Seanad debates

Thursday, 22 September 2022

New Innovations for People with Disabilities (Digital Assistive Technology): Statements

 

10:30 am

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)

The Minister of State is very welcome. I thank colleagues for the very informative contributions they have made on this issue so far. They certainly informed me and I am sure they have done the same for the Minister of State. It shows the merit and value of having statements like this in the Seanad and taking the time to discuss these issues.

As the Minister of State said, technology has had a far-reaching and positive impact on many areas of life. In particular, it has significantly opened up life for people with disabilities. Assistive technology, AT, a specific branch of general technology, refers to practical tools that can enable people with disabilities and older people to maximise their independence. It refers to any device or system that helps to improve the functional capacity of the person. It has been a central feature of the disability sector for some time.

The smartphone is probably the most obvious and versatile form of assistive technology available. That technology can support people to access their human rights, for example, under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It can support people to complete their education, get and retain employment, live in their community and become digitally literate. Examples of AT include screen-reading software that supports people with vision impairment as well as those with literacy challenges, and voice output communications solutions for those who are non-speaking. It includes control technology such as remote control of doors, windows and lights to enable independence in the home. There is a growing range of mainstream mobile solutions available via apps on smartphones and tablet devices which can support everything from personal mobility to personal organisation and memory aids.

A report based on a survey of 120 service providers by the HSE which examined the impact of AT on disabled people during the Covid-19 pandemic found that people were very positive about how technology helped services continue to varying degrees and helped maintain connectedness, engagement and interaction. The technologies that helped included WhatsApp, Facebook, Zoom, Skype, YouTube, Wi-Fi and JAWS. However, the report also found that nothing replaced face-to-face contact, the in-person human connection. Two leading organisations in the development of AT for disabled people, the Disability Federation of Ireland and Enable Ireland, have raised with the Government their concerns that current service provision for AT is fragmented and under-resourced to meet the emerging challenges of a growing population with disabilities and older people interfacing with technology which is developing at great speed. One of their key recommendations is an AT passport which they believe will help immensely the way people gain access to AT when and where they need it.

AT has brought new approaches in how disabled people and wider society respond to disability. These changes need to be complemented by a change in our attitudes as well. Disability is not solely a health matter. We need to move away from the medical model to a rights-based model. We need to realise that society's attitude to disability is problematic rather than a person's impairment or difference. The Government must also realise that it needs to significantly increase its budgetary commitment to the disabled to do the following: cover housing and individual living supports; eliminate poverty and social exclusion which are among the highest in Europe; end the lowest employment rates in Europe; and significantly improve the educational attainment of the disabled community. I know the Minister of State will lobby and work hard for that.

At a broader health level, last week Sinn Féin launched its €1.1 billion alternative budget for health 2023, Funding Fairer Healthcare. This is a ten-year ambitious health plan which invests in all the major areas of health provision. In the context of the disability debate it commits €153 million to the disability capacity review and the children's disability networks teams. The plan will reduce the cost of healthcare, tackle waiting times, improve primary and community care, and support mental health services. It can end the current crisis in the health service which is similar in origin to the housing crisis - a failure to plan. Sinn Féin's proposals will end the two-tier health system and deliver health and social care on the basis of need, not the ability to pay.

I want to conclude my remarks by thanking the Minister of State for her attention and attendance, and for her hard work and commitment to this issue. I am fully conscious of some of the things I have said in my script. It probably would have been a different speech had I had the opportunity to prepare it having listened to Senators Conway and Clonan and the contributions emphasising the need for human contact, personal assistance and person-to-person supports as well as the technology.

It is quite easy to get caught up in the glamour of innovative technologies and think sin é, that is a great innovative solution to a problem. Really it is as fundamental and as basic as what Senator Clonan rightly said, having somebody to lift the tablet, put it on the desk, switch it on, charge it up. All of those things need to be fully complementary in order to work and deliver.

While investing in and prioritising technologies is key and will continue to have a key role in supporting people to live independently and live the fullest possible lives, it is also so important that we get the basics right alongside it, that we get the human touch right in terms of all this going forward. I really appreciate today's debate and I know we will look to next week's budget with a keen eye to ensure targeted supports are going to the people who need them most.

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