Impact of Covid-19 on People with Disabilities within the Education and Health Sectors: Statements

The Ministers of State, Deputy Madigan and Deputy Rabbitte, are sharing time. I call the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan.

Táim buíoch as ucht an deis labhairt inniú ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. Covid-19 has impacted all parts of society, but we must remember that some groups have been impacted more than others. Those in society who require additional supports or have particular needs have found the past year to be more difficult than others.

In opening this discussion, as Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, I want to focus particularly on how Covid-19 has impacted the educational experience of those in society with additional needs. As Members of this House are aware, the closure of schools for extended periods on two separate occasions over the past two years due to Covid restrictions has meant this has been a very difficult period for our young people and students. These difficulties were often even more pronounced for students who have disabilities or special educational needs, who often found it harder to participate fully with remote education.

For such students, changes to their normal routines and the fact that they could not access the supports they would normally receive in a school environment meant that school closures often had an even greater impact on them and their parents and guardians. I have heard countless stories from young people and their families about how this impacted on their lives, with the fear of educational and behavioural regression being a constant feature of this period.

The loss of connection with education, school staff, and friends was a very real concern. Students with additional needs do best in school, as we know, receiving educational support in person. I wanted to make sure that the lessons learned during the first period of school closure could lead to a more targeted response during the second period of school closure, so Government confirmed that special education should be a priority as part of school reopening earlier this year. I worked to ensure that precedence was given to the reopening of schools for pupils who have the most complex special educational needs. Following intense engagement with education partners, public health officials and other relevant stakeholders, including parents and school management bodies, we were able to ensure that a phased return to in-school learning for children with special educational needs could commence from early February of this year.

The first cohort of pupils who returned to school were children who attended special schools. Special schools were prioritised for the first stage of reopening, initially on a 50% capacity shared basis from 11 February. Children in special classes in mainstream primary and post-primary schools formed part of the next group who were prioritised for return to school on 22 February. Special schools reopened at full capacity on 1 March. Pupils with special educational needs who attended mainstream classes returned to schools in accordance with the next stages of the phased reopening, between March and April.

Recognising that remote learning can be especially challenging for students with complex special educational needs in mainstream education, my Department also put in place a supplementary education programme, which commenced in February, and which was designed to support the education and-or care needs of pupils with complex needs during the period of extended school closures and phased reopening. Under the supplementary education programme, provision was made for pupils to receive five hours per week of in-person teaching or care support for four weeks. My Department provided for a flexible approach to the use of these hours to maximise the number of students participating. To this end, hours could be used by families at any time before 30 April 2021, including during the Easter holidays. The Department also facilitated arrangements where school buildings were used for this programme once schools had fully reopened.

The programme was structured in similar way to my Department’s home-based summer programme. Parents engaged either a teacher or a special needs assessment in a private arrangement. When the programme is complete, parents return a payment claim form to my Department. The closing date for receipt of completed payment claim forms was 14 May 2021. To date, the Department has received approximately 13,800 payment claim forms, which demonstrated significant take-up of the programme. The schools, their management bodies and teacher representative organisations made significant efforts to ensure that children with special educational needs could return to school at the earliest possible stage. In doing so, they were also required to address the concerns of school staff about how school premises could reopen safely and operate in accordance with public health guidance. I express my appreciation to everyone who was involved in working to ensure that the return to in-school learning could take place in difficult and challenging circumstances. I recognise and appreciate the good faith of all concerned. We all shared the same of goal of ensuring that pupils could safely return to schools.

Overall, a package of nearly €650 million has been provided to support the reopening of schools. This includes funding for PPE, additional teaching posts, sanitiser, enhanced cleaning, and also funding so that schools could employ replacement teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and administrative staff. In addition to prioritising pupils with special educational needs to return to school, my Department has also provided for a range of measures to support such pupils while out of school. This included measures to support the provision of teaching support during the school closure period, the supplementary education scheme and, as I mentioned, an enhanced summer education programme which will take place this year.

Guidance was provided for schools which advised schools and teachers on how to support continuity of learning for pupils with special educational needs during the school closures associated with Covid-19. This guidance outlined how special education teachers in mainstream schools and teachers in special schools and special classes should make every effort to maintain regular contact with all of their pupils and, where appropriate, make provision for one-to-one online supports. Schools were also provided with funding for digital support and in the two tranches of funding, totalling €100 million in 2020, have been advised to prioritise supporting the purchase of devices for students who may not have access to devices for remote learning.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, provided a range of supports for parents and schools with dedicated phone lines to support teachers and parents. The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, also provided supports for schools and pupils during the school closure period and developed a range of resources for pupils and parents to support the well-being of children and young people in line with the Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Practice 2018-2023. NEPS psychologists also developed advice and guidance documents for parents and students available to support the return to school, including advice on transition, coping and relaxation strategies, and managing stress and anxiety.

To further take account of the fact that children with special educational needs have been significantly affected by school closures, I am delighted to have secured an expanded summer education programme this year. The Government recently announced a package of supports to allow primary and post-primary schools to offer a summer programme for students with complex educational needs and those at greatest risk of educational disadvantage. The total funding available to provide summer programmes this year is up to €40 million, a 100% increase on the allocation for summer programmes in 2020. The programme was developed following extensive engagement with education stakeholders, parent and disability advocacy groups. The programme has a few aims. It aims to support pupils to maintain their connection with education, to build their confidence and increase their motivation and promote well-being. For those who are at key transition stages, it aims to help to ensure they continue their education journey in September, either in school, in further or higher education or in training. The programmes on offer this summer include a new two to three week summer programme available to all schools and an expansion of the existing programmes in special schools and classes and in DEIS schools.

Is the Minister of State sharing time?

The Minister of State's colleague will make the closing statement.

Yes. Some programmes are being run again this year, including numeracy and literacy camps in DEIS primary schools, a school-based summer programme in primary special classes and special schools. There will be home-based provision for students with complex needs where no school-based programme is available. New programmes are also being provided this year. All primary schools will have the opportunity to provide a two-week summer programme for mainstream pupils with complex needs and those at greatest risk of educational disadvantage. All post-primary schools have the opportunity to provide a two-week summer programme for students with complex needs and those at greatest risk of educational disadvantage.

Similar to last year, children with complex needs who had been attending pre-schools this year, but who are entering primary school this September, are also eligible to participate in summer programmes. This range of programmes on offer builds on the success of the expanded programmes that ran last year and incorporates feedback from education stakeholders about how to better support the programme for all involved in summer 2021. A home-based summer programme will be available for students with complex special educational needs where schools are not providing a school-based programme. Application forms are available from schools.

The summer programme is intended to help as many students as possible with additional needs to benefit from in-person education over the summer to prevent regression, build key skills and confidence, and make up for the time missed earlier in the year.

We are also working with school bodies and staff representatives so that uptake of this year’s summer programme is as large as possible for the benefit of all. The closing date for receipt of expressions of interest from primary and post-primary schools is 25 June.

I have outlined the significant efforts made to ensure that pupils with special educational needs could return to in-person learning as soon as possible. Additional supports have also been provided to mitigate the loss of learning time experienced by pupils.

As the educational environment returns to normality, there will be opportunities to fully reflect on the impact of school closures on these children. Irish and international research on the impact of the period of school closures on students has been carried out. Understandably, much of this research, focuses on the impact on students with special educational needs and those most at risk of educational disadvantage. My Department's inspectorate, for example, has gathered the views of parents of primary and post-primary students and students in special schools on their children’s experiences of remote learning in 2021. While parents of children attending primary and post-primary schools largely report positively on remote learning, some parents of children attending special schools reported negatively on those experiences.

