On behalf of the association, I thank the committee for giving us the opportunity to make a presentation. The Irish Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus was established in 1968 for the care, welfare, interest, treatment, education, advancement and rehabilitation of persons born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus. It seeks to fulfil these aims at national level through its services and activities.
The 1997 document, A Strategy for Equality, published by the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities states:
People with disabilities do not want to be pitied nor do they want their disabilities to be dismissed as of little importance. All that is required is a little respect and basic needs and rights. Surely this is not too much to ask.
This quotation came to my mind on the morning after publication of the disability strategy when a listener to a radio station phoned in and asked if the Disability Bill would provide for the provision of an occupational therapist and a speech therapist for her son that day and if would it provide for access to a coach for herself and her son to travel to Dublin from Carlow. The answer to all these questions was no. That is why it is so important that Members of the Oireachtas ensure we enact the best Disability Bill possible. Committee members have an opportunity to make a significant difference in the lives of people with disabilities by enacting the Bill as soon as possible without unnecessary political point scoring.
The Irish Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus wants to highlight certain difficulties we have with the Bill. As other organisations have dealt, in particular, with the assessment of need, we will park that matter because we agree with many of the presentations made to the committee. We want to focus on three areas: housing, transport and employment.
The Irish Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus is disappointed with the definition of disability used in the Bill. It is too narrow and restrictive. As someone who was involved in the discussions on the Disability Bill 2001, I see it as a different interpretation from that produced by Deputy Mary Wallace.
The Disability Federation of Ireland's document, Housing: the Vital Element, presented to the Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government, states:
The fact that Ireland has a housing crisis is well established. The fact that people with disabilities are caught up within the crisis is scantly appreciated.
The Bill fails to deal with the provision of housing for people with disabilities other than dealing with Part M of the building regulations which, as it stands, does not ensure buildings will be totally accessible when constructed. The Bill fails to ensure the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will be compelled to consider the housing and accommodation needs of people with disabilities when developing housing policy.
The sectoral plan of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government uses the word "promote" rather than words such as "compel" or "must". The language used in the Bill, and the interpretation of that language, is extremely important. What does a word such as "promote" really mean? The Bill tinkers with such issues as public spaces, building services, mobility and access, instead of dealing with them in an effective and definite way. For example, the term "public bodies" needs clarification. Does a post office, for instance, come under the term "public body" or "public building"? Will a building used for a Government service but not in ownership of the State be treated as public or private with regard to part M of the building regulations and in the context of accessibility in general? Are credit union offices public buildings? The term "public bodies and public buildings" needs clarification and possible amendment.
While the Bill deals with the 3% quota in the public sector, it fails to introduce provisions to cover the private sector. Generally, the Bill allows the private sector to get off scot free with regard to the provision of any services to those with disabilities. While the State will meet the minimum requirement, the private sector can refuse to take people with a disability into the work force. The only legal recourse for such people is the Equality Authority. There seems to be no interaction between the Bill and the existing equality legislation. Employers in the private sector will continue to ignore their responsibilities to provide employment unless a legal underpinning is put in place. One of the poorest presentations within the sectoral plans is the document provided by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. It is bereft of any new thinking regarding the mainstreaming of services and employment for people with disabilities. Once again, the word "promote" is used rather than words of positive action.
Significant improvements have been undertaken by Irish Rail, Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus in the provision of accessible transport. The private sector, however, which comprises a growing work force within the transport sector, is again let off the hook regarding the provision of accessible transport. This is not recognised in any meaningful way in the Disability Bill 2004. The failure to underpin transport accessibility through the Bill will only serve to widen an urban and rural divide for people with disabilities. Disabled people living in rural Ireland are seriously disadvantaged when it comes to transport.
On behalf of IASBAH, I thank the Chairman and the committee members for the opportunity to appear before it. At the launch of the national disability strategy, the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, stated that the Bill and the strategy represent a "staging post for the future". The Taoiseach is fully committed, as are the Opposition parties. My concern is that if we keep talking and consulting, we will never get this Bill on to the Statute Book. Amendments must be tabled and adopted. There comes a time when the talking has to stop and action follows.
For the sake of all those with disabilities, I urge the committee to bring the Bill to fruition and to begin the long and detailed process of implementation in partnership with the disability community. The three guiding principles of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities were equality, maximising partnership and enabling independence and choice. Oireachtas Members have a unique opportunity to ensure that these three principles are enshrined in the legislation. As equal citizens of the State, those with disabilities hope Members will do their duty on their behalf.