Friday, 26 January 1945
Dáil Éireann Debate
(c) the abolition of all forms of piece-work in institutions and workshops for the blind, with a guaranteed minimum wage to be based upon the rates paid to workers in the unskilled departments of the municipality where such workshops are situated, and
This motion must bespeak unanimous sympathy. No one will deny that blindness is a grievous disability. I am sure everyone would wish to do anything in his power to relieve some of the hardships associated with that affliction. The acid test of our sincerity in this matter is to relate what has been done and is being done for blind persons to our expression of sympathy, individually and collectively. I think we are forced to the conclusion that we have been very lax in carrying out our duties to the blind population of this State, in comparison with what has been done in other countries or according to any standards we like to set up for ourselves. In this country blind persons represent a comparatively small proportion of the population. The total number is 7,000. They fall into two classes, those blind from birth and those who have had the misfortune to incur blindness through industrial or other disease. For either class, I am prepared to say—and I challenge contradiction—we have not done well. The child born blind is a strain, a misery and a sorrow to its parents irrespective of their position in society. That child requires constant attention and care. The majority of such children are the children of people in poor or middle-class circumstances.
There is compulsory education in respect of children who have their sight. There is no such provision in respect of the blind child. Blindness in itself is a very severe handicap, but it is aggravated when it is left to the parents, who, perhaps, have no means, to educate the child. No proper provision is made for suitable schools or suitable teachers. We allow many of these children to suffer the double hardship of blindness and lack of education. We allow them to grow up without any conception of the world they are living in. If it is necessary to have a scheme of compulsory education for the ordinary child, is it not much more essential to have such  a scheme for children who are born blind? In this motion we are asking that compulsory primary education should be provided, in suitable schools and under suitable teachers, for children who have the misfortune to be born blind in our State.
Whatever haphazard arrangements may be made for their primary education, there is no scheme whatever for secondary education for the blind in our country. I suggest that that is a matter that should be attended to and we are asking that Parliament should give attention to that matter. We find that where opportunities have been provided for blind persons and where they have been given suitable training, they have, in very many cases, overcome their disability and have proved themselves very useful citizens. They have given evidence of their ability to contribute to the social services when their colleagues, who have sight, are prepared to assist them. In this regard I think we compare very unfavourably with Great Britain. I have statistics as to what the blind have been capable of doing in the sister island when they are given an opportunity of education. They have a blind population of approximately 70,000. We have 7,000. In recent times they have trained blind persons to become typists, clergymen and to fill other positions which one would think it would be impossible for a blind person to occupy. Out of 70,000 blind persons in Great Britain, over 11,000 are in course of training or in actual employment, excluding 1,500 who have been absorbed into war industries. This represents an average of one in every ten of the blind population either in course of training or employment. In Éire there is a total blind population of 7,000, out of which only 87 or, approximately, one in 80, are engaged in our industrial schemes. This figure shows retrogression over the last 20 years. Twenty years ago we had more blind persons in training and being educated for industry than we have to-day. Wide developments have taken place in other countries while we have been, not standing still, but moving backwards.
 As I say, when we find that only one in 80 of our blind is being attended to in that direction, as against one in ten in Great Britain, we have a fair criterion of our negligence. In New Zealand, they are very much further ahead even than Great Britain in their care for the blind, and the blind have been able to respond to that attention by contributing useful citizenship.
I suggest that in addition to providing for compulsory primary education, we should provide suitable secondary education and the highest possible cultural education as long as the students find they are capable of absorbing and responding to it. I do not think their blindness should be allowed to continue to prevent them from being educated. Under existing legislation, certain provisions were made enabling the local authorities to undertake the education of the blind, and their industrial development to a certain extent. That function was handed over by the State, and the 20 years' experience we have had furnishes ample proof that that was a mistake. It might have been done with the very best intentions, but the figures show that the existing arrangements are not successful, and I would respectfully suggest that the care of the blind is really a matter for the State.
Similarly, the local authorities are entitled to come to the assistance of the blind in certain circumstances. Their contribution is also limited by the State. If the local authority gives 6/- to help a blind person, that 6/- is taken into account in the means test, just as if the person had three eyes or had the best sight in the world. That 6/- is calculated for the purposes of the means test, and he cannot get any more than 10/- State pension. That is not very much encouragement to the local authorities to give from their the local funds for the assistance of the blind. Having regard to the small number of blind in the country, and the smaller number still who would be eligible to apply for this pension, they ought not to be put on the same basis as a person who is looking for an old age pension. The same rigid means test should not be applied against them. In the case of a man who becomes blind in middle life, and who  fits himself, by his energy and application, for some trade or calling, so as to be able to earn a few shillings, it is surely a hardship that those few shillings which he may earn by basket-making, or some other type of work of that kind, should be taken into consideration for the purposes of the means test. In that way, his one little triumph is taken from him. He has triumphed over his disability to the extent of being able to earn a few shillings. Is it magnanimous to say: “We will nullify your triumph by robbing you of the few shillings you earned”? Similarly, if the wife of a blind person earns 2/- or 3/- a week at charring or washing, or anything of that kind, that, too, is taken into account for the purposes of the means test. I suggest that all that is really due to carelessness or lack of attention to consideration of the point. The amount involved is so very small in comparison with our national expenditure that, if sufficient consideration were given to the matter, I do not believe that the Government or any section of the community or of this House would agree to perpetuate the hardships under which the blind are undoubtedly suffering.
We have put down this motion for the purpose of giving the House an opportunity of discussing the matter, and we are hopeful that the various points will receive kind and capable consideration. I attach very great importance to the matter dealt with in the first portion of the motion, that is, the education of the children, their primary and secondary education. I do not think that education should be limited in any way when the pupils show that they are capable of absorbing and availing of it. I also urge that the means test should be abolished as far as the blind are concerned. It would not involve the State in any very serious additional contribution; it would be a gesture showing those afflicted people that we are appreciative of their disability, and that they have the sympathy of their fellows. I am aware of the efforts made by the National Council of the Blind and the Welfare of the Blind Societies in the country. They are  doing very good work, but it is really only on the fringe of the problem. They are not capable of grappling with the task, and I suggest that it is really a matter for State intervention.
I happen to be associated with the Council of the Blind in Limerick; I have been chairman since its inception. I cannot speak too highly in praise of the work done by that council. They visit the blind in their homes, and have set up classes in the technical schools in order to try to get them to come out and mix with their fellows, doing little bits of raffia, basket-work, needlework, and so on. It is essential to employ teachers to go into the homes in town and country and teach the blind through Braille and Moon in order to give them some little relaxation from their obscurity. When they are capable of reading, such books as can be obtained in Braille are lent amongst them. In Northern Ireland those home teachers of the blind have half their salaries remitted by the State. There is no such contribution here. Those visits may seem a small thing, but it means quite a lot to the blind to have those people coming to their homes, cheering and brightening them by reading to them and giving them work to do. Here, the salaries of those teachers have to be met out of private charity, whereas in Northern Ireland the Government has seen its way to contribute half their salaries.
I have briefly indicated the ideas which lie behind the motion, and I am committing it to the consideration of the House. I am sure that many other Deputies would like to participate in the discussion. I suggest that this is a matter which calls for our careful individual and collective attention. The number of people concerned is comparatively small, and owing to the shocking nature of their disability I feel that something better should be done for them. The lines suggested in this proposal would prove the via media by which the State could redeem its obligations to its blind citizens, and render them the assistance which is their due.
Mr. D. Morrissey: I should like  briefly to express my approval of this motion. Many motions have come before this House but I doubt if any motion was ever put on the Paper which should—and I believe will—find more support on all sides of the House. The case which has been so well made by Deputy Keyes is one that I think will appeal to every member of this House. Perhaps it was news to many members here that the conditions relating to the blind population of this country are so bad.
We do very little for them. Perhaps in cities some little attempt is made by people who give their services voluntarily to try to ease the condition of the blind, but in rural areas— I am speaking for the moment of the adult blind — we content ourselves with giving them a blind pension of anything up to a maximum of 10/- a week. It does not seem to be anybody's business to see whether that blind person is capable of performing any useful work or to attempt to occupy the minds and the hands of the blind person with work. I would suggest in that respect that in every case where a blind pension application is investigated, and where the applicant for the pension is found to be entitled to it, the pension officer should be asked to make a report to some central authority as to that blind person's condition—age and so on—and that it should then be the responsibility of somebody to see whether whatever talents that person may have could be usefully employed.
