just a big monitor.
I look forward to the day, hopefully it will happen in my lifetime, when I will be able to walk out my front door in County Clare, sit into a Google driverless car, and pull up on the Plinth outside Leinster House, where technology will basically have brought me from Clare to Dublin safely. I believe we are not that far away from that happening. There is a great amount of work being done, with investment, research, technology development and so on. I sincerely hope we are not that far away. That helps everyone, not just people with disabilities, as it helps with road safety, etc.
I have one final point. I am running a little campaign at the moment and I have spoken with the Minister of State’s colleague, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, about it. The leaving certificate examination papers at the moment are not digitally available and are therefore not digitally accessible. We are an outlier at this point in time in Europe when it comes to that.Somebody with a print disability whether it is dyslexia, vision impairment or whatever else cannot use the technology they are comfortable with to access their leaving certificate papers. We are told it is because they do not want to compromise the integrity of the paper, the confidentiality and so on. There has to be a way around it. I want the students who are doing the leaving certificate in 2023 with a print disability to be able to access their exam papers in the form of technology that they are comfortable with. I want them to be digitally accessible. Any assistance the Minister of State can give in encouraging the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, to ensure that can happen would be very helpful. I am going to Temple Bar this afternoon to the launch of a policy paper on education from the National Council for the Blind of Ireland. This is a big issue. Readers have to be employed to read the exam papers. People should be able to do it in the sphere they are comfortable in.
With technology and the people to help people access technology, we can reduce the 86% unemployment rate of people with disabilities to the European average of around 40%. It would be positive if we could even get it down to 50%. That can happen with the use of technology and the people to link the individuals to the technology.