Wednesday, 17 October 2018
Services for People with Disabilities
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, who is a regular visitor to this House who sometimes brings good news. He might be aware that last Thursday was World Sight Day, a day on which an opportunity is taken to highlight issues relating to sight loss and the various complex challenges people with sight loss face. There are 40,000 people on waiting lists for ophthalmology procedures, which is a very high figure. I know it will not be dealt with overnight but, hopefully, we will see a downward trajectory in due course to help those who get into the system and who engage.More often than not, unfortunately, they get bad news. Sometimes it is children and sometimes adults. There must be mechanisms to assist them. The child of a lady from Mayo, Ms Natalie Cramp, was six months old when irregular movement was spotted when looking into the child's eyes, something that was done on a regular basis. An appointment was eventually secured with a consultant who advised that child had a condition called nystagmus. As it happens, that is one of my own conditions. It took three years from that point for the family to be connected with the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, NCBI. That is the organisation which provides practical support for people with sight loss, puts programmes in place to advise them and connects them to low vision aids, low vision supports and peer counselling. That is particularly important for parents who discover their children have visual impairments. It can be traumatic. There is, however, a whole suite of supports available to assist people to come to terms with sight loss and to deal with the challenges.
The issue I have is that it took nearly three years for somebody in the medical profession to connect Ms Cramp to the NGO that could give much support. That would not happen in the United Kingdom. There are what are known as sight loss clinics in the UK in all the major hospital groups. Over the last couple of years, NCBI has endeavoured to have a sight loss adviser appointed to most of the hospital groups in this country to engage with parents who get devastating news. They will also engage with adults who are told they are going blind or are losing their sight in a way that is going to have a life-lasting effect. If there is an adviser, at least people can get supports quickly. They can be equipped to come to terms, as best they can, with the new reality of their lives.
Some of the hospital groups in this country are very proactive in doing that but some are not. It should be compulsory that there is a sight loss adviser in all the hospital groups. I was very tempted to table an amendment to the Children's Health Bill 2018 to ensure it was enshrined in legislation that a sight loss adviser would be appointed to the national children's hospital when it is eventually built. I hope that will not be necessary and that it would happen as a matter of form. The quicker people get interventions, the faster and easier they can adapt their lives to dealing with their new reality. I often say we should get our eyes checked on a regular basis because the faster a deterioration is identified, and the quicker supports and interventions put in place, the better chance there is of eyesight being retained.
That extends to a situation where a person finds he or she has lost his or her sight. In order for his or her quality of life to be maintained as best it possibly can be - and it can be because there are plenty of supports - the sooner interventions happen from a mental health perspective and from a practical perspective, the better. That is especially the case with young children. The quicker they get supports such as low vision aids and the faster they connect with the various suites of supports that exist, the better the chance they have of adapting to the reality they face for the rest of their lives. I sincerely hope the Government will see the logic of what I consider a practical step to connect the NGO structures and the various other structures when it comes to visually-impaired teaching services, etc. I await the reply of the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly.
I thank Senator Conway for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to provide an update to the House. This Government is committed to delivering disability services that are person-centred and putting those who need supports at the centre of our focus. We want to empower people to live independent lives by improving access to the services they require. The 2016 census figures indicate 54,810 people, or 1.2% of the population, have a sight-related disability. This represents a 6% increase since 2011. These people have the right to the same access to healthcare services as everyone else.
In 2015, the Health Service Executive published "Guidelines on accessible health and social services". The guidelines were developed by the HSE in consultation with the National Disability Authority to give practical guidance to all health and social care staff about how they can provide accessible services to all. The key message in these guidelines is ask, listen, learn, plan and do. Communication with patients is key to being able to plan appropriate supports to improve accessibility. From access to buildings to managing appointments and communicating clearly with patients, the HSE is committed to ensuring that access to services is a priority.
Within acute hospitals and across the hospital groups, access officers support staff in dealing with matters where additional support or guidance is needed. Where gaps exist, access officers are working to address systematically the gaps and ensure future services and facilities comply with national guidelines, standards and legislation. The quality improvement division within the HSE is working in partnership with patients and families to improve the quality and safety of care for patients. The National Council for the Blind of Ireland has also developed specific information resources for healthcare professionals working closely with the HSE to provide input and invaluable advice.
I thank the Minister of State for the update on what is probably a new way of thinking. I hope it will evolve in a positive way. All the chief executive officers of the hospital groups in this country have a duty to sign up to what is being proposed. It is modest. I know the NCBI certainly provides supports, both human and financial, in this scenario. This, however, is something to which we will come back. It is also something I will be monitoring closely because I really believe in the concept of early interventions right across the board. I know the Minister of State does as well because we regularly speak about the importance of early interventions. I refer to when there is a deterioration in somebody's health, in whatever shape or form it happens. Society needs to click in, help and support. The Minister of State's answer is in that vein and that is the type of policy we need to look at moving forward. We have to take a holistic approach. If a person finds that he or she has a disability, then we must have a holistic approach as to how we can ensure his or her ability rises to the top and he or she can overcome his or her disability. I thank the Minister of State.
I thank Senator Conway. The point he is making is very welcome and he is a strong ambassador in the area of sight challenges. On the point about early intervention, the key is awareness and people having conversations about it. I particularly welcome, therefore, the opportunities Senator Conway has in this House to raise awareness and to champion these issues. Starting that conversation and encouraging it is leading to much more awareness. Many more people are having that conversation and, ultimately, that leads to people taking up the invitation and the challenge from Senator Conway to have eye examinations as often as possible. By being proactive and having a healthy eye check, people are able to avail of earlier intervention. I thank Senator Conway again for his contribution to this issue and his continued good work on it. I wish him continued success in highlighting it.