Why Disability Matters: Discussion

I thank everyone for being with us. We are having this meeting to mark the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. As one of the first parliaments in the world to establish a special committee charged with disability matters, it is very important that we do so and we are delighted to hold this meeting this morning.

On behalf of the committee, I extend a very warm welcome to Mr. Matt English, chief executive of Special Olympics Ireland, and Ms Margaret Turley, a Special Olympics athlete. I also welcome Ms Marie Devitt, pathways co-ordinator, Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities, and Ms Catherine Kelly, director of services for WALK.

I invite Mr. English to make his opening statement.

Mr. Matt English

I thank the Chairman and distinguished Deputies and Senators for the kind invitation. Ms Turley and I are delighted to be here. I will say a few brief words before handing over to Ms Turley. I will then make my closing remarks.

Special Olympics Ireland is a highly respected sports and charitable organisation supported by an incredible team of dedicated staff and volunteers. Our mission is simple but really important. We want every person in Ireland with an intellectual disability to have the opportunity to participate in sport and other developmental activities to ensure he or she can better achieve his or her full potential in life and society.

Many of the members will recall that in 2003 Ireland hosted the world games for the first time ever outside of the United States of America. Senator O'Loughlin worked closely with me on that. The legacy of those games is immense and Ireland is recognised as one of the strongest, if not the strongest, Special Olympics programmes in the world.

Today we have 294 clubs across the island of Ireland. We offer 15 different sports. Before lockdown we had more than 8,000 athletes registered. Those athletes are as young as four years of age. We also have four athletes aged 84. We have the full range of participation.

I am delighted to now introduce my friend and colleague Margaret Turley. Ms Turley wears many hats but today she is representing our many Special Olympics athletes. Ms Turley will tell members a little about herself and will talk about the impact of Special Olympics, and the impact of Covid, on her life.

Ms Margaret Turley

Good morning. I am delighted to be here on this UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Sometimes I feel that an intellectual disability is a hidden disability. It is not always immediately obvious. As a person with an intellectual disability I welcome this opportunity to speak to the committee.

I was born with Börjeson-Forssman-Lehmann syndrome, BFL, which has given me a mild intellectual disability. I am from Kilkenny and I completed a self-advocacy course with the Waterford Institute of Technology before coming to the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities in Trinity College Dublin where I completed a certificate in contemporary living in 2013. I was very homesick during my first year in Dublin but was much better in my second year and even won the Margaret McLoughlin prize for student of the year, which was a pleasant surprise. I have been in Dublin now for the past ten years.

I have spoken at many conferences and have been on national radio trying to give a voice to people with an intellectual disability. I work with Ernst & Young, business partners of the Trinity Centre, on a permanent part-time basis and am a member of their ability network. I have also co-lectured Trinity College Dublin social work third year students for two hours weekly, a job I really enjoy.

I have participated in three research projects: 19 Stories of Social Inclusion – Ireland: Stories of Belonging, Contributing and Connecting; the Education, Behaviour and Exclusion research with Inclusion Ireland; and the Experiences of Adults with Intellectual Disabilities in Ireland during the Covid-19 Crisis. I have completed a certificate in research by apprenticeship from Inclusion Ireland for my role in the last research project. I am a great believer in lifelong learning and am currently studying the European computer driving licence, ECDL, to improve my computer skills, especially in the Excel area, to help with my work in Ernst & Young.

I could not, however, do all these things without the support of many people. First, my family, my parents Tomas and Aine, my sister Sorcha and brother Peter. Second, Trinity College Dublin, which introduced me to Ernst & Young and set me up with my buddies Colin and Brenda. I am so proud to have attended a third level college just like my sister and brother. I keep in touch with some of my former classmates and often work with them on projects. I still feel very supported by the Trinity Centre and I keep in touch especially with Marie Devitt. Third, is Special Olympics Ireland. I am a Special Olympics athlete. I play basketball with Sports Club 15, where being 5 ft 10 in. is an advantage. We won the second division and then moved up to the first division, which is very challenging.

When I first lived in Dublin 15 I had very few friends and no job at that time. It was a new area for me. I was lonely and felt isolated. It was only when I joined Special Olympics that I made friends. We train on Monday evenings and Saturday mornings. There are a lot of social activities parties, cinema, meals out, walks and so on. I made a lot of new friends.

