Wednesday, 21 February 2018
Services for People with Disabilities: Motion
The next item is motion No. 14 on the Order Paper. It has been proposed that once the motion has been moved we will allow the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Damien English, to speak first. Is that agreed? Agreed.
That Seanad Éireann:- recognises the significant advances made by the Government since coming into office in promoting equality among all citizens including people with disabilities;
- acknowledges that much work still remains to be done on creating an equal society for people with disabilities;
- acknowledges that this is the first Government in the history of the State to appoint a Minister with special responsibility for Disabilities who sits at Cabinet;
- supports the significant contribution made by Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, since he took office, in advancing workable solutions on issues that affect
the daily lives of people with disabilities in Ireland;
- notes the clear commitment of the Government to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on behalf of the Irish State;and calls on the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government:- to consider ways to improve the streetscape in our towns and villages in order to make it more accessible to people with physical disabilities;
- to respond effectively to recent campaigns by disability NGO’s such as the National Council for the Blind of Ireland and the Disability Federation of Ireland on the challenges faced by people with disabilities in safely navigating around our cities and towns;
- to request the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government to engage with the various stakeholders and to make recommendations based on this engagement as to what legislative changes are necessary to help make our towns and cities more accessible to people with physical disabilities;
- to fund an information campaign to help raise awareness among proprietors of businesses and properties of the needs of people with physical disabilities and also to raise awareness among motorists, cyclists and the general public on the challenges faced by mobility impaired citizens in our built environment, given that such an initiative by the Minister would be a very worthwhile practical measure which would greatly assist people with disabilities to go about their daily lives.
I thank the Fine Gael Senators who tabled this important motion relating to services for people with a disability generally and the accessibility of towns and villages for people with a disability. I am conscious that we have said that we will have a debate on housing for people with disabilities in the near future so I will not deal with that particular issue today but will be happy to return to Seanad Éireann to discuss a motion on same.
I welcome and support this motion which acknowledges the significant advances made by the Government in promoting equality among all citizens, including people with disabilities, and calls for further measures to make the streetscapes in our towns and villages more accessible to people with a disability. In this regard, people with a disability have the right to the same life opportunities as all other citizens. Ideally and where possible they should have a home within their community where they can be treated with dignity and respect and get the supports they need to live healthy, safe and rewarding lives. It is incumbent on legislators, advocates and society as a whole to provide these supports to the maximum extent possible.
This country has embarked on an era of unprecedented change in services for people with disabilities over recent years. A radical programme of reconfiguration of services is under way to support people with disabilities in making the type of choices that are available to everyone else in society in order to enable them to live the lives they want to lead. A fundamental objective of the Government is to deliver disability services that are person-centred. By this I mean placing those who use our services at the centre of all our activities. This involves listening to people or their advocates and transferring our focus from the service itself to the people who use it.
As a society we sometimes forget that people with a disability have the same needs as the rest of society. A disability or health condition should not dictate the path a person is able to take in life. What should count are a person’s abilities, talents, determination and aspirations to succeed. I share with my Ministerial colleagues - including the Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for disability issues, Deputy Finian McGrath, who could not be here for this debate today - a very strong desire to ensure that people with a disability are afforded every opportunity to realise their potential in every dimension of their lives. However, that presents a challenge to us all, including family members, carers, front line staff, administrators, politicians and legislators. Each one of us must examine our preconceived perceptions of what the future for disability services should look like and trust the people with disabilities to point the way in leading lives of their choosing.
I would like to take this opportunity to set out a number of recent important Government initiatives that have been undertaken to improve the lives of people with disabilities. In recognition of the importance and priority attached by the current Government to addressing disability issues and as mentioned in the motion, this is the first Government in the history of the State to appoint a Minister of State with special responsibility for disabilities who sits at Cabinet, namely, Deputy Finian McGrath. He has made a major contribution in raising awareness and the profile of disability issues and in advancing solutions on issues that affect the daily lives of people with disabilities. This is an important development which should be acknowledged by all sides of the House.
Ireland signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007 and since then successive Governments have emphasised Ireland’s strong commitment to proceed to ratification of the convention as quickly as possible, taking into account the need to ensure all necessary legislative and administrative requirements under the convention are met. Further to signing the convention, the Government decided last month to ratify the convention and the final legislative amendments needed to enable Ireland to comply with it will be contained in the Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016 and also in a separate standalone Bill on deprivation of liberty to be enacted by the end of this year.
I note that a proposed amendment to the motion commits the Government to ratifying the convention "by March 2018". The position in this regard is that a motion is scheduled for debate in the Dáil next Wednesday, 28 February. If it is determined that Ireland will ratify the convention the instrument of ratification will then be deposited with the UN and the convention will enter into force 30 days thereafter.
In July 2017, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, launched a new disability inclusion strategy for the period 2017 to 2021. This strategy is the outcome of an extensive consultation process undertaken by the Department of Justice and Equality with the assistance of the National Disability Authority. The strategy takes a whole-of-government approach to improving the lives of people with disabilities in a practical sense and also in creating the best possible opportunities for people with disabilities to fulfil their potential. Included in the strategy are more than 100 measurable and time-specific actions that relate to the areas of education, employment, provision of public services, health, transport, and personal safety and autonomy. The strategy is envisaged as a living document with consultation on a mid-term review due to take place late next year and revised iterations of the strategy to be published periodically containing revised and more ambitious actions in the light of progress being made. Implementation will be supported by independent analysis and advice from the National Disability Authority and also by periodic review and oversight by the Cabinet committee on social policy, as appropriate. Building on the commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government to meet the housing needs of people with disabilities, the national housing strategy for people with a disability 2011 to 2016, for which my Department and the Department of Health has responsibility, has been extended to 2021 in line with Rebuilding Ireland. A major element of the strategy is the programme to move people with disabilities out of congregated settings in order that they can live independently and be included in the community.
Recent advances on measures included in the strategy include the publication by the Housing Agency in October 2017 of revised national guidelines for the assessment and allocation process for housing provision for people with a disability. The guidelines should ensure smoother operation of the social housing assessment and allocation process for people with disabilities, including those living in congregated settings. As I mentioned yesterday, it is important to develop strategies at a local level for housing for people with disabilities to deal with current demand and also cater for predicted demand in the future. Too often in the past when someone needed a house adapted or built, the case was made. It was often a year or two later before the person received the accommodation required. We are trying to pre-empt this by ensuring a certain percentage of all social housing stock will be built and ready for people who might need adapted properties. Each local authority has produced a local strategy that will be available online. It will be available to be scrutinised and tracked to ensure we are delivering on the commitment made. That is something we can discuss in depth in later debates.
