I welcome this appropriate and progressive Bill and congratulate the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and his Department on introducing it.
Until recently there was little or no effort made to assist disabled people to lead a normal life. Educational disability, intellectual or physical, has been neglected for far too long. It is important we give credit to the voluntary groups who have been fighting for the rights of people with special needs for many years. Voluntary groups have done a great deal of work in the background. When others ignored the needs of those with disabilities, it was the hard working members of voluntary organisations who worked tirelessly, highlighting the issues. These groups deserve recognition now that they have ensured that the voices of those with special needs are finally being heard.
The most important group that should be recognised are the parents of the disabled. It is the parents who provide for and ensure that these special children have everything they need from birth. It is not an easy task and I commend them for their dedication and unconditional love. An important aspect in this Bill is that the parents are recognised as central to the development of the child at every step in the process. When a child's education plan is drawn up, the parent will always be consulted. They are at the heart of the assessment and planning process. They are also vital in ensuring that those rights are always upheld at every stage of the child's education.
The Bill gives parents the power to appeal to an independent appeals board against any statement or description they believe is inadequate to meet their child's needs or if they feel there has been a failure to implement their child's education plan. This aspect of the Bill is essential as it provides a bottom up approach to the provision of special needs education. It is essential the rights and entitlements of special needs students are not dictated to parents, who know their child's need better than anyone else.
The Bill pays tribute to the parents of the disabled, particularly young disabled people. The parent or parents must deal with this from the cradle to the grave. It is a lifelong service of dedication, not simply one involving eight or ten-hour days, five days a week. It is a 24-hour service provided by the parent seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.
We must all acknowledge that successive Governments neglected this area for decades. While this debate took off in the 1980s it was not until the 1990s that any Government did anything about it. It is only now the Government is trying to right the wrongs of the past and make a concerted effort to do everything possible to provide for the needs of the disabled in this country. It was only in 1997 that there was an improvement in the response to children in need of special education.
In 1998 the Government created a funding programme that proactively responded to the requirements of students with special educational needs. We also saw all primary school children with special needs receive an automatic right to see those needs met that same year. As a result, the number of resource teachers in ordinary schools has increased from 104 to 2,300. The number of special needs assistants has also risen from fewer than 300 to almost 5,500 full and part-time positions.
However, we still have a long way to go. Society must learn to change its attitude towards those with special needs. We must realise that they, like all of us, have aspirations and ambitions. We must recognise that all children, including those with special needs, have a right to realise those ambitions. We must also understand that children with special needs are fantastic people who will enrich the lives of the other children in their classes under an inclusive educational system.
I welcome the fact that the Bill is based on the principle of inclusive education for as many children with educational disabilities as is practicable. This principle has been Government policy for a long time. The Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill will turn this policy into real action with section 2 providing that a child with special needs will be educated in an inclusive setting unless it is not in the best interest of the child in question or the other children in the class. We must keep in mind that in many cases an inclusive educational environment will be extremely good for all children involved.
The most important element of this Bill is the fact that it provides a statutory guarantee of education services for people with a disability. For the first time in Ireland a statutory framework will be put in place in which the education of children with special needs can be guaranteed as a right enforceable by law. The education plan plays an essential role in the creation and development of this statutory framework. The education plan will ensure that all children with special needs have their disabilities identified, their needs assessed, goals decided upon to meet their needs and their progress monitored. This is a great approach.
In the past, children with disabilities were offered no assistance when seeking education. On the contrary, children with disabilities were presumed stupid and incapable of receiving an education. Rather than being assisted they were excluded from education completely. Even in the recent past while marginal resources were given to children with disabilities, adequate attention was not given to special education.
I welcome this initiative. It is essential that we identify that every child with a special need is an individual. The education plan will ensure that this individuality is recognised. It will examine his or her level of disability as well as his or her individual needs. It is only through the structured implementation of a cohesive plan that we can be sure that children with special needs will receive the best education possible and the greatest opportunities available to them.
I broadly welcome this significant legislation. It will without doubt, be met with challenges. There will be financial challenges, as the implementation of the policy will need serious funding. However, I urge the Minister for Finance to do his best to provide this funding. People with disability in Ireland have waited far too long for this type of provision and it must be implemented as quickly and as fully as possible.
It will create challenges for the Government, particularly for the Minister concerned. It will create huge challenges for the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and his successors. A great deal of money has been invested in this area in recent years. Future Deputies will have to deal with the growth in expenditure in this area. Perhaps the financial nature of this issue is secondary to the debate, but this problem has not yet been fully addressed. For too long children with disabilities have been ignored. They have not received the same opportunities as other children and have not received the same rights to education as other children. This legislation finally changes that. I congratulate the Minister for Education and Science for taking the courageous and giant step in creating such proactive legislation. I wholeheartedly commend it to the House.