I am also a member of the Special Olympics athlete leadership programme. We call ourselves the Hot Fuzz. I am chairperson this year. There are 12 of us in the club and we each have a mentor to guide us. We hold monthly meetings, set an agenda, write up the minutes, etc. We learn how to organise a meeting. The jobs rotate on an annual basis. I was communications officer last year. We have annual outings that have included the Croke Park tour, the 1916 Freedom tour and we have also visited Kilmainham Gaol.

We have attend the Special Olympics workshops which are held at their offices. We learn about healthy eating, Toastmasters and giving speeches, tai chi, photography, writing resumés, interview preparation and social media. I am doing my silver award. There are three awards of bronze, silver and gold. We have to complete tasks to achieve these awards. These tasks may include helping to fundraise, make a poster or write an article, for example. We must complete a booklet for each award. The tasks get harder. This year a lot has been done over Zoom. Coaching and keep fit sessions have been done with Zoom, as have the Special Olympics workshops.

I returned to Kilkenny during lockdown as my mother felt I would have more room and that it was a safer environment for me. I was able to set up a spare room as my gym room and use the dining room as my home office. I really missed my friends as I have only seen one friend in person since last March. I am also a bit anxious about returning as it will have been such a long time. I will probably need some support until I get back into my old routine. Sometimes I wonder will that day ever come.

Through Special Olympics I have met and dined with people from the United States of America and health promotion guests who came from the Special Olympics office in America with Mary Davis to the Dublin office. When we dined out the restaurant made me a special desert of fresh fruit salad. I have a keen interest in healthy eating, getting fit and keeping fit. Through Special Olympics I have also participated in the summer school project on inclusive physical education in secondary schools. This was held in the Trinity Centre and in Munich, Germany in 2019. I presented at the winter school project this year and was invited to be on the judging panel of the project which was held over Zoom. As Special Olympics is so supportive, not only to me but to a lot of people with an intellectual disability, ID, I like to fundraise for it. I have done its Polar Plunge in December in the Forty Foot at Sandycove - Freezin' for a Reason. This year, I participated in Your 5 Iconic Walks campaign and raised €609. I made a poster for its collection day. My buddy Colin suggested I make a pitch to Ernst & Young's ability network and I ended up doing a collection virtually. We raised €1,500 and EY have matched it to make €3,000. I also participate in the Special Olympics annual collection campaign. I was in its video having gone to a film studio in Kilcoole, Wicklow. It was my first time ever on a film set. It was an amazing and unforgettable experience. I got great photographs taken, one of which was in a national paper.

Special Olympics was started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a sister of former President John F. Kennedy. She started Special Olympics because she saw how unjustly and unfairly people with intellectual disabilities were being treated. We have come a long way in 50 years but we can do better. As the Special Olympics fundraising slogan said this year “We can’t stop now”.

I believe that people with ID have a lot to offer society and I thank the committee for inviting me here today. I think it is a step in the right direction. Thank you.

I thank Ms Turley. Well done. That was powerful.

Mr. Matt English

Thank you so much Margaret. That was brilliant. I will make just a few more points as I am conscious of the time. I must mention our Special Olympics clubs, which are run by incredible volunteers. There are 294 clubs and we roll out the sport, the athlete leadership and the health and well-being programmes through the clubs at a grassroots level.

Many of the clubs opened up in September, after extensive Covid training and preparation, only to close down again in October. It has been very difficult for our athletes to comprehend. The majority of our athletes need routine. The club closures were also difficult to explain in situations where we have athletes under 18 and over 18 and where those under 18 were able to train outdoors but we were unable to open the clubs. It was just another difficulty for athletes to wrestle with due to the anomaly.

We did a lot of work on a programme we call Together at Home. Covid-19 had a huge impact and we wanted to find a way to make a connection with all the athletes. We started a ten-week programme towards the end of April. We focused on sport and fitness, health promotion, strong minds and young athletes. It was important to continue to support our athletes, as other services and supports in their lives changed dramatically. One of the underlying aims of the programme was to add some routine and structure back into the daily lives of the athletes. A significant number of athletes do not have online access and we prepared an information pack on the four themes that I mentioned and sent it out to all the households of the athletes. We hope it helped to keep them both physically and mentally active at home.

