Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities 2015-2024: Statements

I appreciate the opportunity to discuss progress on the implementation of the Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities 2015-2024. I thank Senator Dolan for his initiative in getting the issue on the agenda for discussion today. I also thank Senator Mark Daly for his excellent work on the issue of disability and, in particular, on the Irish Sign Language Bill. We worked closely on that important legislation and we are all proud of it.

We have much more work to do on employment for people with disabilities, but we have support from all voices in the Dáil and Seanad. The comprehensive employment strategy sets out a ten-year approach to ensuring that people with disabilities, who are able and want to work, are supported and enabled to do so. Essentially the strategy seeks to address the under-representation of people with disabilities in the labour force. Its overarching purpose is to make a concerted, cross-Government effort to address the barriers and challenges that impact on employment of people with disabilities.

The strategy contains commitments such as an increase in the public service employment target on a phased basis from 3% to 6% by 2024, special public service competitions and the opening up of alternative recruitment channels, and addressing disincentives to work and enhancing transitions from education and training to work.

It includes the following six strategic priorities: build skills, capacity and independence; provide bridges and supports into work; make work pay; promote job retention and re-entry to work; provide co-ordinated and seamless support; and engage with employers. Implementation of these commitments and strategic priorities is co-ordinated by the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department also has a key role in regard to the increase in the public service employment target. Legislation to amend the Disability Act 2005 in this regard has been prepared. These provisions have been included in the Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016, which is currently before Dáil Éireann.

The progress of the comprehensive employment strategy is monitored by an implementation group, which is independently chaired by Fergus Finlay. This group, which meets six times a year, comprises relevant Departments, the National Disability Authority, NDA, and representatives from the Disability Stakeholders Group. The Disability Stakeholders Group consists of disability service providers and disability service users, and it plays an essential role in ensuring the understanding and consideration of the individual lived experience, particularly in regard to identifying gaps in current provisions. It is essential that the voice of the disabled person is heard at this level. Having overseen the initial foundational, building-blocks phase, which spanned 2015 to 2018, the implementation group is currently putting the finishing touches to the 2019 to 2021 action plan, with a view to further progressing the six strategic priorities outlined in the strategy. I will return to this matter later.

We are making progress on implementation of the strategy. As I mentioned earlier, 2018 was the final year of an initial three-year phase of foundational activity. This period of activity sought, in the main, to establish processes, systems and tools to progress the overall ambition of the strategy. However, significant achievements were also recorded during this establishment phase. In this regard, I want to highlight a selection of the extensive activity that has taken place across Departments and agencies. First, many of the commitments in the Make Work Pay report of 2017, which relates to strategic priority three in the employment strategy, have been delivered. For instance, as a result of recommendation 1 in the Make Work Pay report, on 1 December 2018, the Government introduced a significant increase to the earnings disregard for people on disability allowance from €120 to €427 per week. This measure had an immediate - I stress that it was immediate - and palpable impact on the lives of people with disabilities who wish to work and fear losing their medical card. That fear is still there today so we need to get that message across about the earnings disregard going from €120 to €427 and we need to ensure people know about that. This fear of losing the medical card is being dealt with. Furthermore, a fast-track return to payment for people with disabilities on disability allowance has been implemented. If the job does not last too long, people do not spend another six months trying to get back onto the disability allowance. This relates to recommendation 7 in the report and enables individuals to try out work knowing that their disability allowance will be restored quickly if the job does not pan out, which is a fact of life for everybody.

On recommendations 9 and 10 from the Make Work Pay report, a consultation process has taken place, the aim of which was to explore in depth the views of people with disabilities and their families regarding proposed changes to the disability allowance payment and development of early engagement on work in income support schemes. The findings from the consultation are being examined by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to guide next steps. To give one final example from Make Work Pay, a ready reckoner has been developed to enable people with disabilities to independently estimate the net benefits and financial implications of working, which is important.

Further achievements under the employment strategy include the agreement by the HSE and the Departments of Health and Employment Affairs and Social Protection on the roll-out of the individual placement and support, IPS, model of supported employment for people with mental health difficulties wishing to work, the commencement by the HSE of a trial process that will enable people with disabilities who have access to an adult day place to defer taking that place while they explore mainstream work or further education options, and the introduction by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection of a new youth employment support scheme, YESS. The scheme opened for applications in October 2018 and is specifically targeted at young jobseekers, including people with disabilities aged 18 to 24 years of age who are long-term unemployed or who face barriers to employment. This scheme aims to give a person the opportunity to learn basic work and social skills in a supportive environment while on a work placement in a host organisation. Participation on the YESS programme is wholly voluntary and participants will receive a weekly payment of €229.20 for 24 hours of work per week.

