The Disability Federation of Ireland has been running a campaign called Disable Inequality prior to and during the general election campaign, asking voters to vote to end discrimination for people living with disability. You might wonder in what ways are people living with disabilities facing discrimination. Take a quick look at the stories that the Disable Inequality campaign are sharing and you’ll see.
I do not have a disability but am the very proud mother of a feisty and fabulous daughter who has physical and intellectual disabilities. If you have children, ask yourself will your child/ren be helped and enabled to achieve their full potential? Children with disabilities are frequently told no they can’t take a certain subject for Junior or Leaving cert because the extra supports they need are not in place. Does that sound fair to you? Children with disabilities (who are still growing) are all too often left months, even years, with too small or inadequate equipment, or face long waits to have physiotherapy or occupational therapy. Does that sound fair to you?
Some children with special needs have to attend special school (like our daughter does) as their local school cannot provide the assistance and supports they need to achieve their full potential. That means they don’t get to go to school with their siblings and neighbours. Does that sound fair to you? In our case, our daughter’s school is 26 miles away. That is a round trip of 52 miles each day. 5 days a week. That is 260 miles she travels each week just to attend school. She has been doing this since she was five years old. Does that sound fair to you?
If children were facing these issues around equipment, therapies, appointments, schools because of their ethnicity or religion there would (hopefully) be an uproar. Yet when it comes to our children with disabilities we are told its all due to budgetary cutbacks and to staff shortages and to ‘the system’. If you get the opportunity to talk to a candidate in the next two weeks, ask them what they and their party if they have one are going to do to end this discrimination. Or contact them and ask. During the marriage referendum campaign last year I recall seeing a poster that said ‘Let’s treat everyone equally’. I hope I live to see the day when that really happens.
When it became apparent that our little girl would not be able to attend mainstream school owing to the level of her disabilities, we adjusted our ideas and hopes for her and began to explore what options were open to us. In our county, there are two special schools, one of which caters for her level of disability. It is an excellent school and she is very happy and settled there. There are some things that I hadn’t really thought about prior to her starting school that you miss out on when your child attends special school. Some are small, but not insignificant, others are quite big.
1. School gate chats and getting to know other parents. Our daughter’s school is 26 miles from home. She, like most of the other children who attend the school, is driven in by bus. That obviously takes a great strain off parents but it also means you miss out on the informal chats and networks that often develop amongst parents. Our school has a good Parents’ Association, but again the distance can make it hard for people to attend meetings.
2. Usually you have no choice about which school your child attends. Now I know that many parents around the country whose children attend mainstream school have very few – if any – options. But when your child has to attend special school, it feels like the idea of even HAVING options goes completely out of the window. Parents of children in mainstream schools may wish their child to attend a certain school for religious reasons, or they want education through the medium of Irish, or they want a school in a particular geographical area, or one with smaller classes. Whichever of these reasons is paramount to them (and of course many parents are perfectly happy with their local national school, which is great), at least they have options they can investigate. That option is not open to parents whose children have to attend special school. As I said our county has two special schools, but only one caters for children with our girlie’s level of disability. So that was our only ‘option’.
3. Your child may well have a lot of travelling to get to and from school. In our case, as I said above, the school is 26 miles from home. That means she leaves home at 8am and is back around 3.30pm. That is quite a long day for a small child, and she was only just over 6 when she started there.
4. The thing of not getting to mix regularly with other parents means that you don’t get to know the parents of your child’s classmates. So organising to meet up outside of school – which can be a great social thing for both parents and children – is often non existent. And inviting your child’s classmates to a birthday party? How, when you don’t even know their parents?
5. It takes your child away from their home community. That means that other children of her age in our town don’t know her and she doesn’t know them. That means no playdates (much harder with a child with special needs, I know), no involvement in our local school which is a big part of any community.
Please don’t misunderstand me, we are very happy with our school, our daughter is very settled there and has made fantastic progress since she started. I hope this post doesn’t come across as a ‘poor me’ post, its not meant to. Its just that there is so much that we all expect to experience as part of parenthood, that for those of us whose children attend special school, we can never have.