The ten-year comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities was launched in 2015 to increase the numbers of people with a disability at work and the proportion of people with a disability in a job. According to the 2016 census results, a total of 130,000 persons with a disability were at work in April 2016. This represents 6.5% of all people at work. However, people with disabilities are still only half as likely to be in employment as others of working age and that is not really acceptable. The comprehensive employment strategy brings together actions by Departments and State agencies in a concerted effort to address the barriers and challenges that impact on the employment of people with disabilities. In tandem with this objective, the strategy seeks to ensure joined-up services and supports will be available at local level to support individuals on their journey into and in employment. The strategy will be reviewed and renewed every three years.
Two major processes are in place to deal with the accessibility of the built environment by people with a disability. The 2013 design manual for urban roads and streets, sponsored by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and my Department, reflects the growing appreciation that streets are not simply transport corridors but rather places in which people want to live and spend time. The manual sets out practical design measures, based on the principle of access for all, to be applied by road authorities, planning authorities and the full range of designers working within the built environment. Designs of new urban roads, streets and footpaths, as well as major upgrades, are required to place pedestrians at the top of the user hierarchy to encourage sustainable travel patterns and safer streets and address social equity. This reflects the reality that the poorest and most vulnerable in society, including children, the elderly and people with a disability, are the groups for whom car travel is less of an option. The manual addresses the use of contrasting surface materials and textures to assist visually impaired persons, as well as other measures such as lower kerb heights, to facilitate people with mobility impairment. The manual is being updated. Among the new measures being considered is the inclusion in the manual's audit process of the concept of universal design or access for all. It is intended to launch the updated document, with a dedicated website, in the near future.
New buildings and extensions or material alterations to existing buildings must comply with the legal minimum performance standards set out in the building regulations for the period 1997 to 2017. Amendments to Part M of the Second Schedule to the regulations, as amended by the Building Regulations (Part M Amendment) Regulations 2010, came into effect on 1 January 2012 and set out the minimum statutory requirements that a building had to achieve in respect of access. Part M provisions aim to ensure everyone, regardless of age, size or disability, can access and use new buildings other than dwellings and can visit new dwellings.
The National Disability Authority publication, Building for Everyone: A Universal Design Approach, sets out guidance on how to design, build and manage buildings and spaces to enable them to be readily accessed and used by everyone, regardless of age, size, ability or disability. Separate to the requirements under the building regulations, the building control regulations further require that, in the case of commercial buildings and apartment blocks, a disability access certificate must be obtained from the local building control authority. The certificate specifies that the works or building to which the application relates will, if carried out in accordance with the plans and specifications submitted, comply with Part M of the building regulations. It is an offence to occupy or use a commercial building or apartment block without having a valid disability access certificate in place.
The motion calls on the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to ask the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government to engage with the various stakeholders with a view to the committee making recommendations on legislative changes to help make to towns and cities more accessible to people with physical disabilities. In view of the leading role of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in the preparation and updating of the design manual for urban roads and streets, I will consult the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, further on this specific request. We should also include the Department of Health in the process because it has been involved with local authorities in the age friendly alliance, an initiative that has worked well. It has certainly helped to adapt many towns. All relevant Departments should be included, not only the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. I will discuss the matter with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Minister for Health and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly. The idea is to develop an appreciation of the challenges people with a mobility impairment face in moving around cities and towns and consider how this appreciation can be built into existing or planned awareness-raising activities.
We have come a long way from the days when having a disability meant automatic segregation, disenfranchisement and being placed on the margins of, or even outside, society. Thankfully, we now live in a society that is more inclusive of people with a disability. This transformation has come about after many years of persistent efforts by committed families, carers, activists and public representatives across all divides. Our common aim is to ensure those living with a disability will no longer be invisible members of society but active and visible participants instead.
I have no doubt that more work remains to be done and that further measures remain to be undertaken. I imagine this point will be raised again. However, we can best achieve our goals by adopting a collaborative approach, harnessing resources, exchanging ideas and bringing out the best in each other. This can materialise through a process of rigorous and considered debate such as in this debate. This process helps to raise greater awareness and understanding of the challenges faced by people with a disability with a view to their being addressed. It should bring a greater focus to the area to ensure that in times of increased budgets we will spend the money correctly to achieve the results we have set out to achieve in the various strategies in recent years.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to address the motion. He is the appropriate Minister of State to do so because the motion is very much targeted at the Department of the Housing, Planning and Local Government and the local government sector, in particular.
I thank Senator John Dolan for his contribution. He is the only one who saw fit to go through the motion and table amendments which enhance it. The specific wording proposed, "sensory and others", is appropriate to be inserted where the Senator has suggested it should be inserted.
I have taken an interest in this specific area because of campaigns launched last year by the Disability Federation of Ireland, of which Senator John Dolan is chief executive. Campaigns were also launched by my nominating body, the National Council for the Blind of Ireland. These organisations have had to run the campaigns because there seems to be a developing behavioural problem. Some seem to believe they can park in a wheelchair spot simply because there is no one parked there and there is no parking space available anywhere else. The wheelchair spot has been provided for a reason - to allow someone with a mobility impairment and, consequently, a permit to park there. That no parking space is available anywhere else in the car park does not give another person the right to use a space dedicated for a person with a disability simply because no one is parked there.
There seems to be what I describe as, in some case, an intentional, and, in others, an unintentional laissez-faireattitude to parking. People have a tendency to park on kerbs and footpaths simply because they are in a hurry. It is a lazy, sloppy approach that is not in keeping with best practice. Certainly, it is not in keeping with the need to keep pathways clear for people with disabilities. Irrespective of how busy a person is or in how much of a hurry he or she is or the parking arrangements, there should never be a situation where he or she parks on a footpath. People have to use footpaths and it becomes difficult for a blind person who is using a stick to have to walk along the street only to hit off an object with which he or she is not familiar. More often than not, that object is a car in a place where it should not be parked. Bicycles, motorcycles and other vehicles can also be in place where they should not be parked. Cyclists have a role to play in that regard.Cyclists adopt a lazy attitude by parking their bicycles against poles and in other ways that are unfair and do not allow free passage. Clearly, that does not apply to every cyclist but a number of them do it.
