‘SNA cuts take away a child’s chance to learn’, says visually impaired college graduate

Jessica Ní Mhaoláin who was conferred with a masters in government in UCC yesterday. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

An inspirational college student with a visual impairment who was awarded a masters at UCC has warned the Government against cutting special needs assistant (SNAs) hours.

Jessica Ní Mhaoláin, 24, from Cork, who struggles to see beyond five feet, told the Irish Examiner: “Simply put, I would not have finished primary school without the help of my SNA. Cutting SNA hours is taking away the chance for a child to learn properly — and that’s just not right.

“The more you cut in the early years, the more is lost to society in the long-term.”

Jessica, who completed a bachelors of science in public health two years ago, studied the effects of legislation on special needs education at second level for her masters in government. She is now considering applying for a PhD.

Her Facebook post on SNAs, from Tuesday night, has gotten over 21,000 likes and 5,000 shares. She said she hoped it would underline the vital need for SNA hours to be maintained, even when funding is tight.

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

For the first six years of her primary education at Gaelscoil an Teaghlaigh Naofa, off Kinsale Road, Jessica had to rely only on the sound of her teachers to learn. SNAs were introduced by former minister Micheál Martin in 1999 and she got SNA support from fourth class on.

Jessica had to wait until third year in Coláiste an Phiarsaigh before she got further SNA support.

“I had the help to do things I couldn’t because of my sight: notes, explanations, descriptions of what was going on in class,” she said.

“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.”

She praised the level of support provided to her at UCC, with assistive technology, extra tuition, and grinds. But she warned politicians to prioritise and protect SNA hours; “What is wrong with this society when it is deemed ok for a special educational needs organiser (SENO) or department official to cut an SNA from a child for the sake of a financial bottom line?

“Because while I’m graduating, there will be children and parents who were where my parents once were.

“And they will be wondering whether their child will achieve an education like I have, because an SNA and a chance to learn equally as others do has been taken away from them for the sake of saving money.”

Her comments come as parents on the northside of the city are mounting a campaign to prevent cuts to SNAs at several primary schools.


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