As Deputy Keyes has said, the fact that it is nobody's business in this State to see that a blind child should get any education at all is something of which we should be ashamed. It is bad enough that a child should be blind but it is still worse that a child should be completely illiterate and ignorant. One of the greatest blessings ever conferred upon the blind, those of them who are in a position to enjoy the privilege of it, is wireless, but even that pleasure is largely denied to the blind person who has no education whatever, because he is unable to follow or understand a great deal of what comes over the radio. In that  respect I would suggest that it should be the duty of the State to see that as far as possible there would be a wireless receiving set in the home of every blind person. I know myself, and I am sure it is typical of every county in the State, a number of young men and women who are blind. No attempt has been made by anybody to see that they should be fitted for any gainful occupation. It is not a matter, I think, that needs long speeches or that needs to be laboured. I shall be surprised if the Minister does not see his way to accept this motion or at least the principle underlying the motion. Deputy Keyes told us that we have 7,000 of a blind population. Looking at it even from the point of view of the finance involved, the expense of giving the benefits which are sought for in this motion would not be very great and I think that every member of the House would desire that the utmost possible should be done to bring some brightness into the lives of these people.
Mr. Cogan: As far as sympathy with the people who are concerned in this matter, the 7,000 of our population who are deprived of their sight, is concerned, I do not think there is any need for any Deputy to express his views. Sympathy with them is, of course, universal. I think even the most hard-hearted member of the House will feel that everything that possibly could be done should be done for this comparatively small section of the community. It is, of course, of fundamental importance that the education of this section of the community should first of all be considered. Without education those unfortunate people must face life with a much greater handicap than that which is imposed upon them by reason of their disability. In the matter of education, the needs of the blind are immeasurably greater than the needs of the person who has the full use of his senses. The blind can be educated only with much greater difficulty than would be the case in regard to other people. There is no profession, with perhaps the possible exception of politics, that a blind person can take up without a long and laborious training. The blind person has, first of all, to  substitute the sense of feeling for the sense of sight and can learn to read only under the most complicated difficulties. Then, again, in learning the various arts and crafts, they are very seriously handicapped. The problem of providing education for our blind population, the small number of 7,000, scattered throughout the length and breadth of the Twenty-Six Counties is not a very easy one. For that reason, while I entirely agree with the first two sections of this motion, that of providing compulsory primary education for blind children, and that of providing technical education in so far as they can avail of it, I think that we should approach with some caution the question of the compulsory attendance of blind children at school. We must be sure, first of all, that the schools which these blind children are compelled to attend are schools which are equipped to teach them.
I do not know what the position is, but I have the feeling that the ordinary national school is not equipped to provide education for blind children—not fully equipped, at any rate. The ordinary primary school is not in a position to provide them with education in such subjects as reading and writing, which are fundamental to education. If this motion contemplates sending these children to some residential school or institution compulsorily, it is a rather serious matter because, naturally, one would be slow to take young children who are blind from their homes without the consent of their parents and send them to an institution. While the particular institution might be fully equipped to provide education suitable for that blind child, the severing of the child's relations with its own family, the taking of it away from its familiar surroundings and depriving the parents of the child without their consent, is a very serious matter. I think that that portion of this motion might be qualified by some provision that compulsory attendance at school for these children would not be imposed unless there is clear proof that the child concerned is not being educated in its own home or is being neglected. It is possible that a blind  child might be receiving, perhaps, a fairly substantial measure of education in its own home from its parents or other relatives, and it would be very unfair to send that child away. We must remember that children so afflicted feel some kind of sensitiveness in regard to their condition, and it would be an added hardship on them at an early age if they were to be sent into strange surroundings.
So far as technical education is concerned, I think no one will have any hesitation whatever in agreeing that the fullest possible measure of such education should be provided for all young persons and, if necessary, even adults, in order to assist them in earning a living. I am not quite sure whether the abolition of piecework in the case of blind persons is entirely necessary, provided there is no injustice, no underpayment, no low scale of reward for the piecework. I think that piecework is not only an incentive to work, but it helps to hold the interest of the person engaged in the work. Some of the work in which blind persons engage might be of a rather monotonous character and it would help to relieve the monotony if the blind person was seeking to find how much work he or she could get through in the period of time in which he or she would be engaged, and it would add to the interest of the work. For that reason I do not see why, with necessary safeguards against injustice or underpayment, piecework should be regarded as undesirable.
Among other things this motion deals, as Deputy Keyes pointed out, with the abolition of the means test in relation to blind pensions, and I think the House will feel that a good case has been made for the abolition of the means test so far as this section of the community is concerned—or, at least, a very drastic modification of the means test. The amount of money involved is comparatively small and the number of people who will be affected is comparatively small. Having regard to the serious difficulties under which these people labour, is it necessary to add to them by making any little earnings they are able to receive a handicap when it comes to granting  them pensions? I think they should be encouraged, not only for their own happiness and well-being, but for the general well-being of the community, to add as much as they can to the general output of the community and they should not be discouraged by being handicapped in respect of pensions became of any little work they are able to do. What they do is small enough, God knows.
There is another matter which I think is important and that is that not only should those people whose sight is affected or who are completely deprived of their sight be given the technical education necessary to enable them to contribute something in the way of work, but they should also be encouraged to engage in work; they should also be assisted by being trained in cultural accomplishments, such as music, singing and forms of art in which they might become very proficient. I think that should be the main object of any educational system for the blind. They should be given an opportunity to develop their talents, talents with which many of them are highly endowed. So far as music and other accomplishments of that sort are concerned, I think blind persons should be given the greatest possible assistance and encouragement.
Mr. Larkin (Junior): As regards this motion which is before the House, I think it is as well that we should have due regard to the order in which the paragraphs are set out. It is quite correct that Deputy Keyes did emphasise the injustice that devolves upon blind people by virtue of the operation of the means test. That, however, is a general question which affects not only blind persons but many other sections of the community who are thrown upon the goodwill of the State and society as a whole for their sustenance.
I feel that in the case of blind persons, having regard to the effect of the means test, we should try to approach the problem of these brothers and sisters of ours from an entirely different viewpoint. We are dealing here not with persons who,  because of age or incapacity, or, in the case of orphans, their youthfulness, are unable to make a contribution of any value to society. We have here, if you like, a section of society which we must carry, because we are human in our outlook, and it is not our desire to cast aside those not able to care for themselves.
But, when we come to deal with blind persons, we are dealing not only with people suffering from a physical disability, but with people who have tremendous latent qualities who, if we only appreciate and develop them properly, can, in many cases, give a greater contribution to our nation than many of those gifted with sight. Therefore, our neglect—if that is the word to use—of our blind brothers and sisters is not merely bad and inhuman in itself, but it is a form of waste of energy, because, if we had a proper approach to these persons and afforded them facilities to bring out their abilities, we might get a return which would be a thousandfold on anything we would expend.
In the motion Deputies will notice that while we stress the basic fact that a blind man or woman or child should be afforded the minimum of assistance in order to enable them to secure the bare necessities of life, we have put that at the bottom and we have tried to approach the problem from the other angle, starting with the education of the blind children and providing facilities which would enable those blind from birth, or those unfortunate enough to lose their sight in later life, to obtain technical education which will enable them to assist in maintaining themselves and, where they have special qualities, of contributing their share towards the well-being of the community in the form of manual work, mental work, or the development of artistic abilities.
We stress that, if we are to provide employment for blind persons whom we have trained, that employment should be of a certain character, and, finally, we refer to the general problem of the maintenance of the incapable, aged and infirm blind.
Deputy Keyes has dealt at some length with the question of the education  of the blind child, and I think the point raised by Deputy Cogan, namely, that we should not take up the position of making it compulsory on a blind child to attend school, is one which merits consideration. We will all agree with his submission that, because of the physical disability under which a blind child suffers, the fact that there are certain, if you like, spiritual and mentalities between such a child and its parents, which might be shattered in certain cases if we arbitrarily compel that child to attend school, regardless not merely of the actual conditions in the school but even of the child's particular mental and spiritual make-up and the conditions in the home, should be specially kept in mind.
I had the experience of living in an institution, and I know and appreciate that in the case of a certain type of children, no matter how kindly the atmosphere and how good the conditions of the institution, there is always a tearing away when they have to leave home, and when we are dealing with persons who lack sight, it is most important that we should have regard to their mental state of health and to their feeling that they have around them not merely people who have a kindly interest in them and their physical welfare, but people who are closely tied to them by love and affection and on whom they can depend.