Its a lovely sunny day here in Oldcastle. Its warm and there are fluffy white clouds in the sky, the birdies are singing and all seems at peace. Except its not. In an hour’s time I will be collecting my daughter from her school bus 13 miles away. Normally we’d then head straight back home for the evening. But today we will be driving to Mullingar to assemble for a protest at 5pm. Its not my idea of fun on what promises to be a lovely summer’s evening, marching in a protest – another protest – with my daughter in her wheelchair, but once again we have to. This is the third summer in a row we’ve gone marching and protesting. And I wouldn’t mind that too much (have always fancied myself as a bit of a rebel) but we are marching over the same issue – the right of children with special educational needs to receive full support in their educational career.
Yesterday Ruairi Quinn, Minister for Education, announced he had reversed a decision to cut resource teaching hours to children with special educational needs by 10%. When making that announcement, Minister Quinn said he regretted if the parents of these children had gone through anguish as a result of the announcement of the cuts which had been made last week.
A few people have said to me yesterday and today that we should be delighted at the reversal of these cuts. And don’t get me wrong, I am. But there is so much more that we are still fighting for – or against. Here is just a quick list:
* There is still a cap on Special Needs Assistants despite a bigger demand.
* The 15% reduction in resource hours in school has not been reversed.
* HSE recruitment embargo means waiting lists are getting longer and several children are not accessing the clinical supports they need.
* Children with Down Syndrome are not automatically getting resource hours in school.
* Siblings with autism have to share a tutor and now receive half the tuition they were originally granted during the month of July.
* Children with Down Syndrome, Fragile X and other neurodevelopmental disorders are not entitled to July provision.
Add to that battles that I am hearing of on a daily basis from other parents such as the HSE not sanctioning wheelchairs for growing children due to lack of money, problems with school transport to the only schools suitable to meet a child’s needs, horrendous waiting lists for occupational therapy and speech & language therapy owing to the HSE embargo on recruitment and to hear a senior Government minister regret any ‘anguish’ caused by cruel and savage cuts and you might understand why it makes me fume.
Anguish, Minister Quinn? You don’t know the bloody half of it.
I read in this morning’s Irish Times that the Dept of Education is proposing to increase class sizes: School class sizes set to increase So they are planning to have more children in each class, both at primary and second level. The population of the Republic of Ireland has increased by 341, 421 in the last five years (source: CSO ) and as Sean Flynn points out in his opinion piece in today’s paper, Ireland’s primary school class sizes are already among the most overcrowded in the EU: Quinn faces reality check in education reform drive. We have all seen primary schools with a number of temporary classrooms (or portacabins if you want to be blunt) in use in order to accommodate increasing numbers of pupils. So our population is on the increase and our school buildings already cannot cope physically, yet our Dept. of Education is going to create larger classes.
Hmmm. Can’t see how that is going to work. It is widely accepted that smaller class sizes leads to better quality of education for children. Certainly a teacher can give more attention to each child if s/he is teaching a class of 20 rather than one of 25, or 30. And that is before you consider the issue of children with special educational needs. There have already been protests and campaiging (some of which you can read about in previous posts on this very blog) on the issue of cuts to SNA positions and in resource hours. Children with special needs – of whatever kind they may be – have a right to receive an education. Many children with special needs are now educated in mainstream schools, and that is a good thing. But only if they get the extra help they need. So how will that happen if there are going to be more children in the class, and less help for those children. The answer is very simple: it won’t happen. Children with special needs will not receive the extra help they need. How can they when their SNA is gone and the teacher has more children in the class?
Ireland, as you may have heard, is not in the best of health economically. All government departments are being forced to make savings and Ruairi Quinn, the Minister for Education, has said that he will deliver on the required cuts. I don’t envy him his task. As he rightly pointed out at last week’s MacGill summer school, education’s share of national funds has actually contracted in recent years. Fifteen years ago 19% of the exchequer’s gross expenditure went on education. It currently accounts for 16%. Yet our population is increasing. I wholeheartedly back Minister Quinn in his call for a national debate on the importance of and priority we give to education but I don’t believe enforcing cuts and changes that are only going to negatively impact on the education of a generation of Ireland’s children is the first step.
