I thank the Chairman and the members of the committee.
The publication of the Disability Bill is long-awaited and much anticipated by all of Enable Ireland's stakeholders — service users, families, staff and our partners in mainstream settings, including education and employment. We very much welcome this opportunity to offer our feedback to the committee. We endorse and echo the views expressed by the DLCG earlier in this meeting regarding the flawed nature of the Bill.
The Bill makes reference to the health and education needs only of people with disabilities. It does not address independent living, advocacy, employment, accommodation, transport or social aspects of disability which are integrally related to both health and education. We appreciate that the Bill identifies the central importance of the sectoral plans from across Departments. However, having reviewed those plans, which contain no budgetary information related to the implementation of the Bill and in many cases identify in only the broadest terms, without identified timeframes, their commitment to supporting the Bill, we are concerned that cross-governmental commitment to the implementation of the Bill will be at best highly variable and at worst un-enforced. The constant references to "where practicable" raise questions about whether the individual with a disability has any right to enforce any aspect of this Bill.
Enable Ireland welcomes a number of proposals outlined in the Disability Bill. These include the impetus to ensure ownership and responsibility for the delivery of services to people with disabilities extends beyond the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science. Nevertheless, this Bill appears to recognise the importance of embedding all legislative change across Departments. The assessment of need has a central place in the Disabilities Bill and we believe this to be both appropriate and congruent with the services we already provide. This model fits well with an integrated holistic model of service delivery, which in turn is driven by a social model of disability.
The establishment of a centre of excellence in universal design, under the auspices of the National Disability Authority, is a very positive step. This initiative may contribute significantly to the impetus initiated by our assistive technology services and the AT services of other agencies to promote best practice in information technology, assistive technology and industrial design and to ensure that design-for-all principles are adopted across the manufacturing, design and IT sectors. Ms O'Connor earlier recommended that the centre for universal design would be embedded and integral to the function of the NDA.
We also have a wide range of concerns about the scope and enforcement of this Disabilities Bill. The Bill seeks to address the assessment of health and education needs of people with disabilities. It does not propose a rights-based approach to services for people with disabilities, which is what the disability sector has been seeking for some years. Our key concerns are definition of disability, which is exceedingly narrow and may result in excluding individuals from protection under the provisions of the Bill. We are concerned with the use of the terms "substantial restriction", "permanent" and "enduring".
These definitions do not reflect the definitions adopted in the Equal Status Act or the Employment Equality Act, which are inclusive in nature. It would be most helpful if legislation included consistent definitions of disability in the interests of clarity and enforcement across all Departments, public bodies and service providers.
We are also concerned about financial commitment issues because no budgetary information has been furnished with the publication of this Disabilities Bill. The stated responsibility of each health board CEO to manage overall budgets in accordance with all demands across the health sector suggest that the Bill's attempts to provide for assessment of need may be overridden by budgetary restrictions. The Disabilities Bill should ensure that funding is ring fenced and not subject to the idiosyncratic demands placed on any particular health board region by other health stakeholders. It should also be shared across all relevant Departments so assessment of need in respect of employment is ascribed to the Department of Enterprise and Employment, and so on.
Our concerns regarding assessment of need are that the details of the assessment, complaints and appeals procedures are unnecessarily complex and confusing. Moreover, an emphasis has been placed on a reactive system focused on complaints, rather than on proactively providing appropriate and sufficient services to ensure that fundamental needs can be met. Currently, many services are available on a very limited basis to people with disabilities. These include independent or supported living, assistive technologies and supported employment services. Given the limited nature of the Bill's stated scope and the current shortfalls in provision of services, it would appear that the assessment of need is likely to be curtailed to take account of only two facets of an individual's needs, unpredictable based on the available budgets of a particular health board in a particular year or at a particular time of year and occurring in a vacuum where service provision post-assessment is absent or limited.
Further concerns with regard to the assessment of need include the provision that assessment of need must begin within three months of referral, but no end point is specified. This lack of clarity hints at the possibility of an open-ended assessment, with a consequent lack of clarity around implementation of services post-assessment. The Bill makes no provision for picking up gaps in service availability to assist service planning. If an individual's service statement only includes services which are available, then those other services identified as requirements in the assessment of need will remain unmet and risk not identified for future service planning and delivery. The proposed assessment, liaison, complaints and appeals officer roles require further clarification. What will be their qualifications and ambits of responsibility? As employees of the health board, how will they ensure decisions are binding and that assessments of needs are translated into meaningful action? What does the independence clause mean for assessment officers and in what way can a direct employee of the health board act independently while representing his or her employer? We echo the point made by NAMHI that responsibility for appeals should lie with another Department.
The complaints procedure only seems to apply if and when an individual secures an assessment. If a person is deemed not to qualify for an assessment, it is unclear if he or she can make a complaint and, if so, what form the procedure might take.
We have included an appendix with our report that details other concerns we have on the assessment of needs. The profusion of the phrase "where practicable" throughout the Bill suggests that the assessment of need may not result in any enhancement or initiation of service delivery post-assessment. It is also unclear if the same definition of disability is assumed for public sector employment as is included at the start of the Bill.
Those are our serious reservations about the Bill. We hope today's proceedings will go some way towards informing future deliberations on its progress.