Another big impact on us is that, as an Olympic organisation, we are into advancement competitions. We focus predominantly on participation but advancement competitions are important. We launched the Ireland winter games in Stormont in the middle of March. The games were due to take place in the last week of March and they had to be cancelled for obvious reasons. We rescheduled them to December. They were due to take place this weekend and they have been cancelled again. We had 185 athletes who were looking forward to competing and dreaming of an opportunity to represent Ireland at the world games in Kazan, Russia. We hope we will get some of our advancement competitions back on track in the new year.

Ms Turley touched on fundraising. We are a sports organisation, first and foremost, but we are also a charitable organisation in the disability sector. The community fundraising on which we depend quite a lot was severely hampered. Our collection day, which normally raises approximately €600,000 was cancelled in April. It involves 3,000 volunteers going out on the streets to raise money for us. We had many other fundraising events such as golf events, participation in marathons, the "Polar Plunge", the "Freezin for a Reason" and "Cops'n'donuts". Like everyone else, we had to adapt and change and we reinvented a number of new digital events like "100k" steps and "5 iconic walks". We could not do "Cops'n'donuts", but Ms Turley mentioned the "Can't Stop Now" campaign. We were very fortunate to engage a number of creative designers and others on a pro bono basis. Because they were on furlough, they were unable to work and they came on board to help charities. It would be great if we could play this short video now, in which Ms Turley participated. It is only a minute long.

It was great to have the support of Colin Farrell and Hosier and to get all of that done for free. The athletes were centre stage in the video, as they should be. The "Can't Stop Now" campaign resonates in terms of volunteers who cannot stop now and our athletes, clubs and families that cannot stop now. This has good life and I hope it will help us to roll out our programme and not just in a fundraising capacity.

We held our first virtual athlete leadership forum. It was an all-Ireland forum. We had 107 athletes join us via Zoom from 52 different clubs. They covered four separate workshops on better money habits and Tai Chi to help their mental well-being and they did mock interviews and we had round table or what we called round-screen discussions. We need to increase opportunities for people like Ms Turley with an idea, so she and others may assume meaningful leadership roles where they can showcase their skills and change the attitudes of those around them both inside and outside Special Olympics.

I mentioned also a young athletes programme. This is a relatively new programme for athletes from age four to 12. We ran a pilot scheme and it was very successful. We are delighted to have made progress before Covid. We are still engaged with those young athletes online. Today, we have 287 athletes in that age group and we have 25 different clubs set up.

We are currently working on our 2025 strategy. We are coming to the end of our 2020 strategy. Overall, we have embraced and coped well with the many changes forced on us by Covid. We will offer blended opportunities for athletes going forward. In other words, we will have physical opportunities and I hope virtual opportunities as well for some that may be more nervous about coming back.

The Covid resilience funding provided during 2020 was critical. I refer to the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, and the employee wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. We also got some resilience funds from Sport Ireland. Many disability and charitable organisations like Special Olympics Ireland depend hugely on the generosity of the general public but fundraising in the traditional way will be severely hampered going forward as we move to a cashless society. There is a challenge for us to educate people not to be nervous about paying online because that is how many people who have the capacity to donate can do so. We see 2021 as a tougher year in a fundraising capacity than 2020.

Ms Turley has a valuable message for everyone here. It is the athlete's oath. All our athletes know it and it has meaning for everyone.

Ms Margaret Turley

Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.

I thank Ms Turley and Mr. English.

Ms Marie Devitt

On a personal basis, I am so proud of my friend, Ms Turley, whom I know very well. I thank the committee for inviting me here today to speak. I am the Pathways co-ordinator in the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities, or TCPID, as it is mainly known. My role involves developing and maintaining our business partner relationships and collaborating with businesses to find ways to support our students and our graduates.

I would like to use this opportunity today to tell the committee about the TCPID and, more importantly, about the incredible graduates who have come through our programme. While the topic today is why disability matters, I would like the committee to see why ability is really what matters.

I would like first to give some brief background about the TCPID. We are based within the school of education in Trinity College Dublin, which is just down the road. We run a two-year, level 5 certificate course for students with intellectual disabilities. The course is called the certificate in arts, science and inclusive applied practice and covers a wide range of modules over the two years. The aim of the course is to provide students with a broad education within a third level environment and to equip them with the necessary skills and confidence to move beyond Trinity into further education or employment, depending upon their individual ambitions.

We have a very small but dedicated team of six working in the TCPID and we are supported by teaching staff from across Trinity and other universities.

