Seanad debates

Tuesday, 1 March 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Equipment

2:30 pm

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. I speak on behalf of concerned and frustrated parents who have contacted me over the last months. They have struggled to access the assistive technology that their occupational therapists have absolutely, unequivocally confirmed was needed for their children. I have no doubt that that is reflected around the country.

Assistive technology is not a luxury. It is a necessity for those who need it. Ireland prides itself on having a world-class education system that is inclusive, free at the point of use, open to everyone and supportive of everyone. As the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on education in the Seanad, I am proud that our party introduced free education. Education is still something that our party is passionate about.

I have always been a passionate advocate for inclusive education. I fundamentally believe that all children should be able to receive a high quality education within their own communities and areas. If we truly want an education system that works and caters for all, then we need to ensure that we advocate for all. In the modern world, a child's access to educational supports such as assistive technology is vital. We cannot allow bureaucracy to hinder it.

I have been in contact with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and her office for some time about a child who is local to me. Roadblocks to accessing assistive technology have been put in his way. This child has had two professional assessment reports from an occupational therapist and an educational psychologist, both of which supported and confirmed his need to be supplied with assistive technology. The Department is now, for some reason, requesting a third evaluation. It will take time and more money. The child's parents have already paid for one, with the school paying for the first evaluation. The family and the school have already paid privately for assessments to this point. There is a clear need, based on these reports, for additional supports. This is completely unfair and unacceptable. I requested that the Minister's office intervene, which has not happened.

I spoke to the principal of this child's school, who is most concerned for the child. The principal also feels that it is essential that appropriate supports be put in place well before this child faces into second level. The child is not engaging in classes. He says he feels stupid. He is being bullied by his peers. This is down to a lack of adequate supports, which have been clearly identified in the assessments to date. Something must be done to ensure that every child is supported and afforded the quality education to which they are entitled.

I was contacted by another parent who was given the run-around by the Department when she sought to access assistive technology. She first applied when her daughter was diagnosed with dyspraxia hypermobility in 2018. She was in sixth class then and was told to reapply to have this set up for first year. She was then told to reapply the following year and nothing happened. In the second year, they applied again and were told by the Department that the grant had been posted to the school. No cheque ever arrived. They chased this all last year. Recently, they had to apply again for a third time. Their daughter was approved by the Department but nothing happened. When the parent contacted me, I again tried to advocate on her behalf with the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, but did not get anything. It was only when I got a colleague in the Dáil to table a parliamentary question that the Department finally moved on this.This is totally unacceptable. Is there an issue with the administration of assistive technology within the Department? Have appropriate resources been assigned to ensure that children who need services can access them? Will the Department conduct a review of the process to ensure that children are not left behind without vital educational supports?

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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At the outset, I would like to convey the requests from the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, who are unavoidably unable to get to this session for reasons beyond their control. They have asked me to cover in their place.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising such an important issue on behalf of her constituents. She has advocated their case quite articulately. Enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education is a priority for the Government. This year, the Department will spend in excess of €2 billion, or over 25% of the Department's budget, on providing a wide range of schemes and supports for children with special educational needs.

As part of these supports, the Department operates an assistive technology scheme. This allows schools to buy specialist equipment for pupils in primary and post-primary settings who have a degree of physical or communicative disability and need an individualised technological approach to assist them in accessing the curriculum. The type of equipment provided under the scheme is varied and includes audiological supports for students with hearing impairments, Braille equipment for children with visual impairments and computer equipment with associated modified software for students with physical or severe communicative disabilities.

There has been a significant increase in the demand for assistive technology in 2021 over previous years, which has resulted in the number of applications rising by 32% to nearly 6,500 in a year. All completed applications for 2021 have been fully processed. In line with our increasing investment in special education, the spend for assistive technology has increased by 47% to almost €3 million in 2021.

In regard to the application process, the National Council for Special Education, through its network of local special education needs organisers, SENOs, is responsible for processing applications for schools for special educational needs support, including applications for assistive technologies. SENOs make applications to the Department where assistive technology is required, operating within departmental Circular 10/2013.

The increase in the number of applications received by the Department looks set to continue in 2022, with over 1,200 applications received since January. Of these, all applications for audiology supports for children with hearing impairments and equipment to assist children with visual impairments are fully up to date, while there are about 190 ongoing applications for post-primary laptop supports. The Department is very conscious of the need to process applications in as timely a manner as possible.

A review of the assistive technology scheme and circular has begun this year and a working group has been established to progress this. The review will also include a review of the overall assistive technology application process. If the Senator wants to communicate the details of her constituents to me directly, I will ensure they are conveyed directly to the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. I also agree that she should not have to ask a colleague to ask a parliamentary question to elicit some action in terms of a response.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I acknowledge the significant spending by the Department of Education on special needs, and that is very much to be welcomed. I am still very concerned about the reply the Minister of State has given because while he talked about the rise in applications in 2021, both situations I have spoken about have been going on for years, one since 2018. Every year the pupil is told to reapply. In the first case I spoke about, the child concerned is going through a third examination. At this stage, the assistive technology would have been paid for. The family has already paid for an assessment.

While I welcome the fact that there is a review and that a working group has been established to progress it, the young man I am talking about is one of the 190 ongoing applications and it is vital that he gets the necessary supports. I accept the Minister of State has said that if I give him the details he will pass them to both the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. I hope he has more luck than I did. I have spoken to both of them one to one, sent emails and spoken with their secretaries and I have not had any success with this. I certainly hope the Minister of State fares better.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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To conclude, I can only reiterate to the Senator what I said in my opening remarks. The position is far from acceptable. The Senator has said that in the case of at least one of her constituents, the application has been ongoing since 2018, which is entirely unacceptable. A person is entitled to have an application considered in a timely fashion. Seeking a third assessment seems quite excessive and dragging out an application for that length of time, when the person in question needs the support of assistive technology, does not seem right. As I said, I will endeavour to take this up directly with both the Minister and Minister of State if the Senator gives me those details.