In the educational sphere, the Department of Education and Skills carried out a comprehensive review of career guidance provision, which included a focus on guidance for students with disabilities. This work was particularly guided by input from the comprehensive employment strategy implementation group. The NDA, which plays a significant role in monitoring the implementation of the employment strategy, also has a number of important actions in the first comprehensive employment strategy action plan. During the foundational phase, it published guidelines for employers and line managers on how to support staff with autism, highlighting the advantages of recruiting employees with different skillsets, and offering guidance on developing inclusive and supportive work practices. It also published and disseminated research it commissioned into good practice in employing people with disabilities in the public sector.

The employer disability information service, EDI, launched on 1 January 2016, works to promote awareness and provide a service to employers, delivering a range of actions, including the WorkABLE Future 2018 conference for employers, which was held in March 2018. At this conference, a peer network with more than 80 employer members was launched by the EDI. We are currently working with employer representative bodies to develop a follow-on initiative that supports employers when recruiting and retaining people with disabilities.

In addition to these achievements, there are a number of areas where actions are being advanced and these initiatives will continue to be delivered under the next action plan for 2019 to 2021. One of these actions is the commitment by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to expanding internships as a recruitment route for people with disabilities in both the public and private sectors. While the Department has examined internship models currently in place and, for instance, Naas and Tallaght hospitals offer a strong rotating workplace option for young people with intellectual disabilities, the potential uptake of such an internship scheme with a number of Departments is also being considered.

Another work stream which will continue into the second action plan is the development of person-centred planning by the HSE under the transforming lives programme. The framework being developed across HSE-funded disability services includes consideration of an individual’s work goals as per action 2.9 of the comprehensive employment strategy. This framework will be implemented across both day and residential services in the near future. As we discovered in many day services, particularly in respect of people with intellectual disabilities, many young people are talented enough to undertake some sort of employment, whether part-time or full-time, and we have discovered a number of hidden talents within those day services. This has great potential.

Action 5.1 in the employment strategy is a further key commitment that will be brought forward in the next phase of the strategy. The next step is for the action 5.1 interdepartmental working group to implement the next steps to test, evaluate and scale the agreed policy of co-ordinated supports for people with disabilities. There have been ongoing developments in the collection and analysis of data on participation levels of persons with disabilities in full-time employment, including the establishment of a social inclusion unit in SOLAS and the development of a template for education and training boards, ETBs, to establish learner pathways and targets over a three-year period. As this data is built up over time, it will be important to analyse it for trends and opportunities for future focus.

In addition, in the educational area, SOLAS has recently published a review of pathways to participation on apprenticeships. This review identified that 2.8% of people with disabilities are doing apprenticeships. SOLAS has recommended five action areas to increase participation rates, including the promotion of a diverse pathway, and I am keen that this work is taken forward into the next action plan.

Last, in the area of work being brought forward, although the specific actions regarding vocational rehabilitation in regard to conducting and disseminating research have been completed, this work will continue in respect of interviews with key stakeholders and a round-table discussion on the necessary steps for a programme of vocational rehabilitation in Ireland. This will inform the development of policy advice and associated actions in the action plan for 2019 to 2021.

Having acknowledged the achievements, which I have stressed, and the fruitful work that has taken place during the foundational phase of the strategy, it is important to note there are areas where progress has been slower than anticipated. These include transitions between education and employment, the employment of people with disabilities who have moderate to high support needs and employer engagement more broadly. On the latter issue, work is currently being undertaken with employer bodies to see how we can work together more effectively on programmes that meet their needs while creating more opportunities for people with disabilities. In conclusion, my expectation is that these work streams will be carried over to the next three-year action plan under the strategy with due regard to developments and changes that have occurred within the system in the interim.

Implementing the strategy will require continuing interdepartmental co-operation and a joined-up approach to supports and services for jobseekers and workers with disabilities. The first phase of the strategy encouraged new ways of working between Departments and agencies. What I am seeking to achieve now is to deepen that collaboration, broaden the ambition of the strategy and to engage more intensively with employers. I am confident that we will see real benefits for people with disabilities in the next phase of the strategy and, above all, more opportunities for them to participate in employment and to achieve their potential.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to outline the position on the implementation of the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. I thank him for his work on behalf of the deaf community and on passing the Irish Sign Language Act for the deaf community and ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We support the strategy and its implementation. Like everybody, we want to see all the elements implemented as soon as possible. The Minister of State outlined the six elements, which include building skills, capacity and independence; providing a bridge and supports to people so they can access employment; and making work pay, in respect of which the Minister of State referred to the medical card. The latter is a very practical way of persuading people not to opt for unemployment, which would have a very detrimental impact on their health. Where individuals cannot afford to access the services they need because of their disabilities, they are left in a poverty trap as a result. Other elements include the promotion of taking up and re-entering work, and ensuring access to supports where, for whatever reason, employment does not work out; as well as co-ordinated and seamless supports and engaging with the employers.

