Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 17 Jul 2013

Vol. 225 No. 3

Special Olympics Ireland: Motion

I welcome representatives from Special Olympics Ireland to the Visitors Gallery.

I move:

That Seanad Éireann:

- notes the commitment of the Government in the Programme for Government to ensure that the quality of life for people with disabilities is


- notes in particular that Ireland has the highest participation rate of any country in the world in terms of Special Olympics Ireland, with around one-third of persons with an intellectual disability participating each year;

- notes that Special Olympics Ireland, a professionally run organisation with a strong volunteer network, has 400 community clubs across Ireland which offer training and competition in 15 Olympic type sports for those with an intellectual disability; and that the organisation operates a wide range of programmes which promote the development of the individual, by integrating them into local communities and giving them opportunities for personal development and achievement;

- notes that in 2003, Ireland hosted the most successful World Summer Games in Special Olympics history; and that on a weekly basis, Special Olympics Ireland offers a year-round programme of sport and training facilities to over 11,000 individuals throughout Ireland; and

- commends the Government and Minister Kathleen Lynch for their support for Special Olympics Ireland, and for their work in seeking to ensure enhanced quality of life generally for persons with disabilities, and in particular for adults and children with intellectual disabilities.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch. This motion is dear to my heart. I welcome also Mr. Peter O'Brien of Special Olympics Ireland, Mr. Jim Kelly, parent of James, the athlete, and Cillian, another athlete, who are in the Visitors Gallery.

I am delighted the Minister of State is taking the debate as I have experienced her active commitment to people with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics is what it says in the name - it is special. The volunteers who lend their time and money and without whom the Special Olympics would not take place, the athletes who compete and exercise unrivalled compassion and sportsmanship, the parents who watch fondly as their children make friends and engage in athleticism — this is what makes Special Olympics unique. My own experience is that there is nothing like it. I have watched my son overcome with joy and pride at having received a medal. Sometimes I can be more competitive than the athletes. Recently, as parents we attended the regional finals in Kilkenny. It was a joy to see parents, siblings and athletes together and sometimes athletes waiting for other athletes before they cross the finish line. To me that is the true moment of sport and equality. It is an indescribable moment for every parent who has witnessed the same.

I pay a heartfelt tribute to Special Olympics Ireland. This organisation provides athletes with otherwise scarce opportunities to develop their physical fitness, demonstrate their courage and compassion, experience true joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, talents and friendships with families, Special Olympians and their community.

It is fitting that we have this debate around the tenth anniversary of the Special Olympic World Summer Games in Ireland, a truly momentous occasion. They are probably the most successful games. At the time of the games, every corner of Ireland became involved and contributed greatly to making these games widely recognised and the most successful on record. This firmly established Ireland as a caring island that supports equality and inclusion for those people with a disability. The games of 2003 brought home the true meaning of sport.

I could spend all of my allotted time speaking about the games in 2003 but this Private Members' motion is future focused. I am here to bring further awareness to Special Olympics Ireland. We must continue the momentum from 2003.

Special Olympics Ireland has permeated all 32 counties of Ireland and has 400 established community clubs. One in three people with an intellectual disability in Ireland participates in Special Olympics Ireland. This represents the highest worldwide penetration rate of Special Olympics programmes in the world. The average participation rate in most countries is 2% whereas in Ireland it is more than 33%. That is incredible and the numbers have increased since 2003 with 5,500 new athletes joining since the games in 2003. The valuable and vital year-round service of training and competition to more than 11,000 athletes cannot be emphasised enough. From this statement alone it is very apparent that Special Olympics Ireland has taken a large financial burden off of the State and the taxpayers. I pay tribute to my local club in Blackrock in County Louth which hosts the games every four years.

However, every weekend, there are the dedicated followers and volunteers, young and old alike. Special Olympics Ireland informed me that its oldest volunteer is 92, which is amazing. Special Olympics Ireland is only able to provide this much needed service because of the 25,000 plus volunteers who commit endless hours to the organisation. The volunteers are the backbone of the organisation and without them, Special Olympics worldwide would not be the success it is.

The financial position of Special Olympics Ireland is precarious. The organisation has been shrewd and professional in its financial dealings but the recession has left no stone unturned. The organisation currently receives €1.2 million in Government funding through the Irish Sports Council. It also receives a small grant of €54,000 from the HSE for the promotion of health, with a commitment only up to 2015. That is it. Worryingly, this represents only 34% of the overall costs of running the programme in 2013. For comparison sake, in Northern Ireland it receives funding from the executive to the tune of 68% of its operating costs. Further cross-Border co-operation for Special Olympics would be extremely useful for us and would provide valuable knowledge for both sides. It provides another non-sectarian link to our partners in the North. As a member of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I submitted such a proposal and I would be grateful if I could get backing to initiate talks between the two.

Special Olympics Ireland ran an operational loss of €1.41 million in 2012 and estimates a projected loss of €1.69 million for this year. It can no longer rely on the generous donations it once received to fund its activities. Difficult economic times are the obvious cause and we must do something. We must pick up the slack here to support those who gladly give up of their time and ensure that this service does not even have to contemplate downgrading its programme, especially in light of the upcoming June 2014 Special Olympics Ireland Games in Limerick. I was horrified when I read recently that if Special Olympics Ireland does not have adequate funding, there is a danger that it might have to send a reduced team to the European games next year and to Los Angeles in 2015. That is probably the worse that could happen.

The Department of Health, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of the Taoiseach each has a responsibility to Special Olympics Ireland in various different ways. Some €1.2 billion is allocated each year for disability. Special Olympics receives not one cent, even though it greatly enhances the physical well-being, social situation and mental health of each athlete. It would be pertinent to remind these Departments that the Department of Health is not solely responsible for disability. At a time when we promote equality, inclusion and mainstreaming more than ever, I would have hoped that certain Departments would have taken the notion on board that disability is everybody's problem and pointing fingers back to the Department of Health and not working in a cross-departmental fashion is something they must be examined. The only ones who we end up hurting with this behaviour are those who we were aiming to help.

Those athletes who participate in Special Olympics are recognised for being susceptible to obesity, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. Socially, they are prone to having few social outlets and difficulty in accessing social situations with their peers. One in five of those with an intellectual disability is diagnosed with depression, and one must bear this in mind in the context that they represent 5% of the population. I ask that the Department of Health think more innovatively and support Special Olympics Ireland because it has taken a large burden off the Department's shoulders. To be totally honest, this will not sink in for some unless the service is seriously in danger.

Special Olympics Ireland is allocated no funding from the Department of Health. I ask that it be considered in the budget 2014 configuration. One specific measure that I ask to be introduced is the provision of a small amount of money, perhaps €100 per athlete. I note it is also Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch's, belief that the money should follow the client. I propose that a small amount of money, perhaps €100, be taken from that budget to follow the athlete. It would not be directly allocated to the programme but it would be held accountable for how the money is spent. This suggested €100 per athlete would ease the burden on the organisation and be transparent in its function, and would do exactly what we, in the programme for Government, set out, namely that the money would follow the client.

It is obvious that Special Olympics has been asked to do so much with very little and with numbers increasing every year. We owe it to support this as a Government and on a cross-party basis and I hope there will be cross-party support today. Special Olympics has given so much. It is time we gave back to it.

I second the motion.

I also welcome to the Visitors Gallery Mr. Peter O'Brien, Mr. James Kelly Sr. and Mr. James Kelly Jr. and, of course, Cillian, who is well known to every Member of both Houses as he is a regular visitor to Leinster House.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to second this motion and to make a contribution to the debate, particularly as it comes on the tenth anniversary of the hosting of the Special Olympics in Ireland. It is hard to believe that it has been ten years since that event that so electrified the country and lit up our lives in so many ways. There has rarely been an event which brought communities and people together in such a meaningful way.

The legacy of the Special Olympics has been long-lasting. Even today, as I travel around my county and other parts of the country, I can see the imprint of the event, even in the road signs that declare, for example, Abbeyfeale the host town to Tajikistan or Kenmare the host town to Switzerland. There is considerable pride among those who were involved but it is important that it continues to colour and influence our approach to persons with disabilities in Ireland, now and in the future.

As the House will be aware, persons with disabilities face many barriers to full participation in society - the physical environment, communication strategies, workplace design and work organisation. The design of service provision and public attitudes continue to pose barriers to persons with intellectual disability. Social inclusion means being in a position to participate fully in the life of the society in which one lives and we must continue to strive to promote inclusion for persons with disabilities.

The unique ability of sport to transcend linguistic, cultural and social barriers makes it an excellent platform for promoting and achieving inclusion. That was very much exemplified through the Special Olympics and continues to be so to this day thanks to the work that Special Olympics Ireland continues to do. Furthermore, the universal popularity of sport and its physical, social and economic development benefits makes Special Olympics an ideal tool for fostering the inclusion and well-being of persons with intellectual disabilities.

Some persons with intellectual disabilities are considered dependent and seen as incapable, thus fostering inactivity which often causes individuals with intellectual disabilities to experience restricted mobility beyond the cause of their disability. Special Olympics Ireland helps reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with disability because it can transform community attitudes about persons with disabilities by highlighting their skills and reducing the tendency to see the disability instead of the person.

