The momentum grew steadily all last year: learning disability support groups held press conferences, made pre-budget submissions, lobbied and wrote to national and local public representatives. NAMHI met with the Cork by-election candidates in October, held several public meetings and (re)submitted the budgetary targets necessary to eliminate waiting lists and provide appropriate accommodation for people with learning disabilities. The Federation of Voluntary Bodies for the first time publicised their own pre-budget submission at their ‘Chance of a lifetime’ press conference. The National Parents and Siblings’ Alliance pursued a wide media campaign in newspapers and on radio and TV (p. 8). They called for ‘an assault’ on the deficiencies in services for people with learning disabilities.
Two cross-border workshops and a national forum were organised on residential and respite care, in UCD, in Belfast (p.8) and in central Dublin, with participants from service providers and users, statutory body representatives and family members, with the express purpose of influencing policy and decision-making, and to maximise resources. The NAMHI Parents’ Seminar in Cork on 31 October also pounded home the critical shortages in residential and respite care.
What was new about these campaigns was that, for once, all the groups gave the same message: appropriate residential and respite services must be made available to people with learning disabilities now.
The response-side of the equation is still stuck in the rhetoric mode. Listening to the Dáil debate on Mental Handicap Services (Official Report 496 (3-4, 10-11 November 1998), one would naively have anticipated a landslide acceptance of the motion to substantially increase the mental handicap budget. More than thirty deputies spoke, agreeing the desperate need. But when it came to the vote, TDs responded not to the pressures of personal belief and constituents’ wishes, but to the orders of Party Whips—the bottom line of Irish parliamentary democracy.
That 73-71 vote in the Dáil deleted TD Theresa Ahearn’s entire motion—after the initial word ‘That’—and substituted the Minister for Health and Children’s amendment: ‘Dáil Éireann recognises the need for the further development of services to persons with a mental handicap and approves both the Government’s commitment to put in place an enhanced level of service provision in line with the commitments outlined in the Programme for Government and Partnership 2000 and the actions taken by the Government to date in meeting these commitments which include: the provision of additional funding of £25 million; a £30 million National Capital Programme, over four years, to put in place appropriate infrastructure to support the services.’ TDs in the government parties (and their ‘independent’ friends) were happy to file into the ‘Tá’ lobby to vote for the self-congratulatory amendment. Commitments are stated three times within that Dáil decision—and we will be watching closely for the action required to carry out those commitments!
Every interest group in the country held its breath for the much-heralded bounty of Budget Day. When Christmas expectations are pitched too high, Santa’s bag is bound to disappoint. Our demands were not met, although there were some positive elements in the budget for people with learning disabilities. Minister of State Mary Wallace’s officials distributed an eight-page summary of ‘measures to assist people with disabilities and carers’ at the NAMHI post-budget Regional Meeting on 3 December. It included measures from several government departments, from the welcome plans for special educational needs recently announced by the Department of Education and Science (p. ), to less impressive improvements in the administration and eligibility of the Carer’s Allowance. Gerry Ryan of NAMHI sought a commitment from the Minister to establish a tracking mechanism to ensure that the promised 320 new residential places, 80 new respite places and 200 new day places will actually be put in place by the end of 1999, and that the £10m capital is provided early in the year. The Minister agreed. We shall see.
In this issue of Frontline we highlight the legal and human rights claims for a fair quality of life for persons with disabilities—the perspective which has largely replaced what sometimes appeared to be a cap-in-hand approach. We are still a very long way from achieving no-waiting-list disability services. We have to keep ’em under pressure, maintaining focused campaigns ‘from the same hymn sheet’, to bring the day closer when persons with learning disability, and their carers, are granted the full human rights to which all Irish citizens are entitled.
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