Cork North West TD has raised the matter of the lack of supports for children with special needs/disability to access pre-school services during a special Topical issues debate on the matter, requested by the Deputy. Speaking during the debate Deputy Creed said:
“I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, for taking this debate. The issue of appropriate supports for children with disability in the preschool year appears to fall between the remit of a number of Departments. The Department of Education and Skills is responsible for children with a disability attending mainstream schools. I refer to a very welcome initiative in recent years which is the provision of special needs assistants. I have been pursuing this issue as have other Deputies, including my constituency colleagues, on foot of representations made to us about individual cases. I refer to last week’s debate on a Private Members’ motion tabled by Deputy Troy. While there is some momentum to address the issue, it still seems that no particular Department is willing to take ownership of it”.
“To put the problem in context I refer to a letter I received from the HSE on foot of representations I made about an individual case. The HSE letter in reply reads: “There is no obligation for a service under the ECCE grant to take a child with special needs if they cannot provide supports.” In other words, they can simply refuse to take a child and that child will sit at home instead. The Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, will be aware that this issue is a long time on the agenda. In the 1996 report to the Government by the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, it was stated on the issue of preschools that it should be the responsibility of the Department of Education to provide high quality appropriate preschool services to the children with disabilities. The Minister of State might well reply that she was not in office on that occasion and she may wash her hands of that report but the National Disability Strategy Implementation Plan 2013-2015 states as an aspiration to improve supports for children with disabilities in the preschool year. It stated that the outcome desired is to improve school readiness and learning for children with disabilities and that one of the key indicators will be to have more than 50% of children in preschool year in receipt of appropriate supports. The flip side is that almost 50% of children with disabilities are not receiving the appropriate supports and I suspect that a substantial minority of those children who are not getting the appropriate supports are unable to avail of the preschool year and consequently start at a disadvantage in their formal education in the primary school system, behind their peers by virtue of a learning or a physical disability”.
“I take my hat off to many of the community providers of early childhood education who through their own resources are providing funds for special needs assistants or other supports needed for these children. The system is too ad hoc. One child who cannot avail of the preschool year is one too many, but regrettably there are many children. I cannot quantify the number but perhaps the Minister of State can do so”.
“I welcome the cross-departmental endeavour under way but I remain to be convinced that somebody is taking ownership of the issue, even if not to the extent outlined in the National Disability Strategy Implementation Plan 2013-2015, which has a timeline to have this issue addressed by September 2016. It is feasible to have this issue addressed if there is a willingness to so do, by September 2014, in order that children with disabilities would be on the same footing as any other child and available to take up a place in early childhood education”.
I acknowledge that this issue is cross-departmental in nature, coming also under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The Minister of State referred to additional funding of €4 million that has been allocated in 2014 specifically to drive implementation of the programme on progressing disability services for children and young people. This allocation amounts to the provision of 80 additional therapist posts. My understanding, however, is that this will not facilitate a single child in accessing the early childhood care and education programme.
“The issue I am raising here is not about assessment of needs. I am referring to a situation where a child who has a specific disability, be it a physical disability or a learning disability, is refused a place by a local child care provider on the basis of that disability. My understanding is that these service providers are paid on a per capita basis. Perhaps the cross-departmental group might consider an arrangement whereby a portion of funding would be held in reserve to accommodate whatever additional resources are required by individual service providers to provide, for example, a special needs assistant for one child or a wheelchair for another. In each individual case, the funding held in reserve could be used to facilitate that child’s access. The provision of funding for 80 therapist posts is not the issue. It is about ensuring that when parents approach a local service provider, the latter cannot turn their child away because he or she has a disability. That position would not be countenanced at primary school and it should not be countenanced at preschool. If we are serious about addressing these types of issues, there must be a much faster implementation of the objectives outlined in the national disability strategy for 2016. This particular issue should be resolved by next September”.