We have subject experts teaching our students who also teach on masters and PhD programmes. This not only provides our students with fantastic subject expertise but also provides fellow university colleagues with an insight into the educational ability of students with intellectual disabilities. We are also supporting the development of similar programmes around the country so that this is not just something for Dublin and the surrounding areas. The key to this is to have dedicated Government funding for a whole Republic of Ireland initiative, building on the existing formats and partnerships we have established in the TCPID.

For the purpose of my statement, I have decided to focus on how our business partners are supporting our students and graduates to show their ability and to be fully included within the workplace. Our partners work with us in numerous ways by providing work placements, mentoring, paid internships and, in some cases, permanent employment. Students complete a work placement module in their second year of the programme. This work placement runs for one day per week over eight weeks. The aim of the module is to give students an insight into how companies operate and how employees should behave within a professional environment.

Once students complete their course in Trinity, they are given the opportunity to participate in a graduate internship programme and to develop key employment skills through paid internship roles. The internship programme is only possible thanks to the support of our business partners. In addition to placements and internships, our business partners have offered training workshops for our graduates to help them to prepare for the world of work. During October and November alone, because of Covid, our partners provided 20 online graduate workshops. Workshop topics included, professional office communication skills such as sending professional emails, how to answer the phone professionally, online meetings, employment contracts, earning a salary for the first time, budgeting - from which I have learned a lot - disability allowance and managing the associated earnings restrictions that come with that, registering with revenue, preparing for interviews, talking about one's skills, and many other topics. The key to the success of the work placements and internships is the preparation and planning that takes place for months in advance of the each start date. Myself and my colleagues, Barbara and Iara, work closely together with each of the businesses to ensure we find the right match for the role that is proposed. We also work closely with the students and graduates to uncover what they would like to achieve and what their career goals might be. This is done as part of ongoing occupational therapy supports which are key to our programme. We work closely with the students, graduates and businesses throughout the entire process.

As a result of the very careful advance planning and support, the placements and internships have been very successful. I am very proud to advise the members that since we started our graduate internship programme in 2017, 12 of our graduates are now in permanent employment with companies including EY, PayPal, Arthur Cox, Cpl Resources, Fidelity Investments and Avolon. We also have a number of graduates who are currently working on extended contracts, so we hope to see more permanent roles over the coming years.

The impact of having one of our students or graduates within a company has been hugely positive. The individuals have grown in confidence and have felt truly included and valued. The businesses have also given us hugely positive feedback from their own experience. We have been told that our students and graduates have brought such enthusiasm, positivity and determination, which has had such a positive impact on the overall morale within the team. The experience has given companies a real sense of what inclusion really means.

It is incredibly humbling for us to see the transformation of our students over the course of their time with us. The growth in confidence and the development of skills and knowledge is so powerful to see. All the team feel very lucky to get to work with such fantastic young people on a daily basis. We also feel lucky to work with amazing business partners who have gone beyond this being simply a corporate social responsibility initiative to businesses creating an environment of real inclusion within their organisations.

I would like to share quotes from some of our graduates which hopefully will give the members a sense of the impact that getting a permanent job has had on their lives. The first quote is from Dairine O’Rourke who is now a permanent employee in Fidelity Investments. She states:

I am thrilled to have a permanent job. That’s what I always wanted because now I am like my friends and cousins who are working. I love the work because it’s mostly on Excel and I also like going on the nights out with my colleagues! I am really proud of myself to have a permanent job. It is my dream come true!

Paula Conradie, who is a permanent employee in PayPal, states:

This is why I love working in PayPal. I love to work at the reception because I get to meet loads of different people in the mornings. I love working upstairs in the fraud department on the computer. My colleagues are very kind and show me lots of new ideas. We also laugh a lot. My colleagues and I have lots of meetings. Actually, most of the day is sometimes just meetings.

(Interruptions).

Ms Marie Devitt

I know. Paula also states:

I love to put my clothes out for work for the next day and decide on colour combinations. [I love this bit.] Most people just wear jeans and hoodies at PayPal so I think I could be the best dressed employee. [She is brilliant.]

Marian O’Rourke, who is a permanent employee in Cpl Resources, states:

I started working in Cpl Resources in October 2018. I was really welcomed when I started there. Everyone is lovely to me. I am very happy in Cpl and proud to work there. I really enjoy the work and I am confident with what I do. Getting a permanent job was the best thing that ever happened to me!

