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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 1 May 1997

Vol. 478 No. 6

Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities: Statements.

The Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities will be the cornerstone of future Government policy in the area of disability. Never again will any policy-maker believe it is possible to see disability as a problem that can be dealt with by kindness or charity. Never again will any policy-maker be able to see disability as a medical problem to be dealt with in hospitals and institutions. Never again will any policy-maker be able to treat disability as a minority issue or as a nuisance.

The commission was required, among its tasks, to examine the current situation of people with a disability and the organisation and adequacy of existing services, both public and voluntary, to meet their needs; to advise the Government on practical measures necessary to ensure people with a disability can exercise their rights to participate, to the fullest extent of their potential, in economic, social and cultural life; and to make recommendations setting out necessary changes in legislation, policies, organisation, practices and structures to ensure the needs of people with disabilities are met in a cohesive, comprehensive and cost effective way.

The report deals comprehensively with the position of people with disabilities in Irish society. It examines a wide range of issues which impact on their lives and makes a total of 402 recommendations aimed at improving the position of people with disabilities, their families and carers in society.

The report is in essence an equality strategy which will, if implemented, set about removing the barriers which stand in the way of people with disabilities who want to live full and fulfilled lives. This equality strategy involves legislative solutions, proposals for new policy initiatives and new structures for the delivery of quality services within a framework of rights, not of charity. The report has developed a model of service which places the user of the service at the centre of the process of service delivery, from the planning stage right through to implementation.

The report has a number of great strengths. First, it represents and brings into sharp focus the views of people with disabilities. In the past there had been reports about disability, but the real experts — people with disabilities, their families and carers — had not been consulted or involved. When I established the commission, I decided a clear majority of its members should be people with disabilities or their families. Therefore, it was predominantly drawn from people with direct experience of the way in which disability can impact on a life or on a family.

One of the first decisions the commission made was to engage in an extensive consultative process with people with disabilities, their families and carers. A key part of this process was in the 30 listening meetings held throughout the country, where the views of people with disabilities, their parents and carers and other interested parties were carefully recorded. An invitation to present submissions constituted a second element of the consultative process. In response some 600 written submissions were received. The consultations produced an outpouring of anger, not, let me hasten to add, at the commission but at a society that excludes people with disabilities from almost every aspect of economic, social, political and cultural life. People with disabilities told how they are frustrated, marginalised and denied much of the access and opportunity that people without disabilities take for granted. They suffer from fragmented services, exclusion from planning, lack of basic information and above all, from misunderstanding.

The commission brought together its submissions in two volumes. One volume outlines the main concerns expressed about policy and service delivery; the second volume documents the life experiences of people with disabilities, their parents and carers who chose to tell their stories to the commission in the hope of securing change. Those two documents constitute a very powerful account of the changes required in society if people with disabilities are to move in from the margins.

A second great strength of the report lies in the decision made by the commission members at a very early stage, where effectively they decided that if people with a disability are equal citizens of Ireland, then they are equal with each other too. It would have been very easy for the commission to approach its work on a factionalised basis, with members lobbying for the disability they knew best. Instead, they have learned and worked together, ensuring that parity of esteem across the range of disabilities is one of the key features of the report. The third great strength of the report lies in the united and totally coherent approach of its members. Many of the 402 recommendations are radical and far-reaching, many of them call for a fundamental shake-up of important institutions, some of them are controversial, but there is no dissenting voice, no minority report. The civil servants, the Departments of State, the agencies, service providers and people with disabilities all speak with one voice here.

These three great strengths make this report unique and historic. It means that for the first time, people with a disability are speaking with one loud, clear and insistent voice which is saying that the bottom line is that disability is, fundamentally and above all, an issue of rights. People with a disability have a right, an entitlement, to live full and independent lives to the maximum of their own individual potential. After all, that is no more and no less than the basic right any citizen would rightfully demand.

The clear difference between this and previous reports is in the insight that disability is a social issue, not a medical one. People with a disability are not sick or unhealthy. If a building refuses to admit a person in a wheelchair, that is the fault of the building, not of the person. If a person who is blind cannot pursue a third level course in literature, that is the fault of the system, not of the person.

Until we come to a full realisation of the social nature of disability, we will continue to treat people with disabilities as people who have a medical problem. They do not, however. Where disability is concerned, the right to a full and independent life is constantly interfered with by barriers society creates: barriers of ignorance and prejudice; barriers of cost; barriers of structure and inadequate service delivery.

The challenge this report puts in front of us all is to begin the task of tearing down those barriers. The report tells us that the time has come, if it is not long overdue, to move to a view of disability that is based on rights, not charity.

The commission's report deals comprehensively with the issues facing people with disabilities. One of the single largest areas of concern raised with the commission was the question of access and transport. The report states:

Clearly the built environment and most forms of transport are inaccessible for people with disabilities... these problems are not just mechanical ones but ones that have several important consequences. They mean that people are denied full access to education, employment and training, to cultural and leisure events.

The commission also found another major failing to be the lack of information available to people with disabilities and their carers, and the difficulty in obtaining access to entitlements and services. The absence of easily accessible information is clearly a major factor in the isolation and marginalisation experienced by so very many people with disabilities, and their families and carers.

The report found serious concern among the submissions regarding education. A failure to provide comprehensive education for people with disabilities results in their being denied access to employment and training opportunities comparable to those available to people without disabilities. Other areas which attracted a large number of comments in the submissions included employment and training, income support, health and personal support.

Another theme to emerge from the consultations was that of marginalisation. This word took on a stark reality from the hundreds of pages sent to the commission from people with disabilities and their families. Many people with disabilities felt they were being either kept at, or pushed to, the margins of society and were not being allowed to realise their potential or to participate as fully as they are entitled to in every day life.

The report also found that disability can have major implications, not only for individuals who are directly affected but also for those in the role of informal carers. The commission received 100 submissions from family members of people with disabilities. This material was full of strong feelings and emotions, and underlined the point that caring for people with disabilities can be an ongoing physical, mental and emotional strain accompanied by a terrible sense of isolation.

The issues I have mentioned already form the basis for the main elements of the recommendations put forward by the commission. These include:

(i) The introduction of further disabilities legislation to promote equality for people with disabilities in relation to services provided by public bodies, services provided by private bodies, employment and education.

(ii) The establishment of a National Disability Authority to monitor policy, standards and the implementation of the Commission's recommendations. The Commission holds the view that in order to achieve the primary aim of ensuring equality for all citizens, it is necessary to create an executive body to monitor the impact of public policy and services on people with a disability. Such a body should not only be in a position to monitor the system at local level but should have the power to intervene in particular cases in order to ensure equity.

(iii) The establishment of a Disability Support Service. The Commission found existing supports and services for people with disabilities to be poorly co-ordinated and people had great difficulty in obtaining information on entitlements and accessing these from the multiplicity of agencies involved. The Disability Support Service is the focal point of collection and distribution of information. The report envisages establishing a national network of disability resource centres which would be a single point of contact for information, advice, support and advocacy. Support co-ordinators would be trained to guide individuals or their families through the range of services they might need at different stages of their life.

(iv) The centring of responsibility for policy development in one Government Department. To change the lives of people with disabilities for the better requires a concerted and organised response from the whole administrative machinery of this State. The report recommends that the Department of Equality and Law Reform be given prime responsibility for the development, monitoring and implementation of policy for people with disabilities, and be given the necessary resources for its task. To do this to the maximum effect, the Commission recommended that a disability equality unit be established within my Department.

(v) The recognition that people with a disability have a right to income support and such support must recognise that it is expensive, in many cases, to have a disability. The report states research carried out by the ESRI shows that households headed by people who are unable to work due to illness or disability are one of the groups in society most likely to live in poverty and to experience basic deprivation. It calls for a payment to compensate for loss of income due to an incapacity for full time work — a disability pension — and for a graduated payment to meet the additional everyday cost associated with disability.

(vi) The report recommends that the universal right of access for all citizens becomes the overarching principle which guides all relevant legislation, policy and practice in Ireland. It is my view that a completely new approach to the whole issue of access is required in relation to buildings, accommodation, streets, shops, offices, beaches, playgrounds, cinemas and theatres, pubs and sports venues — in other words, all the places we lead our lives.

In tandem with the decision to publish the Commission's report, I secured Government approval for the establishment of an interdepartmental task force, chaired by my Department, to draw up a plan of action on the rights of people with disabilities based on the report. This task force has been operating since January of this year and is due to complete the plan of action around the middle of the year. The task force is also considering, in conjunction with the Commission's report, the report of the Review Group on Health and Social Services for people with disabilities.

The Government also authorised the establishment of a monitoring committee to oversee the implementation of the Commission's recommendations. I launched the monitoring committee, chaired by my Department, on 18 April. It comprises some former members of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, representatives of social partners, a nominee from the National Rehabilitation Board, the South-Eastern Health Board, the Disability Federation of Ireland, Departments and the newly established Irish Council of People with Disabilities. I considered it essential to establish this committee at an early stage. It would also be appropriate for it to provide advice and support to the interdepartmental task force.

One of the key recommendations in the Commission's report is the proposal to establish a permanent Council for the Status of People with Disabilities. In March, the interim council, now known as the Irish Council of People with Disabilities, was launched. There is a need for a permanent independent voice to constantly highlight issues of concern and to ensure that the rights of people with disabilities are never off the agenda.