Wednesday 13th July, Oldcastle, Co. Meath. A beautiful warm sunny morning, just as it should be for the middle of July. July. My daughter’s birth month and she has just turned 4. Another milestone that a few years ago we didn’t know if we would ever see. I load Fionnuala and her heavy special needs buggy into my little car and head for Mullingar. Our ultimate destination is Dublin as we are taking part in a protest against the cuts in special needs education. It might seem odd to travel from the Meath-Cavan border to Dublin via Mullingar but we’re going by train and Mullingar is our nearest station. It takes about 40 minutes to get there. We take the Castlepollard road out of Oldcastle, bypassing Fore and its seven wonders. There’s nothing worth listening to on the radio so I check the CD player – first CD up is Horslips ‘Treasury’. The first track that comes on is ‘Furniture’, I haven’t listened to this in a while and I’m humming along when they launch into the chorus from ‘Oró Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile’ and I feel the spirit of Gráinne Mhaol surging through me, putting me into fighting mode. Fionnuala is clapping her hands and singing away in her car seat, oblivious to her mother communing with long-dead Irish women. Skip through a track or two and next up is ‘Dearg Doom’ – this was the first Horslips song I ever heard – and now the spirit of Queen Meabh is right up there with Gráinne Mhaol. The blood is pumping, the adrenalin is rushing, I feel like I can take on the world and win!! And we’ve only been on the road for half an hour…
Eventually I calm down somewhat, get us to the train and safely to Dublin. After a lovely lunch we stroll casually down to Kildare Street. The protest – organised by the Special Needs Parents Association amongst others – is due to start at 3pm. I figure we’ll be there by about 2.40 so at least there will be a few people ready by 3pm. We turn into Molesworth Street and are enjoying the (rare) sunshine when it hits me like a thunderbolt. There are tons of people outside the Dáil. Parents, children, teachers, SNAs, buggies and wheelchairs of all shapes and sizes. There must be a few hundred people there already! I am both amazed and delighted. Many of us have been trying to encourage people who don’t have or know a child with special needs to join us for this protest. I manage to locate some good friends and Fionnuala and I take our places just outside the gates to Leinster House. More and more people arrive, the Gardaí close off the lower half of Molesworth Street and still the people keep coming. We are asked to move over from Kildare Street to Molesworth Street for the rally and by now it is a pretty impressive sight. (The press has varying numbers the next day but I believe there was approx 1000 people there). TD’s are arriving out of Leinster House, members of the Technical Group of Independent TD’s, members of Sinn Féin, I think I see a couple of Labour TD’s. No Fianna Fáilers or Fine Gaelers. Or not that I could see anyway. The vibe is good natured, people are angry at the cuts to SNA positions, but its a positive kind of anger. Plus there are a lot of children present and we want to keep this a family-friendly protest.
The speeches begin and they are all received positively. Finian McGrath TD spoke very well saying that if people were not for children with special needs then they were against them. The crowd are in total agreement with him. Lorraine Dempsey from the Special Needs Parents Association speaks just prior to a meeting with Minister Cannon and other government TD’s. Shane Ross, Mick Wallace, Catherine Murphy, other TD’s too many to list here, teachers, SNAs, a gutsy young boy with autism and his mum, loads of people speak and the crowd applaud. Its a sunny day, we’re all too hot, the children are getting bored but at least we feel like we’re getting the chance to have our say.
Clare Daly TD opens up the stage for anyone who wants to address the crowd (thinning out a little bit now, its after 5pm). And with my ego to the fore, I decide to go up. I’ve no real idea what I’m going to say but what the hell, I’ll just keep my little daughter’s face in my mind’s eye and something will come to me. There are two speakers before me and then its my turn. Momentarily I panic. I introduce myself to the crowd and then it hits me what I want to say…..
