Cork school appeals to keep in-school speech and language therapist in place for deaf pupils

St Columba's in Douglas has a facility for 34 deaf and hard-of-hearing pupils from all over Cork but a new Government scheme could see them miss class time to access certain facilities in their own communities
Cork school appeals to keep in-school speech and language therapist in place for deaf pupils

Taoiseach Micheál Martin with Triona Fitzgerald, principal, visiting St Columba's Girls National School with Facility for Deaf Children, Douglas, Cork, in December 2020. Picture: Jim Coughlan

The principal of a Cork school with 34 deaf pupils has called on Disabilities Minister Anne Rabbitte to ensure her students do not lose their in-school speech and language therapist.

The appeal follows assurances given last week by the minister about retention of on-site speech and language therapy at a Dublin school for the deaf.

St Columba’s National School in Douglas has a facility for 34 deaf and hard-of-hearing boys and girls from across Cork county, and concerns have been expressed about the impact of the HSE’s Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young People Programme (PDS) will have upon students.

Community setting

Under the PDS scheme, services for children with complex needs would be provided within a community setting rather than in a school setting, with children’s disability network teams (CDNT) being established to provide services and supports for children with disabilities within a defined geographic area.

With deaf and hard-of-hearing students travelling daily from across Cork county, St Columba’s principal Triona Fitzgerald said the introduction of PDS may result in her students losing significant amounts of class time as they are forced to travel to their communities to access speech and language therapy.

“I would fear that some parents, whose children travel long distances to and from school, are going to be forced to make the unfortunate decision to keep their child at home on the day they have their speech and language session.

“That’s a lost day once a week, which would have devastating effect on students, whereas under our current arrangements a child can have their half-hour session in the school and go back to class with no time wasted and the child isn’t exhausted,” Ms Fitzgerald said.

Ms Fitzgerald said she had been told by HSE officials that deaf and hard-of-hearing pupils at St Columba’s GNS could be accommodated at the nearest CDNT facility, which is in Curraheen, a proposal she described as “of no use” as it would still require children and parents to travel to and from the school.

'Not a workable solution'

“Given that students’ parents would need to travel to the school, collect their children and take them to the CDNT, and then return them to class after their therapy, it’s simply not a workable solution,” she said.

“We are calling on Minister Anne Rabbitte to ensure that our school does not lose its in- school speech and language therapist, and to ensure that our deaf and hard of hearing students are not disadvantaged by the introduction of PDS.”

Ms Fitzgerald’s comments came in the wake of a statement made last week by Ms Rabbitte to the Holy Family School for the Deaf in Cabra, Dublin, that the school would retain its on-site speech and language therapist.

Ms Rabbitte told the Holy Family School, which has 140 deaf and hard-of-hearing pupils, that she had been assured by HSE officials that the on-site presence of a speech and language therapist at the school would continue.

“My understanding is that the intention is for this role to be part of the Cabra/Grangegorman CDNT, but they will be working on site at the school during the school term and there shouldn’t be any impact day-to-day for children,” said Ms Rabbitte.  

Impact of loss of services

Eimear O’Rourke, principal of the Holy Family School, welcomed Ms Rabbitte’s statement but said the school still has deep concerns about the impact of loss of services upon students and staff.

“We need Minister Rabbitte to continue to engage with the HSE towards the implementation of Government policy in the best interests of our deaf and hard-of-hearing pupils.” 

Cork South Central TD and Sinn Féin spokesperson on education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said he was “extremely concerned” that the loss of in-school speech and language therapists would have a “devastating impact” on schools’ ability to fully support their deaf and hard of hearing students.

St Columba’s GNS is in Mr Ó Laoghaire’s constituency, and he said Government needed to rethink the “potentially devastating” impacts of PDS on many special schools and families.

“What shouldn’t be lost here is the fact that children have a right to these services,” Mr Ó Laoghaire said. 

“These rights should not be compromised. The ability of children with additional needs to progress should not be compromised.”

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