Recent research published in the UK found substantial learning loss for students at key stage 2 in reading and mathematics, along with projections that the previously existing attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged learners is likely to widen significantly without the provision of compensatory measures for those most at risk of educational disadvantage. Acknowledging that this is also likely to be the case in this country, my officials are working on how best to support schools and students as they return to school in September for the coming school year. Further information on this will be outlined in the coming weeks.

Further research will be also be required in Ireland to measure the full extent of the impact that educational disruption has had on children. It will also need to consider which pupils have been most affected, whether the effects are temporary or long term and what measures might best alleviate or address this impact.

In the coming school year, more than 13,600 special education teachers will be allocated to mainstream schools. They will support class teachers to address the special educational needs and learning needs of pupils who attend mainstream schools. This year, we are also providing for two new special schools and 269 new special classes.

For the 2021-22 school year, we will have 2,118 special classes, which is the largest number of special classes we have ever had and compares with 548 classes available in 2011. Some 18,000 special needs assistants will be available to support the care needs of pupils with special educational needs in our schools.

My Department will continue to prioritise investment in special education, with over €2 billion due to be spent on special education this year. The Government’s commitment to special education is clear from the resources being allocated and the progress being made. As ever, our focus is and must always be the young people themselves. Over recent months, we have heard these young people and their families speak about their experiences. We must now ensure that as we, hopefully, emerge from a time of extensive Covid-19 restrictions, the educational needs of these pupils continue to be provided for.

I am sharing time with Deputy Ward.

AsIAm has published a report, entitled Every Child Counts. It was only sent to me yesterday and I do not know if the Minister of State has had chance to see it. It contains the results of a survey, which it is keen to indicate is just a snapshot of autism services and supports. It surveyed the parents of children with autism. The key findings were that two thirds of parents and guardians surveyed have had to wait two years or more to receive an autism diagnosis for their child. Over 50% felt very dissatisfied with the HSE support services for their autistic children. Almost four in five said they were not in receipt of any support from either the early intervention or school age teams.

The survey was carried out over the past 15 months and therefore incorporates the Covid pandemic period. The results are alarming and it is important for the Dáil to consider progressing an autism strategy and establishing an autism committee. It is extremely important as the number of children with autism seems to be increasing all the time and the supports to deal with it are not available.

The report also referred to respite. Respite provision was poor prior to the pandemic and has been non-existent during it. Respite provision needs to resume and it needs to be provided in every county. It needs to be provided for children and adults, separately but simultaneously. Some €5 million was provided in the budget to open nine additional respite houses over the course of the year. I know one was opened in Limerick which is welcome. I am not sure of the status of the others. Will they be opened this year? It is essential that they are.

Separate emergency respite provision is required which will not interrupt the pre-booked respite provision being made available to families. Many families tell me that they have their child booked into respite care, have booked a couple of nights away and then they get a phone call the following day asking them to take their child out of respite and their break is interrupted. That cannot be allowed to happen; it is not fair to families. Respite needs to be person centred and it needs to be provided and designed with the interests of the child or individual at heart.

As the Minister of State mentioned, children have missed out on a considerable amount of school contact time between last year and this year. Children with additional needs have been impacted more greatly than others, resulting in regression in many cases. I welcome all the programmes that the Minister of State indicated have been offered. The enhanced summer provision programme that has been put in place is very welcome. However, parents have been telling me of difficulty with provision in some schools and that they are very disappointed that their local school may not be providing the service because of insufficient staff. Has this issue been dealt with? If the staff in the school are not willing to provide the service, can staff from another school do so or can undergraduate staff be brought in to provide the service?

The set allocation has not been reviewed for the past two years because of the Covid pandemic. While this does not affect some schools and might, in fact, benefit others, new schools or progressing schools are missing out. They have appealed and I ask the Minister of State to look at those appeals and ensure that extra provision is put in place in those schools prior to autumn resumption of school.

Day services for people with disabilities and people with dementia were severely interrupted last year. I previously welcomed the fact that day services for people with disabilities reopened in September and stayed open during subsequent lockdowns, obviously not at full capacity. I hope they will resume at full capacity very soon given that by now most of the service users and staff will have been vaccinated. Dementia sufferers have not been able to access their services and it is extremely important that they are reopened if staff are fully vaccinated. As I presume most of the older cohort of the population are vaccinated, it should be safe to do so.

The Indecon report on the disability capacity review has not yet been published. It is imperative to get that report to allow us to plan and know where and how to fund disability services for the future. When will that report be published? Will it be published in time for the budget preparation? The Oireachtas disability group and the IWA have called for that to happen. We have a deficit in disability services that needs to be addressed.

The pandemic has disrupted education for all, but it has had further implications for children with disabilities. As the Minister of State said, it has disproportionately affected this group of children. As schools turned to remote learning, countless parents have seen their children regress. Many children with disabilities need the structure that schools offer. Others need interventions that are difficult to provide remotely, such as hands-on instruction, occupational therapy and special needs assistance.

The loss of school for this group of children was much more than a denial of education. It was the loss of meaning, routine, therapy, socialisation, peer interaction and fun. The Ombudsman for Children has said that it is no surprise that stories of regression and challenging behaviour were arriving into his office during every lockdown and that parents were crying out for schools to be reopened for this group of children. In my area of Dublin Mid-West, parents have contacted me seeking to obtain additional supports in school because of their children's regression. Parents whose children attend a semi-mainstream class in St. Peter Apostle National School in Neilstown are adamant that their children now need to be in a special educational class because of how far they have regressed. The problem is that the school does not have the capacity to provide this. Will the Minister of State look at how she can support families such as these?

I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will answer some of the questions I am about to ask in her closing statement. As a result of this year's cyberattack, it is very difficult to obtain some of the information for which we are looking. One of the issues I have consistently raised with the Minister of State is that of children having timely access to assessments of need. Earlier this year, the HSE and the Minister of State's Department streamlined these assessments to ensure they reach as many children as possible. I am a bit in the dark. I do not know if this is working because we have not been given the information from the HSE. I was very critical at the beginning and I was afraid that this was a box-ticking exercise and that children were to be moved from one service to another without actually getting the services they need. In the absence of these data from the HSE, I hope the Minister of State will be able to circulate a report in this regard or to refer to the matter in her closing statement and let us know how it is going, if it is working and if children are getting the help they need in a timely manner.

Another barrier to children accessing disability services in my area of Dublin Mid-West is the lack of primary care centres. There are 120,000 people living in my area, which includes Clondalkin, Lucan, Palmerstown, Rathcoole, Newcastle, Saggart and Brittas. Does the Minister of State know how many primary care centres there are to serve this population? One does not need a calculator. There is not one. Construction started on one in Clondalkin very recently. The one in Rowlagh has been held up as a result of a dispute between the Departments of Health and Education. This has been ongoing for some time. There is no sign of the proposed primary health care centres in Adamstown or Lucan. For children to access the services they need, the Government needs to put the infrastructure in place for these disability teams.

I will make one last point. I am one of the more than 800,000 Irish people who are living with a neurological condition. Most people who have neurological conditions will require neuro-rehabilitation services at some point. These services are critical in supporting recovery and preventing disability for those with a neurological condition. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007 and can speak at first hand of my experiences and difficulties in accessing neurological services in a timely manner and the impact these difficulties had on me as an individual and on my family, my job and my employment at that time.

Earlier today I met with representatives of the Neurological Alliance of Ireland, who had serious concerns about the lack of progress in the implementation of the national neuro-rehabilitation strategy. It is nearly a year since the current programme for Government was published. This programme included a commitment to implement this strategy. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in serious pent-up demand for rehabilitation services for new and existing neurological needs in addition to creating further demand for rehabilitation to meet the needs of patients with long Covid. The HSE national steering group with responsibility for the implementation of the neuro-rehabilitation framework has not met at all in 2021. This is not good enough. The Minister of State's Government has promised neuro-rehabilitation teams in each of the nine community healthcare organisation, CHO, areas across Ireland. So far, two have been delivered. There are 23,000 people waiting for neurology appointments as we speak. With the onset of Covid, this waiting list will only get longer. We need political will and we need to start putting things in place to resolve this issue.