I do not know that anyone will disagree with me when I say that there is no human being who has a greater need of human affection, care and comfort than the person without sight, and surely that need is all the greater in the case of children. While we make that reservation, I think we all accept the viewpoint put forward by Deputy Keyes and supported by the other speakers that there is something which must be remedied when facilities are not available, whereby children who are blind from birth will be given that minimum of education which will make it possible for them to fit in and to find some niche in the ordinary world in which they are forced to live. We feel that they should be able, despite their handicap, to acquire that  ordinary knowledge and ordinary experience of the world which make life a little fuller, which, as Deputy Morrissey says, will make it not only possible but enjoyable for them to listen to various items on the wireless.
Secondly, we feel that after giving that minimum, we should recognise the fact to which I have already referred that the very fact that blind persons are denied this physical attribute, which so many of us fail properly to appreciate, they are often capable of developing mental and artistic qualities to a higher degree than people who have sight. That has been found time and again and, therefore, it is something which we should not regard as charity but in which we should take pride, that is, utilising part of the human resources of our people and allowing these blind people the facilities, the assistance and the means to develop to the full, mentally and artistically, either through secondary or higher education, or by means of special provision whereby they can take up whatever artistic profession they are interested in.
I want to speak more particularly on the third paragraph, that is, the suggestion that in relation to employment for blind persons, we should agree upon the abolition of piece work and should institute a guaranteed minimum wage for all blind persons, whether engaged in institutions or in workshops maintained for the blind, and that that minimum should be fixed at a level comparable with the rate of wages paid to unskilled labour in the particular municipality in which they are engaged. Why do we suggest that piece work should be abolished? Deputy Cogan has said that, subject to necessary safeguards against underpayment and injustice, he cannot see the force of our argument against piece work. He feels that very often work on which blind people are engaged is, of necessity, of a monotonous character, and that piece work, because they would take a certain interest in their output, would help to do away with monotony. Whatever advantage that might have  is altogether overborne by other considerations.
We overlook the fact that piece work, even for persons with sight, is the exception rather than the rule, and that it is not accepted by people with any kind of high standard of employment conditions as being good in itself or as something which should be maintained. It is a stopgap, developed to suit particular conditions in modern industrial society. The basis of piece work is the use of the selfishness, greed and cupidity of the individual man or woman in order to secure a higher output, and you treat them in the same way as you treat a work animal, that is, the harder the work, the more you give them. We have always objected to that contention. We feel primarily that a man or woman has a certain claim to a minimum standard of living in return for the service given in any trade, and, secondly, that it is the duty of the management concerned to provide such reasonable conditions of employment, of management and machinery as will make it in the interest of the individual worker to give the highest possible output, with due regard to his health and welfare.
Under piece work arrangements, all these considerations go. The only thing measured is the actual output, and so far as the individual worker is concerned, the actual amount of money that will come back to him. It is recognised and accepted that piece work automatically calls for a greater expenditure of physical and mental energy, and, above all, of nervous energy, than time work, and so it is axiomatic that the piece worker is automatically entitled to and guaranteed at least 25 per cent. more than the time worker receives on the same type of operation. Yet here we are dealing with blind persons who not only are suffering from the incapacity of blindness in so far as it interferes with their actions from moment to moment, but who, in the case of persons who have become blind in later life, have to acquire a new training, a training entirely foreign to them, such as basket-making,  when previously they were clerks, accountants or persons used to doing mainly clerical work or heavy manual work. They have to take on this new form of activity.
They have got this new training, however, not under ideal conditions of using their sight or being in direct visual contact with their work, but under the tremendous handicap of having to acquire that training in a world of which they suffer from a complete lack of knowledge. There is a wall between them and the world to which they were formerly used, and yet we suggest that they should get training to enable them to do piecework, which would mean that they would be working in competition with persons who have their sight. It has been found that the individual blind worker, working on the same individual task as the worker in possession of his sight, finds great difficulty—even in the case of the best blind worker—in maintaining even 50 per cent. of the output of the worker who has his sight. Of course, we have often heard about blind workers being able to perform the most amazing feats, and that is undoubtedly so, but such cases would be the exception, and if we are to take the average, and try to strike a mean, it will be found that the blind worker will not be able to do the same amount of work as the person with sight, or even 50 per cent. of it. I think that, when we take the average of the output of work by the blind, and try to strike a mean, it will be found that if we can get 25 per cent. of production by the blind, as compared with production by a worker with sight, we are doing very well.
Already, in cases where this kind of work is being done, the actual earnings of blind persons on piecework are too low. Some time ago we had industrial trouble in connection with one of these institutions as a result of this, and there was a strike. Happily, the dispute was fixed up afterwards, following a little hiatus. That dispute was due to the fact that these people found it impossible, under existing conditions, to earn even the minimum sufficient to enable them to keep body and soul together. There was an industrial  dispute, due entirely, as I say, to the fact that the rate paid to these people was entirely insufficient, and we had pickets put on. It was an unusual thing to have an industrial dispute in such circumstances, but it was settled, and a new spirit of accommodation was arrived at. If, however, we are dealing with blind persons engaged in piecework, and if we are to impose the conditions that Deputy Cogan finds necessary, and with which we would agree: namely, that those people should not be underpaid, and that there should be no injustice done in regard to them, it means that we shall have to pay them piecework rates at least 150 per cent. more than is paid to workers who have sight and who are engaged on the same work.
Now, if we require from blind persons some contribution in return for the training given by society, we do not expect it on the same basis as in the case of the man or woman in possession of sight and in possession of their full physical capacities. All we expect, in relation to blind persons, is that they will be trained, first of all, to find some useful and valuable place in life, not only for the sake of making a contribution in return for the training they have received from society, but also so as to enable them to be of help to themselves. We certainly do not expect to get pound-for-pound back and, therefore, in our motion we suggest that this system of piecework, because it is bad in itself and because it is particularly objectionable in relation to blind workers, does not give them an opportunity to earn a minimum wage, such as to enable them to keep body and soul together. Therefore, we suggest that we should take upon ourselves the responsibility of guaranteeing to those blind persons who are doing skilled work at least the same wage as a worker with sight, in the city, or under a municipal council, is entitled to.
In my opinion, that is not an unreasonable demand. As a matter of fact, it has already been adopted in some municipal centres in England. References have been made to the fact that in other countries there is a higher standard in relation to the  treatment of the blind, and we have used that argument when discussing other forms of social service, but, when putting forward such arguments, we are always reminded that this country cannot be compared with other countries in wealth or the resources at our disposal. Here, however, we have a problem that is not so great. There are some 7,000 persons, as a whole, suffering from this terrible infirmity, and I suppose that our total contribution, either through the State or local authorities, at the most amounts to about £30 or £40 per head per year for all those people. Surely, we are entitled to suggest that something should be added to that sum so as to give comfort to those unfortunate people as human beings and, secondly, that we should try to find ways and means by which we, as representing our people and society in this country, can obtain for those people the benefit of the contributions that they can make, not alone for their own comfort, but for the benefit of the Irish people as a whole, from the point of view of the artistic or other achievements of which these persons are capable.
This motion, as I say, has not been put down merely as a question of cash, and I do hope that it will not be approached in that way. I believe that by finding ways to help these blind persons to help themselves, we would be helping the nation, and that there would be a practical return for anything that can be done for them. For that reason, I hope that there will be a sympathetic and human approach on the part of the Government to this question.
Dr. O'Higgins: Is this matter being taken really seriously, Sir? There is a motion dealing with, perhaps, the most afflicted group of people in the community. There have been five speakers, all putting forward various suggestions, and we have heard nothing from the Minister so far. I think that the time has come when the House is entitled to hear the Government view on some of the requests that have been made. It is not a case of playing a Party game around the House, where nobody is strengthened, influenced, or  directed by the views of the Government as to the feasibility or possibility of easing the lot of the unfortunate people concerned, and I think it is reasonable for the Minister to intervene at this point in the discussion in order to give the House some idea of the Government's view.
Dr. O'Higgins: The Minister says that there is plenty of time. Might I remind him that there will be plenty of time within the scope of three hours, but that there are certain Deputies in this House who take their responsibilities fairly seriously and who, before speaking, would like to get some information, some guidance, or some assistance as to the Government's view on the requests that have been made? It is neither a joke nor a Party game. It is not a case of taking the Minister short, because this motion has been on the Order Paper for a number of months, and his advisers are beside him.
