Cork school for deaf avoids service cuts due to ministerial u-turn

Disabilities Minister Anne Rabbitte paused a scheme that would have removed therapists from special schools in a move that has been welcomed by parents and teachers
Cork school for deaf avoids service cuts due to ministerial u-turn

Triona Fitzgerald, principal of St Columba's Girls National School in Douglas, pictured here with Taoiseach Micheàl Martin when he visited the school, has welcomed news its therapists will remain in situ after a policy change from Disabilities Minister Anne Rabbitte. File picture: Jim Coughlan.

Parents and teachers of deaf and hard-of-hearing students at St Columba’ Girls National School in Douglas have given a cautious welcome to Disabilities Minister Anne Rabbitte’s decision to pause the removal of therapists from special schools.

Under the Progressing Disabilities Scheme (PDS), St Columba’s, which has 34 deaf and hard-of-hearing students, would lose its in-school speech and language therapist, and parents would be forced to transport children across the city during class times to access therapy in a community-based setting.

Concerns of parents

Ms Rabbitte said that while she remained confident in PDS, her decision to halt the removal of therapists from special schools had come after listening to the concerns of parents, families, and teachers.

"Having spoken with St Columba’s principal, I want to reassure the school, its pupils, and families, that speech and language therapy will continue two mornings a week at the school,” the minister said. 

There will be no change. Hopefully, this will ease the worries of all involved.” 

Describing the decision to halt the removal of therapists as “part of a broader conversation I’m having with the HSE about PDS”, the minister said the main concern for all involved was to ensure children are supported and  services are delivered in the most efficient, fair, and timely way.

Triona Fitzgerald, St Columba’s principal, said Ms Rabbitte’s statement would give great reassurance to parents, children and staff in special schools.

“There are three schools in Ireland supporting boys and girls who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, and I am sure that the minister’s statement is a huge relief for everyone involved.

Language development and communication are vital for children with hearing impairments, and the retention of the in-school speech and language service is a much-needed support."

Gillian Davies, whose son Liam is currently in sixth class at St Columba’s, said parents were cautiously optimistic the minister would ensure that deaf schools keep their on-site therapists, adding such therapy works best as a “seamless” and complementary part of a child’s normal school day.

Equal access to education

“All any parent of a child with additional needs ever wants is for their child to have equal access to education, as is their constitutional right.” 

Cork South Central TD and Sinn Féin spokesperson on education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire welcomed Ms Rabbitte’s decision, saying “it would have been profoundly wrong” to deny in-school therapy to children in special schools.

“We need to operate on a rights basis, and these children have a right to an adequate education, and if they’re not going to get the therapy they need in a timely manner, and be supported directly in their schools, they’re not going to progress and fulfil their best potential.” 

Eimear O’Rourke, principal of the Holy Family School for the Deaf in Cabra, which has 140 students, also welcomed the statement, and said the school looks forward to receiving confirmation from the local HSE disability team that the school will retain its on-site services.

Labour Party senator Marie Sherlock, who has campaigned on behalf of deaf schools, said the announcement was a great boost for parents and staff, and suggested the minister’s decision was born out of frustration that the HSE was not listening to parents’ concerns about future delivery of disability services.

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