I welcome the Ministers of State. I am a little bit taken aback by the Minister of State's address as it appeared she wanted to inform the House that everything is basically okay, that everything is fine, that Government is on top of things and that there is nothing to see here. Anybody who understands the education system well, and particularly how it interacts with the health system, will know that there were very significant problems before the pandemic. If the Minister of State were to stand up, acknowledge that and say that she appreciates that there are issues and that she is going to work with every agency, with the Opposition and with families and communities to resolve them rather than read out a list of ticked boxes to show how great the Government is doing, we might actually believe she is in a position to bring about great changes.

I will fill her in on the reality of my constituents, who are waiting years for their children to get basic assessments and basic interventions. They do not have a right to automatic placement in a primary school. They get a list of schools from the special educational needs organiser and are basically told to fend for themselves. We also have an issue which has become quite profound over the course of the pandemic. As I hope the Minister of State will understand, children with special educational needs have been profoundly affected by the lack of in-school learning. On that basis, although the pandemic is clearly not the Government's fault, it is the Government's responsibility to respond with a fund, investment or vision to catch these children up. We are not going to heal the scars of the last year and a half with a summer programme.

I mentioned this to the Tánaiste earlier. Two weeks ago, the Minister for Education announced her intention to establish a multimillion euro catch-up fund for children for next year. There has been an enormous political row in the UK over the level of the catch-up fund announced in England. The person who was responsible for distributing that fund resigned on the basis that it was only £1.4 billion. It appears that this Government feels that, if we can make a little bit of an investment over the summer, we need no real radical overhaul of how the system presents itself to families and to children and no radical overhaul or investment with regard to class sizes, what children are going through or the level of campaigning parents have to undertake, and the exhaustion they have to experience, to get basic services. All of us, including myself, are dealing with parents in our constituencies. I have been speaking to Senator Bacik about parents in Dublin 2, Dublin 4, Dublin 6 and Dublin 6 West who cannot get a unit for their children. The State seems unable to stand up for these families or to interact proactively with patron bodies to ensure children can get access to these services in the areas they are from. I suggest to the Minister of State that there are major holes in the system and that they existed before the pandemic. What we need from Government is a multimillion euro investment in the education system that will attempt, first of all, to repair the scars of the last year and a half and, second, will move us towards a system that is more reflective of the education system of a modern European republic.

The issues I am raising are real. The exhaustion of families is real. The lack of services is real. The waiting lists are real. In my part of the world, children are waiting so long for basic interventions that they become no longer eligible for those interventions and so have to go on another waiting list. All the while, there is a hint, sense or feeling that the system is begging people to get these services privately because they can then be taken off the list and will no longer be the system's problem. As I am sure the Minister of State will know, only a certain number of families have the means to do so. I again suggest to the Minister of State that, rather than standing up and giving a self-congratulatory speech on how everything is going fine, thank you very much, she should realise the level of scarring in Irish society and that it will take a massive package to allow some children and families to catch up to where they would like to be. We could then have a proper discussion with regard to where we were before the pandemic hit, when the system certainly was not serving children with disabilities or their families in any way that would be commensurate with what we should expect in a proper republic.

I am sharing time with Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan. I disagree with the previous speaker. I listened to the speech of the Minister of State and I do not think it was self-congratulatory in any way. I think it was an acknowledgement of the resources that have been put in throughout the pandemic. Most of those contributing to this debate come from an educational background or have worked in the health services and we acknowledge that there will never be enough money to deal with some of the issues we are discussing. It needs to be recognised that an effort has been made in the past couple of months to target the most vulnerable in society in terms of improving resources but, unfortunately, there will never be enough money, such are the difficulties we face.

I would welcome feedback from the Minister of State in her closing remarks on the points I wish to raise. The first issue is that of summer provision. Having worked in a school for the best part of 15 years, I know, as do all Members, the problems faced by parents who have to seek that assistance for their children during the summer. All Members know the difficulties involved in getting SNAs and other staff to sign up for summer provision. To be fair, this year the Government has tried to streamline it and make it more approachable for staff, but, unfortunately, I have heard that the uptake on the ground has been very slow. I acknowledge the extension that has been granted up to 25 June and it is welcome for those applicants but it probably masks the fact that the uptake up to now has been very slow. We need to have a larger think about the system and the way in which it is delivered every year because, evidently, it is very difficult to get people to sign up. We need that to change.

In a related point on summer provision, there should be a portal run by the Department. It is sad to see that some parents and schools have created ad hoc portals to get people and teachers to advertise themselves and their availability through the summer. It may be the case that the education and training boards and the Department should be running that kind of portal.

I ask the Minister of State to clarify the position with regard to the application for summer provision. I understand that applicants have the choice of availing of home support or school support but are not able to avail of both. Could there be consideration of an extension of the choice available such that a child could go to school for a portion of summer provision and then avail of it at home as well? That would open it up to greater numbers.

Deputy Tully referred to the Every Child Counts report published this week by AsIAm. Evidently, two thirds of respondents are dissatisfied with the service they are receiving, while 40% stated that children regressed during the pandemic. Unfortunately, those are the facts we need to face. We need to pump extra resources into children, schools and the sector.

The Rainbow Club in Cork does great work and has recently located a building on the south side of the city after much difficulty. It receives no departmental funding. It pays for all the therapies and employs its own occupational therapists, other therapists and so on. Unfortunately, the parents and children who avail of those services have to contribute towards the cost, with a charge of €20 per head per therapy. It is a service that is worthwhile and it is worth publicly funding. The Rainbow Club is also considering a disused HSE building in Mahon. I have written to the head of the HSE South/Southwest Hospital Group today to inquire about that property. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, can use her good offices to ascertain whether the HSE could lease that building to the Rainbow Club. She has probably seen coverage of the club online, especially on Twitter, including its autistic baker, Sean O'Mahoney, and its cottage community café. It is doing great work with children and teaching them life skills. That needs to be recognised through State funding.

I refer to autism spectrum disorder, ASD, provision nationally. I know all Members contributing to the debate are acknowledging that children have regressed in this period and it has been very challenging but I think we need to consider the overall approach to ASD schooling in mainstream schools. The strategy and discretion that schools have need to be challenged and changed and a demand-led service needs to be brought in.

In fairness to Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, he has quite elegantly covered many of the issues that have been raised with me in my constituency, so I will not duplicate that or cover the same ground.

An issue I wish to raise that is particularly relevant to the role of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, who has responsibility for disabilities, is the need for accessibility, particularly wheelchair accessibility, at beaches throughout Ireland. I constantly make the point that something wonderful happened during lockdown - people started to flock to beaches and the coast. They found refuge on our beaches and coast and in our coves. It was amazing to see that happening. It is still happening and it will happen in the summer months while we are under existing restrictions. Unfortunately, not everybody is able to avail of the amenity that is provided by our beaches or the incredible facilities we have on our coast and our doorsteps right across the island of Ireland.

I would love for the State to fund the provision of accessibility measures, and particularly wheelchair accessibility, to beaches. Ireland is dotted with thousands of beaches, but even if we were to focus on the provision of wheelchair accessibility to the many safe Blue Flag beaches, it would change people's lives. I can testify to the fact that where wheelchair buggies are already provided, such as at the Warren beach just west of Clonakilty, they are making a significant difference. I have witnessed the absolute joy of a child at being able to go onto the beach in one of these adapted wheelchairs and head right into the water. It is an absolutely incredible thing to witness the joy that child got from being able to do so. I do not think anybody should be deprived of the ability to have that experience. I would love to see such initiatives rolled out not just at the Warren, but at beaches right across Cork and elsewhere.