Mr. Derrig: It does not seem that we are to have that amount of elucidation of the motion that one would expect. This matter, as has been said, has been a considerable length of time on the Order Paper, and the manner in which it was set out suggests that the different aspects of it referred to would receive some detailed examination from the speakers who have placed it on the Paper.
Those who have been listening will be able to judge for themselves whether the speeches delivered by the proposer and seconder have established a case for the acceptance by Dáil Eireann of the assumptions and recommendations contained in the motion. This is not the first time this matter has been discussed in the House. In the last Dáil, the matter was raised and a motion dealing with the amount of the allowances payable to blind persons was  replied to by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Local Government, who is at present dealing with public health. In the course of that discussion, the Parliamentary Secretary was able to show, I think, to the satisfaction of the House, that considerable improvement has been made by Government action in the position of blind persons. One of the first things the Government did was to amend the legislation dealing with blind persons. The effect of the amendment was to give pensions to blind persons over 30 years of age.
The benefits which those persons might have been deemed to be receiving, and which would have counted against them as means under the law as it then existed, was no longer to be taken into consideration. In addition, the definition of “blindness” was altered to the advantage of blind persons, so that if, because of defective sight, a person could no longer follow his ordinary occupation, he became entitled to a blind pension. In addition to that, as the House is probably aware, local authorities have cast upon them by law the duty of providing welfare schemes for the blind in their areas. Where there has been any reluctance to prepare those schemes, I understand that local authorities have been compelled to do so, and to satisfy the Minister that they are of a suitable character.
The question of the blind is a very serious one. If I, as representing the Government, have to make the case that the amount which can be done for the blind, or any other deserving class of persons, is limited, nobody should assume that there is any lack of desire on our part to do more. The amount that can be done is limited because the cases of hardship are so many. On the Order Paper, there is a number of motions dealing with special cases of hardship which have become still more serious owing to the emergency—all clamouring for Government assistance. If the Government were to agree to give additional aid in any one of those cases, they would be asked to act similarly in regard to other cases.
I have said that there has been an  improvement in the general situation of blind persons. That, I think, is admitted by those who have taken an interest in blind persons and who have been trying in a splendid, voluntary spirit to make their lot easier. The Parliamentary Secretary pointed out, when this matter was last under discussion, that, whereas in 1931-'32 the total amount spent on old age pensions and blind pensions — unfortunately, the figures have not been segregated —was £2,696,000, the amount in 1942-'43 was £3,935,000. That was an increase of approximately £1,240,000. In addition, the Government has introduced a scheme of children's allowances which has imposed a burden of £2,250,000 on the taxpayer. Blind persons, with families, will, of course, receive a considerable amount of benefit from that expenditure, in common with other persons with families.
A great deal of complaint was made on the present occasion and on the previous occasion about the means test. There is a limitation on the amount of the cash income which a blind person may receive under the State scheme and the local authority scheme but there is nothing to prevent a local authority from giving additional assistance in other forms such as food or other necessaries. I think that we ought to ask ourselves whether the local authorities can do more or whether what they are doing is not reasonable, having regard to all the circumstances, before we agree to place this further charge upon the State. The Parliamentary Secretary explained to the House—I am merely quoting his figures—that in 1943 a married blind pensioner with two children in the City of Dublin could receive between cash, food vouchers and cheap fuel a total sum of 42/-per week. That may not be a reasonable amount. We should all like to increase it. But if we decide to increase it, we shall have to look very seriously at the position of other persons in receipt of public moneys by way of assistance schemes—widows' and orphans' pensions, old age pensions, unemployment assistance, and so forth. As I said at the beginning,  if the Government were to accede to the principle of the motion in this particular case, however deserving the persons concerned may be, they would be coerced into increasing the amounts in the other cases to which I have referred. A very small increase in the amount of the old age pensions, for example, would cost the Exchequer £1,000,000 a year. I do not think that the persons who have argued the case for the blind on the ground that the additional expenditure would not be considerable will deny that, if the claims of the old age pensioners were under consideration later, they would advance the argument that the Government, having conceded an increase in one case, should do it in the other case.
Since the war began the vouchers for food have been made applicable not only to the pensioners but to their children. The children's allowances scheme has been introduced and, in addition, as I understand it, these vouchers were made available for the dependent children of pensioners. If the position was that the additional cash allowance which was granted in 1942 in the Borough of Dublin was not available in other areas, the Minister for Local Government, as the House knows, introduced a special measure by which, with the assistance of the local authorities, additional provision was made to provide food for persons in receipt of allowances under the local blind pensions and other schemes. So that, while the cash allowances may not have been increased as much as we would all wish, owing to our resources and the other calls that were made upon us, it cannot be said that the Government has not, through the introduction of food vouchers and fuel schemes, tried to see that the persons in receipt of public assistance of one kind or another were not neglected. Provision has been made for them. I think that is the position and that I need not dwell on it further. That is the general question of the provision of allowances under clause (d). What I am particularly interested in, of course, is clause (a) and, in addition, clause (b). The suggestion by Deputy Cogan that, in dealing with compulsory  primary education we should have regard to the circumstances of blind children, is one with which I am in hearty accord. Clearly, when the Compulsory School Attendance Act was passed in 1926, it was hardly envisaged that it should apply to blind children. Presumably, it was only intended that normal children of school-going age should be compelled to go to school, as they have been since compelled between the ages of six and 14. To compel blind children to attend the ordinary primary school would be, as the Deputy suggests, perhaps useless and, I think, even cruel. There would hardly be a sufficient number of them in any one school area to warrant the making of special provision for their instruction in the local school. If primary education is to be made compulsory for them, it must be provided in special schools, where they can be gathered together and placed in the charge of teachers who are specially trained to deal with them. This will involve separation from their parents, as Deputy Cogan again mentioned. I think this point is a very valuable one. There is the aspect of the problem of the children having to be taken away from their parents and from the special ties that they must have. In the case of children who have not been given their sight or who are defective in any other way, these ties must be of special value to them. The bonds of affection and helpfulness, and so on, in the home must be much stronger in their case than in that of ordinary normal children. I do not know whether the Deputies who are proposing this motion think that all these children ought to be taken away. Presumably, even if legislation is introduced to deal with the whole problem, parents will still have the right to keep their children and to give them whatever education and training they themselves may consider suitable.
It is extremely difficult to get an accurate estimate of the number of blind children of school-going age in the country. The reason for this is that up to the time of the 1911 Census returns particulars were given in the census forms about blind persons  generally. It was alleged that the parents were reluctant to give particulars as to mental or physical defects in their children and that, therefore, the returns were unreliable and misleading. Since then we have not the advantage of having figures, however incomplete they may be, based on the census returns. What we do know is that at the present moment we have a number of children in two primary schools in Dublin, at Merrion and Drumcondra. The total number between the two schools is 57, and it certainly can hardly represent the total number of blind children of school-going age. However that may be, I have been making inquiries through the school attendance enforcing authorities, and I have not been able to find that there is any considerable number of school children, so far as they know, who would require instruction and who are not at present being provided for. According to a report from the police authorities some time ago, they were able to trace only six blind children in country areas. Probably these figures are not accurate, but, even allowing for a generous margin of error, I think that we cannot accept, on the basis of the speeches that we have heard, the charge that there is neglect, that nobody is doing anything about this matter, and that, in fact, the whole situation is being overlooked.
As regards the figure of 7,000 which has been mentioned as the number of blind persons in the State, I do not know whether an appropriate proportion of these, such as one would expect in the ordinary population, would be of school-going age. It seems to be the case that the number of children blind from birth is very small. If that figure of 7,000 is accepted, and if the proportion of it who are, let us say, under 30 is greater than we imagine it to be—if it is more than some hundreds—nevertheless, the problem does not seem to be as great as some speakers would lead us to believe. Obviously, the first necessity for dealing with it is to have a proper census of the number of blind persons of school-going age. That matter is being examined. We cannot have a census which will be satisfactory  without some form of compulsory notification. Under the new Education Bill across the water, the onus of ascertainment is placed on the local authorities. I do not know whether it is suggested, seeing that these schemes for the welfare of the blind are being carried out under the local authorities generally throughout the country, that they should not be the appropriate persons to make the census. However, I am having the matter examined and I hope that, as a result of co-operation between those concerned, really valuable statistics may be made available.