I am privileged to know first hand the work Special Olympics does through my local club, the Kerry Stars Special Olympics Club in Kerry. The Kerry Stars had its tenth anniversary lately and members were guests of ours here at Leinster House last year. One of the greatest impacts of the event was the recruitment and retention of so many volunteers. If we are looking for an example of how to bring volunteers on board and put them to good work, we need look no further than this Special Olympics. I have always been most impressed by the voluntary ethics of the organisation and have always been struck by how these volunteers seem to derive as much enjoyment and pleasure from the organisation as the participates. The Kerry Stars founder said to me recently that, as legislators, we must continue to keep supporting financially Special Olympics Ireland which will send out a clear message that the organisation can help to transform the lives of those who partake and that cannot be measured in any monetary terms.

As we continue to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Special Olympics in Ireland, we must re-evaluate what we are doing, as a Government and as a society, to cherish, and to continue to progress the rights of, persons with disabilities.

I hope, at a minimum, that we can retain the level of funding available for services and supports for people with disabilities. As we all know the state of the public finances, there is no need for repetition. We have thrashed the topic to death here in the past few months. I hope, at the very least, that there will be no reduction in the existing level of services and funding for the sector in the forthcoming budget.

The athletes who participate in Special Olympics have shown the true and real meaning of competing. For them, it is not about being first, second, tenth or even last. It is not about scoring a goal or getting a slam dunk. It is about taking part. To see the joy on their faces when they compete in their events is a joy to behold. It is a joy to see the way the athletes interact with their opposition. It is hard to call them opposition because they all seem so friendly. All the while the athletes are competitive and proud of their achievements.

I am delighted to second the motion for Senator Moran. I have got to know her since we started here two and a half years ago. She has always promoted Special Olympics and her son is one of its athletes. She is very proud of his achievements and what Special Olympics Ireland has helped him to achieve. It has brought out the best in him. She told me - I am sure she will not mind me saying - she felt very proud when her son, Cillian, was able to lift his leg to kick a ball because of the support provided by Special Olympics Ireland. I congratulate and commend the organisation for its work and urge it to keep going. We will do what we can and I am sure that the Minister of State will do what she can to support its endeavours.

I welcome the opportunity to make a few points about the issue which is difficult to do in isolation. Senator Moran and others know a lot more about the subject than I do but, for many years, I have participated by providing assistance at the Special Olympics, etc.

I welcome representatives from Special Olympics Ireland here. As Senator Moran has said, we witnessed the entire island make extraordinary things happen by its staging of the most successful World Summer Games in the history of the Special Olympics. In 2003, 7,000 athletes participated in the Special Olympics and they were accompanied by their coaches, families and volunteers. As many as 30,000 volunteers worked at the World Games and many Members of the Houses participated as volunteers. The opening ceremony in Croke Park was unforgettable and I remember all of the celebrities who attended. It was a fantastic spectacle, particularly for the people lucky enough to have a ticket for the ceremony and many millions throughout the world who watched it on television. It was a very proud day for Ireland and nobody can detract from the excellent work done by Special Olympics Ireland and its volunteers. The World Games in 2003 egged on many people to become involved and statistics prove that the number of volunteers has increased to quite a few thousand when compared with the number beforehand.

On 21 June Special Olympics Ireland released a press release on funding cuts that was published in The Irish Times. Senator Moloney said that we all must do more with less due to the financial situation and everybody understands that fewer resources are available. I will never understand why we must cut its funding. We need to prioritise certain areas. I have always said that all of us would gladly pay more if we knew that an extra little bit was being provided to the elderly, the young, the most vulnerable and people with disabilities. Instead, those people have suffered consistent poverty and the number of people on disability allowance has increased by quite a percentage over the past number of years. Sadly, despite the great personal commitment demonstrated by the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, and seen yesterday when she outlined a different type of funding, the easy target always suffers and its funding is put in the firing line when cuts are proposed. I appreciate that the reports in yesterday's newspapers may only be rumours but history shows, for this Administration and others, that the resources available to the areas of disability and mental health tend to be the easy target. That is fundamentally wrong.

In the press release of 21 June the chief executive, I think, of Special Olympics Ireland made the point that there is no plan to close any of the 400 clubs located throughout the country. I hope that closures will not be necessary. The organisation is struggling to make ends meet and funding is difficult to source. I shall try to locate the quote, please give me a moment. The press release mentioned that ten years after the Special Olympics "stark choices" would have to be made. The article continues:

Funding from the State has been cut by 59% since 2008 and this was no longer sustainable.... "We don't have to close down clubs right now but in the next year we're faced with having to make stark choices unless the funding is reinstated."

The chief executive continued: "We definitely need €2.5 million per year regularly to support the programme," and may have to send fewer participants to games. They are looking forward to the Limerick national games but wonder where funding will come from. All of this is happening at a time when fundraising has been increased and people have been generous. Ultimately, the games will become unsustainable unless it gets help.

In the last budget people in the €100,000 plus category were fully conditioned to pay an extra 3%. The Labour Party held a particular view that did not come to pass, Fianna Fáil held a certain view and so did Sinn Féin. Another budget is due to take place and those earners have been conditioned again and expect to pay more. I do not think that they would have a problem paying more if they knew the money was ring-fenced for people with disabilities or in the mental health area.

None of us wishes to politicise the disability sector. There is great support for the excellent work done by Special Olympics Ireland and Fianna Fáil is happy to have an opportunity to comment on that work. I urge people to take the extra step to clearly state that people and sectors can do with less but not the disability and mental health sectors. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, knows that and would approach the funding issue in that way if she were the Minister for Finance.

I do not wish to politicise the sector. However, the cuts that were made throughout the year and the amendment tabled by Sinn Féin make it impossible for my party to support the amendment. Our policy cannot detract from the spirit in which the motion was tabled by the Labour Party. Special Olympics Ireland has done excellent work and I do not want it to interpret my party's policy as detracting from its day here to highlight its needs and work. I join in commending the organisation on its excellent work. Equally, it is impossible for my party not to support the Sinn Féin amendment which highlights that the cuts are wrong. The Labour Party highlighted many ways to provide funding during its preparations for the last budget, including an additional 3% charge that could have been levied on people earning €100,000 or over. That money could have provided the much needed funding to continue the work done by Special Olympics Ireland.

I shall stay positive when discussing this important issue. I commend Senator Moran and my Labour Party colleagues for tabling the motion. I welcome Mr. Peter O'Brien from Special Olympics Ireland who is seated in the Visitors Gallery. I also welcome Mr. Cillian Moran whom I met earlier this afternoon. He told me about his important work and about a competition that he will be involved in at the weekend. I look forward to hearing more. I also welcome Mr. James Kelly to the Seanad.

This is a very important motion and I sincerely hope it will receive all-party support.

The year 2003 was a very special one because we hosted the Special Olympics World Games. Who will forget Bono bringing Nelson Mandela on to the stage in Croke Park on that sunny day in 2003? It was one of the proudest moments Ireland has ever had. What I would say to people now that we are looking at a scenario where Special Olympics Ireland may have to reduce services, reduce the number of competitors and so on is to remember how proud we were in 2003 and what was achieved then. People should also remember that sport, and access to sport, for people with all sorts of disabilities is a right and something to which we need to aspire. As a young fellow in County Clare, I remember not being able to participate in sport and feeling excluded but we have come a long way as a country.

Special Olympics Ireland played a critical role in ensuring healthy living and participation among people with disabilities in sport. What has been achieved is remarkable. We are a very inclusive society and that is reflected in the fact that Special Olympics Ireland has 5,500 citizens who are prepared to volunteer on a regular basis to ensure equality of participation, to which we all aspire.

I was recently invited to sit on the board of CARA in the Institute of Technology in Tralee. It is an organisation which promotes physical activity among people with disabilities. It has numerous training programmes for people involved in the hospitality and leisure business. It also provides disability awareness training to coaches involved in different types of sports and it works with governing bodies to ensure best practice is implemented in the area of access to sport for people with disabilities. It is doing phenomenal work to such a degree that it has been awarded the UNESCO chair. It is recognised as a world leader in the whole area of adapted physical activity and in being innovative in what it is trying to achieve. I have only attended one meeting of the board because I am only a recent appointee but I believe Special Olympics Ireland is also represented on it and that there is significant collaboration between all these people, whether in Special Olympics Ireland or the various governing bodies. That type of collaboration is working phenomenally well.

I attended one of its CampAbilities sessions last Easter. I believe the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, did one of the opening sessions. I did one of the closing sessions and it was wonderful to see dozens of blind and visually impaired young people from secondary schools all over Munster participating in CampAbilities, enjoying it and feeling included. That is progress. I hope we will see CampAbilities in all provinces in the next couple of years. I know it is trying to get sponsors to ensure a CampAbilities in Dublin, the west and the south east.