Finally, Stephen Ryan, who is permanent employee in EY and a colleague of Ms Margaret Turley, states:

On my birthday on the 19th of August I got the best news that I could possibly have hoped for. I was offered a permanent position in EY! I am only looking forward now, as in the last two years I have got good news on top of good news. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

I want to say to any person who has a disability to keep working to learn and to achieve your true potential. It might take you a bit longer but people with disabilities have what it takes to succeed. Always continue to try different things as you never know where your talents lie. [Those are wonderful words.]

As members will note, our partners are helping us to change lives and to make a real difference to the way that society views intellectual disability. We have started to see a real shift in how society embraces difference. We are all different and we all have our strengths and our weaknesses. The key is to focus on people’s strengths and to support them to be the best that they can be. It is so important for society to focus on ability and to give people the opportunity to show what they can do, to support them in learning and developing and to believe in them.

On this UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I would like to leave the members with this message: it is not the disability that defines someone, but rather their ability and to be given the chance to be included in all aspects of society. I thank the members.

I call Ms Catherine Kelly to make her opening statement.

Ms Catherine Kelly

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.

I thank the witnesses for their contributions this morning. We are grateful that they came in to give their knowledge to the committee.

I thank the witnesses. I find their contributions moving and challenging. If I were to have a personal work programme, I would get it from Ms Kelly. I champion WALK in particular because I know some of the service users and people who have benefited from and, equally, contribute to WALK. I thank Ms Turley for her exceptional contribution.

I will leave here with great hope, impassioned and motivated to spend whatever time I have in Leinster House, which I naturally hope will be long, with a deep-rooted commitment to ensuring that we see ability, not disability. I thank the witnesses sincerely.

Ms Turley is inspirational and motivational. I have no doubt that she is a great role model for many of her peers. I could take on many of her life practices in terms of exercise and healthy eating. Well done. I am a failed basketball player, so she has done far more than me in sport. I thank Mr. English for outlining the tremendous work that happens in the world of Special Olympics.

The presentations focused on the challenges during the Covid pandemic. They have been difficult for the athletes, the centre's students, service users and their families.

It was interesting to hear Ms Devitt's remarks about those who had gone through Trinity and were now in workplaces. It would also have been interesting to hear from their co-workers. Ushers and those in Leinster House who are part of the Oireachtas work learning, OWL, scheme, feel that their lives have been enriched by having people with intellectual disabilities working in co-work situations.

The pathways that Ms Devitt defined are important to us all. This is about giving everyone the opportunity to further their life plans in terms of education, employment, etc. The committee can have a long relationship with what WALK is doing. We may have an opportunity to invite Ms Devitt back in that regard, but also in respect of rolling the programme out across the country.

As one of the initiators of the OWL project with WALK and KARE, it is the project that I have been the proudest to be involved in in my five years in Leinster House. That four of the graduates of the first programme went on to full-time work is incredible. We were the first parliament in the world to do this. Great lessons can be learned from us.

I thank the witnesses for participating. We are looking forward to continuing this relationship with them. Together, we will be able to make a difference in terms of the ability within disability.

I thank the witnesses for their contributions. It is great to have them with us. We are all grateful.

It is worth acknowledging Ms Kelly's comments on it being because of the failures of the State that people have been unable to access their rights. The bureaucratic and physical structures have never been built around all of society. Rather, they have been built around just one type of person within it. I hope that the committee will work to change that situation. That is why it has been formed. One of our main focuses is to ratify the optional protocol of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD. I hope the witnesses will hold us to account because that ratification is long overdue. We now have a special committee to pursue the matter. Inviting people to attend to tell us their stories and us saying that is great will not be good enough. We need to change that, and that change must occur in every Department. We are working on that and have been discussing it since the committee formed.

It is important that the committee mark the international day of persons with disabilities, engage genuinely with matters such as the lived experience of people like Ms Turley, whom I thank for participating, and recognise the challenges, achievements and realities of a person with disabilities in Ireland.

It was great to hear the witnesses' contributions on higher education. We need to consider how such programmes can be rolled out in universities and colleges of further education in every county. Will we be asking questions today?

Perhaps I will get in touch with the witnesses another time. I thank them for participating.