“I don’t want to be here today.” Not the usual opening line to address a rally with I grant you but I elaborate on my theme and speak for a few minutes. I get lots of applause and two TD’s tell me I spoke well. I get back to my daughter and friends to lots of hugs and congratulations. Phew, maybe I didn’t make a class eejit of myself! My dear friend Aisling then speaks very movingly and passionately about her son Jack and their fight for Jack to have the education he is entitled to. Eventually the rally is over and a group of us retire to Buswells to relax, cool down, collect our thoughts and celebrate. After all, its not every day we campaign outside the Dáil and address a rally. We are all thrilled at the turnout and we’re on a high.
After an hour or so Fionnuala and I head back to Connolly station to start our journey home. Its been a long day and we are both tired. We finally get back just before 9 having left home at 10 that morning. She goes straight to sleep and I fill my husband in on the day’s events while we wait for the 9pm news. Yay! We got some coverage and another good friend of ours is interviewed with her children. Then we hear that the Govt motion to maintain the cuts already announced in SNA positions has been won in the Dáil by 103 votes to 47 and the high that I’ve been on all day starts to fade. I knew there was virtually no chance of the motion by the technical group (to reverse the cuts) winning but there’s always a glimmer of hope. I spend the next hour or so chatting with friends online talking over the day, swapping news and photos. And so to bed.
But the next morning I feel terrible. Awful. Exhausted. Worn out, weary, tired tired tired of having to fight. And sick to my stomach at the way our children are being treated. And I’m not the only one. Facebook is full of mums and dads who feel the exact same way I do. And that brings me back to my speech at the rally. None of us WANTED to be there last Wednesday. Its not easy taking a child with special needs to the Dáil, having to manoeuvre buggies or wheelchairs, cater for a child who might be peg fed or who might have a trach tube in place. Or who has autism and doesn’t cope well with crowds. Or who has seizures. Or who is simply unable to understand why we are there and why she has to sit in her buggy for Mum for over two long hours, pacified only with white chocolate buttons. But we did it. Parents and supporters from all over the country came, from Donegal, Meath, Kildare, Wexford, Wicklow, Louth, Kilkenny, Cork, Galway…. and that’s only the ones I know about. I’m sure pretty much every one of the counties in this State was represented in the crowd last Wednesday.
We did it because we have to fight for our children to receive the education that they are entitled to. We did it because we want our children to be as independent as possible and to enjoy life as much as possible. We came in our hundreds on one of the hottest days of the year to stand outside our national parliament and say to the politicians and to the people of this country “We are here. Our children are here. They are citizens of this country too and they have the right to an education. Listen to us. Support us. Reverse these cuts.”
But so far they haven’t. Parents all over the country are still anxiously waiting to hear if their child will have an SNA in September. And the new school year is only a few weeks away…. Other parents that I know have already learned that their child will have reduced SNA hours or none at all. Yet these children’s needs have not changed. I mentioned my friend Aisling and her son Jack earlier. Jack has Down’s Syndrome and CINCA Syndrome. He has high care needs and is classed at severe to profound level of disability. He has a place in a special school for September but so far his mother has been told he will only be able to attend for one hour each day because of the SNA situation. How in the 21st century can this be considered acceptable? Jack has as much right to an education as any other child. I could cite numerous other cases all of which illustrate just how badly our children are being let down by the Irish State.
We all know the country is in a dire financial mess. We are all “taking the hit” and “sharing the pain”. But why are children with special needs being targeted? They are part of this country’s future too. I know I’m not going to get answers to these questions here. I know that the Government will not give me a straight answer. But we live – allegedly – in a democracy and so we will use all the tools available to us to have our voices, and more importantly those of our children, heard.
I didn’t want to be at the Dáil last week. None of us did. But we went and we’ll be there again and again and again as long as we have to. Cuts to special needs education affect every school and potentially every child in the country. Will you join us next time?