Much is happening but I respectfully suggest to Government that it needs to become a partner in this process. The volunteers and the structures are there. The Special Olympics Ireland structure is probably one of the best of any sporting organisation. It is extremely professional, which I have found in any dealings I have ever had with it. We need Government to become a fully fledged partner.

I do not want to hear commentary or an analysis that Special Olympics Ireland will have to look at reducing services. I want to hear conversations about increasing services, increasing participation and involving more people. This is an area to which the Government could look at increasing funding because the long-term benefits are obvious. One of our colleagues, Senator Eamonn Coghlan, who is world-renowned in terms of what he has achieved in sport, regularly talks about the significant health benefits to those involved in sport. It reduces obesity and all sorts of illness. Such illnesses are even more prevalent among people with disabilities which is why we need to involve people with disabilities in sport more than other groups in society.

I speak from experience. I would have loved the opportunity, as a young fellow, to have participated in sport but it was not available to me. I want to see availability and accessibility for future generations who have disabilities because it is of critical importance. I commend my Labour Party colleagues on the motion, which I hope gets unanimous sport.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch. I also welcome the publication of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill because it is historic in more ways than one, but I know we will discuss it on another day.

I wholeheartedly support the motion put forward by Senator Mary Moran and her colleagues in the Labour Party. Special Olympics Ireland is a tremendous organisation and I welcome people from the organisation who are in the Visitors Gallery. I read its mission, which I am surprised nobody mentioned yet. It states: "The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community." That is wonderful. We often read the lofty missions of organisations but Special Olympics Ireland lives that mission in its work every day and it achieves exactly what it says.

There are 26,449 people with an intellectual disability in Ireland. Just shy of 9,000 are registered athletes with Special Olympics Ireland, which clearly demonstrates its reach and the huge range of activities. I read about Alpine skiing, gymnastics and football, which put any of my sporting attempts to shame. I thought I did well at hockey in school but I may have to revise my assessment, especially given athletes like James and Cillian who achieve so much, and that is multiplied throughout Ireland.

June 2003 was mentioned. I am so proud, as an Irish citizen, that we hosted what were the most successful games in Special Olympics history which reached into every community in Ireland. One only needs to mention it and it put smiles on all our faces.

I also take the opportunity to mention another organisation which shares many similarities with Special Olympics Ireland in its pursuit to enhance the quality of life for people with intellectual disabilities. The organisation is called HeadsARTS. It is a very young organisation and its mission is to empower and enable people with intellectual disabilities through the arts. I also welcome people from that organisation who are in the Visitors Gallery. I have been privileged to see its work as a start-up social entrepreneurial organisation. It wants to become Ireland's leading service provider of arts for people with intellectual disabilities and wants to create a trustworthy and creative environment which encourages and enables its members. It has very much learned from and is borne out of experiences with Special Olympics Ireland. It is asking if there are other options it can offer young people and adults with intellectual disabilities who may not necessarily be sports-minded.

Where are the opportunities with which we can provide them? Both organisations rely very much on volunteers, carers and parents. People with intellectual disabilities are entitled to the same opportunities as all of us in society. They should have an equal opportunity to engage in the arts as well as sports, both of which are proven to enrich our lives. I want to commend the vision of HeadstARTS. It involves three young students in DCU who could choose to do other things. If one believed everything one read in the newspapers, one would think that students were doing other things. Instead, these students have given up their time to set up an organisation. They are funded through UStart, DCU, and many others are trying to support them. It is great to see students and young people showing this initiative.

I note the Sinn Féin amendment, but this is a positive day. I want to keep it positive. We must question, however, the type of society we wish to have. That society must include organisations like Special Olympics Ireland and HeadstARTS. Their values should be our values. The State must support these organisations. Senator Moran has set out the financial case for Special Olympics Ireland. I have no doubt that HeadstARTS also has needs. Support for them would demonstrate our values as a society. While I join with Senator Moran and her Labour Party colleagues and say "Well done" to Special Olympics Ireland, we will also have to put our hands in our pockets, not just applaud them.

I congratulate my colleague, Senator Moran, for drafting the motion and raising an important issue. I welcome Cillian and James to the Visitors Gallery and others with an interest in the motion.

Ireland was one of the first states to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at UN headquarters in New York in March 2007. It was a welcome act that Ireland signed the convention and recognised the right of persons with disabilities to live with equality, dignity and respect. These are important words. Approximately 10% of the word's population, or 650 million people, live with a disability. For too long, people with disabilities have been marginalised, excluded and denied their basic human rights. Housing is the related area of which I have the most knowledge. I am only too well aware in that context of the fact that people with disabilities are excluded from the ability to make the choice to live independently which other people take for granted. It must be noted that Ireland is one of three countries in the EU which have yet to ratify the convention on human rights for persons with disabilities. It behoves us, Finland and the Netherlands to ratify the convention without delay. Austerity and economic crisis are not valid or appropriate reasons to fail to ratify what constitutes a recognition of the basic human dignity of person with disabilities.

None of us can fail to have been moved by the Special Olympics event which was held in Dublin in 2003. The event in Croke Park was one of the most magnificent I have ever seen. It was deeply moving and had an incredible impact on the country. There were towns and villages across the country which sponsored or engaged with Special Olympics. On no other occasion have so many people come together to support a particular cause. The point has been made that early intervention is very important. We are very aware of it in debates on early childhood intervention. There are particular ways to spend money which have very positive outcomes socially, emotionally and, let us be honest, economically. Special Olympics and athletics for people with a disability open doors and present unimagined possibilities, not only for participants but for volunteers, coaches and other supporters. They give all of us a belief in a brighter future and an acceptance of every member of our society irrespective of his or her capacity. It allows us to understand that we all have something to offer our society. It is important to note also the effort that goes into this. Athletes train for months and coaches engage for years. There is an enormous, positive message that no matter what one's disadvantage in life, there is a role and a prize that anyone can achieve.

Special Olympics fosters inclusion in our society. We live in a society which, whether we like it or not, is deeply divided. It is not just divided for those who suffer from disability, which does not involve disability but rather a different form of ability. People are excluded financially or because they live in certain parts of towns and villages. They are excluded for economic reasons. Funding for Special Olympics is critical. It is not a luxury. Something like this should never be viewed that way. It fosters an inclusive society. That inclusion must extend across the gamut of Irish society. In 2003, 30,000 people from across the country volunteered to work at the world games. It was an incredible national achievement. I wish we could extend that cohesion across every aspect of exclusion.

Every Government can and should support Special Olympics, which represents a unique experience for those participating and for those who assist. I ask the Minister of State to take a positive approach to its funding.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I listened with attention and interest to the excellent speeches of all Members who contributed, which is not to say that I agreed with them.

I propose to be a little bit of a spoilsport. While I endorse every item of praise which has, rightly, been heaped on Special Olympics and honour the three representatives who are in the Visitors Gallery, one of whom is an athlete, I cannot agree with Senator Marc MacSharry who respects and appreciates the spirit of the Labour Party motion. I certainly do not. Phrases like "notes the commitment" and "commends this that and the other" represent piggy-backing on the wonderful work Special Olympics has done. It is an effort to collect the praise. As with the referendum to abolish the Seanad, the intention is to create a smokescreen to hide misdoings. I phoned the Seanad office at 7.30 p.m. last night to find out if there was an amendment down. If there was not, I would have tabled one to delete everything after the words "That Seanad Éireann" and to criticise the Government for its cutbacks.

How can Members possibly refer to the wonderful summer games and commend the Government? That is trying to take the credit and they are not entitled to it. It is a wonderful organisation. In 2003 there were 7,000 athletes and 30,000 volunteers. Towns all over Ireland were twinned and nearly 200 provided hospitality. It was superb and Government Members are not entitled to claim credit for it, which is what they are doing in the motion. That is why I will vote against it. Self-praise is no praise.

We are not praising ourselves.

Is that simple enough to be understood? I respect the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who has fought her quarter as hard as she can. I am not impugning her and support her in all her battles, but this is a Government that has cut back on carers and, by 1 cm, Members missed the opportunity to vote down that mean-minded package. Shame on the House that it did not do so.

With regard to people with disabilities and Down's syndrome, how can Government Members explain, in the light of this self-glorifying motion, that they are excluding from benefits a particular category of Down's syndrome children? This is a new one, whereby people with mild learning disabilities do not receive the same proportion of care. They are taken out instead of recognising the entirety of those with Down's syndrome. Perhaps there is an answer and this has been amended in the past few weeks. Has it?

It is up to the Minister of State who will speak next. I will let Senator David Norris finish first.

If not, we have the same situation, but if there has been a change in the past few weeks, I am delighted and welcome it. However, that was only as a result of moves made in this House. I remember this issue being discussed and I took part in the debate.

I have the greatest of respect for the Special Olympics which deserves all the praise. These motions which congratulate the Government on whatever it is doing do not face the reality. Let us have honesty rather than self-congratulation. Let us face the blunt truth. I have the greatest admiration for this organisation. One of my greatest memories which I cite all the time, although I am not sure it dates to 2003, is how these wonderful young people can be an example to all of us. Against all of this competition which is ruining the planet with its vulgar production statistics and everyone having to slit one another's throat to get on, which is the same in politics, one of the competitors fell and the other two went back and carted their fallen comrade over the finishing line. That was a moment of wonderful human decency and I will remember it until the day I am screwed into my box, if I can say "screwed" or "box" in this House.