I was anxious that the council should be established on the firmest footing. That is why, in addition to the £100,000 provided for it in the 1997 Estimates for my Department, I secured agreement from my colleague, the Minister for Finance, to provide a further £200,000 for the council in this year's budget. I have no doubt this sum will ensure the council is set up on a proper professional basis, which is important given the work it has to do.

Another initiative I have taken which promotes equal opportunities for people with disabilities is the establishment of pilot community projects. I have referred already to the listening exercises carried out by the Commission where one of the major problems identified was that of access to information. People expressed frustration about the availability of information. There was a distinct lack of information in appropriate formats and the absence of a single local centre where information needs could be satisfied with the minimum of hardship.

To address these problems, I have decided to set up a number of pilot community development projects aimed at people with disabilities. These projects are being undertaken in Counties Clare and Cork and in Tallaght and Clondalkin. My Department is making funding available for the recruitment of project workers and to meet associated costs. What I would like to see achieved is access at local level by people with disabilities to all information in appropriate formats on issues affecting their lives. I would also like to see if a way can be found to facilitate the active participation by people with disabilities in local area partnerships and other community fora, thus empowering them to influence the decision-making process and to play an active part in their communities.

During the recent Irish Presidency of the EU, I sought to ensure that agreement was reached on a detailed resolution by the European Union of the question of equal opportunities and elimination of discrimination for people with disabilities. It is a source of pride that such a resolution was passed last December.

On the domestic scene, the Equal Status Bill passed all Stages this week. This legislation will provide, for the first time, protection against discrimination outside the field of employment. It deals with discrimination on grounds of disability, among other categories. It is based on the principle that everyone has an equal right to participate in our society. People should not be denied access to services, facilities, or amenities just because of disability. Each person should be treated on his own merits and not on the basis of prejudice or stereotype. The Employment Equality Bill, currently before the Supreme Court, seeks to provide protection from discrimination in the workplace for people with disabilities.

We seek to change forever the negative perception of disability which has existed in the past in certain strata of Irish society. We have made significant progress in this area already. We have made more progress than at any previous time in the history of the State. I am determined to see this work continued to bring about a situation where society will recognise, as a matter of course, that disability issues are issues of mainstream political, social and economic rights. The Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities marks the first step towards the realisation of that aim.

In the course of their work, all Deputies come across examples of the barriers facing people with disabilities. The lack of appropriate day and residential care places, the inaccessibility of transport, housing and public buildings and the absence of educational choice are among the many issues about which people approach us. These contribute to the fact that people with disabilities from one of our most marginalised and excluded groups. The failure of public policy to properly address the needs and aspirations of people with disabilities and their families should concern us all.

Because of the range of areas involved, it is clear that a piecemeal approach to tackling disability does not and cannot work. Only a fully comprehensive agenda, touching all aspects of public life, can realistically hope to vindicate the rights of people with disabilities. Because we recognised this basic fact, Fianna Fáil supported the establishment of the Commission when in Government.

When the Commission published its report last November, we welcomed its work and recommendations. Through an active programme of consultations, the use of expert advice and the commitment of its members, the Commission's report represents a strategy for equality. The welcome it has received from groups representing all those concerned about disability is a testament to its success. We stand together with all other parties in the Dáil in congratulating the Commission on its work.

One of the most important points made by the Commission was the need for urgent action. However, it is six months since the report was officially published and today is the first opportunity we have had to discuss its recommendations and to make a contribution to directing its implementation. We first asked for a full debate before Christmas. Eventually one was agreed for March, but it was cancelled, rescheduled, cancelled and finally set for today. The short time allocated for this debate was only granted because of continuous pressure from the Fianna Fáil Chief Whip and the anger expressed by many disability organisations at the idea that this report would be left undebated before the election.

Instead of the nine or ten hours which are normally allocated to debates on important reports, we have less than half this time to discuss the 402 recommendations contained in one of the most important documents on social policy to come before us in many years. I suggest that the treatment which the report has received in this respect is part of an overall problem where the issuing of press releases seems more important than the substance of concrete action.

In the short time available to us we should concentrate on critically engaging the major issues with which the commission has dealt. We must recognise its radical agenda. After six months, we must forget about the recitation of lists of small-scale initiatives and recognise the simple fact that public policy on disability has failed in the past, is failing at present and will fail in the future unless there is a complete change in the way Government deals with disability issues. The reality of change must match the rhetoric of change.

Over the past two years, as my party's spokesperson on disability issues, I have dealt with issues of concern to every Department. This work has been directed by an ongoing dialogue with people with disabilities, carers, families and advocates. Since the publication of the commission's report, I have received many approaches concerning its recommendations and their treatment by Government. I would like to comment on all of the issues of concern to them, but I shall concentrate my remarks on a few specific areas and discuss how their treatment in official policy demonstrates the need for change. Crucially, I also suggest that the very structure of decision-making on disability issues must also be changed if the commission's objectives are to be realised.

Education is probably the area about which I am most often approached by disability organisations. They rightly see education as central to defining the opportunities available to people with disabilities and establishing their position in society. It is through education that our views of ourselves, our community and the wider world are formed and, in terms of disability, it is through education that we can be socialised in exclusion or inclusion. It is unfortunately the case that our education system has promoted exclusion and taught us to focus on difference and maintain an ignorance of each other's needs and aspirations. The challenge of radically altering the way in which we provide education opportunities for people with disabilities is the most important part of providing for the future of young people with disabilities in Ireland. The key must be educational choice, where parents are able to find a place for the specific needs of their child. Ranging from fully integrated mainstream schooling to properly resourced special schools, educational choice will help children with disabilities to develop their full potential. The existing proposals for designated schools run the risk of merely creating another tier of slightly less segregated schooling and undermining the concept that every school has the responsibility to cater for children with disabilities.

Many parents' groups have approached me about their concerns with these proposals. Designating schools will not provide the integrated setting which so many parents want for their child. It may actually stigmatise these schools in the eyes of the wider community so that other parents will send their children elsewhere. If designated schools continue to be the primary focus of the Department, it is clear that there will be no effort to make inclusion a reality.

This was recognised by the commission in its recommendation that there should be no further development in this area until there has been extensive research allied to an inclusive dialogue with parents. It is unfortunately the case that the Minister has, in reply to questions tabled by me, refused to commit herself to following this recommendation and has even declined to give specific details of her plans for designated schools. This attitude fits into a wider problem with the Department of Education, where it does not seem to be constructively engaging the concerns of the Commission. For example, the Department was not represented at the first meeting of the implementation task force. Action on even a simple recommendation, such as the appointment of support co-ordinators in third level institutions, will not be implemented until late 1998 at the earliest because of a refusal to deal with it now rather than waiting for the implementation report. A longer-term concern is the continued refusal of the Minister to address the recommendation of the SERC committee to re-establish the committee to direct deaf education.

The behaviour of the Department of Education during the O'Donoghue case is important in illustrating the need for reform. Even after the High Court had established the right of Paul O'Donoghue to an appropriate education, it was decided at the highest level to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. The uncertainty and pressure which this imposed on the O'Donoghue family was completely unacceptable. This happened after the commission had reported. Over £0.25 million was spent by the Government in pursuing this case, money which could have been used to commence implementing some of the commission's many recommendations on education.

There is a sense that what matter is a centrally determined policy, where the agenda is not set by constructive dialogue. If there is to be real action on this area, inclusion must be given real, rather than token, priority. I would suggest that the millions of pounds which are currently earmarked for the establishment of a new regional education bureaucracy would be better spent on implementing the commission's many valuable recommendations on education.

The need to reform and expand health services for people with disabilities should be obvious to everybody. There must be a move towards transparent and inclusive procedures which deliver accessible and appropriate health services throughout the country. The commission pointed to many of the necessary reforms and it has specifically supported the implementation without delay of the report of the Review Group on Physical and Sensory Disability Services. The review group's report has been referred to the same committee to which the report of the Commission was referred and I want to make some comments on it.

I have received many representations from organisations concerning the treatment of the review group's report. The review group was established five years ago and had substantially completed its work by late 1994. For some reason, the group held no further discussions for over a year until I raised the matter in this House. Subsequently, a continuous series of delays was put in the way of the group's completion of its report. It was suggested to me at that time that few administrative resources were available to the group because the Department was eager to put off having to make any funding commitments. Following a number of Adjournment debates on the matter, the report was finally published a few days before last Christmas.

The specific recommendations of the report concerning immediate needs for the next 12 months have already been ignored and the small funding which has been made available was provided only in light of the anger expressed after the budget announcements in January. One organisation wrote to me saying: "We are not only disappointed but deeply frustrated by the failure of the Minister for Health to make any meaningful comment regarding the implementation of the report or, for that matter, to make himself available to organisations and people with disability to discuss his plans for the future of services for people with disability." Another major national organisation wrote to me last week saying: "Our organisation, like many others, is concerned and angered by the fact that no provision was made in the budget for the implementation of the report's recommendations."

Deputies who met with the many demonstrators outside Leinster House yesterday will be aware of the scale of anger which exists about the ignoring of this report. This is a textbook example of the type of approach from which we need to move away if there is to be any radical action on tackling major disability issues.