We in the western division of the local authority in the area I represent are lucky to have a municipal district officer who is incredibly passionate about this issue, but she needs resources and funding to put into it. I would really love it if the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, could provide me with an update regarding where we are in terms of the provision of funding for this. Even if it is not possible to provide wheelchair buggies, she could consider the provision of decking that splays out into the beach and would, at least, give people the opportunity to have that beach experience. Something simple and small like that could change people's lives.

I wish to raise an issue related to the point raised by the previous speaker and the whole conversation around accessibility. We have heard the issue discussed in the media in recent days but people have also contacted me on it. In fairness, incredible work has been done in terms of facilitating outdoor dining but there has probably been a trick missed in the sense that accessibility, particularly wheelchair accessibility, was not built into it. That should be a starting point for all such discussions into the future.

Would it be possible for one of the Ministers of State present to deal with the issue of St. John of God day services when they are returning fire, as they say? I know there is a process ongoing in that regard, but at what stage is the process? There are several families, particularly in my constituency, who are somewhat worried about what the future holds. If possible, they should be given some sort of succour that everything is going in the right direction and there will be provision of these absolutely necessary services into the future.

Many of my colleagues, including Deputy Tully, referred to special education teaching and the allocation and the need for review.

A number of school managers in my constituency have contacted me lately to say they do not have adequate provision. We need an overall review to deal with that particular issue.

There is an issue in terms of people with disabilities falling between stools. I refer to adults who do not have the capacity to live life as the rest of us do and who may have been unlucky in not having had supportive parenting or other family supports, as a result, in some cases, of terrible tragedy. There may also be crossover issues to do with mental health and otherwise. It may happen that such people's care falls between disability, social care and mental health services. We need to look at that entire process and provision across the board. I hope to have a longer conversation with the Minister of State on this matter. I have had a number of such cases land on my desk in the past while. Sometimes we are giving people whatever support we can but it is a case of keeping the engine going with bale and twine. It is not acceptable that we are failing these people. Early interventions are being missed, which could make it much easier to deal with some of these situations. Instead, people are left waiting until acute care is required and we all know such services are not necessarily in place. That issue must be addressed.

I have spoken to the Minister of State before about particular issues around housing provision for people with disabilities. In particular, there are parents of children with severe disabilities who cannot avail of appropriate housing provision. Again, this needs to be looked at across the board. There is also the issue of the major backlog in local authorities in dealing with applications for housing adaptation grants for people with disabilities. That needs to be reviewed because there are people with real difficulties that are not being dealt with adequately. In fairness, it will require a multi-departmental solution. We will probably have to look at the methodology and process around this provision across the board because it is entirely failing. It is not just the fault of local authorities and the fact they are underfunded. There also needs to be more interaction with the HSE and other agencies.

Earlier this week, AsIAm, an autism charity, published its Every Child Counts report, which found that 66% of families surveyed had to wait more than two years to access an appropriate assessment for their child. More than three quarters of those surveyed said they were not in receipt of any support from the HSE's early intervention team, school age team or the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. The last finding I want to mention, which is crucial to this debate, is that 40% of respondents' autistic children had regressed during the Covid-19 pandemic, either in terms of their educational or interpersonal skills. This would suggest to every right-minded person that the claim made by the Minister of State that everything is okay is clearly not true. Things were not okay before the pandemic and they certainly were exacerbated during it. In a post-pandemic situation, we are a long way from where we need to be.

I have noticed a narrative developing that is deeply worrying. It is that the trauma, isolation and regression experienced by many parents and their children with disabilities over the course of the pandemic are no longer an issue. A summer programme does not even come close to being enough to address the harm that has taken place. I have stated repeatedly that a return to the pre-pandemic normal is not good enough. There was a wave of unmet needs before the onset of Covid for people with disabilities and those needs have only grown as a result of the pandemic. We need to have more ambition and stop being bystanders when it comes to advancing the rights of people with disabilities. We are waiting 17 years for the full implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004. That is an extraordinary indictment of this State. What good is it to have a legal requirement that an assessment of needs be provided within three months of receipt of an application if less than 10% of assessments are completed on time? Where are the ambition, the resources and funding to address this issue adequately?

In my role as party spokesperson for education, instead of conversations about enhancements and additional resources for students with disabilities, all I am hearing is that things will be maintained and frozen going into the next academic year. I want to highlight a specific issue in this regard, namely, the provision of SNAs and the exceptional review process. Schools are facing a cliff edge in September in regard to special needs resources. For schools in my constituency, this is a conversation that is ongoing and an issue about which school principals have been contacting me. The Government line is that nothing will be taken away for the 2021-22 school year. One can conclude from this that nothing additional will be given. Is that not correct? In a reply to a parliamentary question I submitted, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, confirmed that existing mainstream class SNA allocations in schools as at 30 April last will be maintained and will roll over into the next school year. What good is that to the many schools that are set for an increase in the number of students with special needs who require the support or partial support of an SNA? They include students who are transitioning to secondary school, for example, who have had an extraordinarily difficult fifth-class year and a sixth-class year that was completely upturned. However, we are still being told that the basic pre-Covid provision of SNAs, which was inadequate before the pandemic, will be retained and will be adequate for the coming school year. It is farcical.

We are in a dangerous space in this regard. The process of exceptional reviews is not fit for purpose. There is no timeline for the process and secondary schools will not have completed their applications until after September, when the special educational needs organiser visits. Many primary school students with disabilities whose fifth-class and sixth-class years were marked by Covid will not have the resources they need in place for them in September. If I can ask the Minister of State to do one thing, it is to address this issue. Many schools are facing a cliff edge and the trauma for students that was exacerbated throughout the pandemic will be made worse. The gap in educational access and dignity will be widened further in September. If only one action comes out of this debate, let it be that this issue is addressed. What is happening is morally reprehensible and I strongly encourage the Minister of State to address it.

I am sharing time with Deputy Hourigan. I welcome this discussion on the impact the Covid pandemic has had on people with disabilities and their families. I thank the Ministers of State, Deputies Madigan and Rabbitte, for giving their time to the debate this evening. In particular, I acknowledge the efforts made by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and her staff to prioritise people with disabilities during the pandemic. She has been available to Deputies on all sides of the House at all times and this is greatly appreciated.

It is important to acknowledge that the Covid pandemic has had a devastating impact on people with disabilities, their families and service providers. It was encouraging to see services resume in special schools from 22 February last, as well as in-class teaching from March. I pay tribute to everyone working in the sector, particularly teachers, SNAs, transport and sanitation workers and everybody who made school facilities safe to reopen. However, I have been made aware of difficulties arising for certain healthcare workers and others who are still awaiting their second AstraZeneca vaccination. I ask the Ministers of State to raise that matter with the HSE. I am aware that a statement was issued some days ago in this regard but it is important that we see the issue resolved as soon as possible.

The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has gone to considerable lengths to meet with parents' groups in my constituency, such as the parents of children in Carmona Services and she organised a meeting with stakeholders earlier this week. That was greatly appreciated. Perhaps she will refer in her closing statement to the implementation of the progressing disability services, PDS, programme in special schools, with particular reference to the need to ensure services remain based on site.

The cyberattack the HSE has had to grapple with in the shadow of the pandemic also has had a devastating impact on its ability to provide services. For us in this House, it has had a particular impact on our ability to represent our constituents. It is imperative that the parliamentary question system, as it interacts with the HSE, be restored as soon as possible. Will the Minister of State speak to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, about this? It is important that the facility resumes as soon as possible.