I have the greatest of respect for Senator David Norris. I have always been a huge fan, even before I was a Member of the House.

I meant of the Special Olympics.

What amazes me is that every contribution he has made in the past few weeks has been based on the abolition of the Seanad, which is wrong.

That is what it looks like.

There was one reference; the Minister of State is very sensitive.

I am as sensitive as the next person; I am no different or no better. I am sorry to see that Senator Marc MacSharry has left the Chamber. Senator David Norris will support Sinn Féin's amendment. I thought the Senator would support an amendment that was truthful or correct. The amendment reads: "condemns the savage cuts to supports to people with disabilities by the Government, including cuts to the mobility allowance [untrue, as there was no cut], the motorised transport grant [to which there was no cut], the respite care grant [yes, there has been a reduction], the household benefits package, special needs assistants [no cuts] and the medical card [no cuts]". For a party like Sinn Féin which is the best resourced and best staffed party-----

I hesitate to interrupt the Minister of State, but on a point of order and information, there were cuts to the numbers of special needs assistants. I have outlined them. There are for people with mild learning disabilities.

Then I will not vote for it or against it.

I have no problem with people voting against the motion or supporting an amendment, but they should know what they are voting for.

There are days when we cannot get into the lift to go to the sixth floor in LH 2000 because of the number of Sinn Féin advisers and staffers. With so many people, we would think they would get it right.

I commend Senator Mary Moran because this is about promoting the Special Olympics more than anything else.. This is not about the Governmen; it is about the Special Olympics. I do not take the patronising approach of saying it was wonderful-----

It is about the Government which is mentioned all over the place.

The Minister of State to continue, without interruption.

People who participated in the Special Olympics when they were held in Ireland participated to the best of their ability and astonished us with their courage and tenacity. I remember the moment to which Senator David Norris referred and it made us all cringe with shame that we would not have turned back to pick up our comrades. Perhaps we would have, but I do not think so. I must admit I would be too focused on the finish line. It made the rest of the country cringe that we did not have the capacity to do something like that.

It is interesting that we are talking about capacity when we have just published the assisted decision-making legislation today. It is substantial legislation that has been promised for 20 to 30 years.

We believe it is the last barrier to ratifying the convention. I hope, after it is passed, that we will be in a position to ratify it. I am sure people tell us about other items of legislation needed. I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House and thank the Senators for proposing the motion. It is a special day for Special Olympics Ireland. Since it was set up in 1978, the work it has done in promoting sport and competition for people with intellectual disabilities has been immeasurable. It has grown to the point where it currently has almost 11,000 registered athletes participating in 15 sports in 409 affiliated groups throughout the island of Ireland. The athletes are supported by their families and a team of more than 25,000 volunteers who give of their time to help out at sports and fundraising events. It is not just once every four years.

The philosophy of Special Olympics which emphasises the ability rather than the disability of people with special needs has changed the way all of us look at the people around us. Special Olympics Ireland plays a pivotal role in helping to break down the barriers that often prevent people with disabilities from participating in sport. It does a wonderful job in carrying out this task and deserves both our congratulations and sincere gratitude. While Special Olympics is, first and foremost, a sports organisation for people with an intellectual disability, it provides athletes with far more than the physical benefits of sport. It is about fun, friendships and team spirit. It is about a feeling of belonging and, ultimately, improving quality of life. It changes lives. Through sport, athletes develop both physically and emotionally; they make new friends, realise their dreams and know they can fit in. Special Olympics enables them to achieve and win not only in sport but in life, too.

The health, educational and social gains that are part of the ethos of Special Olympics Ireland's overall programme must be acknowledged in addition to the measures taken to help keep all Special Olympics athletes healthy through a number of health initiatives, including information on medical requirements and first aid. The health promotion programme, which offers health screening, is also to be commended. We should also praise the focus on diet and methods of staying healthy, in which initiative I was involved.

The Irish Sports Council, which is funded by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, provides funding for Special Olympics Ireland through its programme of core grant funding for national governing bodies of sport. I take very much on board what Senator MacSharry said about the reduction since 2008, when our economy was beginning to implode. People should remember that. In this House I have never got political about such matters, and I try desperately not to do so in the Chamber to which I am elected, but we must remind ourselves about how we got here. Special Olympics Ireland received €1.2 million in funding from the council this year. I am pleased to say that, despite reductions in the council's overall core funding provision for sports bodies in recent years, it has made a particular effort to maintain funding for Special Olympics Ireland and has kept this year's funding at the same level as in 2012. Special Olympics Ireland has been the single largest beneficiary of core grant funding from the Irish Sports Council since 2007, having received over €14.6 million between 2007 and 2013.

The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has provided grant funding for Special Olympics Ireland in the latest round of the sports capital programme. A grant of €26,153 was allocated in 2012 for the purchase of equipment. Furthermore, the National Aquatic Centre at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown was developed and opened in 2003 to host the swimming events of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games, the first time the games were held outside of the United States. That is a credit to the organisation.

Funding of €82,000 was provided by the HSE in 2012 to assist Special Olympics Ireland in meeting the costs associated with the programmes it provides. This funding was provided through grant aid agreements under section 39 of the Health Act 2004 and through national lottery grants.

Irish teams have performed very successfully at both the summer and winter Special Olympics World Games. This success is a testament to the excellent work done by Special Olympics Ireland in training and managing the athletes and in organising their attendance at the games. The 2003 games were, of course, very special for Ireland and left a wonderful legacy. At the very successful games, approximately 7,000 athletes from 150 countries competed in 18 official disciplines, and three exhibition sports. Some 30,000 volunteer officials and support staff assisted in the running of the games.

This year, the tenth anniversary of the hosting of the games, I am very pleased to acknowledge the excellent work that Special Olympics Ireland continues to do for people with intellectual disabilities. The board of Special Olympics Ireland, CEO Matt English and everyone involved in Special Olympics Ireland deserve great credit for their wonderful work. I congratulate in particular all of the Special Olympics athletes who have represented Ireland over the years. They have always been marvellous ambassadors for Ireland, representing both Ireland and Irish sport with honour and pride, and they have certainly enhanced Ireland's sporting reputation.

From a wider perspective, people with disabilities can face challenges when it comes to participating in many everyday activities. Much in the way Special Olympics Ireland has played a pivotal role in breaking down the barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating in sport, a successful response from and development of a society that values, without distinction, people with disabilities depends on the willingness of every social sector to break down barriers to ensure a better quality of life for people with disabilities. In this regard, the national disability strategy has a key role to play. The strategy was launched in September 2004 and its implementation continues to be the focus of Government policy for the sector. There have been many important developments to improve the lives of people with disabilities in recent years, but a specific implementation plan for the strategy had not previously been developed. The Government is now addressing this and the programme for Government commits to the publication of a national disability strategy implementation plan. The Government is committed to pursuing this agenda to achieve even greater progress in the next three years.

I established and I am chairing the national disability strategy implementation group, which developed the implementation plan for progressing the strategy and is also tasked with monitoring its implementation. The implementation group comprises the senior officials group on disability, representing all relevant Departments and agencies across the system of government. A broad variety of representatives of disability organisations and the National Disability Authority have also been appointed to the group, as have a number of individuals with disabilities who have been appointed in their personal capacity to bring their lived experience to the group. I often believe we have so many officials and experts telling people what they should have that we do not actually ask them.

To achieve further consultation with people with disabilities, the end users of the services provided, I also set up a disability forum under the stewardship of the National Disability Authority. The first meeting of the forum was held on 19 June last year and a report of the views expressed form part of the considerations of the implementation group in regard to actions in the implementation plan.

To achieve our objectives, collaboration is fundamental, and this approach will continue in advancing the implementation plan and achieving the commitments made. Through engaging with the disability sector and building on the traditional problem-solving and constructive approach of the community and voluntary sector, the aim of the implementation plan is to make progress in achieving our common objectives. More targeted, innovative and flexible services, designed and delivered on the basis of the evidence drawn from systematic evaluation, will help ensure that available resources are used to deliver services that meet the needs of the community as efficiently and effectively as possible. Acknowledging the current economic climate and diminishing resources available across the system of government, this implementation plan seeks to ensure available resources are used to best effect in ensuring people with disabilities have more choice and control in their lives and in realising their aspirations. The plan was agreed at the meeting of the implementation group on 20 July 2013 and I am pleased to say that, with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, I will be bringing it to the Government next week. The plan will be published on relevant Departments' websites as soon as possible thereafter.

Another positive development for people with disabilities of which the Senators may be aware is the approval by the Government last week of the publication of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill. It is actually due to be published today. The purpose of the Bill is to provide a modern statutory framework that supports decision-making by adults and enables them to retain the greatest amount of autonomy possible where they lack or may shortly lack capacity. That applies to each of us. I am not certain it is ever right to have this issue placed in the middle of a discussion on disability. It will apply to every single one of us as we age, bearing in mind what can happen to us in life.

