STUDENTS with learning disabilities have been discriminated against by being forced to leave school in the year they reach their 18th birthday, according to a landmark equality ruling.
The Equality Tribunal has ordered the Department of Education to review its discriminatory policy that compels students at special needs schools to finish their second-level education in the year they become 18.
Such a policy was “untenable” and such students were entitled to receive the same treatment as pupils of mainstream schools who did not face age limits when completing their Leaving Certificate, the tribunal said.
It ordered the department to pay a total of €10,000 compensation to three students who took a case under the Equal Status Act. Some of the students had to skip a year of their secondary education in order to complete the Leaving Certificate before their 18th birthday.
The claim was brought by the parents of four pupils aged 14-18, at an unnamed special needs school with the assistance of the Equality Authority. However, the tribunal ruled that one of the claimants was not discriminated against as the boy, aged 14, has yet to begin his secondary education.
The department vigorously contested the legal powers of the tribunal to hear the case on the grounds that the children’s parents did not have “locus standi” to take the case on their children’s behalf as well as claiming that the department could not be classified as a “service provider” under the act.
The department said that it had decided students with learning disabilities should be educated after 18 years of age by the Department of Health and HSE.
Two male students with special needs were each awarded €4,000 because they had been forced to skip a year of secondary school which had “a serious impact” on their education.
The tribunal ruled that the policy also resulted in a great deal of stress and anxiety for an 18-year-old girl because of the uncertainty about whether she would be allowed to complete her education in the special school she currently attends. She was awarded €2,000.
Welcoming the ruling, the Equality Authority said it was an important case for students with learning disabilities. A Department of Education spokesperson said last night it was carefully reviewing the ruling.
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