The motion is designed to create a conversation, a follow-up as it were to the campaigns run by the NGOs last year. It calls on the Government to examine the legislation governing parking slots for wheelchair users and people with disabilities in the first instance and, second, to deal with objects being placed on footpaths which should not be there. That includes the licensing of coffee shops that are allowed to have tables and chairs outside. There are many examples of coffee shops and bars that push the boat out a little further than they should. They might have a licence for X number of tables and chairs but over time it becomes X plus one and X plus two. On a particularly fine day it can be X plus ten. They are licensed to have a certain number but they can easily have double the amount. It is not being policed and monitored simply because there are no resources to do it, there is insufficient interest and there are other priorities.
When there are tables and chairs on areas of footpaths where they should not be they create an obstacle for people with disabilities, including people with white sticks and people who must use wheelchairs. We have an ageing population so there will be an increasing number of old people and an increasing number of people whose mobility is compromised. That is just a fact of life. In addition, this affects not only people with disabilities but also mothers with buggies trying to navigate our streetscape. It really is not fair. I believe there is a job of work to be done. I heard the Minister's comments with regard to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I do not mind how it is achieved but a conversation must take place and a new set of guidelines and recommendations must be developed to deal with street furniture and illegal parking in disabled slots. We must increase the fines and create a situation where it is frowned on when somebody does it. Aside from anything else a person should be afraid of the embarrassment he or she will face for parking in the slot.
With regard to Senator Dolan's proposed amendment to the motion concerning the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, of course the convention should be a guiding light as to where we must go and what we must do. I did not expect the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities to be here because the motion is not specifically relevant to him. It is far more relevant to local government given the fact that local authorities issue the licences for street furniture and have responsibility for road traffic. However, there is a role for the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I have examined the amendments tabled by Senator Dolan earlier today and I have spoken to the Minister. I have no problem with including them. I would not have considered it necessary to include the convention in the motion but if Senator Dolan believes its inclusion will strengthen the motion and achieve what we are seeking, I have no issue with it. The Minister does not have an issue with it either. I do not believe this House should ever divide on issues related to promoting equality and promoting people with disabilities having a clear pathway in terms of mobility and so forth.
There are serious issues with public transport. Due to my disability I will never be able to drive so I use public transport all the time. I wish more Members of the Oireachtas would use public transport because that would convey a very good message. I regularly see you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, using the train-----
-----and Galway, so there is no excuse for many more of our colleagues not to use public transport to travel to work.
The motion is good and I welcome the Minister of State's response. I thank my colleague, Senator Reilly, for seconding the motion. Hopefully, there will be a new set of guidelines to deal with this situation so people with disabilities can benefit from a streetscape that will not impede their passage and on which they will not run the risk of injury. I thank the House and the Fine Gael Party for the opportunity to discuss this motion.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House yet again. He is here so frequently he has almost taken up residence. Fair play to him that he never fails to turn up, which shows his interest in this matter in the first place and also his respect for the House. I commend my colleague, Senator Conway, for tabling the motion and I am honoured and privileged to second it. As he said, we should never allow a division in the House on an issue such as this if we can avoid it.
I will outline some statistics. There are 7,600 people with disabilities on social housing waiting lists around the country and there are 600,000 people in Ireland, 13.5% of the population, living with a disability. I know of few families who do not have a friend, relative or loved one affected by disability, yet some people with a disability feel they have no voice. We who have a voice should speak for them and we have many strong advocates, Senator Dolan being one of them, who do that very capably.
However, it is not my intention to talk about figures; I wish to talk about people. At a time when we are discussing our national planning framework, the capital plan and Project Ireland 2040, with all the wonderful opportunity they offer, we must take the opportunity to ensure that people with disabilities are catered for. When planning we should plan not just the proper social mix of social, affordable and private housing but also for those with and without disabilities equally. There are different types of disability - intellectual, physical, visual, hearing and others - and we must plan according to what the person with disability might need.
I wish to mention one very real case but before doing so I should point out that I was struck by Senator Conway's comments about wheelchair parking slots. There is one outside my surgery since the time I built it. People abuse it and do not leave it free for either the ambulance or people with disability. I also find that some people who have the sign on the car or have the card are using the spot for other purposes, that is, the person with disability is not in the car or is not driving the car. They are using the parking space and are disadvantaging those who need the space at that time. I agree with Senator Conway that there must be more enforcement.There must be a price to pay for parking in a way that obstructs those with a disability and, indeed, many young mothers and fathers with buggies.
I would cite the case of a gentleman who was a patient of mine many years ago before I was elected to the other House. He was born with cerebral palsy and is severely physically challenged. He communicates through a computer but he has a fine intellect and is well able to communicate. He has been in the media about his predicament. He went into a nursing home as a temporary measure for a three-month period while the local authority was to organise a place for him to live independently with the assistance of an aide. That was nine years ago. That man would tell the Minister of State that he lives in a place where there are no people of his own age with whom to communicate. He sees people coming into the nursing home, many of whom are there for a number of months or years and who then pass away. For a young man to have to endure that year in, year out instead of being able to enjoy a proper social life, which is he is capable of doing, is cruel.
This man has talent. He has gone to Trinity College. He is currently attending another course there using the computer. He has, as many people with a disability have, much to offer us, but what we are offering him is a form of incarceration and social isolation. Thankfully, through the efforts of a local councillor, Fingal County Council and a voluntary organisation his situation will be hopefully addressed over the coming months, but I was struck by the fact that this voluntary organisation comes from the North of Ireland.
Clearly we should be doing this and addressing these types of problems. I know we have done much to address the issues of disability and that much funds go into the areas of health, housing, education and transport but we have an opportunity now, as the country recovers and we have a capital plan, to ensure that we plan for the needs of those with disabilities in order that they can live to their full potential. That is what any person wants and any parent wants for their child, namely, that they can reach their full potential. Clearly, we have done this man some considerable disservice, and there are many more like him. We need to take action and to carefully plan for the requirements of our people.
Senator Conway spoke about our population growing older and people developing disabilities. We need to plan in our community for those who would want to downsize and live in a space with a level floor area with lift access or in a bungalow and still remain within their communities among their friends. The statistics show that one's mental health and well-being are far more influenced not so much by family support by a good social support as in a circle of good social contacts. That is critically important.