In the time remaining, I want to refer to the July provision. While the recent announcement is crucial and very welcome, I agree with my colleague, Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, that an online portal might be the best way to proceed.

It is cumbersome, particularly for the schools that do not offer the service. Parents have to seek July provision at home. That presents its own challenges. For many parents with children who have disabilities, it is tough for them to continuously go out and seek services. If services were available easily at the click of a button, or indeed if it were easier to apply for them, it would be easier for all of them.

I am going to speak about a particular group this evening, namely, that comprising children with visual impairment. I lived the experience over the last 15 months with my own eight year old. Other Deputies have mentioned the AsIAm report. One could pick any group and speak to its specific needs, or indeed any child, because every child is unique and will have experienced the pandemic in a particular way.

It is worth saying at the outset that my experience - and indeed that of many parents - was that the staff at the school really tried their hardest. Visiting teachers, resource teachers, class teachers and the incredible SNAs that are almost part of the family did heroic work during the pandemic to bridge the gap that Covid-19 threw up and exposed in our services. NGOs did a huge amount of work for children with visual impairment. The National Council for the Blind of Ireland, NCBI, provided support, advocacy and advice. Parents groups such as Féach and ChildVision in Drumcondra did great work.

The pandemic had an impact in two areas. It had an impact on and caused disruption to children's academic lives, but for children with disabilities, it also had a huge impact on the social, developmental and emotional side of their lives, which they access through the school environment. It is important that we have these debates and bring it all out into the light now in case it happens again - and I really hope that we do not see another pandemic or go into a third wave lockdown. The pandemic also exposed failings in our own system and in education delivery and services.

For a child with visual impairment, much of the academic side that they access in school is based on assistive technology. For a child in primary school in particular, assistive technology includes CCTV, and reveal technology. These are big bulky items that the schools do not necessarily send home. Indeed, I am not sure they should be sending them home. Even if they could, certainly in my constituency, most families do not have the space to set up a large, permanent screen-type learning environment. Therefore, during the pandemic, most children in mainstream education with visual impairment were required to do much of their learning online and through Zoom. Many children with visual impairment have other diagnoses. For example, they might have hearing difficulties or other complications. Zoom learning is simply not workable. It is very difficult to get a child to concentrate on a Zoom call when they cannot see the screen and they are not having the same experience as their peers in their class. That has a huge knock-on effect. The pandemic really brought to the fore the need for a greater focus in educational settings on the expanded core curriculum. It is an issue that the NCBI highlights often. It encompasses everything on the curriculum except the academics.

I have an excellent experience of visiting teachers and they are fantastic. However, their focus and their task from the Department is academic in nature. They are excellent at supporting the other elements of the curriculum, but it would be even better if there was a renewed focus on an expanded core curriculum for children who are visually impaired. It includes the social and occupational therapy aspects, such as making friends and children taking responsibility for going to the toilet by themselves. To do that, one very clear thing that we could do would be for the Department of Education and the NCSE to recognise the NCBI as a complementary service provider so that it could support children, parents, families, visiting teachers and the schools themselves in that more social side of how education is experienced by children with visual impairment.

Finally, at the meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Disability Matters earlier, we had a very clear discussion with the chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission on the need for better data. There is a huge gap between the data on self-declared vision impairment in the census and the number of children in our educational system who are receiving support. That simply does not add up. We need to get it right.

In 2019, the national autism empowerment strategy was passed here unanimously. Families with autism have to fight for absolutely everything. If we had a strategy, it would ensure that we have enough neurodiverse places in our schools. With the strategy, we would have proper supports for children in secondary school. My colleague, Senator Boylan, and I recently met with Autism Equality Dublin Bay parents group. They raised with us the fact that one school in Sandymount, the Shelleybanks Educate Together School, will not be opening an ASD class in September. It is really difficult to understand how any school in this day and age would not want to have an ASD class. I understand that the Department has made resources available to the school and the capacity is there, yet it will still not open a class. This is unacceptable and shameful. I think the Minister of State would agree with that. I call on the Minister of State to directly intervene and compel the Shelleybanks Educate Together School in Sandymount to open an ASD class in September.

Like every community, we have children with additional needs. Every morning they should be able to walk through the school gates with their brothers and sisters. It is ironic that the school's name contains the phrase "Educate Together", yet it refuses to educate all children together. The Involve Autism advocacy group has harvested the facts to show how much is being spent on bussing children out of their communities in Dublin 6 and 6W. The lack of ASD class places in these two communities is shocking. There are 20 schools in Dublin 6 and 6W and there are no ASD classes in Dublin 6. Despite the section 37A process, there are no ASD classes in the area. The Minister of State needs to intervene and compel schools to open additional needs classes in Dublin 6 and 6W. No amount of resistance from the board of management of the Shelleybanks Educate Together School can be tolerated. A lack of resources cannot be used as an excuse. I do not believe that it is an excuse. The lack of will to provide the classes by the school and the board of management is the biggest obstacle, at board level and political level.

This issue does not only impact on primary schools, it also impacts on secondary schools. The national autism impairment strategy would address this deficit. We need ministerial action and intervention with the schools that are pushing back against families and children with autism.

We have had debate on disability services and the knock-on effect of the pandemic on them many times in the past 17 or 18 months. It has been a grim 18 months for society as a whole but, in other ways, it has been enlightening to see people pulling together in a time of need. I am proud of this country's spirit. We are in a different place now to where we were in January or the previous March and April. Images stick in my mind of really stressed parents. The routine that they had with their children disappeared overnight. That has had a detrimental effect not only on the children's lives but also on family life.

The good news is that educational and care settings have largely been reopened. That is testament to the amazing staff who work in these facilities. They really are heroes. They have kept things open and going. They have an amazing relationship with the people who use their services and their families. That has been really good.

The loss of those routines has led to regression, however, while the lack of peer-to-peer interaction has had a major effect on the family lives of the children in question.

In previous years, there have been issues with the July provision and its roll-out. Hopefully, it will have a better run-in next month. It is a vital service of which people are appreciative. There have been issues with access and so forth.

The long-term effects of the pandemic will probably live on for a considerable time. It has shown the grave inequalities in certain areas in society and the fault lines which exist in the provision of some disability services. From my experience, I know this has a significant effect on families in that when they need an intervention it is not there. Of the several things which must come out of the pandemic, we need to address the inequalities in the provision of special education, as well as the knock-on effect with what has happened over the past 17 months. Those who keep the show on the road have been amazing. They have kept the flag flying in the most adverse circumstances. They are heroes and I commend them fully.

I pay tribute to both Ministers of State, Deputies Madigan and Rabbitte, as well as to their teams for their commitment to the disability sector throughout the pandemic. I also want to place on record my admiration for the staff and management in the disability sector who put service users front and centre throughout what has been a national crisis. This year, just under 25% of the total education budget will be invested in supporting children with special needs education. While it is hugely welcome, I contend it is money well spent and certainly a budget that we need to see scaled over the coming years.

Regarding special education support services and the Phoenix Centre in Longford town, I am anxious we return to full staffing levels there as soon as possible. It is an issue which has dogged the service in recent years. Many of the staff continued to provide support services to children throughout the pandemic, even though they were transferred over to Covid testing duties. That reflects their commitment to the service. It is vital the service is fully staffed and we double down on our commitment to the most vulnerable and those who have probably paid the heaviest price throughout Covid.

I am pleased work has continued on the new special education primary school at St. Christopher's in Longford town throughout Covid. Thankfully, it will open in September. The new school will include two new classrooms and will take the total student population to 36. There is a new autism class and also a class for young children with severe to profound special needs. All the children in these two classes will have significant care needs across the sensory, medical and physical spectrum. Of the 12 students, nine will come to the school with a recommendation for SNA support.