The Minister of State outlined what the Government is doing with regard to engagement with employers. He referred to having more people from the disability sector involved, that is, those with disabilities themselves. There are a number of initiatives in this regard in Leinster House. Internships, however, can be abused, as we have seen previously. There have been a number of scandals in regard to people with disabilities being used as a cheap source of labour. That is something the Government must and does tackle. As statistics show there are 176,445 people with disabilities and that their participation rate in the workforce is only 30.2%, in comparison with 61.4% of the population in general, we can see the scale of the mountain we have yet to climb to make sure people with disabilities can participate in the workforce. The unemployment rate among people with disabilities is 26%, which is considerably more than twice that of the general workforce. The earnings of people with disabilities in employment comprise a cause of concern. One should bear in mind that the female population does not have pay parity either. Therefore, the Government has a long way to go to ensure everybody, regardless of gender or ability, has pay parity.

Fianna Fáil was the first party to come up with a comprehensive Government strategy to ensure an overarching, all-of-government approach, which the Minister of State outlined. It is important to see this continue, regardless of who is in government. Regarding interdepartmental co-operation, we are lucky to have someone like Fergus Finlay chairing the implementation group to ensure the implementation element is the most important. We have all seen the reports and know the recommendations but the tragedy is that they are not always implemented. This is why implementation of this disability strategy and others is vital. We are committed to making sure all the barriers that are keeping those with disabilities from entering the workforce are removed and that they are given the opportunity to achieve their full potential. As the Minister of State pointed out, this is part of normal Government practice.

The Irish Sign Language Act was a great achievement by the Department and those in the deaf community but I am concerned about the three-year timeframe for its implementation. The Minister of State is speaking at the conference next month. I will also be involved. The implementation of this strategy, with 12 months to go under the legislation, essentially requires all Departments, the HSE and Courts Service to have in place a facility for members of the deaf community to gain access to Government services through translators and interpreters. This is the equivalent of GDPR for the deaf community. There does not seem to be urgency in Departments other than the Department of Health. It seems there is not only no urgency but also, possibly, no awareness among other Departments of the fact that they will be breaking the law of the land by not having facilities in place. It will become quite apparent, given there are only 12 months to go. We could learn a lot about this at the conference. Many Departments are not ready or aware. Perhaps the Minister of State will, in the run-up to the conference, invite all the Secretaries General of the Departments to attend to learn that they will be required to have an interpreter available for members of the deaf community 12 months from now. Saying they do not have a strategy in place is simply not good enough. This is part of what we are talking about in terms of access to employment and access to State services by people with disabilities. While the Minister of State managed to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the context of there having been many promises and to guide legislation through the Oireachtas with all-party support - we were delighted to play a role in that - it is important that there be implementation. There is no point in our passing legislation if Departments are unaware that they have responsibilities and if they do not put in place the required structures. Departments, the Garda and HSE must all have interpreters available and systems in place to ensure services are available for members of the deaf community when required.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, to the House.

This is an important debate and I am glad to be given the opportunity to contribute to it. I had hoped it would not be held on Thursday as it should have been given one of the prime slots.

The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, brings significant credibility to his brief. He has walked the walk all his life. He understands it implicitly. He brings a range of skills, both with regard to intellect and, more practically, what it is like to have to deal with disabilities over a lifetime. I commend him on that. The Minister of State knows of my interest in this issue. I am involved with various disability organisations and am particularly keen in respect of the leadership and advocacy students in Limerick Institute of Technology. The Minister of State was at its most recent awards ceremony. I think he is coming to it on 19 June and they are very excited about his impending arrival. Martina Neylon is one of the unsung heroes, of whom there are many in the disability area, who works with this group. They are coming from all the disability services in the mid-west, including the Daughters of Charity, Bawnmore, St. Gabriel's and St. Joseph's Foundation. The Minister of State is well aware of this.

The National Platform of Self Advocates was involved in a meeting, hosted by either it or the Minister of State, on 30 January in the audiovisual room that we all attended. It was an inspiring day with people with disabilities advocating for themselves. They let us know in no uncertain terms the areas that were good and the areas that they felt could be improved. I want to deal with a couple of those. There is a target of bringing the 3% target to 6% over the next four to five years. I do not know if the Minister of State has given what the figure currently is. I did not see it in the speech. That should be a minimum target which we have to reach. How do we get there? I do not think there is any target for the private sector but I believe there is willingness in the private sector to embrace people with disabilities. The question is how do we create an environment with structures to enable employers to employ people with disabilities and for people with disabilities to be able to assimilate into the set-up. I see many people coming into the programmes here in Leinster House. It is very welcome. They are a significant addition.

