The Education of Persons with Disabilities Bill: It promises much but guarantees little!

by Mitchel Fleming

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At the time of writing, The Education of Persons with Disabilities Bill is making its way through the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is a Bill that is high on aspirations but low on commitment. As it is now written, I find it difficult to know whether the Bill reflects a genuine desire on the part of the state to provide children with disabilities with badly needed services, or whether it is a cynical ploy on the part of politicians to say the right things, while sheltering behind a claim of insufficient resources to deliver services. Below is a summary of some of the main elements of the Bill and what they might mean for children and their families with disabilities.

The Bill aims to ensure that children with disabilities have the same right to avail of and to benefit from appropriate education, as do children without disabilities. It endorses the Department of Education and Science’s policy on integration and inclusion. Children with special educational needs will be educated alongside other children in school, unless this is seen to be inconsistent with the interests of the child with special needs, or that it would adversely affect the education of other children in the class. The Bill also stipulates that a school can be required to admit a pupil with special educational needs, providing this is in keeping with the needs of the child, the wishes of the child’s parents and, where the school can (with extra resources if necessary) accommodate the child’s needs.

Any child who is suspected of having a disability can be referred for an assessment by his/her parents or school principal (with parental consent). This assessment will be conducted within three months. If an educational disability is identified an educational plan will be prepared within one month of the assessment. The services (educational or other) that a child with a disability requires to enable him or her to participate in and to benefit from education will be provided. It is intended that health boards will provide health-related services, such as speech and language therapy, and that the newly established National Council for Special Education will ensure the provision of education-related services, such as home tuition for a pre-school child.

In cases where a child’s needs are considered complex, an individual education plan (IEP) meeting will be convened by the Special Educational Needs Organiser (SENO). Parents, the child (if appropriate), school staff and any other persons who are deemed appropriate will attend the meeting to draw up the IEP. The plan will be detailed and goal driven. It will set out the nature and degree of the child’s abilities, skills and talents; the nature and degree of his or her educational disability; the present level of educational performance (where this is relevant); the child’s special education needs; the services to be provided to him or her, and the outcome or goals which the child is to achieve over a specific period. This period cannot be longer than twelve months. Plans will be reviewed on a regular basis and amended as required to meet the child’s needs. It is hoped that the provisions made by the Bill will enable children to leave school with the skills necessary to participate, to the level of their capacity, in an inclusive way in the social and economic activities of society and to live independent and fulfilled lives.

The Bill also provides for an appeals system. This system is intended as giving parents, in particular, a quicker, cheaper and more effective way of having deficiencies in their child’s education addressed. However, having this system in place will not prevent parents from seeking and getting the protection of the courts, where necessary, to have the provisions of the legislation implemented for their child.

While the Bill has not yet been passed into law, certain provisions have already been made. The National Council for Special Education has been established and approximately 80 Special Educational Needs Organisers (SENOs) are in the process of being appointed. When the Bill is enacted, the state will have five years to ensure that all provisions in the Act are implemented.

There is however, a ‘catch’ or opt-out clauses for the state in the Bill. The Bill provides the Minister for Finance and the health boards with considerable discretion in determining the level of resources that will be made available to children with educational disabilities. Section 13 requires that the Minister of Education and Science and the Minister of Health and Children must have the consent of the Minister for Finance to provide the necessary funds in order for them to meet their obligations under the Bill. Other sections of the Bill allow health boards to use a lack of available resources as a legitimate basis for refusing to provide a child with an educational disability with a service.

Overall, the Bill promises many improvements in services for children with educational disabilities, but it falls way short of enshrining the right to these services in law. In one of the wealthiest nations in the world, why is our government so reluctant to provide children with disabilities with a rights-based Educational Disability Bill?

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