Special school students enduring conditions 'comparable to overseas orphanages'

Special school students enduring conditions 'comparable to overseas orphanages'

By Olivia Kelleher

A school for children with the dual diagnosis of autism and severe to profound intellectual disability is without adequate toilet space or ramps for wheelchairs, has leaky roofs and unreliable heating and is lacking physiotherapy/occupational therapy rooms and a sensory garden.

Parents and management at the St Gabriel's Special School in Bishopstown, Cork, have set up a Go Fund Me page, such is their frustration at the lack of action by the Department of Education and Skills.

43 children aged from four to 18 are taught onsite in a school which parents and teachers say has not received any major refurbishment since it opened 20 years ago.

Special school students enduring conditions 'comparable to overseas orphanages'

Earlier this week Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin raised the plight of the school with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during Leader's Questions.

Mr Martin said he was shocked to hear that the so-called sensory room was a "windowless outbuilding."

He said: "The parents say they feel forgotten. These are children who should be our number one priority."

Sinead Desmond, Chair of St Gabriel's Parent's Association, says the principal and and teachers do everything in their power to assist the children who are all non-verbal.

However, they are let down by the primitive surroundings they find themselves in.

"Regardless of how bad the building is they love going to school every day. They love the staff. The principal is like a mom to those children. But this building is substandard.

"There are really complex serious medical needs for these children.

There are children experiencing seizures daily.

"We have a fantastic nurse onsite but her office is completely cramped. She doesn't even have a medical couch to put the children on. She doesn't even have a weighing scales to weigh kids."

Ms Desmond said the school is so badly equipped that if you saw it in a documentary about another country you would be shocked by the lack of action of the relevant authorities.

"This is happening in Cork. My son Max's wheelchair doesn't fit into the toilets in the school. So there is no toileting facilities for children in wheelchairs.

"It is fine when Max is seven and he is small and they can lift him on to a changing bed. But they have men there who are 17 and 18 years old and are six foot tall with complex medical needs.

"They are trying to maintain their dignity and they can't. "

Ms Desmond says it is also a health and safety issue as a lot of children onsite have compromised immune systems which leave them vulnerable to infection.

"The staff try everything they can but they shouldn't have to be thinking of those things. They should be able to go to work and do their job.

"It is such a tough job and staff go in with a smile on their face. But it is such a depressing building.

"You walk in to the sensory room and it has two or three beanbags. It is up against a cold stone wall. It has a disco light."

The heating at the school broke down recently and the children wore extra layers as they waited for an emergency grant to repair it.

Sinead says the principal gave parents her blessing to speak publicly about the issues because they are at the end of their tether following years of fruitless applications for funding.

She said: "Our children only get one shot at childhood. Their childhood already has so many limitations and struggles that their school building really shouldn't be one of them.

"You go into a building that is substandard.

In Max's classroom you used to have to open the door and stand back and a gush of dirty water from the roof would fall down.

"They had buckets collecting water in the classroom. The children in the senior side have nothing."

Sinead says when the school was originally purchased in the 1990's it was never intended as a special needs school. She says it was never upgraded for the needs of children with severe disabilities with conditions resembling those seen in old-fashioned orphanages overseas.

In a video on the Go Fund Me Page principal Margaret Lordan says they cater for a "vulnerable cohort of children" and that the school is not "fit for purpose."

"They are functioning at a mental age of 18 months to two years. They are pre-speech. It is more urgent than ever that we get the environment right here for our children and that we get the conditions to to the highest standard possible."

St Gabriel’s Special School is located at Curraheen Estate in Bishopstown and is under the patronage of the Brothers of Charity Southern Services.

They aim to raise €200,00 on the Go Fund Me Page to pay for new equipment. The school has repeatedly applied to the Department of Education and Skills for funding for a new fit-for-purpose building.

A spokesman for the Department of Education said this government is committed to ensuring every child with special educational needs has the opportunity to fulfil their full potential.

He said that in 2018, almost €1.8bn will be invested in Special Education, nearly one fifth of the overall Education budget, and up 43% since 2011.

"The Department of Education and Skills is aware of the accommodation needs at St Gabriel’s and is committed to working with the school to address these needs.

"The Department expects to be in further contact with the school authority shortly."

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