With regard to secondary education, this is entirely voluntary in this country at present. The State does not take the initiative in providing it in any area or for any section of the community. It is true that the Department of Education helps financially, it frames the curricula and inspects the schools, but these are established and owned by private individuals or by religious bodies and attendance is not compulsory. As in the case of the primary schools, it would be profitless, I think, to compel blind children to attend secondary schools established for normal pupils. If we are to make secondary education available for the specially gifted blind children who seem to be in a position to benefit by it, we must provide it in institutions where they can be congregated and where they will be placed under teachers specially trained for the work. As I have indicated, the number of those of primary school age seems to be small—we have not the exact figures— and the number looking for secondary education would be smaller still; and in actual practice, there would have to be a careful selection made.
The same principle would seem to hold in the case of technical education, that is, that we cannot as a general rule send blind persons to the ordinary technical or vocational schools established for the normal students. In this case also, as in the case of primary schools, special arrangements may be made, and I hope it will be possible to make them, particularly in the county boroughs. Deputy Keyes, who is interested in the matter, says it has been possible to make arrangements for  special classes in Limerick; and I am sure that the vocational education authorities in the county boroughs or elsewhere would be glad to make teachers available. However, with the best of goodwill, the amount that can be done in that way will be limited, as obviously the teachers, if they are to be of value in this work, must have special training and must be able to give efficient instruction.
My belief is that, on the whole, the best method of tackling this matter satisfactorily would be to provide continuous training and to increase the provision made in the existing blind institutions, so that the children who had passed through the primary course would come on to some form of post-primary work, either to secondary—if they seem specially suited for it and there would be openings available for them later on—or to vocational training proper. There is a certain amount of vocational training at present and a certain amount of technical training, but it is limited. We have a sufficient basis in the existing institutions, we have the organisation and a certain amount of teaching facilities available, and these could be improved. The inadequate and, perhaps, unreliable and incomplete figures that we have show that there must be at least 200 blind persons in the country between the ages of 15 and 30, and 100 of these at least are maintained in institutions, as matters stand. Probably the number who would require special training and who would be willing to leave their homes and who would be capable of benefiting from being taken away for this training must be small.
Recently, I have had the matter examined by the inspectors and they have assured me that, as far as these two institutions in Dublin are concerned, the primary education, at any rate, is certainly highly efficient. Those institutions also provide some form of continuation education. We should like to get more done, of course, as regards the technical training of the blind children, and I have appointed a committee to advise me regarding their training, not alone during their primary course of instruction but subsequently.
 The suggestion that the matter is being neglected by the State or by the local authorities is a suggestion which I think I have dealt with sufficiently. I may mention in passing that a great deal of valuable work is being done by voluntary workers. We have the National Council for the Blind working very actively throughout the whole country, entirely on a voluntary basis. Those who know these problems will realise that the intimate personal touch, the encouragement that social workers of this character can give to the blind or to other afflicted persons, is out of all proportion to the psychological advantages or even the material advantages that would be given under purely State action. I believe that there is scope for voluntary activity and for charitable effort in this direction. I am not saying that that should prevent the State from doing more, if it is possible, to deal with this particular problem, though allowance ought to be made for what is being done through charitable agencies.
I feel that, on this occasion, I should express my gratification and satisfaction at the amount that is being done. For example, I find that the national council has supplied 26 home teachers recently for the blind in their homes, where there was only one teacher ten years ago. They have three qualified teachers in Dublin City and County, and two in Cork City. They have supplied radios to the blind in very large numbers, and were it not for the existing difficult circumstances, I have no doubt that we would be well on the way to the point where all the blind would have the advantage of the radio. Then, the national council has been able to take up the special training of young men and women who have special aptitudes. Some of them—like the soldiers who lost their sight during the unfortunate explosion a few years ago—have been trained and are now able to carry on work. Others have been trained as music teachers; some have been trained as masseurs; some have been trained even as organists. There is the well-known case here in Dublin of a young man who  secured his Degree in Music while acting as a city organist, although blind.
The national council has sent a number of young men across to London, where there are facilities which are not available here, and they were trained specially as shorthand writers, and now, I understand, they have good positions over there. As has been said, Providence may have endowed the blind with special aptitudes, and it should be the task of a proper system of training to provide the necessary facilities to bring out those special aptitudes. There are certain definite lines of work, apart from craft-work: it seems clear that for telephony, typewriting, shorthand, massage and music, the blind can be specially trained, and that many of them have a special aptitude for these particular lines.
With regard to the dispute referred to by Deputy Larkin, I am not familiar with the details of that matter. It is very unfortunate that there should be a dispute of this kind, as nobody realises more than those who are dealing with this matter—either from an official Government point of view, from the point of view of the local authorities or of the charitable organisations —that what is being done for the blind is limited and that it would be well indeed if more could be accomplished. It would be a pity if anything were done on the one side or the other to spoil that feeling of goodwill which seems to be necessary and to which, as I have said, I attach the greatest importance in dealing with these poor people personally and in helping them along and bettering their conditions.
What I do know, though I have no up-to-date information, is that some years ago in Great Britain the advisory committee to the British Ministry of Health recommended that piecework ought to be continued in the best interest of the blind and in their report for the years 1934 to 1937 they confirmed the view they had previously given in 1926, that on the whole, after carefully considering the matter, they thought the system of adhering to piecework payment was more suitable for the particular conditions of the blind. They went on to say that “in  the operation of the system there should be such adjustment as would ensure for every worker a reasonable minimum wage, subject to proper safeguards for the maintenance of efficiency. The minimum wage may be subject to variation according to locality”.
The basis which is taken in paragraph (c) of the motion, that the minimum rates should be based on the rates paid to workers in unskilled departments of the municipality, seems to be quite arbitrary and we were given no information as to the actual earnings of workers in the blind institutions at the present time. Figures that I have got seem to indicate that the earnings are not as low as one might have expected, having regard to the difficulty which often exists of getting high prices for the products of their work. It happened that in 1943 —and I am sure the same is true for 1944—owing to a special demand for baskets and so on, the remuneration improved somewhat. So far as I know, no complaint was made to the Government Department that the rates of pay were inadequate and that an effort should be made to improve them. As I say, I have not sufficient knowledge about the dispute, but I understand that, under the schemes promoted by the local authorities for the welfare of the blind for the augmentation of wages of outdoor workers in institutions, the agency must observe certain recognised standards. If there is a particular trade in question, the standards of remuneration in that trade and the standards of hours of work, bonus, and holidays and so on, must apply. In no case may the hours of labour exceed 48 per week, and so on. There is then a certain schedule laid down of payments according to the circumstances of the worker and, as I have said, owing to the emergency conditions, I think that the total remuneration has been somewhat better than formerly. In any case, I think the House would have to be sure that there was definite injustice, that everything possible was not being done to treat the workers fairly, before they could accept the contention in paragraph (c). As Deputy Cogan said the fact is that we all want to see these  workers in blind or other institutions treated fairly. We want to see them get justice. If it can be proved that the present scheme is not giving them justice, then it ought to be revised and reconsidered.
I have given the house an authoritative statement on the matter from a body in another country. I have seen the returns of remuneration for the year 1943 and, as I say, they are somewhat better than might have been expected and than was generally the case heretofore. If I were to quote them, on the other hand, it might be suggested that these wages were an indication—which they are not—of what blind workers can always expect to earn. They have been somewhat better than usual. At any rate, I think we have not had sufficient examination of the matter. That there is injustice has not been demonstrated to us in such a way that we can accept the suggestion in paragraph (c). No other speaker referred to that except Deputy Larkin. He admitted that, as he described it, the hiatus had been got over and that apparently the conditions were as his organisation would prefer them to be. In these circumstances, I think, if that is the situation, the matter ought to be allowed to rest.
Mr. Coogan: I have heard with a good deal of interest what the Minister has had to say on this subject, but I am not at all satisfied that, despite what has been done by the State and the local authorities, anything like adequate treatment has been meted out to the blind. If you compare the expenditure on pensions and upon the welfare of the blind in England, which at the present time is £4,500,000 per annum for a blind population of 74,000 odd, with our figures, which are infinitesimal beside these, I think it will be agreed that we have not approached this problem properly at all. From the most recent figures I can get I find that the local authorities have spent £40,346 on assistance to blind persons in their homes and £7,177 on assistance to blind persons in institutions—that was for the year 1942-43—while the State advanced for  the welfare of the blind only £7,841 2s. 2d. I think these figures prove conclusively that adequate State assistance in the matter of welfare treatment for the blind has not up to date been provided.
I feel that the problem will have to be tackled on three bases. First of all, there is the problem of the education and training of the youth who have had the misfortune to suffer from blindness from birth. Secondly, there is the problem of keeping in some employable state those people who, in middle life or approaching old age, have had the misfortune to become blind. Thirdly, there is the problem of the provision of adequate allowances for those who, in their old age, are blind.