We do not want people to be housed in a different area as was proposed for a gentleman from Rush many years ago. His wife had died and he was reluctant to go into a nursing home. Eventually he was persuaded to go into one and was delighted to hear we had a place for him but we then found out that this man who lived in Rush was to get a nursing home bed in Portlaoise. That is to send someone to die and wither on the vine.
Therefore, let us plan. The Minister of State's heart is in the right place on this. I know he will take this opportunity fully on board. Let us plan in a way that does right by all our people and not only some of them, and that can give us all that richness and fullness of life that being a community delivers for us.
We do not accept the claims made in the Government's motion and its record on provision for those with disabilities, but we are happy to support the measures the Government proposes to take, which are outlined in the latter half of the motion, along with Senator Dolan's amendments. As we all know, people who have disabilities face discrimination in terms of housing, transport and many other areas. While proposals on guidelines are welcome, the introduction of legislation is far more important because guidelines are often ignored.
It is only when something affects this House that action happens. It was only when we had a Member of the Seanad, who was one of the first Members of these Houses to be in a wheelchair, that it became apparent how inaccessible the Houses of the Oireachtas were, but that was only because he was a Member of the Oireachtas. For decades prior to that members of the community who were disabled and used wheelchairs who tried to access their Parliament could not gain entry to it. They could not access their own Parliament. That was rectified because it affected a Member of this House.
It was only when a matter affected this Parliament that the rules were changed to address the issue of the inaccessibility to it experienced by members of the deaf community. Again, that was only because it affected the running of this House. When a debate took place on the issue of the deaf community and having sign language interpreters in the Dáil Chamber, it became a showdown between the Houses of the Oireachtas and the way they did their business and members of the deaf community who wanted to understand what was going on in their Parliament and could not do so because no interpreters were available. Again, that change happened only because of the interaction with this Parliament, but for decades prior to that people who had to access Government, private sector services and other services were faced with an immovable object. Guidelines will not move the Government to act, unfortunately, only legislation will do that.
While the plans and the strategies regarding street furniture are welcome and even if the laws that are in place were enforced in that respect, the fact is that people can get licences from Departments and local authorities to put in place impediments to members of the blind community who might be using wheelchairs to get around. The Government is trying to take money at one end of the spectrum and at the other end of it is seeking to enforce the law to protect people's rights in terms of their ability to get around.
We would like consideration to be given to the various proposals that have come forward from the National Council for the Blind of Ireland and the Disability Federation of Ireland on the issue of its members navigating their way around and the necessity for change. Ms Elaine Hoey, the director of policy and advocacy for the NCBI said:
Our aim is to raise public awareness of the impact that obstacles on our footpaths have on the everyday lives of people [whose sight loss is a factor in their ability to move around]. We are asking the public to come along with us on this campaign and join the movement to ensure that people with sight loss can move around freely and independently.
We can only support that, but a campaign is only as good as the sustainability of the campaign. We have that with respect to so many other issues. Making people aware of the impact is fine on an individual issue by issue basis for the people who take it on board. However, it is only when a proposal becomes a law that has to be enforced that it will make a sustained, long-term difference. It should not be up to the NCBI or any other organisation to keep campaigning for people to be able to navigate their way around their own country.
Mr. Joe McPhillips who lost his sight at the age of 33 as a result of diabetic retinopathy said:
I know people mean well but they have to be aware that sometimes their actions can make life hell for people with sight loss. Parking on footpaths is a practice that has to be stamped out. People need to have consideration and realise that while they may be able to get around with no bother, those of us with sight loss are experiencing huge difficulties as a result of their actions.
No guidelines or policy are necessary, the law is there and it needs to be enforced. All the existing legislation must be examined and we must see the enforcement of it and how many convictions there are for parking on footpaths. The Garda has enough to be doing. The planning requirements for street bollards would prevent it rather than the Garda having to do it. Putting such a provision in guidelines is simply not good enough because their enforcement and being required to be part of a planning application is at the discretion of individual planners. Perhaps that is something that could be examined.
If Senator Dolan introduces legislation to improve accessibility we will all support it, but it is my belief that legislation must be enforced and I worry when people talk about having more guidelines. We would not be happy with that but we are happy to support the amendment Senator Dolan has tabled.
I thank Senator Conway for introducing tonight's motion. I know people living with disabilities, especially with blindness. Senator Conway referred to street furniture that is in the way. A number of people who live in my area have guide dogs and an amount of investment and training is put into the training of guide dogs. I understand the process takes three to four years. The motion is to be commended.
A number of people who live up the road from me have disabilities. In the past people with disabilities lived in one unit and it is very welcome that all housing developments are more or less mixed in terms of people with disabilities and able-bodied people. When the new houses opened up the road from me about two weeks ago I noticed there were a number of units with people with disability. One young man who is in a wheelchair flies up and down the street.
While local authorities are doing a lot to make the streets and street corners more accessible for people with a disability such as blindness I would like the work to progress at a quicker pace. The Minister of State, Deputy English, has been very progressive in terms of giving grants and funding to local authorities for such work to happen but it would be great to see local authorities proceed with the work at a faster pace.
People with disabilities can teach one an awful lot. One group that works with Enable Ireland holds poetry readings on a Thursday morning and I have been along to their events. People with all sorts of disabilities participate. Friendships have been created as a result.
The report highlights such issues as the placing of street furniture. People sometimes do not stop to think about where they place it and the fact that somebody who is blind might come along. Unless a blind person has a stick, he or she could fall over it. Shops that put signs outside their door should also be more proactive in that regard.
Reference has been made to disabled car parking spaces. Illegal parking in such spaces is something I have seen many times. The fine should be greater than it is as it is terrible. There are not many disabled car parking spaces but they are there for a reason. It is difficult to qualify for a disabled parking permit and people do not get it easily. Those who have the permits definitely need them and it is soul destroying for them to come along and find the space is gone and that an able-bodied person has parked in the space. That is something that happens all over the country. It is not just in any one place. Shopping centres also designate car parking spaces for the disabled but people abuse that system as well because the spaces are usually nearer the front door. I would like to see the fine being increased for illegal parking that affects the disabled.
I would also like to see more emphasis and funding for Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind. The organisation provides most of its own funding. I would like us to fund such necessary bodies in terms of investing in the future, for example, in guide dogs and their training because it is a costly business.
