When it was announced that Budget day was being brought forward, speculation began to grow of massive cuts in all sectors. As the economic situation grew dimmer, there was a growing fear that people with an intellectual disability would suffer in an attempt by Government to claw back money for other areas. In response to this fear, Inclusion Ireland held a joint pre-Budget press conference with four other intellectual disability organisations, Down Syndrome Ireland, Irish Autism Action, the National Parents and Siblings Alliance and the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies. Representatives from all organisations spoke at the conference as well as parents of children with an intellectual disability and autism. Speaking at the conference, Inclusion Ireland Chairperson William Shorten said at a minimum, funding for people with an intellectual must continue at present levels and urged the Government to honour previous commitments to people with an intellectual disability and their families. Inclusion Ireland CEO Deirdre Carroll said, ‘Significant investment has gone into disability services in the last five years with the government’s Disability Strategy. Inclusion Ireland calls upon the government in this Budget to confirm their commitment to their own strategy by not cutting funding of this most vulnerable of group in Irish society.’
Finance Minister Brian Lenihan delivered Budget 2009 on 14 October 2008. Inclusion Ireland criticised several changes in Budget 2009, including halting implementation of legislation for children with special educational needs, and raising the qualifying age for Disability Allowance without putting in place an allowance to offset the true cost of disability. The main implications of Budget 2009 are outlined below:
Disability Allowance Qualifying Age
One of the most controversial changes brought forward was that qualifying age for Disability Allowance would be raised from 16 to 18. Social and Family Affairs Minister Mary Hanafin said to compensate for this cut, the age at which domiciliary care allowance is paid would be raised from 16 to 18. This difference in payments received from these two allowances amounts to €14,000 over two years. Paying a disability allowance to young people aged 16 with a disability, the majority of whom are still at school, can act as a disincentive to young people with a disability seeking vocational training or work after school. However, given that there are many extra costs, including medical costs associated with children with disabilities and the long waiting lists for all services, especially therapy services, the allowance has understandably become linked to family income and receipt of the medical card. Following much public outcry over this measure, Minister Hanafin arranged a series of meetings with disability groups, including a joint meeting with Inclusion Ireland CEO Deirdre Carroll and Down Syndrome Ireland CEO John Lindsay. At that meeting Deirdre Carroll said Inclusion Ireland believed that cutting the Disability Allowance without putting in place an allowance to offset the true cost of disability without careful analysis of its impact was a retrograde step made in haste, and would affect young people with more severe disabilities and their families the most.
Minister Hanafin’s announcement, later that week, that the disability allowance qualifying age would remain at 16 pending a full review was welcomed by Inclusion Ireland. Inclusion Ireland looks forward to working with Minister Hanafin on a review of the Disability Allowance, to ensure an appropriate cost of care allowance is developed which will focus on individual assessed need and will not act as a disincentive to young people accessing the workforce.
Therapy and Education Funding
The Minister of State with responsibility for Equality, Disability and Mental Health John Moloney, TD, announced on Budget Day that an additional €20 million will be provided for health and education services for children with special education needs. €10 million of this allocation will be provided to the HSE, and €10 million to the Department of Education and Science. Minister Moloney said this funding will provide ‘125 additional therapy posts in the HSE targeted at children of school-going age. 90 of these will be in the disability services, including speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, and physiotherapists. 35 additional posts will be provided for child and adolescent mental health services, including clinical psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech and language therapists for new and existing multi-disciplinary teams.’ The Minister said the funding allocated to the Department of Education and Science will provide for an expansion of the National Educational Psychological Service and enhance the capacity of the National Council for Special Education to co-ordinate the provision of services to children with special educational needs.
Education for Persons with Special Education Needs Act 2004 (EPSEN)
Budget 2009 saw the announcement that the EPSEN Act was to be halted. Inclusion Ireland says this is a very negative step. No time frame has been set out for when EPSEN will now be fully implemented. Budget 2009 also saw the announcement that class sizes are to increase. EPSEN is a very important piece of legislation that gives children with special needs the right to attend mainstream schools with appropriate supports. EPSEN allows for Individual Education Plans that would provide for appropriate, focused education supports to be put in place. Children with special needs may regress significantly if intervention is not made from an early stage. The National Council for Special Education, set up by EPSEN, was charged with drawing up a plan for implementing EPSEN. This plan was sent to the Department of Education and Science in 2006 and set out the resources needed, and a timetable for all sections of the Act to be completed by 2010- To date there has been no response from the Department of Education. These changes in Budget 2009 will have negative implications for the educational development of children with special needs.
Funding to Disability Services
Minister Moloney announced on Budget Day that allocations to non-statutory disability agencies will be reduced by 1% in 2009. Minister Moloney said, ‘it is expected that these efficiency savings will be achieved in non-frontline operations such as advertising, PR, travel and subsistence and management/administrative payroll costs.’ The Minister added that he intends to establish a Group to carry out a review of the non-statutory disability sector to examine the scope for further efficiencies. Inclusion Ireland said people with disabilities should not suffer as a result of these cuts. Inclusion Ireland has asked to be involved in a consultation process around this independent review. The Minister has agreed to this request.