In this article, John Dolan outlines some examples of how the policies and actions of Government are not doing enough to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
He suggests that this is because of a lack of leadership on these issues from the head of Government, the Taoiseach.
He says that the Taoiseach must lead the Government to include disability issues in all decisions and to invest enough money and resources. In particular he must lead the way in preparations for Budget 2018.
February’s CSO figures brought bad news for people with disabilities. It showed that while poverty levels are starting to improve generally in Ireland, they are actually getting worse for people with disabilities. This is despite the appointment of a Minister of State with special responsibility for people with disabilities in 2016 and the preparations for ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). This reinforces that leadership on disability issues must come from the very top. The Taoiseach, as head of the Government, must prioritise the needs of people with disabilities and instruct his Ministers, and the civil servants within the Departments, to dedicate and invest funding and resources that will support people with disabilities to live in dignity, and to live and participate equally in their communities. Preparations must be made now for a fully disability-inclusive Budget for 2018.
What is Leadership on Disability Matters at political and decision-making level?
Leadership on disability issues means understanding, respecting and identifying disability matters as being human rights issues. It means including disability issues and voices in all mainstream policies, decisions and initiatives. And it means investing enough money and resources to implement these. Logical and straightforward.
Is there Leadership on Disability Matters?
Progress has been made and some good intentions have been shown, but it has not resulted in real improvements in the lives of people with disabilities. An Taoiseach must show leadership by committing to fund disability inclusion in all Government plans and decisions, in line with the UN CRPD and by demanding that Ministers and Departments coordinate and work together to ensure a coherent approach.
The appointment of Minister Finian McGrath as Minister of State with special responsibility for disability issues (who operates at cabinet level), showed signs of Government ambition and commitment to improving the lives of people with disabilities. It had the potential to place disability issues at the heart of Government decision-making, after Disability Federation of Ireland (‘DFI’) led the campaign in the 2016 general election for just such an appointment. But while no-one can doubt the intentions of Minister McGrath, his capacity to mainstream disability issues and to effect real change must be limited by an Taoiseach’s lack of leadership on including people with disabilities in Irish society. This is demonstrated by the lack of effective policies and incoherence of approaches across Government initiatives.
Lack of leadership shown by inaction, incoherence, and ineffective policies
- Four out of 10 of the published Departmental Statements of Strategy make no explicit reference to people with disabilities or the UN CRPD. These include the Departments of An Taoiseach, of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Compare this with the strategies for both the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Health, which both made strong, human rights-based references to disability matters. Statements of Strategy set out the priorities for each Department, and guide the Department’s expenditure of finances and resources.
- The Programme for Government published in May 2016 specifically aimed to ratify the UN CRPD by the end of 2016.
2016 has come and gone, and we are still awaiting ratification.
- CSO statistics from this February show that poverty levels are getting worse amongst the disabled population, though generally, they are improving for the wider population. Unfortunately, this is no surprise.
At the time of drafting Budget 2017, the wider economy was showing signs of recovery. But this was not the case for people with disabilities, whose circumstances became increasingly worse since 2008. Disabled people were one of the groups at highest risk of poverty, with less than half the labour participation rate of the general population, and individually facing extra weekly costs of up to €276 per week due to their disabilities. The DFI campaigned hard in the lead up to Budget 2017 to make sure that people with disabilities were not left behind in the recovery. Nonetheless:
- In Budget 2017 (due to take effect from March 1st 2018), people on the Disability Allowance received the same €5 increase in payment as social welfare recipients. This failed to provide for the particularly difficult circumstances and extra costs which disabled people experience.
- Fergus Finlay, chair of the Comprehensive Employment Strategy (CES) for People with Disabilities, was asked at the Make it Work: Employment and People with Disabilities conference, “How many people with disabilities have been directly employed as a result of the CES? His response, “The honest answer is none.”
- There is a serious lack of appropriate, accessible housing for people with disabilities. But a new Universal Design initiative by the Department of Housing was launched solely in the context of addressing housing for older persons. This is despite the fact that the definition of Universal Design is set out in the National Disability Authority Act 1999, as providing environments, including buildings, which are accessible to “persons of any age or size or having any particular physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual ability or disability”. And despite the creation of the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design within the National Disability Authority.
- Budget 2017 did bring a very significant increase in the funding for Housing Adaptation Grants. This is an important way to improve the accessibility of accommodation for people with disabilities. But in order to benefit from this, a person with disabilities or their family members would have to own their own property, or a landlord would have to be willing to adapt their property for a tenant.