JobBridge did not give internships a particularly good name but if internship programmes are structured properly, they are a fantastic introduction into the work environment. I welcome the fact that they are being looked at. They certainly need to be furthered in the area of disabilities. I note that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is looking at it. It could perhaps be extended to the private sector. At the meeting on 30 January, a number of items came up. They related to engaging with the employer groups such as the Irish SME Association, ISME, IBEC and the chambers to see what could be done to put in supports for employees with disabilities. I know that the work is under way. When there are meetings, we would love to be involved. An area of particular interest to me is career guidance. I note that the Department of Education and Skills is carrying out a comprehensive review of that area.

Many of these measures are practical and I do not think they should be overcomplicated. One wants someone with disabilities to have a CV structured like anyone else's, to accentuate the skill sets that he or she has, in order that an employer can see very quickly how it would benefit from employing that person. We are moving into that area. The Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016 is currently before Dáil Éireann and I expect it to come before us pretty quickly. There are a couple of positives. The changes to the disability allowance are welcome. The increase in disregard to €300 is welcome. The key feature that we have often come across is that people on disability allowance are petrified about going off the disability allowance for fear that they will never get back on it. They could have a situation where they give up the allowance and it is uncertain whether they are capable of going back to work or not. They then go back to work and are not able to function. They then turn around, are not available for work because they are not capable of working, and at the same time they find it extremely difficult to get back on disability allowance. I know that is being looked at. It probably needs constant review because it often comes up.

The legislation coming before us is to be welcomed. One size does not fit all and we have to look at inventive, imaginative ways to enable people with disabilities to be able to go into the workplace. That may mean that it may suit them to work just ten or 20 hours a week. Equally, I believe that there is a willingness among many employers to take on people with disabilities. However, they are in business and they are worried about the impact that it will have. We have to provide reassurance about this area. It comes down to training. One thing that came up with the National Platform of Self Advocates at our meeting in the audiovisual room was that they were fed up with being pigeonholed into certain jobs. Many of them felt that there were other tasks that they could do. We need to look at ways, both in the public and private sector, of expanding the roles would be available to people with disabilities. That might involve training. One of the key conduits is internships. There needs to be formal engagement with employers' groups. The Minister might let me know where that is.

Designated areas should be set up to allow them to get proper CV training. We should look at disability allowance and perhaps at the invalidity pension to ascertain if there are ways to relax that for people doing rehabilitative work. I will not move into that space because disability allowance is the key issue. I am delighted to be able to contribute and look forward to hearing the Minister of State's views on where things are. He knows my commitment to this area has been lifelong and I commend him on his work to date.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I commend the fact that this debate is happening and the work that is going on here. I have read about the priorities of the strategy; the building of skills; the providing of bridges and support into work; the importance of making sure that work is profitable for the persons involved and this is no mere lipservice exercise or question of generous inclusion but rather something that confers benefits on the employer and the employee with disabilities; the importance that the job is not just a token thing but one that can endure. I have read about the importance of there being a possibility of a person moving in and out according to his or her abilities, availability and capacity to give time; as well as the need for support for persons in this area and the need for engagement with employers. It struck me, listening to this both inside and outside the Chamber, that this work is not just about justice. It is about more than justice but it is about doing justice for persons with disabilities and for the community. It is much more than charity. This work of including persons with disabilities in every aspect of life is the intersection of the duty to give each person his or her due but also recognising the particular contribution that such persons have to make.

I pay tribute to and give thanks for the Oireachtas Work and Learn Programme, OWL. It is a pilot project going into its second year.

In saying this I am conscious that we must avoid any sense of being patronising. The contribution and the visibility of persons with disabilities of various kinds to the work and the atmosphere in these Houses is really making a very positive difference. I am delighted that the OWL programme is continuing. I pay tribute to the staff involved with it.

I particularly laud the strategy's commitment to increasing the public service's targets for the employment of persons with disabilities from 3% to 6% on a phased basis. It is vital that the public sector takes a lead in matters like this. Where the public sector goes, the private sector will hopefully follow. We need not pretend that there are not sometimes great difficulties and challenges to be faced. One only has to look at the operation of employment equality legislation, the tests that have to be met to show that employer has discriminated on the disability ground and the opt-outs available to employers under the legislation. These mean that sometimes there will not be the level of inclusion we would like.