The inflexibility of many health schemes and the way they promote dependency can be seen in the Department's attitude to supports such as the long-term illness scheme. This non-means tested support is not available to people with spinal injuries even though their impairment is exactly the same as another group which does qualify. This means that many are simply not able to risk taking up employment because of the loss of their health benefits. It is obvious that a more generous attitude to this group would both promote independence and save the Exchequer money. The conservative and closed minded attitude of the Department on qualification for the scheme must be reversed.

The need to tackle the outstanding backlog in the provision of day and residential care places is obvious to everyone. The "on one year, off the next" approach to this must be abandoned and a definite timetable must be put in place to end the waiting list.

Respite care provision should be a vitally important part of the services available to support people with disabilities and their families. Deputy Woods's initiative in establishing the respite care fund was a valuable beginning but little has been done to add to that initiative. The alterations to the administration of the scheme in 1995 made it more bureaucratic and less efficient. As the report published earlier this week shows, the absence of respite care facilities is a major contributor to the pressures faced by families with significant caring responsibilities.

Support of the idea of independent living is a central part of the recommendations of the commission and the review group. Independent living touches on most areas of policy, including housing, transport and the built environment. The need to develop a range of personal assistance services has been accepted by both bodies and by a special expert group which examined the area. Even though considerable commitment has been shown by voluntary organisations in working to develop these services, Departments have opted out of making any constructive contribution. There is no excuse which can justify this continued inactivity.

The levels of poverty faced by people with disabilities and their families was of particular concern to the commission. In its recommendations it made many points concerning changes that are required in income support policies. Perhaps the most important of these is the need to move towards a non-means tested allowance based on the costs of disability. The transfer of the principal welfare payment from the Department of Health to the Department of Social Welfare was a welcome initiative instigated by Deputy Woods. However, it should not have taken his successor a year and a half to implement this initiative and it should not have required repeated questions from Deputy Joe Walsh and myself to prompt the Minister to hold discussions with people with disabilities on the details of the transfer.

The failure of the Department of Social Welfare to send a representative to the first meeting of the implementation task force was regrettable. The Minister's recent statement during Question Time that we now have a comprehensive system of income support for people with disabilities represents the type of complacency that the commission is trying to challenge.

Overall, as I pointed out, the response of individual departments to the commission's report leaves much to be desired. There is a general air of complacency and Ministers are content to pat themselves on the back for small-scale changes and their self-perceptions are increasingly divorced from reality. Policy continues to be directed towards improvements which are sporadic and unco-ordinated. Rather than the radical approach which is needed, this policy continues to be essentially conservative and incremental.

The very structure of the way that Government tackles disability issues lies at the root of this problem. In the six months since the commission reported there is much to indicate that this lesson has not been learned. The Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Taylor, has demonstrated his personal commitment to promoting the interests of people with disability. However, it is clear that his Department is effectively sidelined and powerless when many of the most important decisions concerning disability are taken. I cannot imagine that he had anything to do with the decision to bring the O'Donoghue case to the Supreme Court. Similarly, I cannot believe that he was party to the last year's decision to vote against and delay my Disabled Voters' Bill in face of the support it received from disability organisations.

The failure of the budget to seriously address the commission's agenda is obvious to everyone. The £500,000 allocated in respect of Equality and Law Reform for implementation represented less than 33 per cent of the funding announced on the same day for the then unpublished sports strategy. It took a number of weeks before the Department of Health was able to say where its allocation was to be spent. It is clear that the Department was desperately trying to deal with the loud protests coming from disability organisations which were in shock following the budget.

In a reply to a question I tabled in January the Minister confirmed that he does not hold serious discussions with his colleagues on budget decisions relating to their areas. In effect, the Minister with principal responsibility for disability does not have a serious role in deciding funding for most areas of concern to people with disabilities. In another reply, he confirmed that no Minister or political adviser has contributed to the work of the implementation task force. In effect, six months after it was published, there has been no serious political consideration of an implementation agenda for the commission's report. If there is to be radical change, decisions must be taken at a political level. The monitoring committee, while important, does not change this basic fact. Similarly, without this change the extremely welcome establishment of the Council for People with Disabilities will simply mean that another body will become frustrated in its efforts to achieve advances for people with disabilities.

Both equality Bills represent important advances but they will achieve little without being accompanied by a comprehensive series of positive action measures across the full range of policy areas. These will fall to different Departments and, without changes, Equality and Law Reform will continue to be marginalised in important budgetary discussions. As a result, at least two significant changes are required if the implementation process is to deal quickly with the commission's recommendations. There is a need to appoint a Minister of State with specific responsibility for co-ordinating policy development in the key Departments of Education, Social Welfare and Health. The individual involved could also report to the Minister for Equality and Law Reform. There must be an ongoing interdepartmental committee to co-ordinate policy which operates at a political level. Only in this way will there be a realistic opportunity for disability to be placed firmly on the priority list of every Department.

The commission has done its work well, and taken with the report of the review group, the problems which need to be addressed are clear and the agenda for tackling them has been established. It is time that politicians made a proper contribution to the debate. The lessons we have learned have been uncomfortable. The very way in which we deal with disability has helped to promote dependency and to marginalise a vulnerable group. The lack of transparent, inclusive and appropriate services and procedures has been almost all-pervasive and has yet to be tackled in any meaningful way.

We can no longer be complacent or satisfied with what continues to be a focus on incremental, small-scale improvements that ignore fundamental failures. We must not be fooled into believing that any radical change has been completed. The disillusionment of so many individuals and organisations gives the lie to this. The commission's report challenges everyone, we should commit ourselves to breaking the mould and showing that we are serious and not only concerned with implementing occasional initiatives but with changing the very way we develop, implement and discuss disability. Unless we do this, the commission will not have received the response which it rightly deserves.

I wish to share the remainder of my time with Deputy de Valera.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank Deputy Wallace for sharing time and I congratulate her, as our party's spokesperson on disability, for the work she has carried out during the past two and a half years. I understand she has met all the major groups concerned which involved no less than 200 meetings in all. She produced, on the party's behalf, a useful document which sets the agenda on how the area of disability can be addressed. Fianna Fáil also introduced the first ever Disabled Voters' Bill which represents an acknowledgement of disabled people's rights.

One of the important issues under discussion involves trying to end the process of dependency. Above all, the disabled want their independence and it is up to Governments and Government Departments to facilitate them. To do so we must examine departmental functions to ascertain how best this objective can be permanently placed on their agendas. The basic principles that must inform this approach is that disability is a social issue which must be dealt with by co-ordinated action across all sectors, thus ensuring an end to marginalisation of disability as a simple health issue. Policy must promote individual empowerment by allowing each individual to achieve his or her potential and promote independence and choice. Services should be accessible, responsive and transparent in dealing with people with disabilities, their families and organisations. The right of people requiring significant care to appropriate services must be recognised and such services provided as a matter of urgency.

We spoke about the need for a change in attitude to the disable. The very fact of our having this discussion on the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities may well change society's view. I hope it will and that this report will not remain dormant on some departmental shelf, as so many others have done. I hope its very sensible, practical recommendations will be implemented in a co-operative manner by respective Departments as soon as practically possible.

The overall education of people with disabilities is another major consideration. As a former teacher and psychologist, I see this as an extremely important facet of any strategy to deal with the issues and difficulties encountered by them. We should work toward mainstream schooling which will require additional funding and commitment to provide the requisite number of resource teachers. In my constituency, resource teachers are urgently needed in our mainstream schools as are psychological services in all our primary and secondary schools.

Another issue that affects people with disabilities in my constituency is the lack of sheltered workshops. If we are to afford the disabled their right to work, we must make workplaces accessible.

There is also enormous need for residential care, particularly for disabled persons over the age of 16. The overall matter of respite care is another which must be given urgent consideration. I can speak with authority about my own constituency only, where constituents come to see me and discuss such issues, where the Brothers of Charity continue to do a tremendous amount of work but are hampered by lack of funding. There are many families and friends of the disabled who maintain that the type of facilities needed, particularly in sheltered workshops and residential care, are non-existent for those in greatest need.

We must also facilitate independent living for the disabled. Fianna Fáil, in Government, introduced the first ever funding for personal assistants and is committed to extending the availability of this service nationwide. The disabled people of Clare have referred on numerous occasions to the need for such a fund. My party certainly supports the principle of independent living. I hope the personal assistants service can be extended and the requisite funding forthcoming to fulfil our responsibility in that respect.

The matter of education in the arts and facilitation and encouragement among the disabled also needs to be addressed immediately. I hope the Arts Council will highlight the need and ensure that a much greater proportion of its funding will be allocated to art among the disabled. One cannot over-emphasise the need for training and employment of the disabled, more than 80 per cent of whom are unemployed. This takes me back to the need for sheltered employment and training places which should be properly funded to allow for increased pay for trainees and employees, to put such places on a sounder financial footing. In the Fianna Fáil document on the subject, my party has already committed itself to providing additional places to meet the current shortfall. The successful support employment scheme introduced by my party in 1994 will be extended and made permanent if we assume office in the next few weeks and employees' benefits will be protected.