The Bill proposes to change the existing law on decision-making capacity, shifting from the current all-or-nothing status approach to a flexible, functional one whereby capacity is assessed on an issue and time-specific basis. The adoption of a functional approach to capacity, tailor-made to an individual and as provided for in section 3 of the Bill, is a key element in modernising the law on capacity. The Bill will replace the ward of court system for adults, which is the existing mechanism for managing the affairs of persons whose decision-making capacity is impaired. The objective is to provide support in decision-making and legal protection for persons with impaired decision-making ability, such as people with intellectual disabilities, those suffering from dementia or mental illness, and persons who have acquired brain injuries through trauma or accident. In view of the growing number of people who may need assistance at some stage in their lives with decision-making, the provisions of the Bill have the potential to be of relevance to most families.

As I previously outlined, a major issue for the Government is to ensure that we get the best outcome for people with disabilities from the resources we put in. With regard to the health sector, I published the report Value for Money and Policy Review of Disability Services in Ireland on 20 July 2012.

The objective of the review was to assess how well existing health and personal social services for people with disabilities were meeting their objectives and to recommend how these services should be delivered in the future. I am confident that many of the most fundamental changes needed to support the full participation of people with disabilities in society will be achieved through the implementation of the review.

From the outset, public consultation was an important feature of this exercise. The review team listened carefully to what people had to say and to the advice of the expert reference group on disability policy and the thoroughly researched advice provided by the National Disability Authority. Following these consultations, the team recommended a significant restructuring of the disability services programme, in which Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú will have a particular interest. This restructuring, it recommended, should be achieved through a migration from an approach that was predominantly organised around group-based service delivery towards a model of person-centred, individually chosen supports, and through implementation of a more effective method of assessing need, allocating resources and monitoring resource use. These changes will represent a seismic shift in how services are funded and provided and will, ultimately, result in shifting choice and control from professionals and administrators to where they rightfully belong, namely, with the individual with a disability and his or her family.

As the next step in the process of translating the recommendations in the review into concrete actions, I published the national implementation framework for the value for money review in February this year. I am in the process of establishing a steering group to monitor implementation of that review and report to me on progress. The Health Service Executive has also made provision in its national service plan for moving forward on key recommendations this year.

I again thank the Senators for proposing the motion and acknowledge the considerable contribution made to the lives of people with disabilities by Special Olympics Ireland. It is imperative that we all play our part to ensure the quality of life of people with disabilities is enhanced, inclusion for all becomes a reality and every individual is supported to reach his or her full potential. The Government is committed to working collaboratively to realise the vision of a more inclusive society for all, where services and supports meet the needs of individual citizens.

I hope the Acting Chairman will accommodate me in making a final and very important point.

I am delighted to facilitate the Minister of State.

Thank you. I keep asking myself why I am in the Chamber taking this debate. This is a motion about Special Olympics Ireland, a sports organisation. Why then am I, as Minister of State at the Department of Health, answering the debate? The answer, of course, is that we still have a mindset in this country that, somehow or other, people with disabilities can only be dealt with by the Department of Justice and Equality or the Department of Health.

I am saying this now in order that the message goes out loud and clear that people with disabilities do not live in a box.

We will support the Minister of State.

In fact, they live across a range of aspects in exactly the same way the rest of us do.

In parts of that living they will require support.

That is what we should be about. In future, when a motion is tabled in this House about sport, it should be the Minister at the relevant Department who takes it. Likewise, when a motion relates to transport for people with disabilities, the relevant Minister should respond. Let us make this a reality.

All of the issues to which I have referred in terms of implementation plans, capacity legislation and so on refer to the infrastructure and architecture. They are a recognition that people with disabilities simply need a little more support than the rest of us. Of course, as we age, we will all need that type of support. I commend Senator Mary Moran for bringing forward the motion. We can never praise Special Olympics Ireland enough.

I thank the Minister of State for her stimulating contribution.

It was a great contribution.

Tá an-áthas orm go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo ar na Cluichí Oilimpeacha Speisialta ag tarlú, mar tugann sí seans dúinn ár meas a léiriú agus ár mbuíochas a chur in iúl do dhaoine a spreag sinn, a thug dóchas dúinn agus a thug bród dúinn as ár gcine. Ní beag an rud sin.

This debate is an opportunity for acknowledgement, appreciation and celebration and a chance to salute people who are special in many ways. Never was the word "special" more properly used than in reference to the hosting of the Special Olympics in Ireland ten years ago. It was, of course, a wonderful sports event and we all entered into the competitive atmosphere which goes with all such events. It was also, however, much more than this. All of us, in our own communities, had an opportunity of observing, at first hand, exactly what was happening. In Ireland at the time, what was happening was something absolutely unique. There were many messages to take on board. The sporting message was one of them, but there was also the message of challenge, among others. We all observed the various interacting messages that came into play.

I often observe, whether wrongly or rightly, that we have a tendency to be a nation of moaners. We tend to ignore all the good things about this country, the assets we have, the inspiration, the resources and so on. It would have been very difficult, however, for anyone to moan during the Special Olympics. There we saw a spirit and character we would all like to attain. We saw people who had made a huge effort to be prepared in a sporting sense for what was happening in Ireland. We also saw a huge response organisationally. I was in Shanghai some years ago where I had a person-to-person meeting with the leader of that city. The Special Olympics were due to be held in China at the time, with the leader of the city due to lead most of the proceedings. Members will imagine the pride I felt when he made it clear that he was looking to Ireland as an example. Our population of 5 or 6 million people is dwarfed by China's 1.3 billion, yet this person was looking to us for leadership on how his country should organise its hosting of the Special Olympics.

While we are all happy to take credit for that achievement, we sometimes forget its source. My experience, in my area, was that people came together in an incredible way. There was a cohesion among the community, the main element of which, as it struck me at the time, was positivity. Everybody was excited about what was happening and wanted to be part of it, not merely as observers but by playing an active part in what was happening. It provided an important model for how people could work together to achieve their goals. I have often thought that if we legislators could craft a plan that was as multifaceted in terms of its impact on communities and the country as a whole, with all of the positive elements within it, we would have few difficulties that could not be overcome.

Our hosting of the Special Olympics was a journey into unknown territory. We were not quite sure what its shape would be. I had no direct involvement whatsoever, being merely one member of the community who was anxious to help. We were being led along a road towards a goal, but we were not exactly sure what that goal would look like.

Think of the people who thought it out and planned it. It was one thing to plan it with the draftsman, but imagine how it was then transplanted not just to one but to several communities. The bigger spectacle was part of that. This all happened and we were all drawn into it. There was no sense of apathy, cynicism or scepticism about it and we accepted the leadership given. Therefore, this evening is an evening of acknowledgement, appreciation and celebration.

I would like to tell the representatives here and all those others involved with them that this nation owes them a huge debt of gratitude, because during that period many other areas flourished and many a community project grew out of that event. This evening, we should concentrate on that positive aspect of what we are debating and celebrating and hope that we have earned and learned something from it. I compliment those who put forward this motion. I do not think the nitty gritty of the motion is what is the most important aspect of this debate. What is most important is that the motion submitted to the Seanad has given us, as legislators, the opportunity to formally and generously and with sincerity say "Thank you" to everybody who was involved. They did us proud as a people.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome our special guests from the Special Olympics to the House and congratulate Senator Moran on introducing this motion to the Seanad.

The Special Olympics was established in the 1960s by Eunice Shriver Kennedy, but were not known as the Special Olympics initially. Incidentally, she supported me in getting a green card in the United States. During the 1970s I was a volunteer and supporter of the Special Olympics in the United States, but since they were established in Ireland in 1978, I have been very much involved in fund-raising and support here. I even carried the Irish flag on many occasions at the RDS and in Croke Park at the world games ten years ago this year. As Senator Conway mentioned, we will never forget the Special Olympics in 2003 and its wonderful pageantry. Senator Conway mentioned Nelson Mandela and Bono. I remember when Colin Farrell came up to me as I was walking along with my young son and he said: "My God, Eamonn Coghlan, my hero." All of a sudden I became cool, because my son said: "Dad, did you hear Colin Farrell? You are his hero. Wow, Dad, that is pretty good."

My wife and I also had the privilege of hosting a family from Malawi. I will never forget what happened. They were lost in Ballsbridge and a gentleman telephoned me as I was about to present prizes at a fund-raising event for the children's hospital in Crumlin. He asked if it was me and told me he had just picked up a family from Malawi and the only name they had was Eamonn Coghlan and he assumed it was me because they were here for the Special Olympics. I could not pick them up at the time, but he said he would drive them to the golf club. I said "No" he should bring them to my home, where my wife met them. The next morning when we were in the kitchen for breakfast, they, Stanley and Ann Mugabe, came into the kitchen with a sack of rice on their backs wearing their traditional costume. They introduced themselves and said the tradition in their country when they visit somebody was to bring a gift and they had brought a gift of food, rice from Malawi. I was struck by the fact they came from great poverty, but I also had great admiration for the Special Olympics movement which reaches out to communities all over the world for this type of inclusion.