A friend of mine has a sight disability. She suffered a number of strokes in her eye and her eyesight began to deteriorate. She has young children. She went to the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, NCBI. The level of services she received from the NCBI has been second to none and I compliment the NCBI. She has even been given something for her laptop to increase the size of the font. She had double vision at one stage and she had coloured vision and many other problems but she can now use her computer. She also got a gadget to boost her television. The level of support being provided to her is tremendous. Many of us who are able bodied do not realise the level of support that is available for people with disabilities. That is something that needs to be highlighted.
I lend my support to the motion, which is a very necessary one. We should all be conscious of the fact that people can have all sorts of disabilities. An awareness campaign for all disabilities might be useful.
This motion is great in principle. Listening to the experience of those living with disabilities in Ireland has increased our knowledge. I have recently been doing extensive work on well-being spaces in conjunction with the University of Limerick, TCD and UCD. The research is telling us that when a space is inclusive of all, it benefits everybody and not just those living with a disability. The intention is to create positive spaces and disability proof communities. We have been ably helped by disability activists who have done the guerrilla campaign work involving putting stickers around the city last September with the logo, "Hey, this Block my Way" and pointing out the dangers of obstruction of public spaces. The Make Way day was another such initiative and it is planned to make it an annual event.
However, I am a bit confused as to why Fine Gael has tabled this motion as it does not call for anything that is not already supposedly being done. It would have been better to use the time to introduce legislation to deal with elements of disability rights in housing. I do not understand the impetus behind what can sometimes feel like a self-congratulatory debate about progress on true equality, which in reality has been slow and scant. For example, Inclusion Ireland said of budget 2018 that it did "little to drive the much needed reform of disability services, or to deliver key measures to make positive change in lives of persons with disabilities." I do not see the need for the motion at this time and I fail to see how it does anything more than pay lip-service to existing strategies.What does it add to it? How can we have any confidence when implementation of so many of the plans included in the strategy is already behind time?
The period covered by the national housing strategy for people with a disability was extended from 2016 to 2020. Why is there a difference between what is included in the strategy and the motion?
There are housing and disability steering groups in each city and county council area to facilitate integrated and timely responses to meeting the housing needs of people with disabilities. Perhaps the Government needs to have more faith in these groups.
The motion states the Government has made significant advances since coming into the office in promoting equality among all citizens, including people with a disability. I can think of a few advances, but I am not sure they are very significant. Perhaps this might be explained.
The motion notes the commitment to ratifying by March the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This involves the stroke of a pen but, as with all things, it is what will follow that really counts. I refer to the implementation and tweaking required in order that we can live up to the standards set out in the convention.
The motion recognises the significant contributions made by the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, since he took office in advancing workable solutions on issues that affect the daily lives of people with a disability. I like the Minister of State and believe he is a very affable chap, but I am not sure the use of his name in a Private Members' motion is good.
Will Fine Gael Senators include transport accessibility in their sentiments? I certainly do not believe it is included. Senators James Reilly and Martin Conway alluded to the need for it. Earlier in the month the transport committee heard about the disgraceful treatment of people with disabilities by public transport providers. Bray-based Paralympian and broadcaster Padraic Moran recalled a trip he had made to Greystones. The DART on which he was travelling had to get out of the way because the train to Rosslare was coming, meaning that the door started to close. He had to stick his leg out the door to keep it open. He said it took the driver five minutes to come and check why the doors were not closing. He ended up with an injured ankle, but, for him, it was better than ending up on a siding at a DART station. The panic buttons at the station had been disarmed.
Bus Éireann claims that, by its own admission, 74% of its buses are wheelchair-accessible. Each wheelchair-accessible coach has one wheelchair space, which must be booked 48 hours in advance using the reservation system. Therefore, there can be no last-minute trips and no trips with more than one person in a wheelchair. There are many stories in that regard. Contributions have been made towards achieving social equality to include those with disabilities, but I question whether they were significant.
Last year I participated in a walk-around with a group in Crumlin, Dublin 12, in the constituency of Dublin South-Central. The proportion of those with disabilities in that constituency is a few per cent above the average. The walk-around included people in wheelchairs and people with mobility trolleys and prams. Also participating was an individual with impaired sight. This individual came away with scratches all over his face, having stumbled several times. I left with my back almost broken from trying to push a wheelchair out of gullies. We lost the individual with the mobility scooter because he had to travel to a location several streets away to find dips to go over. I understand the infrastructure is slowly being addressed. The walk-around really indicated to me, as an able-bodied person, what it was like for a person with a disability to go to a shop or gain access to any service.
I asked Dublin City Council about sandwich boards. There are so many of them and probably only one has a licence in the entire city of Dublin. They present a significant difficulty for people, especially those with sight or mobility issues. This is a policing matter. It is a question of whether the council has the facilities to address it. We need to think differently to tackle it.
I am happy to support the amendments tabled by my colleagues Senators Frances Black and John Dolan. Their language strengthens the motion. There is nothing wrong with the sentiments expressed in the motion, as tabled, but I just wish it went further. I wish it addressed the issue of housing adaptation grants. There is a backlog of several years, in addition to serious under-funding. This needs to be addressed also.
I move amendment No. 1:
In the fifth paragraph, to insert the following after "Irish State":"by March 2018.- notes that ratification requires progressive implementation of the Convention;
- notes, in particular but not exclusively, increasing levels of poverty and social housing need, unacceptable levels of ongoing unemployment and persistent non-availability of 'accessible' public transport services;."
I am very happy that the amendments are not being contested and that they are understood in the context and spirit in which they have been tabled.
I have a couple of points to make based on my having listened to the Minister of State and the various Senators who spoke. What we call obstacles are not just obstacles; they present a real danger. This point has just been made by Senator Máire Devine.
It is right that a Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is present. Reference was made to the convention. It is fine, but it is a matter for every Department. We need and hope for work in this House that will bring in the "slew" of Ministers on the issues that relate to them. We should get them to think, in particular, about the issues that cut across Departments. In that regard, mention was made of transport. Doing what I propose is the way to move things on.
People do not live in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government or the Department of Education and Skills; they live in a local authority area. This is so precious to them because it is through this and the facilities in the locality that they are given an opportunity to live their lives and gain access to education, housing and health services. The services are all mediated through the space in which people live. It dictates the extent to which they can participate.
Senator James Reilly talked about a particular man. I might know him. If I do not, I know half a dozen like him in Fingal. There are 1,200 young people under the age of 65 years in nursing homes. Nobody could have described this scenario more eloquently than Senator James Reilly.
