Wednesday, 5 November 1997
Seanad Éireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Miss M. Wallace): I welcome the opportunity to speak on the important social issue of disability. As we approach the 21st century people with disabilities are among the most isolated groups in Irish society. The publication of the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities marked a watershed in their lives. The report deals comprehensively with the issues facing people with disabilities and their families and carers and is the cornerstone of Government policy.
The Government is committed to ensuring that the needs and aspirations of people with disabilities, their families, carers and advocates, are comprehensively addressed. It is committed to ensuring that disability is placed where it belongs, on the agenda of every Department and public body. Government policy is based on the core principle of promoting empowerment through appropriate, accessible and responsive services.
The Government's commitment to people with disabilities and their families and their carers is underpinned by the decision of the Government to appoint a Minister of State with special  responsibility in the area of equality and disability. I am happy to have been the person who was appointed to this role and to be assigned to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I and my colleagues in Government recognise that disability is one of the most important social issues facing Ireland today.
The key priorities of the Government's programme include: the implementation of the Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities; an urgent review of the Supreme Court decision on the Employment Equality and Equal Status Bills as they affect people with disabilities; overhauling the means by which the State supports the incomes of people with disabilities; reducing unnecessary bureaucracy in dealing with health agencies; reviewing the operation of the disabled person's grant to meet the real needs of all applicants; provision of adequate resources for national respite care; the introduction of a co-ordinated and comprehensive approach to promoting access by people with disabilities to the use of public spaces and facilities and to the whole of the transport chain; provision of adequate residential facilities for those with a mental handicap and autism; new tax allowance for carers of people with disabilities. In relation to sport and leisure, the Government programme identifies, as a key priority, the need to increase State funding for Special Olympics in Ireland.
An inter-departmental task force, chaired by my Department, is drawing up a plan of action on the rights of people with disabilities based on the commission's report. The task force is also considering, in conjunction with the commission's report, the report of the review group on health and personal social services for people with disabilities. The task force has also been asked for a recommendation on how the concept of “reasonable accommodation” can be managed in the context of addressing discrimination against people with disabilities in employment equality legislation. The issues arising from the Supreme Court finding in respect of the Equal Status Bill also require to be examined.
An interim report is being finalised for presentation to Government shortly and I am committed to having the final plan of action drawn up as soon as possible thereafter. In this connection, tenders have been sought for the costing of the commission's report to facilitate the preparation of a strategic, programmatic, cohesive and cost effective plan geared towards promoting equal opportunities for people with disabilities.
A monitoring committee, also chaired by my Department, has been set up to oversee the implementation of the commission's recommendations. Its terms of reference are to advise the interdepartmental task force on the prioritisation of the recommendations of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities; to provide any assistance and support required by the task force to facilitate the action plan on the rights of people with disabilities; to advise the Department  of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, as required, on the drawing up of a detailed implementation strategy arising from the commission's recommendations; to make proposals to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform on mechanisms for monitoring the implementation of the commission's recommendations and to monitor the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities which have been accepted by Government or by Ministers.
The monitoring committee has been actively working since it was established and has prepared a comprehensive paper on the issue of “reasonable accommodation”. Sub-groups of the committee have been set up to advise me on topics for inclusion in a disability awareness campaign which I intend to organise this year and on devising appropriate mechanisms to monitor the implementation of the report. I would welcome any suggestions Senators may have in relation to the disability awareness campaign.
The report of the review group on health and personal social services for people with physical and sensory disabilities “Towards an Independent Future” makes a very strong and coherent argument for the investment of £50 million in physical and sensory disability services over a five year period. Its publication was approved by Government in an environment where there was tremendous pressure not to enter into further commitments. Commitments in relation to the report are contained in Partnership 2000. The Government has indicated that resources will be allocated, within the overall expenditure parameters, for the development of services to people with disabilities in line with the report.
The Department of Health and Children has incorporated the cost of implementing the report into its Estimates campaign. This has already produced a result in the form of £2.18 million which was allocated to physical disability services in the Department's Vote for this year. I consider that to be a good start. Since my appointment as Minister of State on 9 July I have been working very hard in relation to the need for funding in that area.
The report proposes a major development of new services. It also recommends tackling the funding of existing services. Clearly it would be unsustainable to develop new services when there are unresolved funding issues in the existing services.