For me, the legacy of the Special Olympics ten years ago is not just about the sports and the pageantry. It is not just about the National Aquatic Centre that was specially built for the Special Olympics. It is that for the first time ever, the Special Olympics built mutual respect and understanding for people with intellectual disability among the community, particularly world leaders. Special Olympics Ireland provided a template for the world movement out of Washington DC, thanks to the foresight and the leadership of Mary Davis who headed up the organisation for many years. Irish athletes at Special Olympics and paralympics have excelled throughout the world, winning numerous medals. They have received tremendous plaudits from the media, the public and government for being an example of what life and sport is all about and for their commitment, courage, fairness, sportsmanship and, in particular, the love they exude.

Special Olympics is a unique organisation. We referred to over 11,000 athletes and over 25,000 volunteers. Special Olympics is not just about the world games every four years. It is not just about the politically correct hype or the media hype that goes with the big occasion of the world games. Special Olympics is about every day, every week and every month of the year for many years in communities, villages, towns and cities all over Ireland. It is not just about sport. Special Olympics is all about the delivery of services, support, equality and respect for people with intellectual disabilities. In 2008, the contribution beyond Government funding was approximately €14 million. In 2012, it is more than €15 million, but with the shortfall that exists now, things are proving very difficult for Special Olympics.

Special Olympics Ireland has become a victim of its own success. According to the rules of the organisation, it is obliged to keep one year's costs in reserve. As a result of having this reserve, the interpretation is that it has plenty of money. It does not have plenty of money. This year, its budget deficit will be €1.5 million, putting pressure on its financial reserve. The upcoming 2014 games in Limerick will generate between €25 million and €30 million for the local economy, but at the same time Special Olympics Ireland will have to reduce the number of athletes participating by between 200 and 300. This is very sad. I agree, it has built up a financial reserve, but this is dwindling fast.

The Irish Sports Council has cut its grants by 59% in the past few years. Why is this Minister of State here to discuss the Special Olympics when it should be a Minister from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport? However, I think she can help. If the trend continues, what happened during the past ten years will become defunct over the next ten years. Special Olympics Ireland expects its deficit to be in the order of approximately €3 million per annum over the next number of years. It can cut costs and wages, but it cannot afford to cut services.

How can we make changes? Perhaps the Minister of State can suggest to the Government that it could remove VAT, at 23%, for charitable organisations. Perhaps we can use the model or template established in Northern Ireland where five Departments share equally the contribution to Special Olympics in Northern Ireland. If that template was used here rather than funding coming solely from the Irish Sports Council, whose funding is decreasing because of the difficult economic situation, that might be the way to share the burden so as to keep the Special Olympics movement in Ireland alive and well into the future. I ask the Minister of State to support this.

This sunny evening in July is a good moment to talk about something we all appreciate, although we often do not realise how much we appreciate it.

It is hard to find words to thank the people who have been involved in Special Olympics, as Senator Eamonn Coghlan said, some for many years but particularly in the past ten years as the movement has built up and become ingrained in our consciousness and rooted in our communities. Of course, Special Olympics is a local, a community, a national and an international event. It draws its strength from all of these places, each and every time somebody steps out.

Like most Senators, I am invited to many events and, like many Senators, one of the moments I will treasure was being asked to present medals to people taking part in Special Olympics in the swimming pool in Sligo. I was really honoured to be asked to do so and the memories will stay with me of the huge pleasure and joy the participants took from the event. Whether they were swimming 5 yd. or 25, I will always remember the effort, joy and enthusiasm they brought to it, with their families.

The Irish Times staff photographer, Brenda Fitzsimons, recalled her time at the Special Olympics events at the Kill Equestrian Centre. She said:

The first time I approached the arena I noticed that there was complete silence and I thought to myself “well there’s nothing happening here.” But when I got there, it was full of spectators. Instead of clapping their hands and cheering, they waved their hands in the air so that they would not frighten the horses. Witnessing that would have tugged at anyone’s heart strings. It even seemed like the horses were protecting the riders, they moved about so carefully. The whole thing just oozed with love and care. It was special in every sense of the word and it was definitely one of the most emotional jobs I’ve ever done.

In that, I think, she speaks for all of us.

What is important about Special Olympics is that it has the capacity to connect people with each other. Speaking, as I had the pleasure to do before this event started, with Jim Kelly and his son, James, he spoke about how he had become involved and how, perhaps, at the moment when he might have said "No" to somebody, he said "Yes". I do not believe he regrets one moment of his involvement and he should be very proud of it. That is the point. It has had the capacity to reach out, in the first instance, to those athletes who want to perform, compete, enjoy and have fun but also to connect with a whole host of others also - their parents with other parents and volunteers with other volunteers.

It is, of course, much more than a sports event. It is a movement. It is a kind of social movement that brings out the best in all of us. At times, I suppose we are, as Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú said, a nation of moaners. However, when one looks at the figures and sees the enormous involvement people in Ireland have had which is much higher than in many other countries, one sees that there is, in the spirit here, enormous generosity on the part of people who want to get involved and will take part at different levels in their community in assisting others. I particularly pay tribute to the clubs in the Connacht region from where I come and to the adults and children who take part for the efforts they make locally to raise the profile of Special Olympics and spending their spare time raising money and training and supporting young people and adults to take part in sports. As Senator Jillian van Turnhout said, these are the sports we would never have envisaged ourselves taking part in when we were young and it is great to see such a wide range on offer.

Special Olympics is a movement that empowers people. It empowers the athletes, but it also empowers their parents, friends and community to see that much more can be achieved from whatever we are given as human beings. There is always an extra little bit we can go, an extra step we can try to take, another challenge we can set ourselves. The many challenges people have set for themselves and achieved through Special Olympics are evidence of the great capacity of life and our capacity as humans to live it to the full. That is very enriching for any of us to enjoy and share.

Of course, Special Olympics empowers all of us who have ever taken part in any way. It empowers us as a community and a nation. For me, these are the three things the movement has brought - the connecting, the rewarding and the empowering. There is no way in which anybody could put a price-tag on this. As Senator Eamonn Coghlan pointed out, it is difficult to realise that a movement that is capable of all of these things can find itself struggling for money. It is not just the Minister of State but all of us here today who are saying we all want this to change. We do not want to see the capacity and capability of Special Olympics being reduced in any way, shape or form because what it does is priceless. I know there are debts and that Special Olympics Ireland needs new premises, which is a problem for it. Like any organisation, however, there will always be hiccups and financial difficulties.

I commend my colleague, Senator Mary Moran, for bringing forward the motion in order that we can celebrate and acknowledge the work done. I do not think, in any way, shape or form, she could be accused of providing any type of smokescreen or piggybacking on anything else. It is just a moment to say this is good but also that we have to acknowledge and keep it. It is not simply just to treasure it but to grow it and acknowledge the great impact it has on all our lives. Whether we are part of a family, like the Kellys, the Morans and many thousands of others across Ireland, or individuals who have been touched in some small way or another, we must grow and appreciate it, not just treasure it.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after ‘‘throughout Ireland; and’’ and substitute the following:

‘‘—condemns the savage cuts to supports for people with disabilities by the Government, including cuts to the mobility allowance, the motorised transport grant, the respite care grant, the household benefits package, special needs assistants and the medical card; and

—calls on Fine Gael and the Labour Party to keep their programme for Government commitment to enhance quality of life for people with disabilities by reversing these unfair cuts in budget 2014’’.

Like other Senators, I welcome Mr. Peter O'Brien, Mr. Jim Kelly, James Jr. and Cillian to the Visitors Gallery for the debate. Mention has been made that this is the tenth anniversary of the Special Olympics being held in Ireland. I remember that, in 2003, as part of my junior certificate English class, we were asked to write essays on the experiences of the Special Olympics. With the memories other Senators have shared, it is one of the outstanding memories for me because we did research and found out what Special Olympics was, which was an eye-opening experience for me.

Special Olympics is a life-changing movement of people helping people, which is important. I commend all of the work done by the volunteers, athletes, coaches, families and communities linked with Special Olympics. A previous speaker asked what made it so special. Highlighting some of its founding principles may be the most appropriate way to shed some light on how the movement has thrived and caught the attention and support of millions of people across the world. Its goals are twofold, first, to bring intellectual disabilities out of the darkness and into the light of public acceptance and understanding, and, second, to give all persons with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to become active and productive citizens in their communities.

While researching the motion, I examined the spirit of Special Olympics which incorporates universal values that transcend all boundaries of geography, nationality, political persuasion, gender, age, race or religion. As many Senators said, we all know the role sport plays in formulating and strengthening friendships, tackling issues such as social exclusion and offering opportunities to people to develop life skills and self-knowledge. Lack of friendships and social interaction experienced by young people and adults with an intellectual disability often contributes to depression. Nearly one fifth of Irish adults with an intellectual disability have been diagnosed with depression, which is considerably higher than the 5% figure among the general population.

