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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 18 Oct 2000

Vol. 164 No. 3

Adjournment Matters. - Speech and Language Therapy.

I raise the need for a speech and language therapist in St. Joseph's School for the Deaf, Cabra, Dublin 7. We have been discussing the issue of sporting policy and the commitment of resources to sport. It is essential that a well funded sporting policy is implemented and that it serves the country well. The Paralympics are currently taking place. Sport, in all its forms, therefore, is important, both for the able-bodied and the disabled, but there can hardly be anything more important than a child's education, particularly in speech and language and how to use it effectively.

Where the children concerned are deaf or have a hearing disability it is all the more important that resources are provided to ensure they get the right start in life. It is with dismay, therefore, that I draw the attention of the House to the situation at St. Joseph's School for the Deaf on the Navan Road where for the past four or five years a speech and language therapist was in place working on a part-time basis for two and a half days per week. This person was assisted and supported by a second speech and language therapist also working on a part-time basis, thus providing a proper five day service. It is my understanding that the employment of both therapists was terminated during the summer and that an intermittent service has been provided in the meantime on a part-time basis.

It is unacceptable, when one considers the needs of the children concerned, that a properly resourced full-time speech and language service is not provided at the school in question, given that many children with a hearing disability also have a speech disability. The board of management, principal and staff have all been loud in their call to the Department of Health and Children to provide the required service. In spite of this, it seems no steps have been taken to restore the service to its former level. It is incredible in the Celtic tiger economy that a properly resourced full-time speech and language therapist is not in place. I exhort the Minister of State to respond positively to this reasonable request.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and apologise for the unavoidable absence of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to clarify the matter of the provision of services for people with physical and sensory disabilities, including speech and language therapy, at St. Joseph's School for the Deaf, Cabra. In the first instance, it is a matter for the Eastern Regional Health Authority and the health boards, in consultation with their regional co-ordinating committees on services for people with physical and sensory dis abilities, to decide on priority services for development in their functional areas. In performing this function the authority and the health boards have regard to the needs of individual care groups, work in collaboration with appropriate agencies, and aim to ensure the services provided are adequate to meet needs.

The Northern Area Health Board commenced a speech and language therapy service at St. Joseph's School for the Deaf in November 1995, initially on a part-time basis, specifically to meet the needs of and provide an intensive treatment programme for boys who had received cochlear implants. In September 1998 the board increased this service to a full-time speech and language therapist post to incorporate the needs of those boys with conventional hearing aids, thus making the service more equitable. This post was filled by two speech and language therapists, both working on a part-time basis.

In April one of the therapists left St. Joseph's, leaving half a post unfilled. The school has looked for this half time post to be made full time, thus increasing the speech and language therapy service at the school. This submission is being considered by the Eastern Regional Health Authority.

The recruitment of allied health professional staff is presenting problems throughout the health board regions. It is clear that demand for the three therapy grades, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech and language therapy, needs to be reviewed. Following a Labour Court recommendation in 1997, an expert group was established to examine and report on various issues relating to the allied health professional grades, including speech and language therapists. One of the issues examined by the group was the problems which arise in the recruitment and retention of the various grades. The group submitted its final report in April. The Minister is implementing in full its recommendations at a cost of £10 million.

Among its recommendations was the urgent commissioning of a workforce planning study for the three therapy grades. The terms of reference for the study have been agreed and the study commissioned. A report on the study will be submitted by the end of the year. In the context of this report a large expansion in the area of training for these therapists, both in the numbers of graduates produced and the number of training colleges established, will be examined in partnership with the education authorities.

The Minister is pleased to announce that, in co-operation with our colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Woods, he has secured a total of 52 extra places for the training of physiotherapists, five additional places for the training of occupational therapists and three extra places for the training of speech and language therapists, all of which will be available from October this year. The Higher Education Authority is also establishing a group comprising representatives from each of the three physiotherapy schools to investigate the establishment of a fast-track physiotherapy programme to begin in each school from October 2001. The first graduates from these programmes should be available in 2003. The possibility of establishing a similar course for occupational therapy and speech and language therapy will also be investigated.

On the specific issue of St. Joseph's, the Minister shares the Senator's concerns in regard to the provision of speech and language therapy services. The Minister will communicate with the Senator as soon as he receives a report from the Eastern Regional Health Authority on the issue.

I am delighted that a long-term view is being taken and that it is expected extra graduates will be available in 2003, but given that the Eastern Regional Health Authority is still merely considering the submission of the school in question it is likely that a number of years will pass by without a therapist being in place, with the result that many young people will lose an essential opportunity to improve their language skills. Could a little more alacrity be shown in resolving the issue?

I have indicated that the Minister will communicate with the Senator as soon as he receives an update on the specific matter raised.

Is there a deadline?

I am not in a position to say, but I will convey the Senator's views to the Minister.

I thank the Minister of State.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 19 October 2000.