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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 18 May 1993

Vol. 430 No. 8

Adjournment Debate. - County Kerry Speech Therapy Services.

At the outset I would like to thank you very much, Sir, indeed for giving me the opportunity to raise this very important matter. The recruitment of additional speech therapists in County Kerry is now absolutely essential and Southern Health Board members and officials accept this. The present position is critical. At present there are only three speech and language therapists appointed by the Southern Health Board in County Kerry and estimates are that at least 13 would be required if a reasonable level of service is to be provided. The sanction of additional posts is currently awaited.

The average waiting time at the moment for a child awaiting speech therapy in County Kerry is in excess of two years. When one considers that early intervention in a disorder of this kind is absolutely crucial if a child is to be able to communicate properly in later life, two years is much too long. I am seeking an increase in the number of speech and language therapists in the county. I would seek as well the establishment of a special language unit and the appointment of special resource teachers for children with language difficulties who are receiving mainstream education.

Bad and all as the situation is for children in mainstream education, the position in relation to moderately handicapped children attending the Nano Nagle School for the moderately mentally handicapped in Listowel, County Kerry, is absolutely scandalous. Children attending special schools or special classes are generally not considered for therapy by the board's speech therapists. A large part of the curriculum in this school centres on the development of self-care skills, the enhancement of physical appearance and overall general presentation, all with the ultimate aim of having the child assimilated and accepted as much as possible into the local community. Obviously, acceptance very much depends on ability to communicate, and children with communication difficulties are very much at a disadvantage. In this particular school the scandalous situation exists that 42 children have been assessed as being in extremely urgent need of therapy and another 20 are in urgent but not very urgent need, but the position as of now is that they receive no therapy whatsoever. That needs to be remedied without delay.

I have received representations from parents about this. Some of them have informed me that they have children who are moderately mentally handicapped and who have not received therapy for in excess of nine years. This in turn leads to tremendous anger and frustration in the child, leading to temper tantrums and making it extremely difficult for parents to cope. It all comes back to the essential ingredient, that is, the necessity for an individual to be able to communicate. It is terrible that when a child is unable to communicate and these situations develop, the powers that be do not take the necessary action to resolve the matter.

I am calling upon the Minister to make additional speech therapists available in the county so that children in mainstream education can get a proper opportunity in life and those in the school I have mentioned can get what is their right. It would be a humanitarian gesture if the Minister were to accede to my request tonight and I strongly urge her to do so. The situation as I have outlined it merits a favourable reply. The present situation cannot be allowed to continue. If it does, hundreds of children who would otherwise have perfect communication skills will be damaged for life. I do not think that would be the wish of the Minister. In those circumstances I strongly urge that my request be considered favourably.

The Minister for Health has asked me to reply on his behalf. I am aware that there are wide variations in the availability of speech therapy services in different parts of the country. The Southern Health Board employs 11 speech therapists, three in County Kerry, one principal and two basic grades. The board recently made an application to the Department of Health for the appointment of six additional speech therapists and this is being examined in the context of other applications for staff improvements in the board's area.

One of the reasons for the inadequacy of speech therapy services is the lack of adequate numbers of trained speech therapists. The Department of Health has taken steps to remedy this by arranging for six extra training places to be provided at the School of Clinical Speech and Language Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, commencing in the current academic year. The total student body will increase in phases from 80 students this year to 104 students in 1995-96. I am confident that the increased level of graduate output resulting from this important development will, in the medium to long term, ease difficulties in the area of speech and language therapy.

I would also like to point out that officials of the Department of Health have had discussions with the Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists and have provided assistance towards the preparation by the association of a review document of speech and language services throughout the country. This document is currently being finalised by the association and I hope it will be of assistance to the Minister and the Department in bringing about further improvements in the service.

The Minister for Health recently announced that he is making available £1.5 million this year for improvement in services for people with physical and sensory disabilities. The Department of Health will be having consultations with health boards and other agencies and it is the intention of the Minister that a proportion of this will be devoted to improving and expanding community based therapy services, including speech therapy.