On the matter of education and training, I am inclined to agree with the Minister that the problem is not as acute as it is in the other categories. I do not think that children form any considerable proportion of the 7,000 blind population. Generally speaking, blindness is an incidence of old age. I venture to suggest that the figures, when ascertained, will disclose a large percentage of blind persons in the old age group. Nevertheless, we cannot escape the fact that in Northern Ireland considerable assistance is given by the State by way of remission of salary to home teachers. If that were done here, it would be of great benefit to the blind.
In the matter of providing schools or workshops for the training of the blind, a very difficult problem will arise. It is very doubtful that we can tackle this question on a purely county or county borough basis. The population of blind persons in any of these local areas is insufficient to enable us to set up schools and workshops in each area and, if the problem is to be tackled at all, it will have to be done on a regional basis. At the present time the tendency is for blind persons to migrate to those places where they get the best treatment, namely, the cities, particularly Dublin. We could perhaps correct that tendency by some system of regional planning, two or three counties, say, to participate in  setting up a workshop for the blind, the same two or three counties to set up a school for the blind. I think if it were tackled on those lines, it would not be so expensive as at first sight it may appear.
At present there are only something more than 300 blind persons in institutions. It will have to be ascertained in due course whether it is that blind persons are reluctant to leave their homes to go into institutions or that parents are reluctant to part with their children and place them in institutions.
Up to the present the approach to the problem of providing for blind persons has been solely from the point of view of giving a mere sufficiency to enable them to keep body and soul together and the more serious aspect of the problem has been neglected. The cost of living for the average blind person is undoubtedly higher than it is for the average person who has the gift of sight. A blind housewife cannot do the work of the home. If she has not a member of her family to assist her, she must have a maid. The blind tradesman, even if he can make goods as well as the tradesman who has the gift of sight, will experience difficulty in selling them and in that matter must have assistance. The blind professional man or businessman who requires a car must have somebody to drive it. In any class in society, it can be shown conclusively that, from the point of view of bare existence, the blind person is at a considerable disadvantage. For that reason, the approach to this problem should be from the point of view of keeping the blind person in constant employment, enabling him, as a citizen, to contribute his fair share to public life and to the welfare of the country. If the problem is approached in that way, all means tests or anything of that nature, at present imposed under existing legislation, must be abolished. I would commend that point of view to the Minister when he comes to tackle this problem more closely, as he appears to be about to do.
On the matter of education, training and keeping blind persons in employment, personally, I would prefer a continuation of the present system of  voluntary aid rather than State administration. I believe blind persons take more kindly to the voluntary system than to State-aided institutions. For that reason I should like to see more financial assistance given to such a body as the National Council for the Blind. They are handicapped by lack of funds at all times. They rarely have sufficient funds to meet the demands that are made upon them, not only for the education and training of the blind, but for the provision of amenities which the blind so much require, such as radio sets. I dare say that in time there will be other mechanical inventions to help blind persons to earn their living. I would, therefore, appeal to the Minister to consider giving more liberally from State funds to such bodies as the Council for the Blind, to the local authorities and local voluntary associations working in conjunction with local authorities.
In view of the figures I have quoted, I think the House will be satisfied that inadequate assistance is given at the moment. So far as I have been able to ascertain, the problem has been thrown entirely on local authorities and the State is confining itself to giving small grants to certain institutions that cater for the blind.
In the matter of education there is a good deal of leeway to be made up. The problem there will be to devise a system which would be economic, having regard to the small population of blind schoolchildren to be catered for. We, on this side of the House, are in wholehearted sympathy with the motion and intend to support it.
Mr. Murphy: Certain features of the speech made by the Minister for Education in this debate are very welcome. One could see, underlying the Minister's statement, a good deal of sympathy with the principle of the motion and the result of a good deal of effort to become intimately acquainted with the problem. It is, however, extremely disappointing to learn that there is no accurate record in this country of the extent of the problem or the number of people who are blind. I feel that the Minister realises that it is an immediate duty, through the local authorities, acting  on behalf of the State, or in some way, to get an exact picture of the problem as it exists in the country. I do not know whether or not I misunderstood the Minister in regard to the number of blind children in rural areas. Perhaps he was referring to some particular rural area when he mentioned that there were only six blind children there. The number in rural areas generally may not be very large, but certainly it is not as small as that. Taking my own county alone, the number of blind children in the rural areas would considerably exceed that figure. It has been stated here that the number of people concerned in all aspects of this motion will be 7,000. The motion, as the House is aware, falls under three headings: one, compulsory education for blind children: two, technical training; and three, suitable allowances for the people concerned. The Minister is, of course, aware of the extraordinary results that were achieved in Great Britain following the last war in the matter of educating and training blind men, and it is a fact that in all countries where the people afflicted with a malady of this kind have means, or are supported by people who have means, the most amazing results have been achieved. I realise that it is impossible to get satisfactory results to that extent in all cases, and I realise, too, that even the most enthusiastic advocate of schemes of this kind will come up against difficulties. There is, of course, here and there, a reluctance to come forward for training of this nature, and I think the Minister would do a very great service by initiating some propaganda campaign, such as talks, whether on the radio or otherwise, to the people concerned, with a view to encouraging more co-operation in the training or education of children and younger people who are blind. The advantage of being comparatively independent so far as earning their own living is concerned would be a very great one for them. If the benefits were impressed in their true light on the people concerned, I feel that the Minister would get almost complete co-operation in any scheme of this kind.
Having regard to the fact that there  are 7,000 people of all ages and descriptions who would be concerned in those proposals, I suggest to the House that there is a very strong case for giving them a special place in our social code. That should be done not alone because of the comparatively small number involved but because of the special disabilities and difficulties under which they suffer. There is no more pathetic person in this or in any other country than the person deprived of the gift of sight, and he certainly ought to have a special claim on the country and on the national purse. The Minister seems to be friendly and sympathetic to the principle of doing something for those unfortunate people. When he examines the question more closely from the point of view of seeing what is actually happening in regard to assistance for blind people for whom the question of training or education cannot arise by reason of their age, or limitations in other respects, I think he will find quite a number of things that are not creditable. I have one notable case of the kind in mind. In the constituency that I represent, there lives, near Courtmacsherry, a comparatively young man who became blind in early life. He was in receipt of a blind pension. In the last two or three years, his son joined the British Navy, and as a consequence of his son's enlistment in the navy an allowance of 10/-was made to that blind man. In addition to that 10/- a week, his son made arrangements with some neighbour to send him 6/- each week for the purpose of cleaning his father's house, cleaning his clothes, and keeping him in a decent and proper condition. Because of the fact that that man received 10/- allowance in respect of his son, and of the fact that he had the benefit of an allowance given to a neighbour for the purpose of helping him, his blind pension was withdrawn and, in addition, his allowance from the local authority was stopped—that allowance, of course, being conditional on the receipt of a blind pension. That is one of the hardest cases I have come across. I do not think the Minister or any member of the Government  or any progressive citizen in this country would desire that there should be even one case of that kind here, and I think there ought to be examination of the whole question with a view to obviating such cases. They are a disgrace to our social code. I say that with all respect. I realise that the Minister, in his approach to this matter, has given at least a certain amount of encouragement in regard to the educational and technical side of things, and I hope that the matter will receive some closer attention in the near future.
I do not want to take up any more of the time of the House, because other motions in which we are concerned are coming on later. I will wind up as I began by asking the House and the Minister to realise that the blind people of this country who are unable to support themselves ought to get a special place in our social code. I do not believe any citizen or any section of the people would grudge any benefit we can give them. There are difficulties in the way of discovering how best to frame an educational or training system for them, but there are no difficulties in the way of giving people who have no other means some allowance to make them feel that they are not entirely forgotten, as many of them do feel in present circumstances. I think this matter should be approached from all sides of the House in a very frank way, with a desire for co-operation. I urge the Minister to give further consideration to this matter, and to consult a few other members of the Government with a view to making sure that one of the first steps to emphasise the desire of the State to do something for the blind will be a relaxation of the means test associated with blind pensions, apart from the other aspects of the case. I feel sure that the Minister is genuinely interested in the matter. There was a very positive ring of sincerity about many of the statements that he made, and I urge him to do something for which he would always be remembered with affection in this country—to do something further towards removing the hardships that stand in the way of the blind.