We hear much about the importance of the Civil Service quota vis a vis the disabled which I hope will be extended to public sector employers as well. A great deal of consultation will be necessary for this purpose but it is not sufficient to adhere to the Civil Service quota within the overall public service. That shortfall must be recognised and recruitment extended because current trends are unsatisfactory.

The Fianna Fáil Party will also support open employment through assistance to workplace adaptations, the abolition of existing benefit traps, the extension of public education programmes and the enforcement of anti-discrimination legislation.

Our spokesperson, Deputy Mary Wallace, through her work in this area, has been able to highlight the immediate needs of the disabled. The Fianna Fáil Party, in Government, will do its utmost to address these issues immediately, to afford the disabled an opportunity to lead a full life in every sense of the word and be recognised, as is their right, as full citizens. That we are discussing their concerns today highlights the fact that every party in this House now recognises their importance, their many talents and society's concerns about them. As a people it is our obligation to ensure that we enable and empower the disabled to enjoy the same rights as all other citizens.

(Laoighis-Offaly): With the permission of the House, I should like to share my time with Deputy Pattison.

I am sure that is acceptable. Agreed.

(Laoighis-Offaly): I contribute to this debate with a certain reluctance. I would much prefer to hear Members — who might happen to suffer from significant disabilities — speak of their experiences at first hand and of how they foresee the recommendations in this report helping them to achieve greater rights within society. Indeed it is a sign of how unequal is access to our political system that there are not any Members who suffer from any disability to a great extent. Were I in a wheelchair, I wonder how I would even gain access to the Chamber to contribute. It is with a sense of respect and understanding of how easy it is to give expression to platitudes, nice words or intentions that I make my comments today.

Nonetheless, I appreciate the opportunity to do so because the report before us is one of the most thorough, radical and far-reaching to emanate from any group or organisation to date. Anybody reading it must realise that any debate here, no matter how long or short, can do little justice first, to the effort put into its compilation and, second, the gravity of its recommendations. Implementation of the recommendations will require sustained, committed and competent political support in this House and outside it. They must be put into law so that we do not have to come back here in two or three years' time to debate them again.

I thank the people who, when the commission was set up, made their views known at meetings throughout the country. Those people put many of us in public life to shame.

Before the opportunity was given for contribution by the public to this process, many of us assumed we knew something about disability. We assumed that because we were in contact with disabled people in the course of our everyday work we were in tune with their needs. I am sure the Minister, Department officials and many other people believed they had a commitment to disability issues, but they would be put to shame by the people who expressed frustration and anger at those meetings. This is a better report as a result of their contributions. It was not produced by a group of experts. It reflects the needs and frustrations of people with disabilities and, in many cases, those of parents and carers who have suffered silently down the years.

This is not a debate for party political point scoring, but this report would not have been produced if there had not been a commitment to establish the Department of Equality and Law Reform, if the Government of which Deputy Wallace's party and my party were members in the period 1992-4 had not decided that equality should be a major political issue and that there should be a Minister at the Cabinet table to ensure the needs of those with a disability were dealt with at the highest level of Government. I thank the Minister, Deputy Taylor, who will retire from this House at the next election, for his work. He is extremely humble in the way he goes about that work. We would not be debating this matter today had he not had the determination to negotiate for a Department of Equality and Law Reform in 1992 and applied himself in a steady, committed way to the work of that Department. In his humility he would not wish me to elaborate further, but without his work we would not be dealing with this matter.

There are two basic principles behind the work of the commission. Its approach is based on rights rather than charity. We have a long tradition of charity, without which, for the last 150 to 200 years, many people in need would not have received attention. However, charity sometimes blinds us to the real needs. I compliment the commission on saying that any approach to disability issues must be based on rights, full participation and full citizenship, not only as citizens of Ireland but of Europe. It is significant in the context of the work being done at European level that Ireland has fought strongly for inclusion in the draft Intergovernmental Conference treaty of the rights of people with a disability. I hope at the Amsterdam meeting Ministers representing member states will ensure they are included.

The other principle is the concept that the user of a service must be at the centre of its delivery. If I have a disability which curtails my ability to go outside my four walls, I should not be at the mercy of a fragmented bureaucratic system for the services and supports I need. I must be in control and determine my own needs and the delivery of services to meet those needs.

I have learnt much from the work of the various centres for independent living throughout the country, including the one in my home town of Tullamore. I learnt that none of us is independent, that we all have different degrees of dependency. There is truth in the cliché that no man is an island. We all depend on each other to a greater or lesser degree to live and work in society. The whole concept of independent living is expanding and the Government should respond to the needs in this area.

I was disappointed no financial allocation was made this year for the establishment of independent living funds. The report states that there must be choice in the delivery of services to people. People with disability should have the choice to direct their own services, have a personal assistant to help them and be at the centre of the service deliveries. I urge the Government to respond by setting up independent living funds which would work in partnership with persons with disability and health boards. I had an opportunity to learn of the way funds are worked in Britain. They are not a panacea since there are difficult practical questions to be dealt with in terms of independent living. To ensure the user is at the centre of the service there must be an independent living fund.

I wish to refer to a number of recommendations in the report. It is not correct, as Deputy Wallace claimed, that there has been a delay in implementing the recommendations. There is a recommendation on legal rights. Unless people have legal rights they are dependent on good will and charity, on the understanding and whim of others to get that to which they are entitled. Under the direction of the Minister, Deputy Taylor, great progress has been made in the area of legal rights. I mentioned the work being done by the Government at European Union level. I hope the commission that will review the Constitution will include rights for people with disabilities.

The Equal Status Bill is very important in terms of non-discrimination in the supply of goods and services. I look forward to cases being taken to court to test the provisions in that legislation. In many cases good will may exist, but very often unless we are forced to do something we will not do it. The Equal Status Bill gives a strong legal basis to the prevention of discrimination. Since the Employment Equality Bill is before the courts we are limited in what we can say on that Bill. The intention behind that legislation will be met and that will make a significant contribution in this area. I look forward to cases being brought in that regard also.

In cases such as the O'Donoghue case arguments have been made for the establishment of basic rights. We are providing for that in the Equal Status Bill and the Employment Equality Bill. This House will have the determination provided there is a clear political commitment to include them. There is one question I would like to ask Deputy Wallace and the other Opposition party which is not represented here today. Will both parties state unequivocally that, if returned to Government, they will continue to give a lead at Cabinet level to this work, by ensuring the Department of Equality and Law Reform continues with a full Minister of Cabinet to fight for the implementation of this report in the years ahead?

I agree with everything that has been said on the need for monitoring and implementation. That is a dry subject which I will leave to others. There is no point in providing for it if it is not implemented, hence the need for the continuance of the Department.

As a member of a local authority involved in public life in my own area, I wish to refer to a few other practical aspects. The first concerns access. We all have a responsibility to ensure access is given the highest priority in buildings, streets and public facilities in our own areas. Recently, as a member of Tullamore Urban Council, I participated in the drafting of the development plan. As councillors we had to fight hard to ensure provision was made for access to new buildings and new developments. Even at that stage, one is only half way on that road. Even if a building is constructed to the supposed requirement somebody must ensure that what is on the plan is delivered.

One of the most interesting and educative experiences I have had in recent years was an invitation from the local access committee last year to spend an afternoon trying to do my business in my home town in a wheelchair. I was shocked. I do not know how anybody can do it on a daily basis without becoming angry at the absence of basic requirements and the sins of omission and commission which confront them if they try to go up the main street of the local town to go to the bank, to use the telephone, the ATM machine, cross a road, get down off a footpath and so on. I thank the access committee in Tullamore for that opportunity. It has certainly informed my response to issues that have come before me since then, particularly our development plan.

I wish to refer to financial reliefs in respect of people with disabilities. A review of the tax reliefs scheme was undertaken a number of years ago but is in need of radical review by the Minister and his Department. There has been much talk about a gender proofing policy which must be analysed to ascertain its implications for access.

I am dealing with a person who is seeking to provide a hackney service for persons with disability in our own area and we are running into problems with the VRT regulations of the Department of Finance. The lower rate of VRT applies to vehicles with a capacity for under 13 persons. If one gets a normal minibus type vehicle and adapts it for the use of persons with disability it will accommodate only three wheelchairs. This falls below the 13 person limit for Customs and Excise and VRT regulations. The person who has taken the trouble to set up a project to provide transport for people with disabilities and who will take two people off social welfare will have to pay an extra VRT bill of between £4,000 and £5,000 because the adapted vehicle will cater for fewer than 13 people. That is a matter on which I am working with the Minister for Finance. It illustrates the type of nitty gritty that has to be gone into if we are to ensure the barriers identified here are broken down.

What is the cost of non-participation? I would like somebody to quantify that in financial terms. Whenever one goes to a Government Department with a particular request one is told it will cost so much. I hope the council which has been set up by the Minister will undertake a study of that nature. If that study were done one would find that the costs of non-implementation of this report, the cost of forcing people to stay out of the workforce and not participate in society, far outweigh any cost that might be put in place to enable them participate as full citizens.

On a point of order, given that only two or three minutes remain I will seek another slot.

Acting Chairman

If the Deputy so wishes.