The Minister of State will not necessarily be aware of something I brought up in recent days. It does not relate to how we do things here in Ireland, though it could do so. It is something we could learn from. It might make us more vigilant and is a cause for concern. Sometimes the public sector, the establishment so to speak, can speak out of both sides of its mouth regarding persons with disability. It can talk the talk about inclusion, set up committees and quangos and give grants on the one hand while the very apparatus of the State militates against persons with disabilities on the other. I am thinking of the Suhinthan and Hyde families. The former was denied residency in New Zealand and the latter's case is under appeal in Australia. The Suhinthan family, who emigrated to New Zealand, were to be given residency permits for the mum, the dad and two of the three children. The third child, who has Down's syndrome, was denied a permit because of the potential burden to the state. That took place in liberal New Zealand, not Trump's America or Putin's Russia. This is what the great apparatus of state can sometimes do. I call that discrimination on the disability ground, though it does not come under the heading of employment equality or provision of services and access thereto. I am sure those countries have anti-discrimination legislation. The Hyde family emigrated to Australia. A child was born in 2015 and diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a condition whose nature and needs are well known to us here. Again, a residency permit was denied to that family on the grounds of the condition of the child, who was born in Australia and has never known any other country. When they applied for permanent residency this is the treatment they got from the great apparatus of state.

I brought forward a Commencement matter the other day to ask if this could happen in Ireland. I understand that an approach has not been made to the Irish Government on the behalf of these families. The case of the Hyde family is now on appeal to the immigration minister. This is something we should do of our own volition without waiting to be asked. That type of problem raises serious questions about how supposedly liberal modern societies respond to the particular extra needs of families with persons with disabilities or illnesses of some kind. It should give us pause for thought at the very least and I hope reason for action of some appropriate kind. I mention that not so much as a bad news story as a cautionary tale. We need to keep our eyes on it and perhaps respond, as well as making sure it never ever happens in this country. I commend the Minister of State and the workforce on this very important contribution to our public life.

Cuirim fáilte ar ais roimh an Aire Stáit. The last Irish census in 2016 indicated that 13.5% of the population had a disability. In stark figures, that is 643,131 people. However, Ireland has one of the lowest employment rates for people with disabilities in the EU. It stands at 26.2%, whereas the EU average is above 48%. Our poverty figures show that people who have a disability are part of the group at high risk of poverty and associated co-morbid illnesses and mental health issues. The Minister of State is well aware of this. We need to acknowledge advances and increasing enlightenment. There is increasingly a spirit of embracing and including people who in previous years were deemed be "not like us". I welcome that and the Minister of State has worked hard to enable those with a disability to live their lives to the full.

This strategy contains six strategic priorities. The first is the building of skills, capacity and independence. We in Sinn Féin do not believe that enough progress has been made in this area. While skills-building has certainly improved, capacity and independence have not. Sinn Féin's alternative budget provided for the doubling of personal assistance hours in the State. Let us face it; promoting independent living will cost money. Personal assistants perform the tasks which a person cannot physically carry out. Many people with disabilities have huge intellectual capacity but need support and the opportunity to contribute this intellectual value to society. On Tuesday we hosted an presentation in the audiovisual room from the National Council for Special Education. One of the women present was a parent who constantly battled to enable her child to stay in school. The school made it difficult for this wheelchair-bound child to receive an education. That child achieved 600 points in the leaving certificate examinations. A parent had to continuously battle for the entire lifetime of the child. We must make it much easier and stop adding stress to already stressful situations.

The second strategic priority is to provide bridges and supports into work. Progress has certainly been made in this area. We need to move beyond corporations and companies employing persons with disabilities from a corporate responsibility point of view. Employment for persons with disabilities must be meaningful, sustainable and well-paid. It must take place on the same basis as the employment of an able-bodied employee. On that point, I may be reading it wrongly but I would love to reword page 34 of the strategy document. It reads: "many people with disabilities could be accommodated to work at little or no cost". I know this is not its meaning but it does not read well. There is value in work and there is value in rewarding work. People are well able for well-paid work. I know the phrase "little or no cost" does not mean to say otherwise, but it reads that way. Perhaps the text could be revised.

The third priority is to make work pay. This is a concern for all persons in society, not just for one section. We do not believe current wages make work pay. We need to move towards a living wage for everybody in society. Sinn Féin will be bringing forward a document that will show how a living wage can be introduced. We can have fairly paid workers and profitable businesses. They are not mutually exclusive. This would drag many of our citizens and families over the poverty line and out of deprivation and hunger.

The fourth priority is to promote job retention and re-entry to work. It is fair to say that employers are definitely becoming more accepting towards employing persons with disabilities. The retention of these jobs and persons who have acquired disabilities re-entering work needs to become the norm. The fifth priority is to provide co-ordinated and seamless support. Persons with disabilities or different abilities must have every support available in order to be included in society and to have a decent standard of living. This must be Government-led.

In my own experience, one area where the Government falls short is in autism support and education. I refer to an audiovisual presentation given by the Department of Education and Skills and AsIAm on Tuesday. That charity published a report called Invisible Children. The Minister of State will be well aware of it as it has been communicated to his Department. The illegal and unacceptable allocation of one hour per day to what are deemed "difficult children" will be challenged in the High Court.

