Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Sinn Féin calls for social model of disability to be embraced

23 October, 2003


Speaking during the Dáil debate on the Education for Person with Disabilities Bill 2003 Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education and Science, Seán Crowe TD was critical of the fact that the Bill does not take into account the concept of lifelong learning and adult education. He also called on the State embrace the social model of disability.

He said: "The use of the term child in the first place is a curious one. Perhaps the name of this bill should be Education for Children with Disability 2003 as the entire concept of lifelong learning and adult education has basically been left out. Adult and third level education come under the remit of the Minister and yet have been excluded from the legislation before us. What about the problems facing persons with disabilities in attending university? In accessing adult literacy programmes?"

Deputy Crowe also called for the social model of disability to be embraced by the State. He said: "The social model of disability sees this not as the person concerned being disabled but as society disabling that person by not providing the appropriate facilities, by not allowing for their differences. A student in a wheelchair who can't get into her school because it has steps is not disabled, rather the school is disabling them by not providing appropriate access. It is this social model of disability that must be embraced by the State from top to bottom and I do not believe this legislation goes far enough to address this." ENDS

Full text follows:

Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2003

Speech by Seán Crowe TD, Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education and Science

I would like to begin by welcoming the legislation before us, the first piece of legislation brought before the House by the Minister and I think we would all agree, one of the most important he intends to bring.

While broadly welcoming the Bill, or at least what the Bill is trying to do, there are a number of flaws and problems in the details, particularly for example in the area of definitions, that need to be addressed.

To work, this Bill must be child centred legislation, based around the social model of disability. This is not the case as it stands.

At this point I think it would be appropriate to thank the dozens of groups and individuals who made almost 50 submissions on this legislation to the Committee on Education, and especially to those who made oral submissions.

It was certainly a worthwhile effort as everyone involved learned from the process.

I hope the Minister is prepared to take on board a number of the recommendations and proposals that were made by the groups concerned and takes these into account when the Bill reaches Committee Stage. The manner in which this Bill passes through the House will give us an indication of the way the forthcoming Disabilities Bill will be treated when it makes its appearance.

As I said, one of the crucial elements of this Bill is the section on definitions, and it is a section that has already aroused its fair share of difficulties. While I would welcome the fact that the legislation before us has changed the definition of child by taking away that element of the legislation that excluded children under the age of three, the definition of 'child' is still a long way from sufficient.

The use of the term child in the first place is a curious one. Perhaps the name of this bill should be Education for Children with Disability 2003 as the entire concept of lifelong learning and adult education has basically been left out.

Adult and third level education come under the remit of the Minister and yet have been excluded from the legislation before us. What about the problems facing persons with disabilities in attending university? In accessing adult literacy programmes?

This legislation seems to feel that once the State a child with special education needs has done the Leaving Cert, he or she is no longer in need of the kinds of assistance that were required to get through primary and secondary school.

The age limit of 18 is a barrier, not just in terms of adult and third level education, but it does not recognise that children with disabilities might, for whatever reason, need to have more time to complete school than those without.

They might enter the school cycle late, or miss large amounts of class for medical and physical reasons. Is the Minister being mindful of the 2001 Sinnott judgement in the definition he has adopted here?

I would suggest that the Minister refrain from making new definitions when they are not needed. The Education Act 1998 includes a definition for the term 'student' defined as a person enrolled in a school or registered in a centre for education. I would recommend that the term child be replaced, where appropriate, with the term student, and that the Minister address the complete lack of any measures dealing with education past the Leaving Certificate.

The Minister will no doubt be aware that many disability and education groups have serious difficulties with some of the other proposed definitions in the legislation. Specifically the definitions of a 'child with special educational needs' and 'educational disability.'

As it stands this definition would exclude students with learning difficulties and other disorders. There has been a great deal of anger among dyslexia support groups for example at the decision to stop classifying dyslexia, as the Department has normally done, as a Specific Learning Disability and to now exclude it from education legislation dealing with disability.

I would also note, from an All-Ireland perspective, that special education legislation operating in the Six Counties refers to the special education needs of students with Dyslexia.