I join my colleagues in welcoming the four witnesses and thanking them for their contributions, which were enlightening and inspiring. They have outlined what is achievable with the proper supports in place. They have discussed what the Special Olympics do for people in terms of achieving in sports and their mental well-being. Ms Turley in particular has outlined how important that is, how competence is built, how people feel included, how they can achieve their aims and, if they do not win every time, the value of participation, which is also important.

The committee has discussed where various Departments have fallen down, including in terms of employment. There are few people with disabilities in full-time employment. That needs to be improved. The witnesses have outlined how that is possible through their programmes, training and partnerships with employers. It shows what is achievable.

Our focus is on ensuring the ratification and implementation of the CRPD and its optional protocol. This will take a great amount of work across all Departments. Some Departments stand out more than others, but every Department has a role to play. Our committee has an important role in ensuring that every Department plays its role and creates an inclusive society where everyone feels he or she can achieve his or her aims and ambitions.

I thank the witnesses for their inspiring presentations.

I thank the witnesses for participating. It is important that we get to celebrate an important day with people who are on the front line and impacted by disabilities. However, today is more about ability than disability. That is why I was keen to ensure that the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities attended. No more than what Ms Kelly has told us about the Houses of the Oireachtas, Ms Devitt has been able to share with us stories of empowerment where people have been able to realise their full potential and play an important part in society. No matter one's ability or disability, there is an opportunity to do that if we invest in people and give them the opportunity to shine.

Senator O'Loughlin stated that she would love to hear the experiences of the colleagues of some of the people placed in companies. I am one of those colleagues. Prior to my days in the Oireachtas, I worked in PayPal. Two of its vice presidents, my former bosses, Ms Maeve Dorman and Ms Annette Hickey, worked closely with the Trinity centre to ensure that our company was able to take in graduates from the programme. It was a pleasure to work with those people. From Ms Chloe MacMullan to our fashion guru, they brightened everyone's day and brought a different sense of inclusion and positivity to the corporate world, which is badly needed. I am delighted to link with Ms Kelly and see how I can support that in the Oireachtas. We have worked closely and well together.

I thank the witnesses for attending today, the role they play in society and shining a light on inclusion. Today more than ever, that is important.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations and I wish everyone a happy international day of persons with disabilities. I was struck by the strong and positive testimonies. For example, I believe it was Ms Kelly who stated that every day was important. Obviously, this day is important because it is the UN international day of persons with disabilities, but I was struck by Ms Kelly's phrase.

Ms Turley mentioned how she gave lectures to social work students. We saw from that the importance of the Trinity project's one day per week of placement in a workplace in creating a pathway to a permanent job. Ms Kelly provided an example of how someone who was studying but also happy to put in a full working day of eight hours was, with support, extra time and guidance, able to progress and achieve everything the student wanted to achieve within his or her degree.

I was struck by that when thinking about the time aspect. I was struck also by the fact that people did not just talk about their work or sporting achievements but also the relationships and contacts that came with that. It was striking to hear people talk about the importance of exchanging ideas with colleagues and getting their ideas heard within a company or organisation, and the camaraderie that came with participating in the Special Olympics or in college.

Ms Kelly made an important point that we should bear in mind. She said that she knew from working on the ground that precious opportunities and life experiences are being lost from inaction. I am aware that good days such as those we are hearing about today have been lost as a result of issues such as the failure to properly implement the comprehensive employment strategy or the guidance supports we need in our education system.

I thank the witnesses and pledge that in whatever number of days we have in our committee, which is a special committee that is time limited, we will use all of it to try to make a difference and create more of the positive stories and opportunities and the more equal, inclusive Ireland, which everybody benefits from, in future UN days.

I apologise for being late. I was at another meeting which overran and I could not get away. I am delighted to be here with the witnesses today but the theme is not about making a difference today; we need to make a difference every day. I am aware from the few meetings we have had so far that one of the biggest issues is around attitudes and the way people respond. When we have special days they should be at a higher level than every other day people have to live through in life. The word "disability" is probably not right. It is about the ability of people. As a former lecturer in Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, I came across a number of students with disabilities who were beacons of light but we need more beacons of light and to give everybody the same opportunity.

I look forward to working with all the witnesses and thank them for coming before the committee today. This committee has a job to do and we need to do it. I have said a number of times that there are many issues we, as politicians, are not proud of that we need to put right. With the witnesses' help, we will do that. I look forward to working with them and. I say to them "well done", and thank them for being here this morning.