Special Olympics Ireland has stepped into the breach and, since starting 35 years ago, it has transformed many lives. However, as mentioned, Government funding for the organisation has been cut during the years. As Senator Mary Moran said, the organisation is doing so much with so little and we should support it to do all it can. When we couple these cuts with the difficulties many groups are facing in terms of funding, this conflicts with the last line of the Government's motion. We tabled the amendment to highlight this discrepancy, rather than to take in any way from the fantastic work being done by Special Olympics Ireland.

The programme for Government includes a clear commitment to enhance quality of life for people with disabilities, a commitment I very much support. However, there has been a series of decisions which have undermined quality of life for people with disabilities. For example, in budget 2013 the cut to the respite care grant not only hit the 77,000 carers who relied on it to provide some respite for themselves but it also had a direct impact on those for whom they cared, whether they were elderly persons or people with physical or intellectual disabilities.

It reduced quality of life for many people.

I refer to the mobility allowance and to the motorised transport scheme which was closed to new entrants. There has been much uncertainty regarding a new statutory scheme that was supposed to be set up but has not yet come about. The scheme was extended to October but there is no certainty as to how it may continue beyond that date. The Minister of State stated that a new scheme will be introduced but there is a lot of concern, anxiety and uncertainty for people who use the scheme because of the lack of guarantee beyond October.

The changes to the household benefit package have left many older people and older people with disabilities more isolated. In addition, changes to medical card eligibilty criteria introduced earlier this year have caused particular difficulties for people with disabilities. There has been an ongoing saga about the effect of cuts to special needs assistants and the impact this is having on families with special needs children.

When I read the first part of the Labour Party Private Members' motion, I was very supportive of the sentiment behind it. However, when we considered the reality and how the cuts affect people with disabilities, we had to table this amendment. The words of the Independent councillor from Arklow, Miriam Murphy, a disability rights lobbyist and activist, came to mind. She has a physical disability and has used a wheelchair all her life. In thejournal.ie in April, she wrote:

On 26 February, the cuts to the mobility allowance and the disabled drivers transport grants were announced. I was enjoying a nice cuppa at the fire and was half-listening to the Nine O'Clock News. I knew I had heard "Disabled hit again". My husband came into the room and said I should listen. I can honestly say it was like someone had hit me in the stomach. I was shocked, mad and a little unsure about the broadcaster was actually telling us. We both just looked at each other. I cried, as I felt I could not take any more.

We commend the work of Special Olympics Ireland and encourage its work. As Senator Moran remarked, anything we and the Government can do should be done, but we cannot allow the cuts to the disability sector go unnoticed in this motion. We do not want to commend the Government when these underlying cuts exist and we can see the real-life effects they are having on people. When we vote on the Private Members' motion today we ask people to remember the impact these policies are having on the quality of life of people with disabilities.

I second the amendment. I commend the proposer of the original motion for raising the Special Olympics and its importance for people with disabilities. I remember vividly the 2003 Special Olympics in this State, and what it was like in my city, Waterford, where many families took in people from all over the world. It was a huge and fantastic occasion for this country, as well as for people with disabilities. It shone a spotlight on the issue and gave us an opportunity to talk about the importance of doing what we can to support people with disabilities and ensuring they have an equal role to play in participation in all facets and strands of life in this country. It was a fantastic occasion.

There is a great deal in the motion I support. I support the commitment in the programme for Government to ensure that quality of life for people with disabilities is enhanced, as I hope all of us do. I also note the importance of Special Olympics and the fact that the participation rate in this country is higher than in other countries. The record of Special Olympics Ireland speaks for itself and, as Senator Reilly did, I commend the organisation. The motion mentions 400 community clubs throughout Ireland and the 15 Olympic-type sports here. There is a significant level of activity in this area for people with disabilities, which is fantastic.

It is the final line in the motion which causes difficulty for me. It commends the Government and the Minister of State with responsibility in this area, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, for their support for Special Olympics Ireland - I do not have a difficulty with that - and for their work in seeking to ensure enhanced quality of life generally for people with disabilities, in particular for adults and children with intellectual disabilities.

I remember a debate last year in this House that followed a very emotive "Prime Time" programme. Many Members spoke about how moved they had been. A number of families clearly, intelligently and with emotion, outlined the difficulties they have in caring for their children or loved ones, perhaps an adult child with a disability. There have been a whole raft of cutbacks which, to be fair, have not come only from this Government but also from the previous one. The supports for people with disabilities which should be there are not there in the manner they should be. That was clear, and not only from that programme. Many Senators on the opposite side spoke about how emotive and moving that programme was and said we needed to do more. Subsequently we had a number of debates with the Minister of State in this Chamber. Unfortunately, not much has changed. I have gone to far too many public meetings and events where people with disabilities have spoken about how they do not get from Government financial and other types of support they need. What they are faced with is cutback after cutback.

Our amendment deals with a number of points. Senator Reilly dealt with the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant.

There has been no cut there.

At the heart of it was a decision of the Ombudsman that the scheme was being applied unfairly because of the age criteria concerned. The Government will keep the scheme going for a couple of months and will come back to it, but did not deal with the substance of what the Ombudsman said. The scheme will not be made available for all those who need it. The Government has again gone for the cheap way out. The Minister of State may shake her head but that is what the Government went for.

On a point of order-----

The Government did not deal with the substance.

On a point of order and through the Chair-----

As a member of the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions to which the Ombudsman made the report, I can tell the Senator that what he said is absolutely and categorically untrue. The Department of Health-----

That is not a point of order.

It is not a point of order.

It is a point of information or clarification. What the Senator is saying is not true.

When Senator Moran replies I am sure she will be in a position to respond. The Senator's point of order is ruled out of order.

I thought I could make a point of information.

There is no such thing, as the Senator knows.

Therefore, Senator Cullinane can say what he likes but I am not allowed to.

I am sure Senator Moran will respond at the end of the discussion, as the Minister of State will do.

I am sure we will also be told there has been no cut to the respite care grant but of course there has been, and it has impacted not only on the people who provide the care but on those who are in receipt of it. That has an impact on people with disabilities. There have been cuts to the household benefits package and special needs assistants. The Minister of Health stated there were no cutbacks in medical cards. The reality is-----

There have been no cuts there at all.

Senator Cullinane to continue, without interruption.

The Government likes to pretend these things do not happen but the reality is different. All of us deal with this day in, day out - my party certainly does. If the Minister of State is not doing so there is something seriously wrong. The reality is that it is much more difficult than ever before to get a card on medical or hardship grounds. I deal with many families, day in, day out, week in, week out, who are having their applications for medical cards turned down. This happens all the time. If they go to appeal it takes a very long time for a decision to be made and often it is just not the right decision. That is a fact of life for many people. Although Labour Party Senators may shake their heads and deny this is reality it is reality and absolutely the case for families.

I was interrupted a couple of times, with respect.

Injury time. Please conclude as quickly as possible.

We live with the corrections but I deal with a whole raft of disability groups.

We cannot give any more time if Senators keep interrupting.

I do not know many disability groups who would say that things have got better for people with disabilities. I do not know many people who would say so. There are people who are really stretched and hurting because the resources are simply not there for them. For that reason we cannot support the substance of what is in the original motion because we cannot give praise to a Government that has been part of cutting back services to people with disabilities.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Seanad. Bionn tú anseo go minic.

As spokesperson for my party in the Seanad on tourism and sport, I am glad to contribute to the debate and congratulate my Labour Party colleagues on this initiative. As the Minister of State noted, Special Olympics Ireland receives funding from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport through the Irish Sports Council. Corporate entities are also an important source of funding. I am aware that Special Olympics Ireland also engages in a great deal of fund-raising throughout the year. Next year we will have the Ireland games in Limerick, as has been stated by my colleagues, and in 2015 the world summer games will take place in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, funding has been reduced for Special Olympics Ireland in recent years. I am aware that Special Olympics Ireland claims its funding has been reduced by almost 60% since 2008, which is significant. The level of funding was €3 million in 2008 and this year it has been reduced to €1.2 million. Special Olympics Ireland maintains that it costs approximately €6 million per annum to run the organisation; there is, therefore, apparently, a significant shortfall in funding requirements, which is unfortunate.

Special Olympics Ireland states it has attracted 5,500 athletes since the famous games held in Croke Park in 2003. I am glad to hear today that it has been the most successful Special Olympics games held in the entire world and congratulate all those who were involved. The organisation has opened 17 new clubs in the past year alone. In the year before the Special Olympics in 2003 there were 2,000 volunteers and I note that number has now increased to 25,000, with some saying it is 30,000. This is a significant contribution on a voluntary basis and should be acknowledged.

I note that there are 42,000 people in Ireland with an intellectual disability, of whom I am glad to see 30% participate in sporting activities. People with disabilities have no great say in how the disability budget is spent, as money is allocated on a block grant basis to service providers, with people with disabilities expected to fit into the model. It is not the way forward, as there are many excellent service providers, and it is absolutely essential that people with disabilities should have a great say in choosing the services of which they wish to avail and have State funds allocated to such services. The Minister of State has recently announced that the Government is progressing with a new funding model which I understand gives more power to people with disabilities in making their own decisions on where money is needed and how it should be spent. The days of allocating block money grants to service providers should be coming to an end and I welcome the Government's advancement of the new initiative. It is important to say that despite political arguments to the contrary, there will be no additional charges or further reductions in funding imposed on people with disabilities, but perhaps the Minister of State might confirm this.

