RIGHTS AND PRIORITIES

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Have you got that sinking feeling that we’re slipping back into the bad old days of fighting for every additional penny for disability services and endless campaigning for the vindication of rights? What rights?—during the months since the general election, while the nation’s consciousness was been mesmerised by Roy Keane Season and Flood Interim Report Season, there was no mention of a re-designed Disability Bill or Education of People with Disabilities Bill. With all the arguments of health-spending cutbacks (or ‘adjustments’, in the government parties’ preferred terminology), there is the disconcerting impression that political parties’ sensitivities remain the sole touchstone of budgetary decision-making. Previously stated government priorities to copper-fasten expenditure toward the elimination of disadvantage and marginalisation have once again been elbowed out of the way by expediency and buck-passing.

It is impossible for lay people to find the essential truths hidden among the billion-figures swirling around in radio interviews and newspaper columns. But on the ground, in disability services countrywide, the disparities between recent experience and present reality are stark. Unquestionably, there was a very significant funding increase for intellectual disability services over the past three years—the annual reports of several services show expenditure rising by more than 20 per cent, year-on-year. And there are impressive service improvements to be seen for that increased funding, most notably in residential and respite provision.

Everyone recognised that those growth rates could not be sustained indefinitely. In response to the evidence of economic slowdown, services submitted more cautious service plans for 2002 and their budget allocations have generally been well below the government’s mantra figure of a 14 per cent increase. All the more unfair then, that the intellectual disability sector should now receive health board demands for stringent measures, even a strong suggestion that money will not be allowed to meet agreed salary increments. And the muttered word is that the last-quarter stringencies of 2002 will become the rigid baseline for all of 2003.

It was inevitable that we would come down from the mountain—to a reasonable plateau. The expenditure levels of the last three years enabled a certain amount of ‘catch-up’, but without continued momentum, that progress will soon be obliterated. The volte-face ‘adjustments’ demanded this autumn are not acceptable, when the National Intellectual Disability Database shows an increasing number of Irish people with intellectual disabilities, and a continuing unacceptable level of unmet need.

The World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1982 in support of the UN Decade of Disabled Persons (1983-1992), declares that ‘the ultimate responsibility for remedying the conditions that lead to impairment and for dealing with the consequences of disability rests with governments.’ Significant progress has been made in Ireland in the intervening decade, but there must be no let-up. Our weakest citizens simply must be the nation’s priority.

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