Young intellectually disabled people must not be victims of State cutbacks

JOE HIGGINS may be as daft as a brush in political and economic terms.

Or he may be the new economic messiah. It all depends on your point of view. Whichever he is, he is also as principled and honest as the day is long. The idea that Joe Higgins would deliberately misuse expenses is just a joke — and everyone knows it. Yet the media has been banging on about poor Joe’s expenses for a week now.

At the same time, there have been lead stories in several newspapers about a row between two Oireachtas committees about which one of them should conduct an inquiry into the night of the bank guarantee. Yet everyone knows that no Oireachtas committee has the power to get to the bottom of that unless we change the Constitution. Which we decided a few months ago not to do.

And if I can believe my Sunday papers, Michael Martin is today, in the Dáil, going to challenge the Taoiseach about what has become known as “flowerpot gate” — the incident where the Taoiseach stumbled over a flowerpot in his anxiety to avoid being door-stepped by TV3’s Ursula Halligan about gay marriage. The leader of Fianna Fáil (believe it or believe it not) is quoted as being “shocked” that the Government appears to him to have a strategy to control the media.

Welcome to the silly season. It’s that time of year when the media decide to give a hugely disproportionate amount of coverage to essentially trivial stories, presumably because they don’t want to trouble us with real stuff while we’re trying to get into holiday mood.

The trouble with the silly season is that sometimes, real crises just get ignored. Like the real and imminent crisis facing around 650 young Irish citizens. That’s a crisis which, at the very least, ought to be attracting a lot of media coverage. But I can find almost none.

Last week the Independent Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan asked a question in the Dáil about these young citizens. This is part of the answer given by Minister Kathleen Lynch: “The demand for day services, including rehabilitative training, for school-leavers continues to grow. The HSE expects that approximately 650 school-leavers will require services in 2012. This year, disability services are required to cater for demographic pressures such as new services for school leavers from within their existing budgets. In previous years demographic funding was provided to meet this need. 2012 budgets have been reduced by 3.7% and the moratorium on staff recruitment gives rise to additional challenges in service provision.

“The HSE is currently working with all relevant service providers to maximise the use of the available places … The HSE and disability service providers have agreed that families will be notified by the 10th July if a place is available or if the individual is to be placed on a waiting list … The HSE and the disability service providers acknowledge that the waiting period is a difficult time for individuals and their families. Every effort is being made to achieve an equitable and sustainable outcome.”

Jul 10 is today. Today, 650 young people are discovering that they no longer have a right to an education because they have turned 18 and because they have an intellectual disability. No young person in Ireland who doesn’t have an intellectual disability will ever be told that they have no right to pursue an education, but leave that to one side for the moment. If you don’t have an intellectual disability, you fill out a CAO form. If you do, you go on a waiting list for a service that is essential to your wellbeing.

The reality is that the State, our republic God bless it, will decide today which of these young people it will abandon, and which it will serve. And the deciding factor will be money.

It will be money, not need. For the first time in my memory there is now every possibility that these cutbacks will result in cuts in critically important services not just for people with mild or moderate disabilities, but for young people with severe and profound disabilities.

One father who has been told that there can be no day service for his profoundly disabled son unless there is dedicated funding has tried to express the dilemma this way, in a letter to the authorities: “Imagine that you are unfortunately in intensive care — wholly dependent on others for your existence and unable to communicate. Now imagine that the consultant comes in and informs you that due to cutbacks they will have to squeeze another bed into the cubicle you are in and the same medical staff will now have to look after you both. The consultant further informs you that he cannot guarantee the continuation of your care past the end of the month as they have not been provided with any funding beyond that date. You have no say in the matter. This is what we (the State) are doing to people with intellectual disabilities, however, for them it is a life sentence, not a stay in hospital.”

The young man in this example cannot talk, cannot communicate, cannot dress himself without help, cannot eat or drink without support. How is it possible in this day and age that the State could turn its back on him and on his family? Could we really be as uncivilised as that? And not just him. The representative organisations who try to stand up for people with intellectual disabilities are bracing themselves for an avalanche of hardship and distress.

INCLUSION Ireland, one of the organisations, is gathering information through its Facebook page — and needs the support of parents to let them know exactly how people are being affected. Another one, the National Parents and Siblings Alliance, is trying to start a lobbying campaign to protect these young people — and is doing it with no resources whatever.

These young citizens are the children of parents who are often getting on in years, who have coped all their lives with disability, and who live in terror of being told that from now on they must cope alone.

Neither they nor their children have any legal right to any support — a previous government conned the people into thinking they were putting rights into law, and produced a piece of legislation that is utterly worthless to families in distress. And, of course, the Supreme Court decided (in the case involving Jamie Synnott, a young man with autism) that there was no constitutional right to an education after the age of 18. That’s the main reason why so many young people with an intellectual disability are thrust into limbo as soon as the turn that age.

I’ve always been a great admirer of Kathleen Lynch, the hard-working junior minister in charge of the disability portfolio — and I’m sure there are financial problems. But if we turn our backs on people who carry a range of disabilities that would be a far greater scandal than some of the stuff in the newspapers. Making them the victims of our financial crisis is an injustice too far.

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