Several solicitors throughout the country will do this. What hope do children have if they do not have education and anything worthwhile to offer in the employment market in the future? Their future seems damned from the moment of their first attendance at a crèche.

The last strategic aim of the strategy is to engage employers. We are nearing what is perceived to be full employment. We now have the luxury to truly engage with employers to promote employment of people with different abilities. This requires increasing awareness of training of employers and affording equal opportunities. The target for employment of persons with disabilities by 2024 is 6%. It is still quite low compared with the 13.5% of the overall population who have disabilities. In Crumlin in Dublin 12, the percentage is 12% which is at or above the average for other areas.

I participated in the Walk In My Shoes initiative last year, as I believe the Minister of State did. He is a decent individual and he cares. To stand beside person in a motorised scooter and another person in an electric wheelchair and to try to get them from A to B with our infrastructure is almost impossible. It takes a person in a wheelchair three times the length of time to get from A to B as it would take for me to walk that distance. The person in the wheelchair has to go on to the road as all the footpaths are not dished and there are cracks and hazards on them. A person in a wheelchair would be late arriving in work every day because of the journey they have to make, never mind their attempts to board a bus.

The architectural departments in the local authorities have disability officers who are involved in drawing up new architectural plans and infrastructure for different towns. Will the Minister write to the local authorities and ask what they have done to provide for people with disabilities, how far they have gone, what their plans are and when what is proposed will come to fruition? We need to know our infrastructure is changing and becoming disability proofed. I am under pressure of time and there is much more I would like to say. We are behind the Minister of State in what he is doing and are supportive of him. We urge him to move a little faster and to invest more money in this area.

I thank the Minister of State for being here this afternoon. I also thank the Members for their participation in this important debate. At a time when we have near full employment it must be recognised there are people who want to and who deserve to reach their full potential. I commend Senator Kieran O'Donnell on his work and remarks. He has articulated much of what I wanted to say. I commend the Minister of State on his work on inclusivity and thank him for it.

The implementation of any strategy is only as good as the people who can do it. I will make a number of points. First, as a facilitator, through the Government, we must put in place the required resources, training and strategy. Second, employers must make sure that they are willing to be accessible, flexible, inclusive and understanding in their approach. Senator Mullen commended the OWL programme here in Leinster House. I pay tribute to those men and women who are working and participating here. They are a joy to watch and with whom to engage. I do not say that in a patronising way but they make a difference. They help the environment that is Leinster House and I thank them.

It would not surprise the Minister of State or Senator Kieran O'Donnell if I were to mention the Cope Foundation in my remarks. It is having its annual general meeting in Cork today and I send my apologies, through the Seanad, for not being there. It has an Ability@Work scheme, which was launched in the Republic of Work in Cork, which was a fitting venue. The aim of the scheme is to connect the jobseeker and the local employer and its mission is to put people at work. It promotes inclusion and diversity and seeks to ensure the skill set the employee brings is matched with a job in the workplace. The Ability@Work scheme has a positive effect every day in the lives of these people. Its outcomes are positive. Some of the firms involved in it include Lidl, the Mater private hospital and small coffee shops in Cork such as Dukes and Café Velo. These are progressive forward-thinking employers. I commend Marian Hennessy and all those involved in the Cope Foundation in Cork on their aim to make Cork the inclusive capital of Ireland. The model adopted, which is what the Minister of State is trying to do with this strategy, is to have supported employment with a job coach and while that job coach will fade away as time passes, that support is available. The model provides for placing people with the support of a job coach and equally there are the requirements of resources, training and ensuring the employer has the required understanding.

Senator Mullen was right in what he said and I say that sincerely. The public sector must take a role and lead in the provision of placements for people with disabilities. There was an article at the time of the forum in Davos, which called for more social inclusion for people with disabilities in the workforce and that is one to which we should revert. Senator Kieran O'Donnell rightly noted that one size does not fit all. There is a need for an innovative creative approach to be taken by the Government and by the mandarins in the Departments, which sometimes does not happen, as the Minister of State will know from his engagement. The workplace can be a very daunting place for these men and women. We must be flexible and open to resourcing and putting place the support and training that are needed.

The national Ability programme has made funding available to the Cope Foundation and it has also received funding from the European Social Fund, which reflects the partnership model. I will make a point I have made repeatedly, which is that Maslow challenges us with his hierarchy of needs, where we all must try to reach our full potential at that self-actualisation point in the pyramid. We may never get there but we must always try to aspire to be there. We all benefit from engagement. We are all social beings. The workforce brings many challenges every day but there are many positives and very good outcomes.

