Lasting legacy of man who fought for disabled rights

Mourners have bid an emotional farewell to a young man who won a landmark legal battle which secured educational rights for the disabled.

Lasting legacy of man who fought  for disabled rights

Paul O’Donoghue, aged 30, who died unexpectedly in Cork University Hospital on Wednesday, was buried yesterday after a funeral Mass in the Holy Cross Church in Mahon.

Disability rights campaigner, Kathy Sinnot, who supported Paul’s mother, Marie, in her lengthy legal battle with the State, said Paul has left a lasting legacy.

“It was a landmark case. Until then, the Department of Education had not been acknowledging that education was for everyone.”

Paul was born in 1984, but when he was just eight months old, he suffered a viral infection manifested by throat and ear inflammation and gastroenteritis, and contracted a serious illness known as Reye’s Syndrome.

It left him with profound mental and physical disabilities and requiring residential care. Marie spent up to eight hours every day caring for him, feeding him, and playing with him.

She took him to the Peto Institute in Hungary for special education, and then, along with other parents of disabled children, arranged for an expert trained in Peto methods to travel from Hungary to Ireland to teach their children — up to 23 benefited from the special classes in Wilton.

But when Paul was denied full-time admission to State- funded educational facilities, Marie mounted a legal challenge against the state.

She campaigned tirelessly and fought through the courts in a bid to force the State to recognise her son’s right to an education.

Then in 1993, when Paul was eight, High Court judge, Mr Justice O’Hanlon, issued a landmark ruling which found that Paul’s constitutional rights to a free primary education had been breached. Citing Article 42 of the Constitution, he said Paul was discriminated against, and recommended a new approach to the system of providing primary education to children with special needs.

His ruling also pointed to evidence that providing education for children with severe mental disabilities could improve their lives.

Mr Sinnot said it was the first time the constitutional right to education was explicitly interpreted as covering the needs of children with severe disabilities.

The State appealed the decision before, four years later, withdrawing the appeal on the day the case was due to be heard by the Supreme Court.

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