With regard to other entities, in March 2017 the Garda commenced an initiative in Dublin called Operation Enable. It noted specifically who should and should not have been parking in parking bays. It found that a number of people were fraudulently using disability cards and also discovered various other such practices. The initiative has now been commenced in Cork. We must consider the role of other bodies. If local authorities are making spaces available, the Garda has a role to play. Senator Mark Daly made a point about enforcement. These are important considerations.
Senator Mark Daly also talked about how this House had been made accessible. I was here the night a former Taoiseach, the late Albert Reynolds, announced his 11 appointees to the Seanad, one of whom was a man from Cork in a wheelchair, Mr. Brian Crowley. A man close to me at home who worked for one of the newspapers asked me who the appointee was and I actually did not know him. We were here with the chairman of the Irish Wheelchair Association, Mr. Frank Mulcahy, from Cork - God rest him. To get in, we had to lift him up the steps and take him down around the corridors. Those steps have now been removed. That is how it was.
Perhaps someone might help me on the question of people parking in spaces in which they are not entitled to park their cars. Their excuse is always that they are parking for only two minutes. They are never doing so for only one minute or three minutes. They always say, "I am only going in for two minutes."Someone will have to come up with a good comedy act to raise awareness about it.
A number of Senators, including Senator Devine, talked about the Make Way day and that kind of work. I have tried to honour some of the points that have been made and I thank Senator Kelleher for seconding the motion.
We have finally arrived at the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is important to put it in context. It is a moment of hope and advancement but also one where we could take the wrong road. It would be a mistake to think the work has been done. I know well from my travels that people in Ireland are better placed and supported than in many parts of the world. By ratifying the convention, we are saying this is not our yardstick. We should never say in public that people are better off here than they would be somewhere else. It is a fact but as a State, we now committed internationally and we have given our bond to the UN and the nations that are part of it that we are setting out to put things right for people who are disabled. We are saying the same thing to people with disabilities and their families. We gave our word to the international community in March 2007 in signing the convention that we would begin the journey. The progressive implementation journey begins when in the next few weeks Ireland deposits the documentation for ratification with the UN. We are beginning the work with our sleeves rolled up. All Departments and civil society groups are getting stuck into it. That is our word to the international community and to our own people with disabilities. We are getting on with the job.
I will talk about the currency of keeping one's word. It is a debased currency if one does not keep it. As a small, democratic state, our word is a critical element of our domestic and international credibility. We do not have big armies or big guns and we cannot face people down. Our word has to be honest and people have to believe it. It is like taking one currency but not another from a person because one does not believe it is worth anything. The United States knew years before the fall of Saigon that it could not win the war and yet it continued to allow young American lives to be lost. Countless others also died. That happened because it had given its word to its allies that it would stand by them to the end and it was important for its credibility as a State to do that. It would not break its word. Ireland has given its word. That is the context in which we have to look at all of this.
I welcome the work Senator Martin Conway has put into the motion. I welcome Senators using their Private Members' time to focus on disability inclusion. My amendments are in the spirit of strengthening the motion. I have drawn attention, as has the Minister of State, to some of the broader serious issues which are not contested. Reference was made to NCBI and the Disability Federation of Ireland and I thank people for that. The Make Way day campaign involved many organisations, many people with disabilities and others. The action the motion calls for from the Minister of State would give further support to these initiatives which involve people with disabilities and a range of impairments.
I do not regard awareness-raising and attitude change as unimportant. They are important and along with two other elements they make up a trio of important factors. Another factor is legislation that needs to be put in place and legislation yet to be enacted. The third aspect is funding, including existing funding. Things can and should be done differently.
There is a need for awareness-raising with the public and businesses. Equally, a change of attitude is required across our public services to create an approach of dealing in the problem and not adding to it. We should be including people with disabilities in every part of the work of the Department.
Time is passing so I will leave it at that. I am very thankful to the Minister of State for being here again. In the context of implementation, we will get a number of different Departments to come in over time to deal with their various issues.
I thank the Minister of State. I am glad to hear he will be coming back to talk about housing and disability again because I will not speak about it tonight. I am particularly concerned about our very slow progress in allowing people to move out of congregated settings as a result of the shortage of housing. We have extended the deadline to 2020 but that has to be the outer limited of any extension.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to speak to the motion tabled by Senator Martin Conway and other Fine Gael Senators and amended by Senator Dolan. I am co-convenor of the all-party Oireachtas group on dementia. Senator Devine is also a very active member. Dementia is a recognised disability and is a serious issue in Ireland today for many people. In Ireland, there are 55,000 people with dementia. According to the HSE Understand Together information campaign, 4,000 a year and 11 people a day develop dementia. People with dementia, like people with any other disability, require a wide range of community supports to help them live well with their condition. However, we are all well aware of the substantial gaps in community supports for people with disabilities, including people with dementia.
The State needs to do more to adequately provide the range of supports for people with dementia in every community. It is in a great position to encourage leadership in the development of dementia-friendly communities across Ireland. What is a dementia-friendly community? According to the Alzheimer’s Society UK, a dementia-friendly community is defined as being a city, town or village where people with dementia are understood, respected and supported and where they can be confident they can contribute to community life. This definition is important. As for any other person with a physical or mental disability, people with dementia, as citizens like the rest of us, should feel included and involved and not excluded or forgotten. Dementia-friendly communities give people with dementia choice and control over their day-to-day lives. There are a small number of examples of dementia-friendly communities in Ireland. These communities undertook to build awareness and to reimagine the way we design our physical environments with people with dementia in mind. In Wicklow, the community focused on making all local services dementia-aware. In Donegal, helpline volunteers identified loneliness and isolation among people with dementia in a very rural county and developed befriending and home visiting. In Mallow, the primary health care centre had a signage campaign called The Crystal Project. In Ballina and Killaloe, town-wide signage projects made the two towns more dementia-friendly. These projects and others show what communities can do when they think of the community from the perspective of the person with dementia. Small changes to the physical environment can make a big difference to people with dementia. These are some good examples of successful dementia-friendly communities that we can learn from. The Government has made a start. Last year the Department of Health announced a programme to establish dementia-friendly community groups in each of the nine community health care organisations, with funding of €10,000 for each community health care organisation. The Department of Health dementia-friendly communities project is very welcome. It could go further and have national reach if the Department of Health and the Minister of State's Department worked together, which is the collaboration the Minister of State spoke about in his statement.