(Laoighis-Offaly): Given the enormity of the work done and the scale of the work that remains to be done, the commission has brought to the surface the tip of the iceberg. Most of the work that remains to be done is buried far beneath the surface of many people's ordinary everyday experiences. Unless we ensure the political commitment remains to deal with it and that people with disabilities are sitting on some of these seats to continue to fight for these issues on an ongoing basis, we will not achieve the necessary degree of implementation.

I reiterate my call to the parties opposite to state publicly that, if returned to Government, they would ensure the Department of Equality and Law Reform continues in an unemasculated state, that there remains a full Minister at the Cabinet table to ensure that this report does not stay on any shelf and to fight in a measured, consistent and determined way, as the Minister, Deputy Taylor has done. This would ensure we are not back here in three or four years' time debating how little of this report has been put into practice.

(Wexford): I am pleased to have the opportunity to say a few words on this debate. This debate is timely and opportune. In response to Deputy Pat Gallagher, if I were the incoming Taoiseach I would ensure the Department of Equality and Law Reform remains in place. When Deputy Bertie Ahern takes over Government after the next election I am sure there will not be any problems in that area.

Since this may be the last opportunity I will have, given that I will probably have to canvass for the next few weeks to hold on to my seat, I thank the Minister, Deputy Taylor, and pay tribute to him for his work in that ministry. During our time in Government with him we found him courteous and helpful and I wish him and his family all the best in his retirement.

Deputy Gallagher made a relevant point at the outset which is worth nothing for the future, that people with disabilities should be allowed address this House at some stage. I do not know how that can happen under the Constitution. If people with disabilities were allowed address this House and share their experiences with Deputies we would find they are in line with how we are thinking.

As a parent of a child with a disability I am concerned about the way such people have been treated in the past. I have noticed in the past year that people with disabilities are on the move. They have made up their minds they will no longer accept the status of being on the margins of society or depend on local representatives to fight the cause for them. As a result they have become a powerful lobby group to fight for a better standard of living, equality in normal life, equality in the workforce and their independence. The cause of people with disabilities which we are now pursuing will become as big a fight as the women's movement in the 1960s. It is only right that people with disabilities should stand up for themselves, demand their rights, an independent way of living and services from the Government of the day regardless of who is in Government. In the past too much lip service has been paid by the public and Government generally. One only has to look at the difficulties faced by people with disabilities in their normal day to day movements to find out how much they have been ignored and left to one side. I welcome the fact that they have become a major lobbying force.

This document is wide-ranging and provides much food for thought. It gives us an opportunity to see at first hand the difficulties faced by such people and to try to implement its recommendations over a given period of time. Those with disabilities do not expect miracle overnight but they expect us to implement the report's recommendations, many of which are worthwhile. In the area of equality and law reform, many important issues arise on a daily basis and I welcome that the Minister is giving priority to this issue and the attention it deserves.

I have first hand knowledge of the centre for independent living in Wexford and have seen how important personal assistants are for people with disabilities. If Minister Taylor had the money, he would have been allocated it for the provision of personal assistant in the budget. The difficulty with developments for people with disabilities is that they are spread over too wide an area. Why must people who need personal assistants depend on the Minister for Health and the health boards to decide whether the money will be allocated? They have failed in their responsibility to allocate money to this cause. Personal assistant have provided independence and a new way of life for these people. Minister Taylor very much wishes to see this happen as it would give a major boost to these people at a small cost.

People with disabilities have told me that they are too often categorised as being under the responsibility of the Department of Health. That needs to be examined as it is not necessarily a health issue. These people have disabilities but want to lead normal lives. Their position should be addressed by other Government Departments. It would be better than being told if the Minister for Health does not allocate the money it is too bad and they will be left aside. The money could be allocated from a number of areas. National lottery money is spread up and down the country to every Mickey Mouse project. It was a move forward to give these people independence but we shied away from allocating more money for personal assistants. Deputy Cowen has given a commitment on this if Fianna Fáil returns to Government but we should not have to wait until then. The Government, even at this late stage, and at a time when money is being thrown around like confetti at a wedding, could allocate this money to allow people to have personal assistant on a permanent basis. Will the Minister put pressure on the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of the Finance to ensure money is made available?

Access is another area that needs to be looked at. The document refers to the importance of education. However, if one looks at modern schools there are no facilities for people with disabilities. It is not the Government's faulty, but that of successive Government and the Department of Education. New schools have two or three flight of stairs with no wheelchair facilities or lifts. At the same time, we encourage people with disabilities to attend normal schools. The facilities provided in the schools are deplorable. Very few are wheelchair friendly or have facilities to allow children to go up to the second or third floor of the school and continue their education in the normal way with their classmates. For example, my daughter attends St. Aidan's primary school, Enniscorthy, and the principal and teachers have made every effort to ensure the school is accessible to her and three other children in wheelchairs. However, the class usually remains on the ground floor each year because they cannot move up. That is not a great inconvenience but in modern buildings we should seriously examine how this problem can be dealt with. It should be mandatory when applications are made for planning permission for new schools, that such facilities be included.

Deputy Gallagher referred to transport. I am amazed at successive Governments lashing money into organisations such as Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann as Iarnród Éireann cannot even provide a carriage on the train from Dublin to Rosslare on a Friday to cater for the five or six wheelchair bound people who work or attend college in Dublin. I am sure this is the case elsewhere. These people have to do the best they can with existing train facilities, usually leaving the wheelchair in the corridor between carriages while trying to get themselves into seats. It should be possible to provide one carriage on a large train travelling to the major port in the south east at least on a Friday. However, when one writes to the chief executive of Bus Éireann or Iarnród Éireann, one usually receives a reply stating that they are happy that the facilities are adequate. They are not and everybody knows that. I hope future Ministers allocating money to them will tell them that they must provide such facilities for people with disabilities.

There are many issues to be dealt with. Our spokesperson, Deputy Mary Wallace, has published a policy document on disability — Meeting the Challenge of Equality. It contains very worthwhile suggestions and ideas. She has put a great deal of time and effort into meeting people with disabilities throughout the country and her document lays down what should be done in future. I hope the incoming Fianna Fáil Government will implement her ideas and suggestions. We can no longer decide what is best for people with disabilities. We have to listen to what they are saying and learn. I am pleased they are now a strong lobby demanding their entitlements.

The first sheltered community workshops were established in Enniscorthy and New Ross, County Wexford in the 1960s by Father Anthony Scallon who was way ahead of his time. They provide courses in carpentry and gardening among other things to give people with disabilities an opportunity to lead normal lives. This has encouraged many people with disabilities to do things for themselves and move beyond sheltered employment.

On the question of open employment, there is a 3 per cent quota in the Civil Service. I compliment Wexford County Council and Wexford Corporation for playing their part. Their switchboards are manned by people with disabilities. I doubt if other local authorities are doing likewise. I fail to see why the people with disabilities cannot be employed on a far greater scale by local authorities and other public bodies. Will the Minister outline the number of people with disabilities employed by local authorities?

On the question of job training and opportunities, there should be greater interaction between employers and people with disabilities. Employers may see them as a burden but many people with disabilities are well educated. Employer bodies should take a keener interest in the matter and encourage their members to seriously consider employing people with disabilities.

Open employment is the area where people with disabilities encounter most barriers to equal opportunity. The extension of equality legislation to include disability — a measure agreed when Fianna Fáil was in Government — is an important advance but it will achieve little unless there is a comprehensive positive action programme to promote access to open employment. As the commission stated, there must be a proper public-private partnership with a mixture of financial assistance incentives and wider availability of advice, information and support services which can make such a difference in opening up job opportunities to people with disabilities.

The commission also stated that there are many people with disabilities for whom open employment is not the best option. It supported the employment model funded under the pilot programme for the employment of people with disabilities as showing the value of integrated work settings. The pilot programme was established by Fianna Fáil in 1994. The consistent message from the enterprises funded is that it has made an immense contribution to the personal development of all employees, not just those with disabilities. The programme should be placed on a permanent basis without delay and people with disabilities allowed to retain permanently their existing secondary benefits. The initial allocation for this initiative was £3.6 million which has been reduced to £1.2 million this year, a reduction of two thirds. The Minister should seriously consider reversing this decision.

If there is to be a range of employment opportunities open to people with disabilities, there must also be a range of training opportunities. The full range of individual needs and abilities must be catered for through appropriate placements which provide each individual with an opportunity to develop to his or her full potential.

I welcome this report. I hope it marks the start of something exciting and will result in all of us sharing a common cause with people with disabilities. It is important that we listen and learn and not try to solve problems about which we know little or nothing. We need to implement the suggestions of people with disabilities to improve their quality of life and allow them lead normal lives.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): Ba mhaith liom Fáilte a chur roimh an mBille seo agus mo chomhgháirdeas a ghabháil leis na daoine a chuir an Tuarascáil seo le chéile. Tá obair mhaith déanta ag na daoine sin. Tá am na cainte anseo thart agus ba chóir dúinn rud éigin a dhéanamh faoi na moltaí. Tá níos mó ná 400 acu ann. Ni bheidh toradh ar bith ar an Tuarascáil muna ndéanfaimid rud tairfeach anseo. Tá súil agam go gcuirfidh an Rialtas na moltaí i bhfeidhm.

