The Disability Act 2005 was the 14th Bill to enter the Irish statute book this year, when it was signed into law by the President on 8 July. Might it not have been more lucky or unlucky had the bill been No.13? In launching the Act into law the government suggest (or should one be more clear the Taoiseach’s Office suggests) that this piece of legislation is a positive action measure designed to advance and underpin the participation of people with disabilities in everyday life in a modern Ireland—admirable rhetoric and sound bites indeed. The Act in itself sets out to establish a statutory basis for a number key issues for people with disabilities in Ireland.
Summary of the Act’s key provisions
Every person with a disability will be entitled to an independent assessment of individual health (including personal social services) needs. Every disabled person will be entitled to educational services over the age eighteen, where appropriate. Every person with a disability will be entitled to a related service statement. It is accepted that all person with disabilities will have access to complaints, appeals and enforcement mechanisms relating to the provision of the services they receive regardless of service provider orientation or where entitlements are not delivered.
For people with disabilities, access to mainstream public services and actions to support access to public buildings, services and information are now to become a statutory right.
The government have set out in the act that sectoral plans will be prepared and published in six key sectors—by the Ministers for Health and Children, Social and Family Affairs, Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The plans will set out the disability-related services and positive-action measures to be implemented and will be the subject of a consultation process before being finalised and submitted to the Oireachtas for approval.
The Act provides for the implementation of safeguards for the use of information obtained from genetic testing, to ensure that persons affected by genetic disorders are not subjected to unreasonable requirements from an employer, insurer or mortgage provider.
Public bodies will now have statutory obligations to be proactive in employing people with disabilities and their compliance with those obligations will be subject to monitoring.
Provision is made within the act for the establishment of a Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in the National Disability Authority to promote best practice in the design of the environment and products so that they are accessible and usable for everyone, especially people with disabilities.
The Broadcasting Act 2001 is to be amended in relation to changing existing rules to facilitate access to broadcast programmes by persons with sensory impairments. A provision is also made within the Act regarding the reduction in the membership of the National Disability Authority.
This article is only a summary of some of the key aspects of the Act, including some references to the provisions within the Act for the amendment of other legislation. The main talking point of the Act may well be the use of the wording ‘where appropriate’. The ‘where appropriate’ clause seems to offer a convenient, if not somewhat sinister, opportunity for the government to renege on its often vague commitments and lip service to the needs of people with disabilities. The evidence to support this contention is to be found on the shelves of the Law Library and The Four Courts in the form of the transcripts of a number of high profile court cases (the Sinnott and O’Donoghue cases spring to mind). In recent years the government has performed acts of escapalogy using the ‘where appropriate’ technique of which any magician or modern day politician would be proud. This becomes even more evident when any attempts are made to ensure that government provides adequate services for people with intellectual disabilities.
The Act should be welcomed as a step in the right direction, although many disability action groups are not best pleased with the government’s reluctance to move towards a rights-based policy model with an acoompanying ethos of service provision for people with disabilities in Ireland.
One final criticism of the Act is the lack accessible information regarding the Act in formats that people with a range of disabilities can access. I had great difficulty accessing a synopsis of the Act. Although I was informed in preparing this article by a civil servant in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform that work is under way to create a synopsis/summary of the Act, I was given no indication that the document would be available in a variety of accessible formats. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform website provides a plethora of information on its Welcome to the Accessibility Web Page, including a Help for users with disabilities guide. Interestingly the very Act that affects the lives of people with disabilities would score extremely poorly if the new Irish National Disability Authority IT Accessibility Guidelines Version 1.1 were applied to it in its current format. The lack of accessible formats of the act and its provisions, almost half a year after its publication, indicates the truth behind the spin. I’m sure that because of our membership of the EU the Act may well be available in a number of EU languages; what is a total disgrace is that it is not yet available in a version accessible to all the people that it affects. This shows once again how people with disabilities are often excluded from access to services, decision making and policies that affect them. The government want to be seen to be saying the right things about disability issues, but their actions do not reflect their rhetoric.