Key education rights for disabled children still not in place after 17 years

Covid-19 has added to that disadvantage and had a disproportionately negative impact on the most vulnerable says Inclusion Ireland
Key education rights for disabled children still not in place after 17 years

Dr Niall Muldoon, Ombudsman for Children. Photograph Moya Nolan

Key education rights for disabled children, legislated for in 2004, have not been brought into effect after 17 years, leaving their rights at the whim of policy changes and funding.

That’s according to Inclusion Ireland, the national association for people with an intellectual disability.

The group is due to address the Oireachtas education committee today as it meets to discuss education for children with special needs.

The committee will speak with AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland and will hear from Dr. Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children.

Inclusion Ireland will outline how key rights, all legislated for in 2004 through the Education for Persons with Special Education Needs (EPSEN) Act , have still not been brought into effect.

This includes the right to an education assessment of need, the development of an individual education plan (IEP) based on assessment, the delivery of the education supports detailed in the plan, and an independent appeal process.

When the EPSEN Act was first passed it was seen as ground-breaking in putting inclusive education on a statutory footing, according to Lorraine Dempsey, Inclusion Ireland interim chief executive.

“Seventeen years after the Act has been passed the main pieces of the Act that benefit disabled children have yet to be commenced,” she said.

"This means a child with a special education need does not have a legal right to an assessment of their education needs and have these identified needs addressed through an Inclusive Education Plan (IEP). Parents have no legal right to have an input into the IEP.

“Because the Act has not been implemented, children’s rights are at the whim of policymakers, changes in government, funding priorities, and other factors. 

This needs to change, and the EPSEN Act fully commenced. We look forward to engaging with the Committee on these important issues.

Dr Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children is also due to address the committee.

“Looking at the delays and the barriers facing children with disabilities, it is clear that they are always at a huge disadvantage,” he said.

“However, Covid-19 has added to that disadvantage and had a disproportionately negative impact for this group.”

The loss of school for this group of children was much more than a denial of education, he added.

“It was the loss of meaning, routine, therapy, socialisation, peer interaction and fun," Dr Muldoon said. "It was no surprise then that stories of regression and challenging behaviour were consistently arriving into our office every time we had a lockdown, and that parents were crying out for schools to be re-opened for this group of children.” Dr. Muldoon will also specifically discuss the EPSEN Act (2004).

Children and their families are relying on an Assessment of Needs (AON) to access educational support as many parts of the Act concerning the assessment of special educational needs have not been commenced.

“The fact that the EPSEN Act has not been fully implemented places huge pressure on the AON process," he will say. 

The resulting hold up in access to services is not serving anyone and only adding to problems coming down the line.

Last October, the Ombusdman published a report called ‘Unmet Needs’, which sets out the challenges experienced by children who may have a disability and require an AON.

The report raises serious concerns about ongoing violations of the rights of children with disabilities due to significant delays in accessing an AON.

This is despite the HSE’s legal obligation to commence an AON within three months of receipt of a child’s application.

As the AON process and the EPSEN Act were designed to work together, the OCO believes that an independent group be established to review the Disability Act (2005).

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