I welcome the report and congratulate all those involved in its production. I have every confidence that its 402 recommendations will be implemented. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Taylor who is to retire from politics at the next general election. He has been a model Minister with the besides manner of the best of the old type doctors and possesses the ability to placate those who get very excited about the contents of legislation. He has played a leading role in giving meaning to his ministry of equality and law reform. He has done a wonderful job. I regret that he is leaving us.

I welcome the firm commitment given by the Government in the "Equal Participation" section of the Programme for Government which states:

We regard the work of the Commission for the Status of People with a Disability as fundamentally important.

We will take specific action to end discrimination and to ensure equal opportunity for participation by all our people in Irish life.

The Government has also committed itself to introducing a disabilities Act to set out the rights of persons with a disability, together with the means of redress, for those whose right are denied and to put in place mechanism for full and equal participation by every citizen with a disability in every aspect of our economic and social life.

Even if it does not fulfil it to the letter of the law, it is very important for Government to make a commitment to various causes. I have no doubt the Government will live up to its commitments in this area. Unlike my namesake, Deputy John Browne from Wexford, I have no doubt the Government will be returned to office and will continue to implement it policies in this area. There will be a different Minister for Equality and Law Reform but there will be no change in the Government.

(Wexford): Wishful thinking.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): The people appreciate that ní bheidh ár leithéid ann arís.

The commission has done tremendous work. The Minister must be congratulated on appointing to the commission people who have first hand knowledge and experience of the problem. I have a certain knowledge of the problems experienced by disabled people as I am chairman of the Delta Centre in Carlow which looks after 43 people, the majority of whom have a mental handicap. I have been involved in this centre for many years and do everything I can to advance the cause of these people.

Given that minority groups may sometimes want to go in a certain direction, I am glad all the members of the commission, the disabled members, civil servants etc. agreed on the recommendations. The 402 recommendations cover all issues and the implementation of even the first 40 would be a major advance on the present position. The decision to make this a social rather than a health issue should help to highlight the problems in this area.

We could talk all day about the problems of disabled people but it is more important to debate the action being taken. In this context, I am glad the Minister proposes to implement some of the initial recommendations made to him. For example, it is proposed to introduce further legislation to promote equality etc. and to establish a national disability authority and a disability support service. It is also proposed to set up an interdepartmental task force which will draw up a plan of action on the rights of people. This is very important as it means action will be taken and the recommendations will not be left on shelves to gather dust.

It is also proposed to set up a monitoring committee to oversee the implementation of the commission's recommendations. This is very important in ensuring committees do not sit idly by and matters are advanced. I very much welcome the establishment of the Irish Council of People with Disabilities as it will give the people directly involved a special status and an independent voice. The allocation of an extra £200,000 to the council shows that it is not merely an aspiration but a reality. The pilot schemes in various areas are also very important. The success of the Minister in getting the EU to give backing to the promotion of equal opportunities and the elimination of discrimination is a major factor and shows the important contribution which can be made by small countries like Ireland. We can be rightly proud of the marvellous job done by the Government during our Presidency of the EU. I congratulate the Minister on making the EU understand the significance of this problem.

The lack of access to transport for disabled persons is a major problem. The commission stated that all new and used rail rolling-stock and road vehicles used for public transport should be accessible to all users from 1 January this year. It also stated that all CIE, Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus depots should have at least one accessible bus by 1 June this year. One could not accuse the members of the commission of going overboard in this respect. Maybe it meant there should be at least one accessible bus in every town. It should be possible in this day and age to make all buses, including older buses, accessible to disabled people.

Many of the buses used to bring mentally handicapped children to special schools do not have safety belts. These children are not as alert as ordinary school children and it is dangerous to transport them on buses without safety belts. Serious consideration should be given to this matter. Newer buses may have safety belts but I am aware of a school which had to have safety belts installed in its bus. It is essential for buses carrying mentally handicapped children to have safety belts.

Those involved in licensing taxis seem to be ahead of bus operators in this respect. For example, in Carlow at least one taxi has to be able to take a wheelchair. While this gives a lead, it only relates to taxis and does nothing to solve the problem of accessibility to trains and buses for disabled people.

I compliment people with disabilities on how they cope, including those involved in the Independent Living initiative, one of whom is a very good friend of mine. This person is highly intelligent but, as a result of an accident, is now disabled. His condition is a reminder to me of what needs to be done in this area. People with disabilities have a great sense of independence and it is marvellous to meet them because they have a better sense of humour and attitude to life than many of the rest of us who think we have serious problems.

I thank all those who work with people with disabilities for the job they are doing, particularly families who must do so much at great inconvenience, and often expense, to themselves. There is a reference to payment in the report, and I hope we will be in a position to help these people in that way because they deserve it. It is not a question of sympathy, they have equal rights and I hope it will not be long before many of the report's recommendations are implemented by this Government when it is returned to power.

I wish Minister Taylor all the best in this change of role. I have not been a Member of this House for long but I have been impressed by his gentlemanly manner, and I wish him every success in his retirement.

I am disappointed there is not a greater amount of interest in this debate, given that there are a number of disabled people and others interested in this area in the Public Gallery.

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this report on the status of people with disabilities, an issue of major importance to many people. I congratulate Deputy Mary Wallace for the interest she has taken in this subject and the policy document she published in this regard. I want to refer to the overall approach taken in that document, which covers many of the issues we should be examining in terms of people with disabilities.

In regard to individual impairment, Deputy Wallace's document states that people with disabilities are one of the most marginalised and excluded groups in society. Our policy should be to allow people with disabilities an opportunity to achieve their potential, thereby promoting individual choice. We must move from the bureaucratic and restrictive operation of existing support schemes and those we may introduce in the future.

On the question of inclusion and transparency, the document states that all public agencies should develop a culture of openness and inclusion in their dealings with people with disabilities and their families. A chain of advocacy and consultation should be a central part of public policy development and implementation. There should also be an appropriate provision of support services. The idea that the health agencies should have responsibility for these services only encourages people to regard social issues as medical matters and promotes further marginalisation. All public agencies should provide these services to meet the needs of people with disabilities. They could be centralised through a health agency but not made exclusive to that agency.

Deputy Wallace also states in her policy document that we should value people who are different. Society has its own perception of what is normal, but we should expand our idea of normality. It is important that we accept some people need extensive support from others, without undermining an individual's worth and right to equal treatment. We should promote consensus. The radical policies in Deputy Wallace's document require the involvement of all social partners, but we do not want to polarise debate. There should be inclusive consultation and advisory bodies should be established at every level.

Another point in Deputy Wallace's document is that innovation must be fostered. Governments must address disability issues in partnership with individuals, groups and organisations. That would help to create an environment which actively encourages innovation in the provision of services, policy development and representation. That links to the issues raised in the report before the House.

I welcomed the various group who lobbied outside the gates of Leinster House yesterday, as I welcome the groups here today. I am sure physical access to this building was not easy for those people. Accessibility is an important question for people with disabilities in terms of the lack of lifts, etc. However, other types of access are not catered for. Some people will not have access in real terms unless all types of disability are catered for. I welcome the presence of a singer in the public gallery today, because signing represents another type of access for people with a hearing difficulty.

We have much to learn about disabilities. Some of us have first or second-hand knowledge of individual disabilities. However, one thing I have learned over the past year is that in talking face to face with the people concerned, it is possible to get a better idea of the issues that concern them than one can get from reading books and reports. That is why it was important to meet and talk with the different groups such as those who were here today and yesterday to promote the idea of working together in partnership with people who have disabilities. People with disabilities live longer nowadays and there is a better survival rate among people with severe disabilities. This issue will have to be addressed in the long term because, as people live longer, more facilities will have to be provided.

Social inclusion and social exclusion have become buzz words in the European Union, and anybody who wants a grant to combat social exclusion is very welcome. One would think, therefore, that we should not need lobby groups, but we do. I thank the groups who came to me over the past year and told me, face to face, about their problems. In this context, I will give the House an example of a situation in my constituency where the Government could have acted but has not yet done so. I refer to Scoil Íosagáin in Buncrana where efforts are being made to include children with disabilities. Alongside the mainstream school, this school has a class for 12 children who have a moderate mental handicap, and there are plans for another class to cater for children with a profound mental handicap. The class catering for the 12 moderately mentally handicapped children has a classroom assistant, but it is proposed to remove her from that class and assign her to the new class. A classroom assistant is a necessary resource in a class that is to cater for profoundly handicapped children, but to deprive the other class of such assistance is not living up to our ideals. The salary of a classroom assistant is just under £9,000. I cannot see how saving this amount can be justified when set against the psychological and physical problems children will have in the absence of such an assistant. In terms of access to education we want action, not talk. I appeal to the Minister to have a word with the Minister for Education and ask her to keep this case in mind, because this school is taking action and providing special classes within its grounds to promote social inclusion of children with a disability, and it needs every assistance to realise the dreams of the people involved in the project.

In Northern Ireland and England children with a handicap have an assistant beside them to help them to move around an area, and that is a great help to them in terms of education. We have a long way to go in looking after disabled children within an ordinary class. Looking after 30 children in the normal class situation is difficult enough. Someone with special needs requires that extra bit of attention, and teachers should have this help available to them. I hope after today, we will back up our good intentions with money to directly assist schools like the one in Buncrana and the 53 special schools we have.