Mr. O'Donnell: I congratulate the mover of this motion, and I also congratulate the Minister on the kindly way in which he has received it. During my short time in the House, I have never heard of any motion being received with greater sympathy. I know a few people afflicted with blindness who are very keen on music. There is plenty of money in bands in this country at the moment, and I think there might be a future in that direction for some of those blind people who are musically inclined. There is just one other matter I would like to mention. A well known Deputy of this House told us some time ago that his postage bill for one week was £2 1s. 8d. When the penny post was in operation, he would have been able to post 500 letters for that amount. I mention that fact because the penny post was introduced by a British postmaster-general, Mr. Fawcett, who suffered from blindness. If the penny post were reintroduced now the Deputy could make a saving of 22/9 per week. Mr. Fawcett was an outstanding man; he established the penny post and he is remembered to-day as one of the most famous post-masters-general under the British Government. The blind generally are very clever and statistics show that their mental powers are very highly developed. If one happens to be in any doubt or difficulty and goes to a blind person for advice, one feels better for the inspiration he gives. I am very friendly with a number of them and I always feel the better for having a chat with them. I have only to thank the mover of this motion for bringing it forward and to thank the Minister for the kind way in which he has received it.
Mr. Norton: I merely wish to say one or two words in connection with the motion. I am sure there must be general sympathy in all parts of the House with a proposal to relieve to the utmost of our resources the pitiful position of blind persons in this country. Like Deputy Murphy, I think there was a ring of sincerity and a desire to help in the speech made by the Minister this evening. I can only  hope that no time will be lost in implementing the good intentions expressed in that speech and that steps will be taken to push forward such educational and social legislation as is necessary for the purpose of improving the lot of our sightless citizens to-day. As I see it, the problem falls into two main categories. There is first the case of the young, or the fairly young, blind person to whom it is possible to afford some kind of vocational training, who may be instructed in the arts or crafts, who may be taught commercial subjects, who may be taught music or who may be able to secure a type of training which would fit that person for some type of commercial employment. Anybody who examines the position of sightless people in this country to-day must realise that there are practically no facilities available for persons who would be capable of undergoing that training. Such facilities as are there, meagre though they are acknowledged to be, have in fact not been improved upon for many years past.
In other countries throughout the world, the problem of educating the blind has been taken in hand very seriously, and in certain countries very vigorously, notably in Great Britain, New Zealand, and the United States. Here we seem to be content with a fragmentary type of vocational training for certain types of blind persons, and that type of training is not being reinforced by any very vigorous action on the part of the State. There are approximately 7,000 sightless persons in this State. I think the number of persons undergoing training will be found on examination to be less than 100. If, therefore, there is a situation in which, out of approximately 7,000 sightless citizens, no more than about 100 are undergoing training in establishments suitable for training purposes, we can see the immense problem which has yet to be dealt with, and we can realise how scanty is the system of training at present provided. I am sure the Government and the Minister must realise that if this problem of helping the blind person is to be tackled effectively, it can only be done by developing maximum training facilities and giving to  the sightless citizen the utmost assistance that is possible to provide, to enable him to take his place as an ordinary citizen in any sphere of employment which he may choose to enter. If any satisfactory progress is to be made in that connection, it must be obvious to the Minister and to the Government that steps must be taken substantially to improve our present training facilities.
If that is to be done, then the State must step in and take a hand in this matter of providing additional training facilities. It may ultimately be desirable to allow these training facilities to be administered by local authorities as a matter of decentralising control but, in the main, the system must obviously be inspired by the central authority. It must sketch broadly the plan of vocational training for the blind and it must take steps to ensure that adequate educational facilities are provided for these unfortunate people. That is one aspect, the basic aspect of the problem, because many of these sightless persons if they were taken in hand in time might be given a course of training which would enable them to take part in the normal life of the community and at the same time place them in a position in which they would not be dependent on State aid or aid from local authorities.
Then we have got the other problem, the problem of the aged man and woman to whom it is not possible to impart training because of advanced years, certainly not to impart a training which is likely to yield them a return capable of maintaining them. In that case the obvious course of action is to evolve a scheme of pensions for such blind persons in order to sustain them in something like tolerable decency. I do not think there is any spectacle that evokes so spontaneously the sympathy of the ordinary man and woman as the effort of a sightless person to help himself, even the effort to find his way through the streets of the city. I think there would be widespread approval for any scheme to provide pensions for sightless persons which will give these people at least sufficient to  sustain them and which will help in some way to compensate for what is a dual loss, the loss of sight and the loss of ability to earn the wherewithal to maintain themselves according to a decent standard. Our standards in that respect are appallingly low. If we were to set out deliberately to provide a fiendishly low standard of living for blind persons, we probably could not have achieved greater success than we have done by the present system. The total the State allows to a destitute blind person is 10/- a week. One has only to go into a grocer's shop to realise what one will get for 10/- nowadays. Yet that 10/- is supposed to sustain a blind person for seven days a week, to provide a blind person with three meals each day of these seven. In some counties the pension is supplemented by an allowance from the local authority. For instance, in the County Kildare there is an allowance of 10/- a week, supplemented by a grant of 4/- from the local authority; but, in the long run, it simply means that a sightless person has 14/- a week on which to live, and everybody knows that the aged and sightless people are not capable of supplementing their income by methods such as might be available to other persons who might have low rates of pension, perhaps, but who could, in one way or another, be able to supplement that pension by some type of activity.
Recently I came across the case of a woman of 63 years, sightless, who is receiving a pension of 10/- a week and an allowance from the local authority of 4/-. The total income of that woman was 14/-, but she was so blind that she was obliged to keep a daughter, aged about 25 years, at home in order to prevent her from falling in her house or being burned. There you had two persons, one aged about 25 years, and the other aged 63 years, being compelled to live on 14/- a week. That was the maximum we could provide for two persons, one sightless and the other compelled to remain at home to look after her afflicted mother. When the case was brought to my notice I endeavoured to ensure that that poor person would get the supplementary allowance of 2/6 which may  be paid to old age pensioners or blind persons. I was informed that the magnificent conception of Christianity that prevailed was such that these two people living on 14/- a week could not get the supplementary allowance of 2/6.
I hardly imagine the Minister responsible would desire to deprive a sightless person, in the circumstances that I have described, of the supplementary allowance of 2/6 but, nevertheless, that unfortunate person cannot get that supplementary allowance. The refusal to grant the allowance really crystallises the stony-heartedness which on occasions the State displays towards persons placed in that unfortunate position.
If only that poor woman could emigrate to New Zealand she would be very much better off. The New Zealand Government, with a sightless problem no less than ours, is able to provide a sightless man with 32/6 a week. If that man is married he gets 10/6 for his wife and 10/6 for each child. If a sightless man lived in New Zealand and had a wife and four children the State would give him a pension of £4 5s. a week to enable him to keep himself and his wife and family. If that man were living in Kildare he would get 14/- a week to keep himself, his wife and his four children. It may be that our standards of productivity are not up to those of New Zealand; it may be that our sense of Christianity is not up to the New Zealand standard, although Heaven knows we talk enough about it here. The cold fact is that while in New Zealand a blind man in the position I have described would get £4 5s. a week we would fob the poor man off with 14/-. That is an example of our generosity, that is the yardstick of our Christianity, when we are dealing with blind people in this country.
The Minister's speech indicated some sympathy with the problem, some desire to deal with the development of the educational side. I hope there is also some desire to improve the economic lot of persons suffering from blindness, persons who are not capable of being absorbed into training schemes. The object of the motion is  to focus public attention on this problem, to focus the attention of the Legislature on a matter that cries out for remedy. I hope that as a result of the discussion we have had it will not be long until the Government come to the House, where they can be assured of the sympathy of all Parties, with proposals not merely to develop the technical training of blind persons, but to provide them with adequate means of sustenance and in that way to alleviate the plight which is particularly theirs.
Mr. Bennett: I desire to support this motion. If there is any class in this country to whom the sympathy of every person goes out it is to the blind. I very much fear that in this State we have not, at any time, under any Government, done as much as we ought to have done for these afflicted people. To my mind, any money spent on those unfortunate people would be well spent. Almost every Deputy in the House, at one time or another, has come across appalling cases of blind persons unable to do for themselves what persons gifted with sight are able to do—unable to provide themselves even with the bare necessities of life. It ought to be the object of every Deputy and of the Government, even at this late stage, to set about remedying this unfortunate state of affairs. I suggest it should be part of our post-war legislation.
