Minister challenged on education cuts by master’s graduate with vision impairment

Jessica Ní Mhaoláin: Wrote open letter to Richard Bruton.

A master’s graduate and PhD candidate with a vision impairment, who has publicly challenged Government cuts to special education supports, has invited the education minister to work with her to improve the sector.

Jessica Ní Mhaoláin, 24, from Cork, wrote an open letter to Education Minister Richard Bruton yesterday announcing her campaign, offering her insight, and seeking to establish a rapport with his office in a bid to deliver improvements for students availing of special education supports.

“I’m hoping that by reading this letter, you will take some time to think about the plight of many other children, teens and adults like me who are currently working their way through the education system — some with more success than others, as is the case in my situation,” she said.

“Hopefully an insight like the one I will write can assist you in deciding how best to apply funding in sections of your department ahead of the next budget.”

Jessica was born with oculocutaneous albinism, which makes it difficult for her to see clearly beyond 1.5m. She also has nystagmus, an involuntary movement of the eyes, which makes it difficult for her eyes to focus.

Following the introduction of special needs assistants in 1999, she had SNA classroom support for the last three years of primary school, and from third year on at second level.

Jessica went on to study in UCC; she praised the level of support there, which included assistive technology, extra tuition, and grinds.

Thanks to her education supports, she completed a degree in public health two years ago, studied effects of legislation on special needs education at second level for her master’s in government, and she is now hoping to pursue a PhD focusing on special education supports.

Following SNA funding cuts earlier this year, Jessica challenged the Government publicly, and her powerful Facebook post went viral.

“Cutting SNA hours is taking away the chance for a child to learn properly — and that’s just not right,” she said at the time.

“Having an SNA put me on a level playing field with my classmates. Every child has a right to education, and it’s near impossible for a child to learn if they rely on sound alone, simple as.”

Jessica has now launched a campaign in the hope of working with the Government to secure improvements in the sector.

She told Mr Bruton yesterday that an SNA is much more than a classroom assistant to children with a disability.

“For some of us they can replace a sense we have lost such as sight or hearing, for others they are a physical support if their impairment has left them unable to write,” said Jessica.

“I sometimes wonder if the role of an SNA is underestimated or misunderstood by some in the education sector, and perhaps this is why their position is sometimes treated as a luxury by department officials.”

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