There is also a lack of educational psychologists in our education system. In my constituency there is one between two counties, and this should be addressed.

The campaign of the Centre for Independent Living for the provision of personal assistants for people with a disability has been to the forefront of discussions about disability in the past year. I know a person with a disability who, for the past year, has had a FÁS trainee as an assistant. During that time they have created a bond between them. They enjoy each other's company, and trust each other. Trust is very important when someone has to reply completely on another person to look after them properly and has to allow that person the run of their house. However, under existing guidelines, as soon as people are trained and a bond has been built, they must move on.

Personal assistants are very important to a disabled person's quality of life. Therefore, I add my voice to the pleas for an independent living fund to help people to become independent. Surely independence is not too much to ask for. Disabled people should be able to live in their own environment with their families. Enabling them to do so would enhance their sense of well-being and of belonging in the community, and this in turn would lead to contentment for their families. This cannot be measured in financial terms. Even if it were, it would cost the State much more to institutionalise them than to provide them with assistants.

In the past few days the practice of peer counselling between the Irish Wheelchair Association and the National Council for the Blind of Ireland has come to my attention. Peer counselling began in 1994 and, to date, 200 clients have been counselled on a one-to-one basis. The provision of a psychological service to a disabled person by another disabled person is a very good idea from the point of view of the person being counselled because nobody is more knowledgeable about a situation than somebody who is in it and there is the spin-off of a job for the person providing the service. I understand this service receives minimal if any support from the Government. Will the Minister consider allocating funding to keep the service going?

I urge people to support the concept of peer counselling. Access to public buildings for people with disabilities is improving. Commitments have been given at local authority meetings in my constituency to make public buildings more accessible to wheelchairs but, obviously this is more than a local authority issue. One of the first requests made at meetings about village renewal is to make footpaths more accessible for wheelchairs and prams. People are becoming more aware of the difficulties facing those with disabilities.

I compliment Deputy Wallace on her efforts to make polling booths more accessible to such people. I hope the work done in this area will be rewarded by a large number of people with disabilities casting their vote in polling booths in the near future.

Transport is a major problem for people with disabilities. A large family, two of whom are disabled, living in a rural area has great difficulty getting around if they do not own a car. They depend on other people to take them out for a day. It is a sad reflection on our society that people can be so isolated. We still have a long way to go to include everybody. Buses are not designed for people with disabilities. A pensioner confined to a wheelchair contacted me this week to tell me he cannot avail of free travel because of his disability. When purchasing buses we should ensure they are wheelchair friendly.

Respite care is crucial. Those caring for people with severe disabilities need a break as much as the person with the disability. I urge the Government to provide respite care for people with all levels of disability. Such assistance would enable the family and the person with the disability to have a break and that would enable them to cope better with their difficulties.

As a music teacher, I would welcome more music therapy for those with disabilities. Like Deputy de Valera, I would welcome more access to, and participation in, arts events. In conjunction with cross-Broder organisations, the hospital in Carndonagh organises musicals, plays and other events for those with disabilities.

I compliment people on the tremendous work they do for people with disabilities. On days such as this one could easily get depressed about the things that are not being done for such people, but many things are being done. We should compliment those who are helping to make all our citizens equal and I hope this debate will assist in that regard.

I wish to share time with Deputies Frances Fitzgerald and John Browne.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

Deputy Browne has already spoken, but I am sure the other sharing arrangement is agreed.

There has been a breakdown in Government communications.

Deputy Keaveney should compliment all the groups that have campaigned on behalf of people with disabilities for as long as I can remember. Because of their persistence, organisational ability and refusal to accept the current position, they have improved facilities for people with disabilities. It is only when one notes the number of people with disabilities that one realises they cannot be excluded from society. They have as much right as the rest of us to be included in all activities in society. Our ability to see, hear, walk, speak and use all our organs does not give us the right to insist others should be excluded because of a disability. Those who work with people with disabilities do a marvellous job and I hope their needs will be addressed in the near future.

Future planning should not exclude any person in society. While it may not be too difficult to plan for proper physical structures, it will be difficult to put in place facilities that will educate those with disabilities and allow them enter the workplace. With a booming economy, over a number of years I hope we will be able to write the cheque that will include everyone.

In 1994 my colleague the Minister of State, Deputy McManus, and I prepared Democratic Left's submission to the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities.

It was The Workers' Party then.

Some of those with all their faculties tend to abuse them.

We called this submission Focus on Ability. Rather than focusing on people's disabilities we focused on ways of harnessing their abilities to the benefit of all. Like the question of women's inclusion in society, as long as we continue to exclude people from society, all those in society will lose out.

Democratic Left has always recognised that economics are at the root of social exclusion. For that reason we concentrated mainly on education, training and employment as routes out of poverty and marginalisation. We focused, in particular, on the need for the people with disabilities to have access to mainstream employment and to be paid the going rate for the job. Achieving a minimum wage — which will be soon — is one way to tackle that. We also focused on the extra costs, such as transport, diet, heating and the provision with a special equipment, incurred by persons with a disability.

Most people welcomed the comprehensive report of the commission published towards the end of last year which focuses on almost every area of life. For the first time ever we have a complete and comprehensive study of the exact problem. We understand the difficulties faced by people we know with disabilities, but none of us knew of the broad range of difficulties they face. If implemented, the report's recommendations would make a great difference not only to the lives of the disabled, but to those of their friends and families. Anyone who spends one day with a friend with a disability would realise the obstacles they encounter in their everyday life. Having spent time a number of months in a wheelchair and on crutches two years ago, I understand the difficulties faced by people with disabilities. That is why I began by congratulating the groups who joined us today, who joined us yesterday and the other days we discussed this issue. It is easy to adopt the attitude that coping with a disability is too much of a struggle and is not worth the bother. It is a chore for people with a disability to get up every morning and say to themselves that their disability will not defeat them and that they will get out. We could learn what it is like to have to depend not only on others but on physical access facilities.

I went on a walking trip in Cork with a friend who is in a wheelchair. Many of the payments are too narrow to accommodate a standard wheelchair. Cork is an old city. Its centre island and streetscape are virtually unchanged since it was built. It has narrow laneways and streets and very narrow footpaths. While footpaths on one side of a road could accommodate a standard wheelchair and were dished, when we got to the other side of the road the footpath was not dished and we found ourselves in the terrifying position of being struck in the middle of the traffic, an everyday experience for people in wheelchairs.

People in wheelchairs find that even before they try to gain access to public buildings, parking spaces for the disabled are almost invariably occupied by other vehicles. Public transport is not an option for them. Few buses are wheelchair accessible. While many trains are accessible stations often are not.

In Cork CIE has taken delivery of eight new buses, one of which is wheelchair accessible. That ratio is part of its ongoing policy in renewing its bus fleet. That wheelchair accessible bus serves only one route which is also served by eight other buses. Multiplying the number of bus routes in Cork by eight gives one an idea of the number of buses in Cork, and of those only one on each route will be wheelchair friendly. It costs approximately £4,500 to make a bus wheelchair friendly. It would have taken only approximately £22,000 to make four of the eight new buses wheelchair friendly, a mere drop in the ocean in terms of Iarnród Éireann's overall budget. I propose that half of the new fleet should be wheelchair friendly.

Transport is not the only obstacle facing people with disabilities. Once they have reached their destinations, the problems multiply. Steps are narrow, doorways, revolving doors and heavy carpets present an almost insurmountable obstacle to anyone with mobility difficulties. Ramps are few and far between and, where they exist, they are often obstructed. Where lifts are provided they are often in areas of a building which are impossible to access. Those and other problems are not confined to private or small commercial buildings. The majority of public buildings, where people must go to transact essential business, are inaccessible.

Two years ago Democratic Left's Limerick organisation conducted a survey of public buildings in the city, including public houses, major shops, financial institutions, hotels as well as a random sample of churches, pubs and smaller shops. They found 80 per cent of entrances to those buildings had obstacles such as heavy doors, narrow doorways, door saddle, narrow openings and angles, while 50 per cent of buildings lacked necessary ramp entrances. A total of 72 per cent of the buildings, all multi-storey, lacked a lift, while only 20 per cent of the buildings surveyed had wheelchair accessible toilets. Access is not only an issue that affects people with permanent disabilities, it also affects parents with buggies, the elderly, those with temporary disabilities like I had and which thousands of others have every month. At some point we will all know of a friend or relative who will be denied access and it even might even be ourselves.

Problems of access are not confined to outside the home. One of the issues identified in the report is the need to design housing for life; houses which are easily and cheaply adapted to changing circumstances. Our population is an ageing one. We may not think that, but it is. For that reason this issue must be addressed by the public and the private sectors. Probably the single greatest problem confronting many people with disabilities, apart from their disability, is poverty.

The most effective route out of poverty is through employment.

