Wednesday, 31 May 1995
Seanad Éireann Debate
Mr. O'Kennedy: I am obliged to the Chair for allowing me and my colleagues, Senator McGennis and Senator Wall, to raise this matter. Given that three Members will be contributing on  the same topic, I will confine my remarks to three or four minutes.
The fact that three Senators have raised this issue demonstrates a common cause in respect of this important service which is provided by the Irish Wheelchair Association from its own resources. It provides training and general counselling of disabled drivers to enable them to fulfil and discharge their role in a full way as citizens, in the same manner as any other person.
Mobility is the most important precondition for people with disabilities. If they do not have mobility and access, they are unable to enjoy the rights and entitlements of citizenship that we take for granted. For that reason, the association, from its own resources and with some support from the State, provides this service. However, its resources are not nearly adequate to provide the driving tuition, training and equipment which are essential to achieve that result.
The association currently receives approximately £30,000 in funding, but I understand there is a shortfall of approximately £130,000 in terms of total funding. We all agree this is an essential service and I understand there is another significant aspect in this regard which I intend to acknowledge this evening.
I am privileged to be a nominated by the Irish Wheelchair Association as a Member of the Seanad. The association contacted me this afternoon and indicated, following ongoing discussions with the Minister, that he has indicated his disposition towards making up the difference between the cost of the essential programme and the amount of resources available to the association.
I did not think it would be necessary for me to use much persuasion on the Minister or the Government to acknowledge the importance of this essential service. In view of the indications I have received, which are a matter  for the Minister to confirm, this Adjournment debate is timely. It is seldom one can look forward to the conclusion to which I look forward this evening, namely, that the Government will make up the shortfall in funding for this important service for disabled people.
Mr. Wall: I express my thanks to the Minister for taking this motion and to Senator O'Kennedy and Senator McGennis for sharing their time. The driving assessment, training and advice service operated by the Irish Wheelchair Association is a vital ingredient in ensuring independence through mobility and travel for its members.
Unfortunately, public transport in this country is not user friendly in practically all cases in relation to handicapped or wheelchair bound citizens. The Irish Wheelchair Association has continuously sought funding for the continued operation and expansion of its driving school so that it can assist its members and others who are unfortunate to have a disability.
To date, funding by the Department of Health has been minimal, with a ratio of 4:1. In the current environment, it is very difficult for the Irish Wheelchair Association to raise £100,000 annually in addition to fund raising for its everyday working. I ask the Minister to provide financial assistance to this worthy venture through the Department and the health boards.
Four tutors are employed by the association and there is a back up service for applications, etc. The result of their endeavours is happiness for many handicapped people and their families when they achieve success in obtaining their licence. I have no doubt, if the Minister and his Department express their intention to increase the grant aid, that the association will continue to operate the scheme and fund raise towards its cost. However, a more equal input must be agreed.
Mrs. McGennis: I thank Senator O'Kennedy and Senator Wall for sharing their time. As the Fianna Fáil Party spokesperson in the Seanad on Equality and Law Reform, I feel this request from the Irish Wheelchair Association is most important in terms of the fact that people who suffer mobility impairment are not treated equally in this country or elsewhere. For example, a recent survey showed that people with disabilities show much higher rates of unemployment.
In its submission, the Irish Wheelchair Association pointed out that there is no such thing as accessible public transport for people with mobility impairment, and wheelchair users in particular. I am not making a political football of this issue because the association also stated that it has been campaigning on this issue since 1960.
It would be cruel in the extreme if the association was told that it would not continue to receive funding. It indicated that the cost of its service is £135,687 and it receives £27,224 in support. It just cannot continue to provide on a voluntary basis a service which, as I stated earlier during the debate on the Finance Bill, should be the responsibility of Government.
We must encourage groups such as the Irish Wheelchair Association to continue their fantastic work. However, the association has stated that it is facing a crisis and that the service will cease on 30 June. I am not aware if the Minister has good news for the House, but I hope he has because this is a very worthy cause. I ask him to take the request of the Irish Wheelchair Association on board.
Minister of State at the Department of Health (Mr. O'Shea): I thank the Senators for raising this important matter. Driving assessment, training and advice for people with physical disabilities are provided by the Irish Wheelchair Association's driving school. The  Senators may be aware that a driving instruction course for people with disabilities is also provided by the Disabled Drivers Association of Ireland, which is based in Ballindine, County Mayo.
The Irish Wheelchair Association raised the matter of funding for the driving school earlier this year and informed the Minister for Health, Deputy Noonan, that the viability of the school was threatened due to a lack of funding. The Minister was anxious, as I was myself, to ensure that this service should continue. Consequently, Department of Health officials were asked to carry out a detailed examination of the matter.
This involved contacting all the health boards for their views and a request to the Irish Wheelchair Association for detailed information on the operation and cost of the driving instruction course. Following that examination, new funding arrangements were agreed at a meeting with the association today. I am pleased to inform the Seanad that additional funding of £100,000 is being made available to ensure the continuation of the association's driving assessment and instruction service. This additional funding will be provided by way of a block grant to the association through the Eastern Health Board towards the core funding of the driving school.
In addition, the capitation fee, currently £466 per person, will now be payable to all those who undertake a course of driving instruction instead of the previous arrangement where payment was made only to those who passed the driving test. The new arrangement for capitation will apply also to the driving instruction provided by the Disabled Drivers Association of Ireland in Ballindine.
I am very pleased that this long standing problem has been resolved. I am confident that the additional funding announced today will ensure the survival of the invaluable services provided  by both driving schools and enable people with mobility impairment to integrate more fully in all aspects of economic and social life.
Mr. O'Kennedy: I thank the Minister. This is certainly welcome news. The Members who raised this matter are  happy with the response. We can modestly claim that our initiative had a small part to play. The response from the Minister and his Department has been what we hoped.
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