On behalf of WALK, I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for the opportunity to present today on key issues that people in WALK experience on a day-to-day basis that impede them from living a full and equal life as an Irish citizen. WALK is a progressive section 39 organisation and we have been supporting people with intellectual disabilities and autism for the past 50 years. We have no institutional legacies. All our supports are community based. In Dublin we provide residential, respite, social inclusion, day, outreach, education, training, pre-employment and employment programmes. We run a very successful café and garden shop which is a social enterprise called the Green Kitchen which operates in Dublin 12. It supports people with disabilities to access the world of work.
In County Louth we have developed and delivered on the PEER programme, which provides equal employment opportunity routes for young people aged 16 to 24 to access mainstream education, training and employment. The services and supports that we provide are founded on the principles of inclusion, empowerment, choice, dignity, respect, participation and contribution. They are rooted in the rights-based perspective that all persons have the right to live self-determined lives within an equal and inclusive society.
Every day is important, but this day, the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities, is close to my heart and the hearts of people in WALK, and I am delighted to be spending a small part of my morning with an influential committee that can make a real difference in the lives of people with disabilities, who simply want to be afforded the opportunity to have a good life.
As we commemorate this day it is important for each of us to reflect and identify whether our beliefs, values, and attitudes support or restrict the lives of people with disabilities. We must ensure that we use an ability-based and emancipatory lens to view the changes, not only in law, policies, and programmes, but also in the attitudes that are required to promote, protect and ensure that full and equal enjoyment of all rights and fundamental freedoms by persons with disabilities are upheld and respected. Nothing less can be deemed acceptable.
I have worked in this sector for more than 30 years and I often despair when people with disabilities share their experiences of exclusion, frustration and loneliness with me. Equally, I rejoice when people share their success stories with me, of getting jobs, going to college or simply using public transport or going to shop on their own for the first time. We all have a responsibility and a role to play in influencing positive change in order to create a society that is truly inclusive.
In my engagement with the committee today, I will focus on employment and education for people with intellectual disabilities. Common to both these themes, unfortunately, is a lack of strategic inclusion and limited cross-departmental collaboration. The organisational politics and cultural challenges that limit effective and efficient collaboration required to accomplish the objectives of good disability policy have sometimes resulted in inaction and have extreme consequences for people with disabilities.
Ireland has had the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities since 2015, which sets out a ten-year cross-governmental approach to ensure that those who are able to and want to work are afforded the opportunity, supported and enabled to do so. We are now halfway through this strategy and there is yet to be any agreement to implement strategic action 5.1 between the Departments of Social Protection, Education and Health. Action 5.1 of the comprehensive employment strategy states:
To work together to develop an effective co-ordinated policy approach (and draw up an implementation plan based on that approach), to assist individuals with disabilities, including those who require a high level of support, to obtain and retain employment ...
I know from working on the ground that precious opportunities and life experiences are lost from this inaction. WALK have been instrumental in developing its own collaborations. For example, we have the Oireachtas work learning, OWL, programme that operates in Leinster House. It is a partnership between the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, WALK and KARE. The steering group is comprised of the Public Appointments Service, the education and training board and a range of Departments and Government agencies which facilitate the programme's learning objectives. The OWL programme is a building block that supports people with intellectual disability learn about the world of work in a busy work environment. This programme has in turn motivated the Public Appointments Service to review its approach to recruiting to include consideration of special competitions for people with intellectual disabilities. This will support the Government's Part 5 target to increase the number of persons with disabilities in the Civil Service and public service to 6% by 2024.
We run a similar programme with Tallaght University Hospital. Collaborative partnerships are excellent examples of how the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities can work in practice to deliver real and meaningful change. The significant experience of voluntary disability service providers such as WALK in the area of supported employment should be harnessed and utilised for replicating these extremely effective programmes in both the public and private sector throughout the country.
WALK's extensive experience in the provision of employment supports to people with disabilities has highlighted the importance of a career for people, not just with regard to an increase in income but also in developing friendships, learning new skills, using public transport, becoming more independent and confident, being more empowered, and living a self-determined life. Therefore the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities should be implemented in full to address the lack of joined-up seamless supports currently presenting barriers to people with disabilities gaining and maintaining employment. In the coming months, when the Government is addressing the high levels of unemployment as a consequence of Covid-19, the needs of individuals with disabilities who have experienced job losses should also be and remain an area of high priority.
The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 states that people with disabilities shall have the same right to avail of, and benefit from, appropriate education, to assist children with disabilities to leave school with the skills necessary to participate in an inclusive way in the social and economic activities of society and to live independent and fulfilled lives. However, there is limited provision for career guidance or comprehensive transition planning that begins early enough to support persons who leave school and to have a positive influence on their life choices and decisions.
Why are we not proactively supporting young citizens who aspire to have a job, follow a career, and live as independently as possible? Will we always see our young citizens as having "special" educational needs, or will we finally change the culture to see them as just having "additional" educational needs, requiring appropriate accommodations and transitions to be able to access education? How can full access on an equal basis for students with intellectual disabilities to attend third level education be supported?
WALK has a supported education programme with Technological University Dublin in the Tallaght campus, which supports people with intellectual disabilities to take courses of their choice. For example, we supported one individual who needed to spend at least another eight hours studying to understand the content of a class for every four hours of work he did in a classroom setting. He did that for five years and went on to achieve his degree. WALK's relationship with TU Dublin meant that we were able to find innovative solutions within the rigours of a complex third level education system to support this person and others to complete their degree programme and to receive appropriate educational merit. There is a need to increase and maintain enrolment and the democratic value of equal access to third level education so that college campuses will continually expand to include more diverse student populations.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a public health emergency, but we know it is far more. It is an economic crisis, a social crisis and a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis. The social isolation, the exclusion, the unemployment, our loss of freedom, a loss of control and power over everyday comings and goings and the inability to form new friendships because we are, in effect, confined to our homes is what the world is currently experiencing. This is extremely important because in many cases the impact of a pandemic is similar to what some people with intellectual disability face every day of their lives. Looking ahead, we need to build back better by putting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the core of our work. A human rights lens ensures that we are all in this together and that no one gets left behind. Strengthening social rights bolsters resilience for the long haul. Together, with persons with disabilities as agents of change, we can build an inclusive, accessible, and sustainable world.