This subject is close to my heart and I could talk about it forever. Our document, "Focus on Ability", deals with the need for integrated schooling, proper training and worthwhile employment for people with disabilities. Very few Departments fulfil the 3 per cent quota of employing people with disabilities. In some Departments the figure is as low as 1 per cent and in the private sector it is virtually non-existent, and we need to address that. We need to address this matter similar to the way we have sought positive discrimination towards women for a number of years, but this matter is more urgent. We should set down clear rules and regulations in that regard. If we do not start to do that now, we will never start.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this report. I am delighted it is on the agenda of the Dáil today and that we are giving it this sort of attention. It deserves the widest support and dissemination of the information in it. It should be required study in all our schools. It is a most striking report. It is depressing, but it is also optimistic. The summary report states that people with disabilities are the neglected citizens of Ireland. It states that on the eve of the 21st century many of them suffer intolerable conditions because of outdated social and economic policies and unthinking public attitudes. It also states that changes have begun to come about influenced by international recognition that disability is a social rather than a medical issue, but many of these changes have been piecemeal.

It is important this commission was set up and that the Minister has taken action on a series of the recommendations of its report. Action is needed in every area of life if we are to remove the barriers that exist for people with disabilities. I note the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht is present. The report contains a section on access in the area of arts and culture for those with disabilities.

There is much work to be done in the area of education. Despite the progress made in recent times, one only has to think of the lack of psychological assessments available to pick up disability at the very early stages. We are not doing enough in primary schools to provide services for young children with disabilities. If we do not identify disability at a very early stage and provide the necessary services, what hope is there for those with disabilities in later life? There is work to be done in every area.

I have had some experience of dealing with commissions, particularly the Commission on the Status of Women. What was important about it was that it took place, it was comprehensive, the recommendations of its report have begun to be implemented and there were mechanisms of their implementation. We have here a bible of what needs to happen, a description of the current situation. That is terribly important because we are behind many other countries and the time is ripe for accelerated progress in this area. Public attitudes are changing and there is a new understanding that it is not about charity but about human rights. Women's rights are human rights, as are the rights of the disabled.

Far too often we still see stereotyped stories and illustrations about the disabled. It is not about that any more, it is about an understanding of basic human rights. If we approach the question from that perspective we will get it right. This report spells that out in detail in every area.

The report says that about 10 per cent of the population has a disability. In fact, the numbers and percentages affected by disability are far larger if one takes into account temporary disability, the effect on families and carers, as well as the demand on the public services. This is a wide issue about the quality of life for all our citizens.

A few examples have come to my attention recently. One concerns a young woman — whose case has been mentioned by some other Deputies in recent days — who raised the issues of being able to have a list in braille of candidates going forward for the election, and being able to cast her vote on a ballot paper in braille.

The question of access and transport is mentioned throughout the report. This week I met a woman who has multiple sclerosis and who cannot get into her local post office. We must have statutory provision to enable disabled people to avail of public and private services. This woman cannot gain access to a new post office because there is a step down and the door is too heavy for her to push and use her aid at the same time. That is a practical example of what can occur.

A man phoned me recently to describe an extraordinary situation concerning his attempts to obtain tax relief on a commercial vehicle. Because his arm is paralysed he is not eligible for the sort of exemptions for other disabilities, including a paralysed leg. Nonsensical and arbitrary criteria are being used in relation to claims for this tax relief. It is a ridiculous irregularity that should not be there. The report is full of such arbitrary piecemeal approaches to services for the disabled.

I could go on. We have a huge amount of work to do in this area. I met the post-polio support group during the year. They have enormous difficulties trying to get their concerns taken seriously as well as having their group, condition and the implications for their daily lives recognised, for example, in terms of extra costs. The extra cost of disability features throughout the report. There are strong recommendations about changes in income support towards which we need to move if we are to make sure that people with disability are not inhabited by pure poverty from participating in our social, economic and political life.

There is a great deal more to be said about this report. I congratulate the groups involved in writing it, as well as the groups who are lobbying for change. I pledge to work with them in whatever way I can to ensure the recommendations in this report are implemented in the shortest possible timeframe.

Like every other speaker, I am delighted to have the opportunity of addressing this issue. I want to share my time with Deputy Callely.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

That is satisfactory.

While I heartily welcome this debate, I sincerely hope we will not find ourselves discussing the very same issues again later because nothing will have been done in the meantime. I hope we will have action in the near future. I welcome all those people who visited us during the past few days. They can see their visit to Dáil Éireann to obtain their rights was worthwhile and that today's exercise is not just paying lip service.

The Minister and all Members feel they can give these people their rights, but I wonder if we will forget about the matter all too quickly as soon as the wheelchairs roll out of Leinster House. I commend all the groups.

I have been involved with the disabled for many years, particularly at the workshop in New Ross, which is an industry we are pround of. We are now seeking funding for the continuation and expansion of that workshop, but it appears as if we are begging for, rather than seeking, money for the expansion. People are inclined to look at it in that fashion. If the Minister cannot tell me now, I would be anxious to know at some stage whether there is a commitment to the community workshop in New Ross. I commend those people who have taken up the cudgels for the disabled. I commend the disabled people themselves for the wonderful lobbying work they are doing.

I will quote from a letter I received from Mr. Kenneth Kilduff, a good friend of all the Oireachtas Members in County Wexford. He states:

Dear Hugh,

Just to let you know that we are still here and that we mean business [it is all said in those few lines. Whatever about us forgetting about it, the people who are lobbying certainly intend that we should not]. Furthermore, to prove to you that we are not talking through our hats, our colleague in Tipperary in the centre for independent living, won the European gold medal award presented to him in Brussels.

An article appeared in the Wexford Peoplenewspaper on Wednesday, 4 December 1996, which described adequately what we all must strive to do. Under the heading “Wexford's first centre for independent living”, the report stated:

Two Wexford students, who have not let their disabilities stand in the way of their education, were presented with national education awards from the National College of Industrial Relations recently. Kenneth Kilduff from Ballycanew, and Catherine Murphy from Oulart, were presented with their social studies certificates after they completed a one year course in the Dublin based college. The couple had their educational dream made possible through the help of personal assistants who worked with them on a full-time basis as carers. According to Kenneth, without his assistant he could not have lived and studied in Dublin as his apartment was not wheelchair adapted and he needed other physical assistance. Kenneth and Catherine have set up the first Wexford centre for independent living in Westlands and have secured FÁS funding for one year. At the moment they are employing one full-time supervisor and 13 part-time personal assistants, enabling nine other people in the Wexford area to have their own personal assistants. However, this is still not enough, Kenneth says, as, through the FÁS scheme, the personal assistants can only work a certain number of hours a week and funding is not guaranteed beyond a year. They hope that instead they will be put on a more permanent footing by being grant aided by the central Exchequer. Nationally the centre for independent living has made a pre-budget submission for an independent living fund. If it comes about there will be up to 50 full-time jobs provided in County Wexford, said Kenneth. He adds that he does not believe that the centre for independent living is nationally asking for too much by seeking £17 million over the next five years. We are only asking the Government to help us to boldly go where everyone else has gone before.

That is a description of what these people are prepared to do.

Since the Government seems to be able to find cash at the drop of a hat, it is not too much to ask for £17 million over five years for people who have proven they can create employment. Perhaps these people are too reasonable in their demands. They are not here begging the Government for money but lobbying for support.

Personal assistants would help these people to overcome their difficulties and give them confidence. It is well known that people who work in workshops do well when they are employed outside them because of the confidence they have gained. I am a farmer and some years ago I employed a young man who was hard of hearing. As a result, I now know how to do sign language. I did not employ him because he was disabled but because he was one of the best farm workers in my parish. These people should be given a fair chance.

The quota of disabled people for the Civil Service is 3 per cent. However, I have been told that it could be as high as 18 per cent in some Departments and 1 per cent or less in others. That is not good enough. A famous person once said that if one's head is in the fire and one's feet are in the fridge, on average one should be comfortable. We should not use averages to boost our cause. The public service should ensure that at least 3 per cent of its workforce comprises people with disabilities. Wexford County Council employs a blind person as a telephonist and he is probably the best in the county.

Wexford Corporation also employs disabled people.

It will be a disgrace if a disabled person is prevented from voting in the election. Money is found at the drop of a hat for strong lobbies. However, will we deliver to these people or will we say that because they did not vote in previous elections we can ignore them? That is not good enough.

The Minister for Social Welfare said in a reply to a parliamentary question that he would provide travel passes for people with disabilities, but these people cannot use public transport because they cannot access it. There is no point in giving them free transport if they cannot use it. I do not know how much it would cost to adapt a bus or train, but we should provide proper facilities to accommodate the disabled. When we are returned to power, action will be taken to relieve the difficulties faced by these people.

Last week I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Finance. Since then, I have received five telephone calls asking me to explain my request. I am looking for money for a disabled person so that she can adapt the seat in the car driven by her husband. Perhaps Department officials do not know that some people are disabled and that schemes have been established to help them. They should be able to provide answers to the public.

The Deputy should tell us what Fianna Fáil spent on the disabled between 1987 and 1994. I know the Deputy is genuine, but this is an election year.

I hope this issue does not become a political football. We are all to blame because we have spent too little. When we return to Government we will take action. In the meantime, I hope the Government will provide for those who cannot vote and allocate funding for personal assistants. Commitments are made all the time, but we should give these people hope.

We must not be cynical about this issue because it is an election year. All politicians must be honest with people.

The Deputy should be allowed to make his speech without interruption.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Deputy Yates, tried that and he lost everything. It was the Enniscorthy experience.

Debate adjourned.