As it stands, however, the two classes are classified as per the special needs unit in our local schools. In terms of staffing, therefore, that will be one teacher and two SNAs. In total for the two classes, that will be two teachers and four SNAs. Needless to say, school management and the principal, Sheila Dinnegan, are in constant contact with their special educational needs organiser, SENO. The indications are that they may well get an additional SNA for each of the two classrooms. However, they will be still short a further three SNAs to provide an adequate service.

In the case of the class for children with severe to profound needs, four of the children are wheelchair users, two are flight risk and all will necessitate full-time SNA support. The fact that the allocation of SNAs for their classes is the same for special units in our local schools fails to take account of this school's unique and challenging profiles. Many of the pupils who will attend are ASD and also have profound intellectual disabilities. Two of the pupils are PEG-fed with no head or body movement control, while two pupils have an epilepsy diagnosis, one with severe epilepsy.

It will be a proud day for County Longford when the new school opens in September. The people of Longford take a great pride in St. Christopher's. They also take a personal and passionate interest in its future and the well-being of its much loved pupils and service users. God willing, the Ministers will be able to visit the Holy Land for the school's official opening later this year. This new build is an outstanding investment in special education. It certainly sets the bar in terms of the Government's commitment to special education. I have contacted the offices of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and the Minister, Deputy Foley, earlier on this issue. Will the Minister of State ensure that a state-of-the-art special needs education centre is given the staffing level it requires to ensure the best possible start in life for these 36 wonderful young people?

I welcome this debate. The quality of the debate has been good. I listened with interest to the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan's opening remarks. I would make one exception, however. It is unwelcome to hear a specific board of management named on the floor of the Dáil and for a suggestion to be made that the Government pressurises a board of management. Having served on a board of management myself in a voluntary capacity, I would have found it very unwelcome in my own situation.

It has been an immensely challenging time for our entire society. For the Ministers in question, it has been extremely difficult to sail these waters and to make sure that provision for some of our most vulnerable children is kept in place in a meaningful way. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, referred to the ongoing research about the impact of school closures, particularly the different impact it will have on disadvantaged students. The recognition of and commitment to research is very welcome. We need to act on those findings to remediate any damage to children's education and to ensure that we do not see a lost generation on foot of this pandemic.

There is lost time on top of already long waits for interventions such as autism diagnoses, early intervention, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy. Notwithstanding the expansion of the summer programme outlined in the opening statement, I just want to read out a communication I had from an extremely committed teacher who is an expert in the area of July provision. It states:

The home tuition is the same as last year with not one single new incentive to help staff involved that are offering to final year students. This is of no help to our children with complex needs. Pay is still lower for primary teachers in comparison to secondary, even though we are equally qualified and, in some cases, more so. SNA pay rates remain inadequate. They would get paid more for waiting on tables in a coffee shop. The pay date is a day earlier than last year so teachers are still waiting months for pay. This is of no use to non-permanent or student teachers as they will then be ineligible for social welfare. The 28th of October is just too long for work carried out through July and August, particularly when many of us will be spending plenty to provide resources, trips lunches and petrol for the children who we are working with.

The final problem is supplementary provision completed in April. We still have no pay date for that. I have had two teachers withdraw from the July provision due to this already. The problems with previous years' programme were clearly and easily fixed. Instead of fixing what was broken, it has been expanded with no actual changes. The problem with the expansion is that staff may now opt to take children with less needs rather than taking children for whom the programme was originally set up. I know of two SNAs with 15 and 16 years of experience who have opted out of the July provision owing to pay.

What I hear from this is an extremely dedicated educator who is suffering from fatigue. We know our educators want the very best for the children who are in their charge, none more so than the educator I have just quoted. We need to earn back their goodwill. We need to acknowledge the difficulty of the year that they and the children in their care have had.

Tangential to this discussion, I want to acknowledge the work of the Chair of the education committee, Deputy Kehoe, in guiding an extensive exploration of bullying in schools. One of the themes which has emerged is that Covid has had a significant impact on our wider schoolgoing population.

We have seen an explosion, in particular as we move to online learning, of cyberbullying. It is very important and correct that we are focused here on children with disabilities but as we move out of this pandemic we also need to look to the mental health of our young children and people who have experienced such a difficult time during the past 16 months. Gabhaim buíochas, a Chathaoirligh Gníomhaigh.

I thank the Deputy. We have the Sinn Féin slot next of three and half minutes and I see that we have no one in attendance so we move now to the Regional Group and I call Deputy Canney to speak.

I thank the Acting Chairman and I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important subject. As a member of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters, and along with the Minister of State and other Deputies who have spoken earlier, I believe we are doing good work on this committee. It is well supported by the Ministers and Ministers of State and also by the staff. We had a meeting this morning on various issues with Department officials.

We are discussing the issue of disabilities and Covid-19 and the full impact that it has had. I could, no more than the Minister of State who is from the same constituency as me, spend my evening going through the calls that we have received over the past 15 months from parents and families who went through such a torrid time through no fault of anybody other than that of Covid-19. Some of the issues that came to mind when I was preparing for this debate were that in some cases parents or families felt that there was total isolation, a sense of abandonment and a sense that families were on their own as a result of the closure of services. It was, and continues to be, a very difficult experience for service users and their families. When we think about that and look at where we are now, as we now go through a phase which is, hopefully, the most positive of the last 15 months and move back to what should be a near-normal living experience again for everybody, there is a potential, an opportunity and also a duty on us to ensure that we do things right.

We were all caught off guard when the pandemic came in and during it. There were things that we never contemplated would happen and did happen. The suffering that people endured right throughout society and the sacrifices that people made were never things have were on our agenda when we were out campaigning in the last general election not too long ago.

We have to be sure of certain things now as to the July provision, as it is called. It was a major concern and the struggle to reopen education for special needs children was not handled very well. Many families suffered in silence. There are still scars within families today about what happened and there is more than a fear as to what is going to happen in the future. A great deal of money has been spent and they wonder where the money will come from to look after their children and family members.

The first thing we need to ensure is that the July provision is available to all families who want it this year. There can be no “ifs”, “buts” or “ands”. The biggest issue is the suffering that people have endured because of the regression caused by the pandemic and the absence of the prioritisation of a contingency plan for people with disabilities.

We are coming out of the pandemic at present and the opportunity is now there for the State to put people with disabilities at the centre of this journey out of Covid-19 to ensure that not one of these people are left on their own or left behind again. Funding is required to implement change and that funding needs to be given to the people who need it. It cannot get lost in translation. Announcements of funding are fine but the people who need it need to see that the funding is coming quickly rather than perhaps two years later, when a great amount of schemes have to be put in place. There are too many gaps in the funding which is also unacceptable.

Respite services are crucial in addressing the regression caused by the loss of services. It is crucial that additional respite services are provided and located where they are needed and accessible to families. I am sure the Minister of State is aware that we do not have any overnight respite services for children in Galway at present. It has been like that for a long time and it is not because of Covid-19. We need to address that. We need to ensure that children can remain within their own county and do not have to go to Limerick or other places for a night’s respite.

Early intervention is still not fully resourced and is still in transition, leaving parents having to battle every step of the way for what is a human right. Waiting times for assessment of needs also needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The mental anguish suffered by parents and families waiting for appointments is an indictment of this failure and of the lack of resources. This has not happened just today, it has been going on for years and is a failure of the State for many decades. At the moment there are approximately 1,400 assessments overdue.