Given the level of poverty amongst people with disabilities, in reality this will not be of any use to many people with disabilities, who are not in a position to own their own home. It will be of little use to those who have to either compete for accommodation in the private rental accommodation market, which is in crisis, or wait years on the social housing waiting list.
- The Government reiterated in the Programme for Government that de-congregation is a key priority and this was referenced again in new Rebuilding Ireland Strategy. But, at the envisaged rate of de-congregation of approximately 150 to 180 per year, it would take another 15 years before everyone is relocated to housing in the community. The Rebuilding Ireland Strategy did not identify the then almost 4,000 people with disabilities who were on the social housing waiting list since 2013. Furthermore, there are over 1000 people with disabilities, under the age of 65, inappropriately living in nursing homes for older people, due to the lack of accessible housing and communities and proper supports.
These are just some examples of the problems, inactions and inconsistencies that people with disabilities face, due to a lack of strong leadership from the very top of Government – An Taoiseach.
Budget 2018 – time for a fresh start
The Department of Justice and Equality’s 2017 Statement of Strategy says that:
‘The Department of Justice and Equality has overall responsibility for public policy and administration in respect of justice, national security, equality, disability and human rights issues.’
And, to the credit of the Ministers Harris, and Fitzgerald and Ministers of State, McGrath and McEntee, this approach is reflected and reinforced clearly in the Department of Health’s Statement of Strategy, which set an objective to:
‘Support the full and effective participation of people with disabilities in society on an equal basis with others, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.’
These represent a significant shift in how disability issues are to be considered and addressed. And they will be crucial tools to ensuring that funding, resources and initiatives under their Departments are allocated in a manner which have a real and positive human rights-based impact on the lives of people with disabilities.
So let’s accept that Government is sincere in its intent to ensure full inclusion and equal participation for people with disabilities. But these tools can only be utilised if disability inclusion is properly provided for across the different Departments in Budget 2018. Such action would prove that Ireland is systematically getting on with a programme to liberate people with disabilities, in anticipation of ratifying the UN CRPD. And this decision must ultimately be led by An Taoiseach.
Survey on Income and Living Conditions figures: http://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/er/silc/surveyonincomeandlivingconditions2015/ (“SILC”)
 http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Department%20of%20Justice%20and%20Equality%20Strategy%20Statement%202016-2019.pdf/Files/Department%20of%20Justice%20and%20Equality%20Strategy%20Statement%202016-2019.pdf and http://health.gov.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/DoH-SoS-2016-2019-Final-En.pdf
 The ESRI’s Initial forecasts for 2017 indicated that Ireland’s GDP would grow by 4.2%. [ESRI, Quarterly Economic Commentary, Summer 2016, 21 June 2016.]. The ESRI also forecast that unemployment in Ireland will fall to 7.6% by the end of 2016 and 6.5% by the end of 2017. [ESRI, Quarterly Economic Commentary, Summer 2016, 21 June 2016.]. A senior Government Minister had confirmed that by the end of 2017 the country will “not be borrowing a cent.” [Comments by Richard Bruton TD, Irish Examiner, 5 February 2016.]
 An ‘at risk of poverty’ rate of 22.8%, a deprivation rate of 51.3% and a consistent poverty rate of 13.2%. [CSO (2015) Survey on Income and Living conditions 2014.]
 Persons with a disability in the labour force had a participation rate of 30%, less than half that for the population in general. [Census 2011. Profile 8: Our Bill of Health.]
 Cullinan, John (NUIG) / Lyons, Seán (2014), ‘The Private Economic Cost of Disability’ Table 4.2 ESRI
Homes for Smart Ageing Universal Design Challenge, http://rebuildingireland.ie/news/smart-ageing-universal-design-challenge/
 Article 19A, as inserted by Article 52 of the Disability Act 2005,
 Article 19B of the National Disability Authority Act 1999 as inserted by Article 52 of the Disability Act 2005
 Per HSE data. In particular, as of August 2015, 1,047 people under the age of 65 are in receipt of NHSS funding (i.e. are in nursing homes)
 p. 6, http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Department%20of%20Justice%20and%20Equality%20Strategy%20Statement%202016-2019.pdf/Files/Department%20of%20Justice%20and%20Equality%20Strategy%20Statement%202016-2019.pdf