Legislation in this state should, where possible, be consistent. There is already a definition of disability in education legislation contained in the Education Act 1998. It is also used in the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act of 2000. I would ask the Minister to either amend himself or accept amendments at Committee stage to change the definition of disability to one already widely accepted.

The Irish Wheelchair Association made the point that as it stands in the legislation before us the definition of educational disability in this bill would describe someone like the physicist Stephen Hawking as suffering from an educational disability. The barriers faced by people with physical disabilities are not the product of difficulties in learning but in accessing places of education or appropriate technology.

The social model of disability sees this not as the person concerned being disabled but as society disabling that person by not providing the appropriate facilities, by not allowing for their differences. A student in a wheelchair who can't get into her school because it has steps is not disabled, rather the school is disabling them by not providing appropriate access. It is this social model of disability that must be embraced by the State from top to bottom and I do not believe this legislation goes far enough to address this.

I have a number of concerns about Section 2 and the provisions relating to integrated education. I welcome the clear and unambiguous statement of support for integrated education that is in the first part of the section, while I accept it is not always in the best interest of the child concerned, but I find paragraph B to be a little vague and ill-defined.

There is no information on who would make the decision that the provision of education for a child with special needs in the classroom is impacting negatively on the learning of the children with whom he or she is to be taught.

Does the teacher make this decision? Or the principal? How can we be sure that either of those will have the experience, skills and training in special education to make that determination? Is there room for the involvement of parents in this decision making process, or even that of the other students in the class? How is 'effective provision' defined?

I accept that for practical purposes some form of wording is needed to deal with the small number of cases that might arise which would be covered by this section of the legislation. As it stands however, it is unclear and open to widespread abuse. It could be used by teaching staff who, struggling to cope on the few resources they have at present, might see the addition of a child with disabilities as an added inconvenience. I do not suggest that this kind of thinking would be at all widespread or tolerated within the teaching profession, but to protect the rights of all concerned I would ask the Minster to expand and clarify this portion of the legislation to allow for consultation with parents and more details on the decision making process.

The notion of an education plan, as outlined in Section 3, is in and if itself an extremely good one. However I would like to make several points.

Firstly, Section 3 makes no mention of the student's teacher who would have the most contact with the child. In large schools especially, the teacher would have far more detailed knowledge of the student and experience in teaching him or her. While in practice the principal of a school will no doubt have regard to the opinion of the teacher concerned, putting this in legislation would in my opinion improve this section.

Section 3.1 speaks of the principal taking measures to address any perceived failure of the standard education programme to meet the needs of the child.

There is no mention in this for consultation with parents. If the principal has made the decision that a student of his or hers is not benefiting to the desired extent from the education programme generally applied in the school he or she certainly should take measures to address this, but again I would feel very strongly that they should take any such measures in consultation with the parents of the child concerned. In the Bill' explanatory memorandum it refers to the close involvement of the parents in a child's education to be a key element.

As such I would ask the Minister to consider changing this section to provide for the principal to consult with parents.

In the same vein, parents should be given copies of the education plan as soon as it is developed and not 'as soon as is practicable'

I also note that the power to decide who is consulted in the preparation plan is left entirely in the hands of the principal. While there is a clear obligation to consult with the parents of the child and the special needs organiser, the parents themselves have no power to request that someone they might feel especially comfortable with be involved in the creation of the plan. If the parents are represented, and allowed reasonable access to bringing representations to the education plan creation process they are far less likely to have difficulties with it once created.

In speaking on the Education Plan I would also like to highlight the burdens this will add to the workloads of school principals. The Bill sets out a very detailed list of obligations to be fulfilled by the principal in particular in relation to each individual. According to INTO, three out of every four principals are teachers as well as principles. These days, principals must also be accountants, administrators, lawyers, social workers, fundraisers and diplomats.

Principals are concerned that the legislation will raise parents' expectations but that they will be blamed if the resources are not made available. Recently Minister Dempsey suggested he would provide 500 administrative posts to alleviate this burden. I would welcome more information from this in his response. Many school principals worry that they do not have the resources to teach the vast majority of special-needs students or to implement the legislation.

I would like to finish up by saying that time does not allow me to go into detail on further aspects of the Bill but my party colleagues will be doing so as their opportunities to speak on this legislation arise.

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