SOME of the parents broke down before they could finish relating what they were going through. Some of the audience looked like they were going to break down on hearing the depth of human suffering.
The packed meeting in St Mary’s rugby club in south Dublin last week was typical of gatherings around the country of parents who despair at how their children are being treated in a form of educational apartheid.
Ian spoke of his son Dylan being driven 23km each way to school so that he could be provided with an education appropriate to his needs as a child with autism.
“He’s transported out of our community every day,” Ian said.
“He had five different tutors [educating him in his home] before he even got the place he has now. We can see the local school from my son’s window and he will never go there.”
Edwina related how her seven-year-old, Teddy, has to be bused across the city to his school because they were turned away from every school anywhere near their home.
“He will only have it until second class,” she said, but at least he had that. “His little brother is going to go to the local school and Teddy is going to watch him skipping off to school every day.”
Róisín can’t find a place for her son. He is due to start school in September.
“When I go out into my back garden, I can hear 700 kids from the nearby school,” she said. It pains her to realise that her son will never form a part of the youthful cacophony in the school’s playground.
There were two reactions from those in the body of the packed meeting organised by the Involve Autism group. Parents of children on the autism spectrum nodded in recognition of the struggle. Others, including politicians and election candidates from three Dublin constituencies, appeared both moved and shocked.
For the latter group, this was a glance into a hidden Ireland where parents struggle 24/7 to get an appropriate education for their children.
The prospect of a child with a disability, and particularly those on the autism spectrum, getting a proper education is a lottery.
Some areas manage to supply sufficient places to meet the needs of the local population. Other areas, for a variety of reasons, are woeful, condemning children to either a substandard education or forcing parents to move their families.
Autism presents particular challenges but extensive research has shown that with an appropriate education, the child can make great strides towards living a more independent life.
The opposite also applies. The child who goes without the appropriate education can be condemned to retreating further into his or her own world even before arriving at adulthood.
That is the background against which thousands of parents are forced to struggle to have voices heard on behalf of their children.
Adam Harris, who runs autism organisation AsIAm, told last week’s meeting there are particular problems in Dublin and Cork in acquiring places in special education.
“At the centre of this issue is a lack of understanding of autism,” he said. “They do not understand the vast variety of experience of people on the spectrum.”
Harris said that, in many instances, children were placed in schools without even the appropriate supports.
“We’ve done inclusion in Ireland in an Irish way,” he said. “We move lots of people into school but we won’t talk about it.
When the newspapers publish school league tables, the only metric defining good and bad schools is how many progress to third level. If you want an inclusive education system we have to recognise that some of the best schools in the country are not ones where people are getting those marks.
Apart from the ongoing struggle for parents, there are two outstanding issues around special education. The system does not recognise the extent of the problem.
Last September, Joe McHugh, the education minister, acknowledged that he did not know how many children with special needs required an appropriate placing. There are no official figures for the number of children not receiving the education they require.
For instance, the State knows how many children are homeless, yet it claims not to know how many are not receiving an education.
The other issue involves mixed messages. In November, the Department of Education told Involve Autism strenuous efforts were being made to ensure an appropriate number of places would be provided.
For instance, in six postcodes in south Dublin, encompassing 23,000 school-going children, only five of 68 schools provide a special autism unit.
Five days after that assurance was given, the National Council for Special Education referenced the recently ratified UN Convention on Disability which states that a separate special education system is “not compatible with its view of inclusion”.
This has heightened fears among thousands of parents of children with different disabilities that special schools, and maybe even special classes within mainstream schools, may face closure.
At last week’s meeting, the representative from the National Council for Special Education moved to allay parents’ fears that this was a possibility.
Yet there has been no official statement on an issue that has heaped further stress on parents whose lives are often completely preoccupied with fighting the system in order to take care of their children.
The result has been mixed messages emanating from state agencies.
Is there a sole focus on providing sufficient places to meet the need? Or is the possibility of mainstreaming all children being considered? Whatever hope of generating the required political will to deal with this issue is certainly diluted when mixed message are being issued.
The general election result has been interpreted as a widespread plea for change in how things are being done.
One area where change is long overdue is in the provision of education for the State’s children.