Being at work brings out the best in people. I think of the young men and women with an intellectual or physical disability I meet every day who work in a myriad of jobs and I see the smile, the happiness and the engagement. We have the OWL programme here in Leinster House and we meet these employees every day who bring a smile to our day. What is important is not only the fact they are here using a Hoover or photocopying but the fact that they bring a positive presence here. I thank the Minister of State for this debate. I hope the next time we discuss this area more Members will be involved. We have a road to travel but we have started that process.

As the Minister of State is in the House, I want to raise with him the issue of the Rehab services. Like many of the people who depend on those services and the people who work in Rehab, I am extremely worried around the funding situation. I ask the Minister of State to comment on that. I know he has had some meetings with the organisation and I hope some progress has been made. The possibility of losing some of these services, which already need additional resources, is a cause for concern.

A Leas-Chathaoirligh-----

It is all right. They are widening the scope of the debate.

Very well. I ask the Minister of State to comment It is a little aside from the matter under discussion but it is all related.

I want to concentrate on people with disabilities who reach the age of 18 and find there are not appropriate training spaces for them or the people who provide training do not have the expertise that is needed. I refer in particular to people on the autism spectrum. When young people are put into positions where the required expertise and training is not present, it is a dangerous situation for them and there is also the issue of people not being able to reach fulfil their potential. Resources need to be put in place because individuals and their parents need to know that when the young person reaches the age of 18, he or she will not simply be left to fend for him or herself. Such people deserve a training place and to fulfil their potential as much as anybody else.

I strongly feel that our society is missing out greatly on the uniquely positive traits that are rare or non-existent among neurotypical individuals. We have many people with disabilities and many people with autism, Asperger's syndrome, dyspraxia and other conditions, but we do not appear to realise that history is full of people who were on the autism spectrum and did the most brilliant things. Among them were Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and, of late, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. These people did magnificent things, and by not providing the right environment, training and employment for people with autism, we are selling society short. One of the traits of people with autism is they rarely lie. Is that not great?

That is needed here.

There should be more people with autism in politics.

Would politicians be good judges in that regard?

We would save ourselves millions. We have spent €500 million on tribunals. Imagine if we had people there who did not lie. We could have saved all that money. They tend to live in the moment and they rarely-----

The Senator is broadening the scope of this debate.

It is true. We need to think outside the box in terms of how we capture the expertise of people with autism and the other conditions I mentioned. They rarely judge others. They are passionate about what they are focused on, whatever it might be, and they are not tied to social expectations. They have terrific memories.

A couple of weeks ago I read about a young chap with autism. I do not know if the Minister of State has ever tried to put a flat pack together but this chap could put together flat pack furniture without any instructions. In terms of artistic value, I have seen people who are able to copy art in the most minute detail. We do not capitalise on that and are losing out on those human resources. If we were to provide proper training and proper environments, we could do a great deal more in addition to the individual fulfilling his or her potential and the joy the families would get from watching them fulfil their potential. We are missing out on innovation and the monetary value to society because we are not providing opportunities, not to mind the fact that equality of opportunity should be taken as a given in a society or a republic. We are not using advances in technology to assist people with autism and people with disabilities.

We must think differently about people with disabilities and what we are missing if we do not resource them properly and provide the right opportunities.

I thank the Senators for their contributions and their genuine interest in the disability issue, particularly in ensuring people with disabilities who are able to and want to work are supported and enabled to do so. As many Senators said, having a job can help secure economic independence, social inclusion and personal fulfilment. That is the reason the strategy for employment of people with disability is so important. I thank Senators Mark Daly, Kieran O'Donnell, Mullen, Devine, Buttimer and Conway-Walsh for their positive suggestions, in particular. I will bring those suggestions to the next meeting of the national inclusion disability strategy at the end of this month. Many of the ideas mentioned today involve the responsibilities of different Departments. I sit in a room every couple of months to chair the national disability inclusion strategy where all the Departments are represented, so the Senators' ideas will be brought there.

My sense is that we are making significant progress on the implementation of the comprehensive employment strategy. The first three years have borne fruit. The collaborative work taking place across Departments and agencies and the resulting achievements are reflected in the 2018 independent assessment of the comprehensive employment strategy, CES, by the National Disability Authority, NDA, and the chairman's independent report, which are available from the Department of Justice and Equality.

With regard to particular issues raised by the Senators, some of the positive, constructive ideas are very welcome. I thank Senator Daly for his work on the Irish Sign Language. He highlighted the important matters of the medical card, the unemployment rate and the number of people working in the public sector. As of two weeks ago, there are 7,000 people with some form of disability working across all Departments and in the public sector. There are approximately 12,000 young people with a disability attending third level colleges. That is a revolution that has occurred over the past 20 years and it is very progressive. The Senator made a strong point about the private sector as well. There are examples of good practice in the private sector, with employers taking on people with disabilities. They are paying them a proper wage and treating them with respect and dignity. That has to be developed and that is part of my job. Senator Kieran O'Donnell has been strongly involved in that process as well.