The ratification and implementation of the optional protocol of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and of the convention itself needs to be done. The official in the relevant section of the Department told me today that it will be done as soon as humanly possible. When I pressed him for a date he could not give me one. I accept that but we need to get a date sooner rather than later. There is no need for us to get it locked up in legislation or whatever else.

We also need to ensure that when we still look across the nation and that when we finish in this Dáil we have done something right for people with disabilities. It will take money but I do not believe it is a cost. It is an investment in our citizens and in our children and we should make every effort to do that. I thank the Acting Chairman.

I thank the Deputy. We have a Government slot next of eight minutes. We have no takers so I call Deputy Mattie McGrath of the Rural Independent Group which has five minutes.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach. The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly disrupted everyone’s lives. Its effects vary considerably for people of different race, ethnicities and income levels. What has been the impact on people with disabilities? Children and teenagers, for example, with a wide range of developmental, physical and behavioural needs have been very severely impacted. Ongoing harm caused by the pandemic or rather caused by the Government’s inaction, or actions as has been said earlier, has been especially evident for people with disabilities. Disruptions in education, employment, healthcare and social services have been amplified. Parents took on full-time care-giving roles while also stepping into new roles as special educators, speech therapists, behavioural therapists and more. This has been exhausting, frustrating and often just not possible for many families.

July provision should be just automatic this year. There should not be any real hassle in getting this but our systems are cumbersome. On the issue of school bus tickets, the mess and mayhem is starting again as happens year after year. We have a dysfunctional Department of Education which is not capable of sorting out this kind of thing.

Programmes and social lives have been curtailed. Many people who have intellectual or physical disabilities require highly specialised, and indeed, one-to-one programmes. They need direct support to be safe, to learn, to work or to perform daily living skills. Some may have more difficulty using technology or learning and working in a virtual world. For many, their social life is solely through schools, employment or community programming. The effect, then, of limited social networks during the pandemic has been one of extreme isolation and has been especially difficult.

It is hard to believe that we have Ireland now signing up to United Nations treaties and conventions where there has been such a daily struggle. My late brother was a paediatrician. He is gone now since 2006 and he championed this. I still meet families who miss him, the late Dr. Eddie McGrath. The battle for people or for families with a profoundly disabled child or with whatever learning difficulties they might have is one where they have to fight for every morsel of support.

There are waiting lists of 1,400 people that go on years. It is callous. I am not blaming the Minister of State but rather successive Governments. We talk about it and sign up to the conventions but do nothing about it.

There are deeply dysfunctional administrative staff at the HSE, Tusla and other agencies. There are some great people within those organisations but they get frustrated, and if they try to make changes, they are stopped and told to get back into their box and do this, that and the other. I compliment the people who did go into work and got services going, but many public servants are not pulling their weight. They need to get back to work and unclog the system. The agricultural system is one of many in which nothing is happening. They are not even opening envelopes. I refer also to the Passport Office and to the issuing of driver licences and theory tests. Some people need licences for essential reasons; for example, if they have to drive their children with intellectual or physical disabilities to school or special playgrounds.

I salute from the bottom of my heart the mothers and fathers and families, siblings and communities that are trying to work. We in Caisleán Nua na Siúire set up a wonderful organisation pre-Covid called Positive Steps Together to try to put together a resource centre to give some respite to these parents. We were going great. There was a very enthusiastic outpouring of support and we raised a considerable sum in a short time, but along came Covid and everything fell to the ground, with no meetings, no HSE business, no interactions, no planning, no nothing.

As I said earlier, given that 67 patients were in hospital on Monday last and 23 were in ICU, we need to let our country live again. We need to get the cabal of NPHET off our backs, let ourselves live and get the Government to take control and look after everyone, but especially the people suffering with these ailments. Let us live again. Fear has been driven into us. We see that now in the debate on antigen testing. This will all come out in the international investigation I am calling for and we will see the gaping failures. We will be reminded then of the cervical cancer smear tests and what happened in that regard. It is shocking, but above all, the issue before the House needs to be dealt with because these people deserve it. All Deputies have received phone calls from parents who could not cope with their anguish and everything else during Covid and throughout last year. It is continuing 15 months later, and if NPHET gets its way, it will continue into the winter and over Christmas.

I do not know whether the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, meant to give the impression that everything is okay - perhaps she did not mean to use that tone - but it certainly sounded like it. It came across as if we should not look to the Government but rather look away. The reality on the ground for so many parents and children is a very different experience. I understand that both Ministers of State are working within a pandemic crisis, which is not an easy set of circumstances to respond to. It was already a crisis, however, before the pandemic emerged. That is down to the failure of all the previous Governments, comprising Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party, during the austerity years, when these services were not properly funded. We started, therefore, from 100 miles back, rather than being on an even keel to allow us to respond to the pandemic crisis.

I recently tabled a few parliamentary questions, before the HSE cyberattack took place. I asked the Minister for Health to outline the wait times for speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and psychological services in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 7 for Dublin 12, an area that takes in Dublin 6W, 12 and 24. The reply stated that under the current service structure, HSE Dublin south-west receives referrals for the area in general, which are not divided into postal code areas. It outlined the current wait times for school-age team services provided by the HSE in south-west Dublin. For children aged under four months, the number waiting was 38; for those aged between four and eight months, it was 60; for those aged between eight and 12 months, it was 94; for those aged between 12 and 18 months, it was 29; for those aged between 18 and 24 months, it was 40; while for those aged more than 24 months, it was 299.

I also submitted a question regarding speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and psychological services in the CHO 7 area. The response stated that since March 2020, the Dublin south, Kildare and west Wicklow CHO has been responding to a national pandemic that presented numerous challenges for staff and services. It went on to state that the scale of the response included community testing, Covid-19 assessment hubs, residential unit support and, more recently, the vaccination programme, and that the Department’s involvement in the pandemic response had resulted in increased waiting list times for the community in regard to acute services. It stated that the waiting lists were longer than the Department would like in terms of being responsive to the needs of its service users. The reply outlined that in regard to speech and language therapy for children under the age of four months, there were 177 on the waiting list; for those aged between four and eight months, 152; for those aged between eight and 12 months, 213; and for those aged more than 12 months, 627.

In occupational therapy services, the number of those aged under four months who were waiting was 307; for those aged between four and eight months, 53; for those aged between eight and 12 months, 29; and for those aged more than 12 months, 719. Similarly, in the case of psychological services, the number of those aged under four months who were waiting was 72; for those aged between four and eight months, 18; for those aged between eight and 12 months, 24; and for those aged more than 12 months, 333. These figures are horrendous for the families living through this. During the pandemic, many resources for these services, such as therapists and so on, were redeployed for contact tracing and so on, so there was very little progress over that period.

The survey carried out by AsIAm was mentioned. It found that two thirds of the parents and guardians surveyed had to wait two years or more to receive an autism diagnosis for their child, while more than 50% felt very dissatisfied with the HSE support services for their autistic child. This is the reality. I received an email today from a young mother. She wrote that she was sending the email in response to a conversation we had earlier that day. She stated that, as I would be aware, she has three children of various ages with additional needs. Her eldest, who is 19 years old, has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, attention deficit disorder, dyspraxia and anxiety disorder, and was linked in with the Linn Dara CAMHS service at Cherry Orchard Hospital. The woman wrote that her daughter had been discharged last year after being referred to St. Martha's ward at St. James's Hospital with a view to the ward taking over her care, but this has not happened. The ward refuses to engage with the woman's daughter and has left her limbo with regard to her medication, with her GP stating that it was not within their remit to prescribe the medication as they are not a psychiatrist.

