The previous Disability Bill was withdrawn because every organisation representing people with disabilities opposed its provisions. There was a public outcry that the Government of one of the richest countries in the world had failed to provide entitlements as a matter of right to people with disabilities. Having failed to understand or recognise their needs and the mood of the electorate who wanted a Bill more acceptable to the various organisations, the Government retreated into the consultative process. This was considered a victory for the disabled because the Government was expected to engage in a long and detailed consultation process with various representative organisations before publishing a new Bill. The Government was true to its word and a long and detailed process followed. Organisations and voluntary workers spent long hours negotiating with Government officials in the hope that their members would finally be given the recognition and resources they needed to live a life in which equality, independence and choice came as naturally to them as they did to everybody else.
However, there was a long wait prior to the publication of the legislation. The Bill was expected to be an improvement because the Government had finally recognised that the people, by their nature, wanted to do the right thing. The long consultative process should have produced an acceptable Bill but, on its publication, it became apparent that the consultative process was only a smokescreen and a delaying tactic to get over the general, local and European elections. The leopard had not changed its spots. The legislation contained different wording and a number of improvements in procedures but, on closer examination, no improvement had been made on the substantive issue — right of entitlement.
The Government consulted representative organisations but then chose to ignore the vast majority of their recommendations. The Bill is more restrictive than its predecessor. It is cuter and couched in better language but, in the final analysis, its main objective is to indemnify the State against an obligation to treat people with disabilities equally. Everything is contingent on the availability of resources, and the process of assessment and service statement could make their position worse. The assessment will establish the need of every disabled person without a direct or binding link to the service statement. All the statement may do is raise expectations because people with disabilities may find resources are not available.
Nobody, including people with disabilities and their representative organisations, expects that everything can be achieved overnight but the Bill should force Departments and health boards to provide services within a reasonable timeframe. The Bill is designed to prevent people from using the courts to obtain their rights. This would be fair given that politicians, not judges, should make decisions in this regard but, in these circumstances, the Bill should guarantee basic services as a right.
The Bill is confined to health and educational services, which is a narrow perspective. Many other services such as housing, employment and transport need to be included. The Bill fails to ensure the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is compelled to consider the accommodation needs of people with disabilities. While the legislation addresses the 3% quota for employment in the public sector, it fails to make provision regarding the private sector. The Government constantly tells us how well business and the economy is doing, yet there is no compulsion on, nor encouragement given to, the private sector to make a contribution to the employment needs of people with disabilities. No reference was made to increasing the 3% quota for public bodies, even though if it were proportionate to the entire population, it should be closer to 10%. The Government does not seem to realise that public bodies are taking the easy option, even at 3%. The people on their employment panels have, in some cases, the mildest physical disability. There is no obligation on them to employ people with a sensory, learning or mental disability. The process needs review. It is almost impossible for a deaf person to get on one of the panels. However, it is only large organisations, like the public service, that have the volume and type of work available needed to employ people with this type of disability.
In the short term the disabled employment requirement for public bodies should be raised to a minimum 5%. A proportion of that percentage should be people with sensory, learning and mental disabilities. The private sector should be asked, if not compelled, to participate in providing suitable employment on the same basis as public bodies. The Government is well capable of providing tax incentives in other areas. It should use some of that enthusiasm for tax breaks that would ensure the private sector fully participates in the employment of disabled people.
Transport is a major problem, especially for disabled people in rural areas. The failure to underpin transport in the Bill will only serve to widen the urban-rural divide for people with disabilities. There is serious concern among organisations representing disabled people, young and old and those with progressive disabilities. The definition of disability, the assessment process and the service statement do not appear to be designed to cater for these sectors. The system is based on the assessment of need at a particular time and does not provide for continuing assessment of growing needs. This may exclude people, especially young people whose condition may deteriorate over time if they are not given services at an early age.
This also applies to older people. By the nature of their disabilities they will get worse each year and in many instances rapid deterioration may occur. If elderly people are only entitled to services based on the service statement and initial assessment, they may find themselves in a worse situation than they were prior to this legislation.
We are all familiar with how rules and regulations can be used by officialdom to deny or delay a service, particularly when resources are scarce. Resources are scarce and bound to remain so as the legislation does not provide for ring fencing of funds. Money will be made available for disability services depending on how much money remains when the other services have been catered for. We all know that even in this time of plenty when the economy is booming, existing resources, especially for health and education, are scarce and unable to cater for the current services, not to mind provide for new services.
A greater proportion of our population than ever is getting older and living longer. Inevitably, we will have a greater proportion of people with disabilities. Elderly people who develop a disability late in life are entitled to the same equality, independence and dignity as the general population.
During the presentations made by the many disability organisations to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights it became painfully obvious that the majority of the organisations wanted this legislation scrapped. Despite the significant number of pre-discussions, the Government did not listen. Many organisations tried desperately to discover some procedural improvements in this Bill on the previous one before concluding the Bill was fundamentally flawed.
The Aware submission stated:
The draft Bill is not convincing of a commitment to bring about equality. The scope of the legislation is not sufficiently broad. Independence is lacking in the Bill. Everything is restricted by financial or geographic concerns.
The association for deaf blind had problems with the Title of the Bill and employment targets. While broadly welcoming the Bill, the Genetic and Inherited Disorders Organisation wanted employment and insurance included in the Bill. The Irish Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus spoke of a mother who asked whether the introduction of the Bill would provide an occupational therapist or speech therapist for her son or whether it would provide a coach to take her son to a special school. The answer to all her questions was "No" unless substantial changes were made to the Bill.
The Not for Profit Business Association said many issues needed to be addressed, including the definition of disability, independent assessment, the complexity of the complaints system, the complexity of the appeals system and the lack of ring fencing. It also conceded there were fundamental flaws in the Bill as drafted.
The Institute for Design and Disability said the Bill was fundamentally flawed. It has recommended a change to every section of the Bill. The National Parents and Siblings Alliance said the definition of disability in the Bill was an example of failing to address the needs of people with disabilities and that it was a narrow Bill aimed at excluding a large number of people from even being assessed. They said that the phrases used repeatedly in the Bill, for example, "where resources allow" and "where practicable" make it utterly irrelevant.
Children in Hospital Ireland concluded its assessment of the Bill by saying: "There will be no second chance to make it right." The association urged the committee to make its best effort to ensure the Disability Bill was amended so that the needs and rights of vulnerable children with disabilities and their families and carers would be met.
As this is a second attempt at a disability Bill, most organisations are hoping that through the many amendments they have suggested, the Bill will become acceptable in some way. I urge the Government to heed these genuine concerns. I hope the Minister will table sufficient amendments to make the Bill acceptable.
Disabled people, the organisations representing them and the public should realise that Fine Gael and any other Opposition party or Deputy cannot introduce worthwhile amendments because procedural rules in the Dáil prevent the acceptance of Opposition amendments if there is a cost on the Exchequer. The only way to improve this Bill is for the Government, even at this stage, to recognise its mistakes and introduce significant amendments.
Despite that this nation has become materialistic over recent years, I am convinced there is more than enough humanity in the people to demand these changes be made. They will expect them to be implemented in their name by a Government that up to now has promoted Ireland as an economy rather than a society.