Seanad debates

Thursday, 22 September 2022

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


10:30 am

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)

I would like to ensure that I can bring about equity for the staff who deliver PA and home support services, thereby having a good pool of people we can go to so that we are not left short of people, and at the same time, grow the budget of that piece this year. That will support people with physical disabilities or behavioural challenges, or whatever they may face, be it part of the work or education piece.

I refer to the devices. Senator Clonan gave the example of lifting a laptop and the skeletal device that Eoghan missed out on because he did not have that intervention. Senator Carrigy, who joins us in the debate, and I have talked about this on numerous times. We do not need all of them to be clinicians. We need people who can support the delivery of what is prescribed. They can be assistants in occupational therapy, speech and language, or physiotherapy. There does not need to be a weekly meeting with a physiotherapist, but the programme that has been put in place needs to be delivered, sustained and maintained until the programme is followed up six or eight weeks later with a senior level clinician. I genuinely believe we need to make that step change within the delivery of services and not be so protective of the clinicians and their base. We need to look to the assistant role as well. That will be part of the progressing disability services, PDS, roadmap I am sharing with Senators today, so that every child will have a continuation of delivery and access to services.

As I have travelled around I have listened to parents. Some have told me that their child, who is in non-verbal, has access to a tablet with different apps. That is an affordablity issues and that is wrong. We should never deny a person the right to communicate. All of us here have a great opportunity in that we can speak. We can articulate ourselves through our voices. By denying people the right to communicate, we are denying them the right to have their rights and voice heard. I fundamentally believe in the rights and voice of the child, for which I have always campaigned. We need to look to assistive technology and the augmentative and alternative communication, AAC, system such as PECS, so that from an early stage we train the early-years providers on what this device is about. We can then enable children to participate in the room by using their devices with the PECS programme so that they are not frustrated. That should follow on into national school and post-primary school. It is an enabling tool, while not being the only piece. It would ensure that users can participate and say, for example, that they would prefer Ribena to water. Simple things make a huge difference to people.

That is my role regarding technology. What I am looking for from within technology comes from a very basic level. It is like the communication board in playgrounds. That is technology. We do not have them in every playground around the country, although we should have. I would like to see some of my one-off funding going to such initiatives, while at the same time letting our innovative, digital people working in services know how they could bridge gaps to support people. My colleague talked about the health passport. I do believe in getting that up and running through funding. They are the pieces we need to develop. If is for the people who have been sitting there long enough saying "If we had this, it would work". It would provide collaboration.

Senator Conway and I were at the launch of the IA Labs about six months ago. His story is excellent because he explained that with investment and changing times, developments are changing to meet the needs of people. What we learned from the Senator's story is that the 12 months it took to introduce a piece of technology did not help us.That is exactly what children experience in school. That is exactly that experience. The procurement piece that tethered Senator Lombard is tethering so many more families as well. Health is based on a needs-led approach in that the need is identified and the support should be there. When we have a diagnosis or the child has a need, we should not have to be waiting for the three procurements. What we should be doing is going to what is best in the field.

I know a lady from the Senator's good side in Cork who needs assistance with a car seat. The child has scoliosis. At the same time, she needs to have that car seat. She has been refused the car seat in the past number of weeks for the third time. The child needs to have it because she has to travel to school. She has to hold a particular position and if she does not, given the regression that is going on, she just might not have the scoliosis operation. She should not have to wait to see when and where she can get that. We should have on our appendix board where that can be sourced, that the seat needs to be provided and that it is verified and proved that the seat is what is needed for the child and it should be given. Waiting is what frustrates parents completely.

A number of us here might have met a young lady from the Carlow side who did the junior certificate exam. Her case was to do with the pictures on her English-paper exam. It is very much down to how a student's scribe would describe what was in the picture. One has to see what is in the picture to understand what one is seeing. The student is dependent on a second person to interpret what it should be. Another person has interpreted the picture but the student has to formulate an answer on it. It is not just black and white. That held her back considerably in doing the junior certificate. She felt at a disadvantage because pictures were used a number of times. The exam was actually on the French syllabus. I apologise. The use of these pictures meant that, on a number of her questions, she felt she was being held back completely. We need to think twice as to how we set papers and about the people that are sitting the papers in that the students have to be totally and utterly easily able to access them. I will support Senator Conway's campaign.

Having people able to access employment is the most important piece. It breaks down a considerable barrier. Senator Seery Kearney brought it up. I met with the Tánaiste approximately two years ago. I have to be very fair to him. We were talking about the hubs all over the country. He asked how his Department could help. I said we need to make sure that the digital hubs are accessible. Having the digital hubs accessible would mean having a cubby or the sensory room within the hubs, the accommodation being right at the front and proper changing facilities provided within for people with physical, behavioural or sensory disabilities. Guess what is happening in the PorterShed in Galway, which is PorterShed No. 3? I see every one of those bars being hit. That lets me know that Departments are listening and they are actioning. There is comfort within that but we need to see it happen nationally. That means that people can participate in employment. They can participate if they wish to in the hub, but they can also work remotely at the same time, to prevent isolation and everything else. Progress is being made.

As the Senator can see, I do not see technology as the final solution. No different to the Sinn Féin Senator, my colleague, it is wonderful for me to hear the real-life stories because they shape how I respond to things. The Senators share with me and I share with them. That is my thinking within the Department. It is quite difficult some times to break that down. It does not come in a chapter and verse, as the Senator said, when it comes to how we can take on people who might be visually impaired or who might have a physical disability within Leinster House. If we have the challenge, so do schools and people taking on interns everywhere else.

As to the rule book on what is best code of practice, maybe some disability organisation or disabled persons' organisation, DPO, listening into us today might help us in writing or putting together best practices for interns or taking on somebody for work experience or best practice for the Houses of Oireachtas, which I am not faulting whatsoever. However, service checks could be done on the lifts around the Houses on a regular basis to ensure that they are working and to ensure that, no matter what chair or cane the people that arrive in are using, they can move freely and as independently as possible and be given the respect of dignity and inclusion.

As it was a very close grouping, I decided to go on a little bit. I thank everybody for the opportunity. I wish to get a decent sum in the budget to assist with assistive technology. While there are big visions, the day-to-day pieces make an awful difference in life. It may mean that people can access that technology from very early years and become dependent. At the same time, the human touch cannot be forgotten about. It is not a get-out-of-jail card for anyone. It is an enabler for the young person to be able to communicate.

I will finish on trikes and bikes. The Senators may have seen Variety do something about it recently. I remember this time last year when I had to negotiate within my Department because I did not have enough money. I had to go to ask the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, because I was short money for trikes. Trikes are not to be seen as fun toys for kids with disabilities. I see that movement as occupational therapy. Between the two of us, we managed to muster enough money for 32 trikes, at a cost. They are now being rolled out, but there is a waiting list of 190 people. I wish to see everybody off that waiting list. That trike is OT. It is direct intervention. They can be recycled, upcycled or downcycled, depending on the age, weight, ability or need of the child. If we put the child at the centre and we wrap it around that way, the Upper and Lower Houses could do a really good job for persons with disability.


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