As has been noted by colleagues, in 2003 Ireland hosted the most successful world Special Olympic Games in history, which was a major achievement. On a weekly basis, Special Olympics Ireland offers a year-round programme of sports and training facilities to over 11,000 individuals, including youths and those who are not so young. I commend the Minister of State for the support of Special Olympics Ireland and the work done to seek to ensure an enhanced quality of life generally for people with disabilities. In particular, there have been initiatives for adults and children with intellectual disabilities.

I wish Special Olympics continued success in the years ahead and every success in the forthcoming Irish games in Limerick next year. I also wish the athletes well for the summer games to be held in Los Angeles in 2015.

I wish I could keep in line with the thinking on the Government side with regard to the wording of the motion which commends the Government for its support. Perhaps the Government and the Minister of State lend support in theory, but the evidence suggests otherwise. It is sad, in a way, that we should be debating this issue and the Government is using it as an opportunity to commend itself without in any way acknowledging deficiencies in the area, other than that times are hard. As often happens with international and national sports events, politicians - I include myself in that group - are seen to rush to the flag to be identified in the local newspapers as being supportive, but when the hoopla dies down and life carries on, reality sets in. The reality is that ten years after the Special Olympics, the movement has warned that it faces stark choices because of cuts in Government spending.

The organisation's chief executive, Mr. Matt English, has indicated that funding from the State has been cut by almost 60% since 2008 and decreased funding is no longer sustainable. He has indicated that although clubs will not have to be closed down in the next year, the organisation will have to make stark choices unless funding is reinstated. The reality is that as a result of Special Olympics, the number of clubs increased exponentially as a result of the extraordinary publicity generated from the games. There are now 400 Special Olympics clubs, double the number in 2003, and they offer more supports and competition opportunities for people with an intellectual disability across the island, with over 5,500 new athletes participating weekly. The volunteer force has swelled from 2,000 in 2003 to 25,000 active volunteers today. That is an impressive number of people who will also be voting.

It costs approximately €24 million to run Special Olympics in a four year cycle, an average of €6 million per year. In 2008 Mr. English stated the organisation received €3 million, 50% of the cost of running the programme, which was a good figure at the time and in keeping with the support the Government would traditionally give to national organisations, especially those involved in organising international events or participating in international events such as the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games. However, by this year, the funding had decreased to €1.2 million, approximately 20% of the cost of running the programme. Clearly, that level is not sustainable as it is not possible for the organisation to raise the balance from the public. Everybody in the House knows that as a result of the economic recession, most charitable organisations are already giving evidence that their annual collections are down. The Irish Cancer Society suffered much rain on Daffodil Day and is feeling the impact of a severe drop in public subscriptions.

Some €1.2 billion of the health budget is directed towards people with disabilities, but Special Olympics Ireland does not receive anything from that pot, which is extraordinary. The Minister of State has spoken, but at some point she might explain why, out of the €1.2 billion in the health budget, Special Olympics Ireland gets nothing.

That is a sports issue.

I am only paraphrasing the people directly involved in the organisation. It is also interesting that the Department of Health's national intellectual disability database registered 27,500 persons with an intellectual disability in the Republic of Ireland, of whom 34% or roughly 9,000 are registered athletes with Special Olympics Ireland, of whom a percentage must have been affected by the withdrawal of the mobility allowance.

The mobility allowance has not been withdrawn.

I would like to clarify something. As long as something is said, it sounds as if it is the truth.

It will be withdrawn in four months time.

No, it will not be withdrawn in four months time. I think this outrageous behaviour of terrifying very vulnerable people is absolutely disgraceful. The mobility allowance has not been withdrawn and there is no indication that it will be withdrawn in four months. People out there are worried enough without the Senator adding to it.

I am only quoting from the briefings that I have been given.

The Senator can quote what he likes, but he should try to do it accurately.

I said that in the context of the mobility allowance, obviously those involved in the Special Olympics or those with an intellectual disability involved in sport would be benefiting from it. Of course I am encouraged by the statement of the Minister of State. I will withdraw any inaccuracies that I put on the record of the House. I thank her for that. I am only going on the briefing that I received. There was so much controversy surrounding this and I am pleased to hear that. There is so much controversy surrounding the whole disability budget, as the Minister of State is aware. People are particularly sensitive in this area, as the Minister of State knows because she is working in that area. Any indication of movement affects people in that category far more than the wider general public. I hope that she would continue to fight the good fight in that respect. The point I was attempting to make is that some of those who are registered as disabled athletes probably benefit from the mobility allowance, because they would be taken to various sporting activities.

I am particularly pleased that there is such a movement as the Special Olympics. I am particularly pleased that those with intellectual disabilities have got an outlet. My own daughter started off in the 2003 Special Olympics cycling. She got involved in the swimming at a very low level in Sligo, but it was part of the process that led to the eventual representational level of swimming. She did not get that far, but the fact that she was involved in it was a tremendous benefit to her and to her family. She was involved and participated and the event was mainstreamed. She was not made to feel any different to anybody else in the mainstream population.

As time is limited, I must call on Senator Moran. With all the clarifications, time has expired.

Let us deal with the facts. There were only one or two clarifications.

I do not need any assistance in that respect. I am stating the facts.

The reason I proposed this motion was to highlight the excellent work that has been done by Special Olympics Ireland. There is no political reason for this. I merely stated that since I have come into the House, I was fortunate enough to meet representatives of Special Olympics Ireland, and was so impressed with the work they were doing. I had already been involved on a very local level with my own club at home, for which I am extremely grateful. We had the ten year anniversary. I have been to regional games and local events. We were at the regional finals lately in Kilkenny, where I can happily say that they were two of the best days of my life. I saw children and adults from seven to 70, joining in together for races, running at their own level, being the best people that they can be. I will never forget the atmosphere in every single event that I have attended. The volunteers are absolutely amazing. Next year they are going to Limerick. I want to publicise that. We had the World Winter Games but we had no correspondence. The Olympic Games last year received lots of coverage, but when it came to the Paralympic Games, we were lacking in this country. The same thing happened with the World Winter Games. We did not have daily bulletins on it. They went on quietly, like so much of the work in the Special Olympics.

I am so grateful for the support for this motion from party colleagues and from the kind things said by Members of the Opposition, including those who put down amendments. I do not want to turn this into a political debate at all. I did not invite representatives of Special Olympics Ireland to listen to a political debate or have people make it political.

The Senator made it a political motion.

I did not interrupt the Senator.

The Senator certainly did.

No, I did not. I have not opened my mouth during this debate.

Please do not interrupt the Senator.

I hope time will not be taken off me for this.

The Chair will look very kindly on the Senator.

Thank you. I have not politicised this. I certainly did not invite representatives of Special Olympics Ireland in here to hear an argument. This is a good day to reflect, ten years after the Special Olympics, to see how the movement has grown, even with less resources. We could turn around and say that there have been cuts since 2008. Who was in power in 2008? We can turn it around. Allegations were made today about cuts that are simply not true. Some 43% of the population have medical cards. That is the highest percentage ever with medical cards. I am not here to discuss medical cards. The reason for the debate was simply to remember and to give us a sense of positivity. We have had so many hard debates in the last few weeks. We have debated the most difficult issues that have probably ever come before this House. This was a day to turn around and say that we are going through tough times.

In the debate this afternoon on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, continuous reference was made during an amendment on fatal foetal abnormality to disability and to children with disability. However, when this debate is on today and we are praising the working being done in the area of disability, these people are not here. They did not contribute to the debate.

I thank Peter O'Brien from Special Olympics Ireland and Jim and James for coming. I sincerely hope that this debate will lead to more people becoming volunteers in the Special Olympics, that it will make more people go to a local community event, that they will become involved, and that they will see the excellent work that is being done with the Special Olympics. I could go on. I hope that we have a further debate.

I am glad that the Minister of State is here, because I know how committed she is and how passionate she feels about the area of disability and what we can do. We should have sport here, but we should also representatives from the Department of Health, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. The Special Olympics goes right across every single Department. If they worked collectively, we could make this even bigger and better than it already is, and something to make us even prouder.

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 16; Níl, 29.

  • Byrne, Thomas.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O'Donovan, Denis.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • Reilly, Kathryn.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.


  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Clune, Deirdre.
  • Coghlan, Eamonn.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • D'Arcy, Jim.
  • D'Arcy, Michael.
  • Harte, Jimmy.
  • Hayden, Aideen.
  • Henry, Imelda.
  • Higgins, Lorraine.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Moloney, Marie.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mulcahy, Tony.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Brien, Mary Ann.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Keeffe, Susan.
  • O'Neill, Pat.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Zappone, Katherine.
Tellers: Tá, Senators David Cullinane and Kathryn Reilly; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden.
Amendment declared lost.
Motion put and agreed to.