Any money we spend on the blind will be well spent and there is the further point that, even if a person did desire to do it, it would not be possible for anyone to cash in, as it were, on the provision that the State will make for the assistance of the blind, because their affliction is so apparent that it would be impossible to get around it, as has been done in relation to other measures of relief. We are all aware that as regards other forms of State assistance, such as old age pensions or outdoor relief, occasionally someone not absolutely necessitous will take advantage of the provisions made by the State. That will happen time and again, no matter what provision is made to prevent it; but in the case of provision  for the blind it will be practically impossible for anyone to take a mean advantage. The affliction is so apparent that it would be extremely difficult for any person to make a case if that person was not genuinely suffering from blindness.
I would like to see in this country legislation that would provide, as Deputy Norton argued—unfortunately, I was not here for most of his speech —for the education of the youthful blind. There should be provision made so that a blind child could get something akin to the education given to the child with perfect sight. Further, he should be sent to some form of technical school to get education in the various trades in which the blind can engage and so become eventually an asset to, rather than a liability on, the State. Anybody who takes an interest in the blind and has visited St. Dunstan's Hospital where blinded soldiers are educated will be surprised by the rapidity with which blind persons with previous education can imbibe the technical teaching given there. One can see hundreds and hundreds of blinded soldiers from the last war, who were inmates of St. Dunstan's, rapidly learning various trades and becoming useful citizens, able to earn their own livings in one direction or another.
What was possible in the case of these rather mature persons would be much more easily achieved in the case of blind children, if they are taken at an early age and given the care which one would expect them to get in a civilised State. I am rather afraid that in this State that is not the case, or at least, has not been the case hitherto. I believe that, with the goodwill of all parties in the State, a system of education can be provided for the blind, which will give them, if not an equal advantage, at least something akin to the facilities which those who are not so afflicted enjoy in fitting them for the battle of life.
There will, of course, be, as Deputy Norton said, a certain number of the blind for whom it will be impossible to provide in that way. There will be cases of children who, apart from being  blind, have other physical defects. It would be almost impossible to provide for these children in that way, but where there is a will, there is a way, and it should certainly be possible to make provision for even the worst cases one can visualise. I saw about a month ago a blind child of six or seven years in a very poor cottage. The child had been born blind and with practically all the physical defects one could envisage a human being having. That child is still in that cottage. I have seen that child outside the door of the cottage—rather a pitiable sight—and no proper provision made for it, except, I must say, the loving care of the father and mother.
There should be some place to which such a child could be sent. I will be told that there is such a place, that there are charitable institutions to which such a child can be sent, but these are in the nature of the old workhouses, and no decent father or mother wants to send a child to such an institution. There ought to be institutions of a character which everybody could look up to and to which these children could be sent. The number would be very small and the provision would be easily arranged, but, for the great bulk of the blind, great advances on anything hitherto attempted will have to be made.
This is a matter on which one finds it particularly hard to speak if one has the sympathetic outlook, which, I am sure, everybody has. I feel it rather difficult to speak on the subject because the blind appeal more to me than any other afflicted section; but I think it lamentable that old people who become blind at the end of their days should be very ill-provided for in this country. I have made efforts to get pensions for blind people at various times, and I must say I have always been met in a very sympathetic way by the officials, but I always felt that the amount which can legally be granted was totally inadequate to provide any sort of sustenance, not to speak of comfort, for the people for whom I appealed.
I hope the motion will have the effect of arousing public opinion  generally, and I venture to say that whatever legislation in this respect the Government bring forward will have general backing throughout the country. The number of blind people is not great, and making provision for them would not be such a big matter as making provision for any other section of the physically affected, or any other section of people, such as out-of-works. If courageous legislation were brought forward, it would be found that many of the blind young people would well repay the amount spent on their early education and that a good number of them would in a few years be self-supporting and a credit to the country.
Mr. Corish: I support this motion. If there is one section of the community to whom the Government should pay special attention, it is the section with whom this motion deals. The number of blind persons in the country is comparatively small. I understand that it is about 7,000 or 8,000, and to deal with them, as the motion asks they should be dealt with, would cost a very small sum. There are many children in various parts of rural Ireland whose parents look upon them as being in a hopeless condition, and who unfortunately make no effort at all to secure that they receive some kind of education. One part of this motion seeks to induce the Government to bring in compulsory education which we believe is absolutely necessary for these people to enable them to keep themselves in future life. There is, so far as I know, no provision by which the State is enabled to go in to a family and look after a blind child. This is unfortunate, because, in many cases throughout the country, children who are sightless, if given the opportunity, would show themselves to be in a position to earn their own livelihoods. We often come across cases of children who have been reared without any effort being made to secure proper education for them.
They grow to manhood or womanhood, as the case may be, and end up in an institution. I suggest to the Government that that is not as it  should be. With regard to blind adults, I do not think the Government should have any hesitation in accepting the part of the resolution which asks for a more adequate allowance for these people. These people are absolutely helpless, and, as Deputy Norton pointed out a few moments ago, the allowances they receive, between the Government and the local authorities, are not sufficient to keep them in any kind of decent comfort. Deputy Norton mentioned 14/- a week as the amount given to such a person in his constituency, but I know of cases of blind people in other parts of the country who do not receive anything like that amount of money. I know of cases where they are dependent upon about 10/- a week.
Apart altogether, however, from the question of the amount of the allowance given to blind persons, I want to complain about the length of time that elapses between the submission of a claim for a pension on behalf of a blind person and the time when the Government makes up its mind as to whether or not that person is entitled to a pension. Anybody who has been on a pensions committee in any part of Ireland, outside Dublin, at any rate, knows that invariably, when a pension claim is submitted, the pensions officer always decides against it. Of course, it is apparent to everybody, including, in my opinion, the pensions officer himself, that the person concerned is entitled to the pension—it is certainly apparent to the pensions committees, in the majority of cases, at any rate—but when the pensions officer decides against that person's claim, the claim is then sent on to the Department of Local Government and Public Health, and I want to complain about the length of time that elapses before the Department determines whether or not the person concerned is entitled to a pension. I have known of cases where almost 12 months elapsed before a decision was given as to whether the people concerned should get a pension or not. I suggest that that is a very callous way to treat a blind pensioner. As a matter of fact, I have known of a case where the medical officer of health  decided that the person concerned could not follow any avocation and was entirely helpless and yet the pensions officer or the Department of Local Government declared against that decision. I have known of case in my own constituency, County Wexford, where a doctor, who was also an oculist, and who had acquired vast experience, so far as sight was concerned, in Switzerland, and yet his decisions were turned down because of the red tape of whatever Department is responsible for the issuing of pensions to the blind.
Apart from what is contained in this motion, I would ask the Minister to try to prevent, so far as he can, what I might describe as procrastination in dealing with those claims. I believe that if the Government were to set themselves to the task of securing that proper education was imparted to blind people, through whatever medium was necessary, we would not have the helplessness and pauperism that is associated with these people at the present time. I understand that the Minister, within the last hour or two, has expressed himself as being sympathetic, but, of course, I should like to say that we require a little more than sympathy in this matter. We require that something should be done urgently; and we hope that the Minister is in a position to tell us that something will be done in the near future and that, at least, a thorough investigation will be made into this matter. We hope that in the near future he will be in a position to introduce legislation here to implement what we are striving to have done in this resolution. I believe that if the Minister were to bring in such a Bill or Order as is necessary to implement this, he would have the sympathy of the whole House, because almost every member of this House has been at some time or another a member of a local authority or of a pensions committee, and, therefore, they are all familiar with the hardships and, I might say, the humiliation, that these people have to go through in order to secure a blind pension. Again, I would suggest to the Minister that there should not be so much delay, in the future, in the  granting of these pensions as there has been in the past, and that the claims of these people will be dealt with in a proper manner.
Mr. Keyes: As the mover of the motion, and having regard to the sympathetic reply of the Minister, which I consider to be a favourable reception of our recommendations, I do not propose to say very much. There is one matter which I do not think was referred to, and to which I should like to draw the Minister's attention, and that is the question of the means test. I am quite aware that it is not within the Minister's province to deal with that matter, but I do hope that, when the investigations to which he referred take place, due advertence will be had to this matter of the means test. I am satisfied that the Minister will get sufficient proof of the justice of the case that has been made here to-day, but I sincerely hope that due regard will be had to the question of the means test. In view of the fact that we are promised some amelioration at an early date of the conditions under which blind persons are suffering, I do not intend, Sir, to press the motion to a division.
|Last Updated: 18/05/2011 21:14:46||Page of 5|