The woman's middle child is 13 years old and has been diagnosed with autism, dyspraxia and sensory disorder, and has not had a proper medication review in more than two years. She was supposed to be seen in March 2020 but Covid hit and her appointment was deferred, and to date she has not been seen. It is an autism-specific service. She did not meet the criteria for CAMHS, the Lucena Clinic or primary care. She has been referred to Beechpark Services in Tallaght, yet she has had no contact from that service. The woman's youngest child is two and a half years old and has been diagnosed with T21. She attends Crumlin and Tallaght hospitals for coronary heart disease and a heart problem called pulmonary vein stenosis. She was linked in with speech and language therapy and physiotherapy with St. John of God Hospital because she cannot speak or walk but has been discharged from both services, with no follow-up as yet. That is three children in one family, with the parents at their wits' end, and they have had little or no contact with the services over the past year and a half.

This has to stop. Last December, I listened to the contribution of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, in which she stated that an interdepartmental committee on children with disabilities had been set up. It has to be made more accountable. It has to state publicly where the services are now, the number of therapists there are and the backlog we are dealing with, and it must report every two months on exactly how the services are being dealt with because these families cannot continue in this vein.

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the impact that Covid-19 has had on people with disabilities. It is great to see Government time dedicated to the discussion of disability, which indicates the Government's commitment to resolving the different issues facing people with disabilities throughout the country.

If I could take a second of the Acting Chairperson's time, from a Business Committee point of view, perhaps in future we might make disability a little more front and centre during Government time as well. This is the graveyard shift, as I call it, on a Thursday evening when many Deputies have left the premises to return to their constituencies. It is not the first time I have stood on the floor of the Dáil to deliver a speech on a Thursday evening. I thank my colleagues who are in the House at the moment to hear it, and I am sure many Deputies are listening as they travel, but perhaps in future, somewhere along the line, we can make disabilities front and centre of a conversation, not last for delivery. That is nothing to do with the Acting Chairperson. It is about the Business Committee and the allocation of time. It is unforgivable and not acceptable to the families we all speak about and represent.

At the outset, I have to mention that one of the key parts of our health supports for people with disabilities is carers and the incredible work they do. Let us not kid ourselves: without carers doing the work they do our health service would be under even more pressure than it is. I want to state that clearly. We are indebted to the goodwill, sweat and stress of our carers. The physical, mental and emotional strain that goes with the role is not lost on me. I want to acknowledge that today and put it on the record.

As we all know, Covid-19 upended people from every walk of life. Nearly every family in Ireland has been affected and too many have lost loved ones. However, while everyone has been affected in some way, the effects have not been spread evenly across society. Over the course of the pandemic, carers have shown how vital a national support and service they are. Carers of people with disabilities have been disproportionately impacted as supports have ceased during the pandemic. It would be wildly inappropriate of me to pretend that is not the case. Today, I will present the stark facts and figures of how Covid has affected people with disabilities and its impact on specific health-funded disability services.

As Deputies are aware, the HSE has been the victim of a cyberattack, meaning the following statistics can only be confirmed up to 12 May. There have been 324 outbreaks of Covid in disability settings, 155 of them in 2021. Most of these have been declared closed while four remain open. There have been approximately 2,200 confirmed cases in disability settings, 1,250 of them in 2020. Service users and staff tested positive in similar numbers.

Since the cyberattack, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, has provided figures for the week ending 5 June, showing one further outbreak with two cases. It also reported four outbreaks in special schools for that week, with 17 cases in total. These figures are provisional and subject to review. At the outset, I offer my sincere condolences to all who have lost loved ones to Covid-19. I know losing a loved one is a terrible experience and grieving in the midst of this pandemic has made it even tougher. Tragically, 47 service users are known to have died, including 20 confirmed deaths since the start of this year. However, this figure is subject to change following ongoing verification by the HPSC.

The HSE reported to us that since the roll-out of the vaccination programme in disability services the number of outbreaks has fallen to a trickle, while those who have tested positive have experienced mild symptoms. The evidence shows that people with disabilities who are exposed to Covid-19 can be at great risk of severe disease. For this reason, I sought to ensure disability service users and staff were prioritised in the vaccination roll-out programme. The focus has been on ensuring those who face the greatest risk of severe disease and death, the oldest and most vulnerable in society, as well as those who care for them, were vaccinated at the earliest opportunity.

I am pleased to inform the House that the HSE has ensured people who live in disability residential settings and those who attend day services have been vaccinated as part of the 271,000 people included in cohort 4. These are people aged 16 to 69 at a very high risk from Covid-19 disease. The administration of the second vaccination dose for this cohort began on the week beginning 10 May and is expected to be completed by early July. Many people in receipt of health-funded disability services who have complex comorbidity health conditions but might not be attending day services are also in receipt of vaccinations. They are largely included in cohort 7, which comprises people aged 16 to 59 with medical conditions and at high risk from Covid. There are 250,000 people in this cohort, vaccinations for whom began in May and are being delivered primarily through GPs. The first dose for this cohort is expected to be completed shortly.

In March 2020, all health-funded disability day services were obliged to close. Since then, the HSE and service provider organisations have collaborated to reimagine and reopen services for people with disabilities in line with public health guidelines. There has been a collective response from all service providers and representative organisations to provide the best possible level of service to people with disability in line with best practice.

Shortly after my appointment as Minister of State last August, I ensured the provision of disability services was deemed essential, which saw the return of many disability services. The HSE provided guidance on Covid-19 for disability services and residential and group home facilities, which included the prevention and control of outbreaks in residential facilities. The suite of guidance, training and support from HSE disability services, HSE public health and HIQA aligns with the recommendations of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and has mitigated the impact of Covid-19 on our service users who live in disability residential settings.

I am aware many people may have concerns around the delivery of service following the HSE cyberattack. However, most community health services, including disability services such as adult day service and children therapy services, are operating as normal. Service users are advised to attend as normal, and many disruptions or changes to services are listed on a county-by-county basis on the HSE website. Service users will be contacted if there any changes. All service providers should now be delivering a minimum of 60% of pre-Covid levels of location-based support for day services.

Respite services are another key area for me as they play such an important role in supporting families. This year, we will see the opening of nine new respite centres, one in each community healthcare organisation, CHO, area. The first of these, a centre providing respite for children in Limerick, has already started service provision. The others are being finalised and are due to come on stream in quarter 3 and quarter 4. I look forward to updating my colleagues on these projects as they advance. Approximately 50% of disability respite services remained throughout the pandemic while others were temporarily repurposed as isolation facilities. A three-phased approach is now in place where services continue to reopen over the coming months. Funding from budget 2021 was made available to support additional respite services. People with complex medical and clinical needs have been asked to remain at home and will receive home support, where possible, subject to risk assessment and prioritisation.

On children's services, I assure Deputies that the clearing of the backlog for assessment of need continues to be prioritised. While the number of overdue assessments of needs stood at approximately 6,500 in June 2020, through a combination of different measures, approximately 5,150 needs assessments were completed by the end of April 2021. This means a little more than 1,300 cases are outstanding, nationally, with four CHOs having cleared their backlog. This is an overall reduction of approximately 80%.

The progressing disability services, PDS, for children and young people programme ensures vital therapeutic interventions can be delivered in the timeliest manner. Under PDS, children's services will be reconfigured into 91 children's disability networks by the end of this month. These teams will deliver equitable child and family-centred services for children. Young people with complex needs are the new model of service.

No Deputies during the debate addressed the pausing of the removal of therapists' posts from special schools.

That meant there was the need to source 85 additional therapist positions, which I was fortunate in securing on top of the 100 other therapist posts. That should help in the delivery of therapy intervention as soon as possible.

I take on board what the Minister of State said on the scheduling and will pass it on to our Whip and the Ceann Comhairle to try to ensure that debates of this nature are not held at the midnight shift. Maybe if we were back in the big House, there would be more people around.