In talking about that, I pay tribute to the former Senator, the late Feargal Quinn. He had that inclusive attitude as an employer. He had it 20 and 30 years ago. He was very inclusive. I express my deepest sympathy to Feargal Quinn's wife and family and I thank him for the work he did in breaking down barriers to people with disability securing employment.

To return to Senator Daly's point on implementation, it is all very well to have ideas but they must be implemented. I strongly believe that.

Senator O'Donnell referred to prime slots for the debate. I thank the Senators for being present for the debate. I am saddened that more Senators are not present because we must bring disability to the centre of the Government, the Dáil and the Seanad. At present, that is a difficult job for me as Minister of State. I was in Malta recently and met its Prime Minister. He was at the event to ensure that when we were dealing with disability issues, his other ministers were there as well. If a small country like Malta can do it, we can as well. Senator O'Donnell's point about prime slots is very important. I am well aware of the work he does in Limerick and I will be visiting Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, in that regard. I am also aware of the great work of Martina Neylon and the National Platform of Self Advocates. That organisation is run by people with disabilities. Its national executive is controlled by disabled people. There are no NGOs. I give it some funding to keep it going.

Some Members mentioned the target of 6%. My personal view is that it should be 10%. We are driving towards 6%. Some places have gone above 4%, 5% and 6%. I will refer back to the Senators on examples because figures arrived on my desk recently. Senator O'Donnell also mentioned the internships and I agree they could be extended to the private sector. The disregard of €120 going up to €427 for those on disability allowance was a great help. A number of people have gone into jobs because of that. There is great interest in that issue.

Senator Mullen spoke about justice for people with a disability. That is crucial. When one is talking about equality, one is talking about justice. He raised an important issue which we should seriously consider, namely, the residency issue and discrimination. As far as I am concerned, if a cystic fibrosis patient or a person with a disability is not allowed to stay in a country, it is discrimination. I wonder if the countries are in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That is something I will develop further. The Senator referred to the Hyde family and cystic fibrosis. These are serious questions not only for Ireland but also for the European Union and internationally.

Senator Devine raised the important fact that there are 643,000 people with a disability in the State. That is 13%. We must make it easier for people with a disability. The barriers have to go. She spoke about the phrase "little or no cost" on page 34 and revising the text.

I will say that to the people involved in the national disability inclusion strategy. It is unacceptable for people with autism to receive a service for one hour per day. Everybody has a right to an education. I do not accept that children with disabilities receive home tuition because the service in school is not adequate to respond to their needs. We have to plan services around them, a matter on which I have been working with the Minister, Deputy McHugh. We have to do something about it.

Senator Devine suggested a 6% employment target. I believe in having a 10% target. She asked me to deal with the local authorities. I will do so as part of the national disability inclusion strategy. Representatives of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment will be there and I will raise the issue with them. It is essential that I do as accessibility is hugely important. Would the Senator put up with it? Would I put up with it? The answer is "no". Why, therefore, should a person with a disability have to put up with it?

I recognise the work done by Senator Buttimer on the issue of disability. He emphasised the need for implementation and mentioned Dáil staff and the Cope Foundation project in Cork, which I have visited on a number of occasions. I have also met the Senator's father who has been very active for many years in the Cope Foundation's facility. He said Cork was the inclusion capital of the country. I would like everywhere in the country to be inclusive.

Senator Conway-Walsh referred to Rehab. It is funded by the HSE and a section 39 organisation. It operates in all nine CHO areas. It provides services under the service level agreement which is signed on an annual basis. The budget allocated to it this year is €56.1 million, which figure includes an additional sum of €1 million from the CHO. There are issues, but we are sitting down to discuss them. We have been talking about them for the past ten days to try to resolve them. We are trying to close the gap between what it is looking for and what we have put on the table. We are due to meet again tomorrow and on Friday. We do not want people to have to hang around. My focus is on the 3,000 people with disabilities. I do not like the bad vibes because they cause stress for the families. I hope we will have a final response for the Senator by next Tuesday. I want a short and snappy deal. I commend the front-line staff who work in Rehab.

I thank all Senators for their contributions and giving me the opportunity to address the House. I will bring all of the issues which have been raised back to the national disability inclusion strategy team, as well as to my own team and the disability organisations. We need to build and develop relationships. There is a strong relationship, but we need to bring mainstream society into line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We need to understand this is an equality and a justice issue. People with disabilities must be treated with respect. We have started the journey, but we still have a long way to go.