By enlisting and directing every local authority to take the lead in making their local authority area dementia-friendly, the Government could be even more ambitious. Enlisting and encouraging local authorities would mean that dementia-friendly communities would reach people living with dementia in all the towns, villages and townlands across Ireland. A small fund for local authorities to support this initiative would incentivise local authorities to get started.
It does not involve massive steps. The Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland has a great toolkit that is very simple to follow. It includes things such as a chain of transport for people who can no longer drive. If one has been an active member of a GAA club for years, for example, and suddenly, as a result of a diagnosis of dementia, can no longer drive to a meeting or a match, there is a chain of volunteers to bring people. It means people can stay connected, involved and active. It helps people to stay well and avoids the over-reliance on nursing home care, which is not always what people want and is very costly for the State.The Government can lead the way in making our communities and societies friendlier for people with disabilities, including those with dementia. It can draw inspiration from the active communities I mentioned in Wicklow, Clare, Cork and Donegal. Senators and Deputies could also take up a leadership role in making their communities and constituencies more dementia friendly. I call on the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to pave the way and show leadership in making Ireland and all of our communities more accessible and friendlier for people with dementia.
If a community is good for a person with dementia, it will be very good for everybody, as Senator Devine said, and will help with de-congregation. It is one thing to give a person a house, but if he or she is isolated in it and cannot leave it is a prison of another sort. Will the Minister of State consider requiring every local authority to take the lead in making communities dementia friendly and develop a small grant programme for local authorities to support that? Will he work with organisations like the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland to make dementia friendly communities the norm and not the exception? I hope he will consider my proposals.
I thank the Minister for dealing with this matter and my colleague, Senator Martin Conway, for bringing forward the motion. I also commend Senators Dolan and Kelleher for coming forward with their views on this matter and all of those who have contributed to the debate.
I want to focus on one matter, namely local authorities and the role of disability officers. I have raised this issue on a number of occasions, but I am no further down the road in terms of knowing what their role is. Every local authority seems to have a different interpretation of the role of a disability officer. I wrote to a number of councillors in different local authority areas, requesting them to do some research for me. Each one came back with a different view. When I asked one local authority what work the disability officer had done in the previous 12 months, I was told there were two items with a total expenditure of €8,000.
I subsequently contacted the National Disability Authority to inquire as to whether it would formally write to local authorities to set out the role of disability officers quite clearly. My view is that their role is to assist anyone and everyone with a disability. That may include accessing public buildings, streetscapes or local authority housing. Some local authorities had the view that a disability officer should have no hand, act or part in housing for people with disabilities. I disagree with that view.
At the time, a local authority I was dealing with had an eight year waiting list for house adaptations. In fairness, within 18 months of my raising the issue sufficient funding was provided to make sure the backlog was dealt with. One family had a child who they had to lift out of bed every morning. They had to wash and tube feed her. I heard about the family in March 2014. They showed me a letter they had received dated July 2008, but no work had been carried out in the interim. I filed a complaint with the Ombudsman on behalf of the family and the work was carried out. An extension was added to the house and all of the necessary backup support required was secured. The public health nurse and many others were involved in trying to get the local authority moving, but nothing worked. As a result of the intervention of a number of people, the necessary work was carried out and funding was provided for adaptation work.
The Department needs to clarify the role of disability officers in local authorities. It would be helpful if a circular was issued to all local authorities and local authority management setting out the role of the disability officer and targets for house adaptations, planning of new estates and making sure there is adequate provision for people with disabilities. They can play a crucial role in local authorities. Some local authorities have very good and proactive disability officers.
During the downturn people who were already carrying out three or four other roles were assigned the role of disability officer. The guidelines on what those people should or should not do were pushed down the list. We now need to plan for this issue. People are living longer, which is a significant improvement, and many backup support services are available. It is important that we have long-term planning.
I recently visited a woman who is 96 years of age and lives on her own even though she is confined to a wheelchair. She is able to live on her own because has adequate support. We will have to deal with such cases from now on and we need to plan for that. When we are planning new housing estates we must not forget that people are downsizing. We must make sure there is adequate housing. That is why planning is important. Building 100 houses which are aimed at a certain population is fine, but we should also make sure that a certain percentage are aimed towards people with disabilities. Even if they are not bought by people with disabilities, they could be used by them in the future. As people get older, some will require additional support. Why not put that in place now rather than having to carry out major work in order to ensure a house can be used by a person who is in a wheelchair or has a disability?
If I get nothing from this debate but a circular to all local authorities about the role of the disability officer and local authority targets for that area I will have achieved something. I again thank the Minister of State and all of those involved in various Departments who have been proactive in this area. We have done some work, but there is a lot more to do and we all have a contribution to make to achieve that.
I agree with previous speakers. In some ways this can be an emotional issue for the families of people with disabilities. I recently saw a woman circle a car park for half an hour because one of the two of the wheelchair parking bays had been taken up by a car without a disability permit. We need to make people aware that they cannot use wheelchair parking bays unless they have a disability. I am sure there was a reason someone parked in the space and I did not question it at the time. It is important that there are enough wheelchair parking bays.
We need to examine ways to improve the streetscapes in our towns and villages, including footpaths. I sat on the board of a Carlow wheelchair group for ten years and saw the issues it addressed, which ranged from footpaths to hotels which they could not access for a Christmas party because they were not suitable for people with wheelchairs. They also dealt with taxis. Not every taxi is wheelchair compliant. In a small county or town, one is lucky if one taxi is wheelchair accessible. I cannot blame taxi drivers for that because it is an expense for them, but this is a major issue for people with disabilities and those who use wheelchairs.
The biggest issue is the campaign to raise awareness among people. Having a family member or knowing someone with a disability opens ones eyes. Some years ago in Carlow people got into wheelchairs and travelled around the town. Access to certain areas was not feasible for people in wheelchairs. The same applies to all towns.
There are no grants for housing or other grants available for people with disabilities. Most local authorities do not have a person dealing with that issue. Occupational therapists visit people's homes.Normally, occupational therapists in most local authorities are in private practice and work part time for the council.
The housing adaptation grant for the elderly and persons with disabilities is small and needs to be addressed. There needs to be a total special grants scheme for people with disabilities and the elderly. It must be remembered people are now living longer after having a stroke or with dementia. Applying for a grant for an access ramp or replacing windows and doors is a long process. The Minister of State needs to talk with local authorities to get a system in place where more housing adaptation funding is available for people with disabilities.