I thank all the witnesses for attending. As I said to Mr. English, I look forward to the day when we can get the long johns on, go out and do the collection. It can be a long few hours but it is very worth it and people are so generous. I recall standing at the traffic lights in Dundalk and people were giving me €50 and €20 notes. People support the Special Olympics. We support the Special Olympics and hold them in high regard. It gives us pride in our national flag to see our citizens competing at an international level. Who of us does not want to represent our country? When we do it with pride, courage and success, it is brilliant.

I am a very new Member of this Oireachtas and I am delighted and proud to be a member of this committee but I am impatient in terms of how far we have come and how far we have to go. When I walk down the street or go into shops I see inequality in the way we exclude people from doing those basic human exercises we do every day. As Deputy Tully said, we have to look for that everywhere. We have to ask if someone with a disability can use a facility or service and whether their disability stops them from doing so. I recently finished a course on disability awareness training, which was fantastic. It should be available in every workforce. No one should leave school without having had disability awareness training because it makes us kinder and more understanding. It makes us see all the disabilities we could not see previously. There is probably someone in this room with a disability or an illness such as chronic pain who we cannot see.

I thank the witnesses for coming in today and sharing their stories about their unbelievable work. I look forward to working with them. I hope we will see some successes because the time for that is now. We are fed up with the inequality. We cannot stop and we will not stop.

I echo the comments made by other members. This meeting was invaluable and it is fitting on this International Day of People with Disabilities. I thank all the witnesses for their contributions. I thank Ms Turley in particular for outlining her experience and how she felt about it because that is what hits home. Key words such as "confidence" and "hope" were mentioned, which was truly inspiring.

During her contribution, Ms Devitt quoted from a number of people who have spoken about how they felt during certain experiences and what they meant to them. That is an important aspect because all of us have had the experience of being nervous entering a place we are not familiar with so it is about being able to build confidence, create positivity and feel hope.

Covid-19 has affected all of us in our community but it has particularly affected persons with disabilities in terms of access. Access was always an issue for them but Covid has highlighted that and made everything very difficult. I thank the witnesses for coming in today and I appreciate everything they said in their contributions.

I thank the witnesses for coming in before the committee. It is very welcome to have this session, particularly on the International Day of People with Disabilities. I hope we can have them back here again to allow us to go through specific policy issues in more detail because I feel strongly that the work we have to do here is granular. We need to go into every institution and organisation in the country and change the culture. That is detailed work and I look forward to sitting down and doing that.

Some of the presentations pointed out very well that when we are dealing with institutions and existing hierarchies within this country, it is not just stagnation or resistance to change that we need to target. It is also passivity and the status quo, and the effort to change that will be Herculean. It has to be active change. I very much appreciate the witnesses' contributions on that.

Covid-19 presents a number of very difficult issues. We have seen a move towards protection over choice and there is an issue around equality in that respect. When Covid is less of an issue, hopefully, it will be very important for us to keep an eye on that. We need to be on alert all of the time to ensure that the wind-down in terms of Covid does not leave us with a legacy where we prioritise people's protection over the choices around their lives.

We talk a great deal about the UNCRPD in this committee but we should also look to harness EU structures and supports because so much of our equality law comes from that issue. We are all disappointed that the health budget, for instance, will be badly hollowed out for the next few years within the EU budgets. That is an issue this committee should concern itself with also. We have a great deal of work to do in the next few years. I thank the witnesses for their contributions and I hope we have another discussion on these issues very soon.

I thank all the members for their contributions this morning and our witnesses, who have been truly inspiring. All I can say, as we mark the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities, is that the committee has a huge volume of work to do. We hope to clear our terms of reference next week and we will be starting in the new year. We certainly will have our witnesses in for a full session with questions and answers in the new year. If I may borrow a couple of phrases from this morning, the in-phrase from the Special Olympics is "Can't Stop Now". We are starting now and we will give it our best. The committee is hugely energised by the challenges that lie ahead. All I can say is that we will be the best we can be as a committee to advance the causes that the witnesses have outlined and the causes right across the country. That is all the guarantee we can give. I look forward to meeting the witnesses in the new year.

I thank the witnesses for helping us to mark the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities in the Houses of the Oireachtas and thank all the members for making the effort to be here early this morning.

The joint committee adjourned at 10.11 a.m. until 4.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 9 December 2020.