The Minister of State has told the housing committee how the Government is getting local authorities to buy back houses. While I welcome this, more bungalows need to be bought for people with disabilities or elderly people with dementia or recovering from a stroke. In the past, local authority houses were built with a kitchen and sitting room downstairs and three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. A significant issue now is that people need a bathroom downstairs due to old age or simple convenience. That in itself is taking up many grants. Will the Minister of State put a scheme together for people with disabilities? People in wheelchairs need to be able to access more buildings. It is about everybody working together. People are living longer and we want to ensure we give people, particularly those with disabilities, a good quality of life.
I thank my colleague, Senator Martin Conway, for tabling this motion. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, for attending the debate. He is a regular visitor to the House.
Up to €1.8 billion goes into services for people with disabilities. However, there is probably a need for due diligence, a NCT check so to speak, on how particular programmes are working. I did a survey in 2007 in Limerick city with a lady in a wheelchair on the accessibility of ATMs in all city centre banks. At that stage, there were 17 ATMs around the city's banks but that has been reduced significantly as many shops have them now. She was a determined lady and came to me about the project herself. Accordingly, we spent the bones of three to four days checking how the height of the machines impacted her life. We found that she could not reach the height of the majority of ATMs. What struck me was this was a basic oversight and there were practical measures to fix this.
Senator Martin Conway referred to considering ways to improve streetscapes in towns and villages for people with disabilities. The building regulations ensure new builds must consider people with disabilities. A good idea, however, would be to bring people with disabilities to the project to see if the improvements work. At times, it may come down to the individual engineer in charge of the project and their views. Can one imagine the amount of money spent trying to correct cock-ups when a building does not meet regulations, however?
The sign language Bill brought in by Senator Mark Daly, and supported by the Government, was a real breakthrough moment. People caring for a family member with a disability are so wrecked by the daily drudgery of caring that they do not have the time to campaign. That is often overlooked. Take, for example, an elderly couple in their 70s with a disabled son or daughter. Their main concern is how their son or daughter will be looked after when they are gone. They are just weary and we must ensure they are brought into every area of the process.
I agree with Senator Martin Conway's suggestion that the Oireachtas housing and local government committee should set aside time to examine if the various proposals around disability, such as planning regulations and employment targets, are actually working. The Minister of State stated in his speech that people with a disability are only half as likely to be in employment as others of working age. We must find out why. The process for applying for the partial capacity benefit is cumbersome. Is it working? Take the situation of an old business premises in which the cost to make it disabled friendly would be significant. Should we be looking to give such businesses some form of a grant?
There is a Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities at Cabinet. In time, I would like that to evolve into a full Ministry. That is the path we should be taking. We need to look all aspects of society. The local authorities and public bodies in Limerick are good at employing people with disabilities. However, it is often asked why those who care for people with disabilities are not demonstrating and holding placards. It is because they are so busy looking after their family member with a disability that they are fatigued and do not have the time. They are just trying to get by.
Up to €1.8 billion goes into services for people with disabilities. There has never been more funding before. Is it enough? Probably not, but we are looking to increase it every year. Disability should have cross-party support and should not be a political issue. It is human rights issue and the UN Convention is coming through. Senator Colm Burke's point about writing to all the local authority disability officers is a good proposal. I hope what will come out of this is that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government will set aside time to examine where employment for people with disabilities in public bodies and utilities stands. Are there elements which need to be improved and which elements are working? There should be a proper due diligence around this area. That would involve a cross-party approach, coming out with constructive proposals to advance the rights of people with disabilities. It is not straightforward because ultimately, if one is not disabled, one cannot comprehend how difficult it is for a person with a disability to get around.
I am delighted to have contributed to this debate. It is a matter on which I have had a lifelong interest. It has to be progressed in a practical way.
It has been an extremely useful debate. I am glad we were all in a position to accept the amendments. They were tabled in a collaborative spirit, a point for which the Seanad has become renowned in many ways.We have many disagreements and different approaches in how we go about our business but, when it comes to certain fundamental rights, the end result is what we all want and we are all in unison on it.
This has been an extremely interesting debate. It is always a good debate when an hour or two is set aside to discuss issues dealing with disability. It did not happen for many years. When I was first elected to the House in 2011, discussions on the issue of disability were about cuts to respite care and various allowances, cuts to section 39 organisations and cuts to funding here, there and everywhere. It was very negative. We have now entered a positive space, however, and it is a positive space with a purpose. I believe that we are on the eve of the ratification of the convention which is, as Senator Dolan rightly said, a watershed moment. At least it should be a watershed moment. I always adopt the glass half full approach in life and I like to think that the glass is half full and there is a trickle that will fill it in its entirety. I sincerely hope that will happen.
Senator Kieran O'Donnell and Senator Colm Burke made extremely interesting points. I have come across the issue of disability access officers myself. Approximately three or four years ago, we did a survey and it took some local authorities a significant length of time to reply stating who was their disability access officer. This demonstrates how little known the role was, and protocols and guidelines on their function and purpose would be no harm. Perhaps the National Disability Authority would assist in putting such guidelines together through its good offices.
It was remiss of me not to mention Senator Mark Daly and the Irish Sign Language Act that was passed by both Houses late last year and signed into law by President Michael D. Higgins on Christmas Eve. It was the best Christmas present the deaf community in Ireland has received in many years, but it should not have been a present because it is a right. The Bill was initiated and debated in this House and it happened as a result of the work done in this House.
I commend the Minister of State, Deputy English, on increasing the funding available for disability housing grants, whether it is the grant available to elderly people or the modification grants. When someone gets older, they find their mobility may be compromised but they do not need the financial pressure of having to renovate a room or build a downstairs bathroom. The scheme has put thousands of bedrooms and bathrooms downstairs in homes and has assisted many people, which is to be commended.
Overall it has been an interesting and informative engagement. I find that we always learn something new when we have these discussions because colleagues are out and about, engaging with citizens, the electorate and the public, and it is when we are engaging with the public that we get the best ideas and suggestions. If we did not engage, we might not even spot the most obvious problems and may not be able to articulate a sensible solution. When I am knocking on doors in County Clare, which I do every week, I get the most common-sense suggestions on approaches to resolving problems. I also get the most mad suggestions, but one takes the good with the bad.
This has been a worthwhile debate and I thank everyone who contributed. I am delighted that the motion with the helpful amendments will be passed tonight.