The perspective of the voluntary sector is that it has taken the initiative and developed services over the years in the absence of State funded services. In many areas voluntary agencies are the major or sole service providers. The sector has built up these services painstakingly with the unpaid help of highly motivated volunteers and it is accepted that funding for existing services is an issue which must be addressed.
The “listening meetings” undertaken by the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities found that one of the major problems  identified was that of access to information. People expressed a great deal of frustration with the unavailability of information. There was a distinct lack of information in appropriate formats and an absence of a single local centre where information needs could be satisfied with a minimum of hardship.
In order to address these problems, a number of pilot community services projects aimed at people with disabilities are being set up by my Department. These projects are being undertaken in Ennis, Cork city, Tallaght/Clondalkin and Cahirciveen. My Department is making funding available for the recruitment of project workers and to meet associated costs. I am confident these projects will ensure access at local level by people with disabilities to all information in appropriate formats on issues affecting their lives. I would also like to see whether a way can be found to facilitate the active participation by people with disabilities in local area partnerships and community fora, thus empowering them to influence the decision making process and to play an active part in their communities. The pilot projects will also address these issues.
The Irish Council of People with Disabilities was launched on 11 March by the former President Mary Robinson. The Government is fully committed to the work of the council and recognises the real need for a permanent independent voice, constantly highlighting issues of concern and ensuring that the rights of people with disabilities are vigorously defended. My Department has allocated £300,000 to the council this year and will continue to fund the council to enable it to carry out its work as the representative body of people with disabilities and their families, carers and advocates.
On my appointment as Minister of State, I was assigned responsibility by the Taoiseach for monitoring the 3 per cent quota for the employment of people with disabilities in the public service. Partnership 2000 contains a commitment that the quota will be met in the public service during the period of the partnership and I intend to pursue this issue with vigour and determination. I have already written to each member of the Cabinet to impress upon them my commitment to reaching the quota and to seek their support in this endeavour.
It is my intention, and that of the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, to publish a revised Employment Equality Bill as a matter of urgency. This Bill will take account of the Supreme Court decision. A revised Equal Status Bill will also be developed to take into account the Supreme Court decision in respect of the Equal Status Bill, 1997, and I expect this to be published during 1998.
One of the most far-reaching recommendations of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities was that a disabilities Bill should be introduced. Work has recently commenced in my Department on the preparation of a disabilities  Bill which will set out the rights of people with disabilities and a means of redress where those rights are not upheld.
Since taking office on 9 July, I have had numerous meetings with ministerial colleagues in an effort to develop cross-departmental working mechanisms to facilitate the effective delivery of services, minimise bureaucracy and promote equality for people with disabilities. As a result of my commitment to cross-departmental working, it has been possible to deliver the package of measures aimed at people with disabilities which was announced last week by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Ahern, in conjunction with me. A package of funding of £4.325 million was announced and this will directly benefit people with physical and sensory disabilities. The funding will be provided through the voluntary agencies and will enhance the opportunities for people with disabilities to achieve independent living and community integration. It will cover a range of equipment necessary to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities. The list of items which we announced as being suitable for this funding included accessible buses, motorised wheelchairs, training equipment, information systems, sensory aids, computers, special beds and hoists. Senators will be familiar with a number of people who have had problems obtaining basic aids and appliances, such as a wheelchair, bed, hoist or stair lift, and this funding is for the individual needs of people with disabilities.
A sum of £50,000 is also being made available to the Irish Council of People with Disabilities for computer equipment for the 30 county networks. The equipment will substantially improve communications between the national office and local networks and will also be used in the training programmes the council will provide under the HORIZON project for which EU funding has been secured. Senators will be familiar with the council's county by county network and it is important that it be strengthened. One of the means through which it can be strengthened is supporting the council in this way through the provision of funding for computer equipment. While these grants will make a difference to the position of people with disabilities and others in society, they also reflect the commitment of the Government to target the health of individuals with disabilities. I want to stress that 11,000 people with disabilities will benefit from this package which was announced by the Minister, Deputy Ahern. Yesterday we had a meeting with regard to all the voluntary agencies involved and the message to go out is clear — the £4.3 million is to be divided and received by individuals with disabilities who have real needs in this area.
Increasing co-operation between Departments on issues that cut across departmental boundaries is essential for effective and efficient use of resources. This is a good example of how the system works at its best and unmet needs in one area can be matched by opportunities that arise elsewhere  in the system. I acknowledge the positive response of the Minister, Deputy Ahern, in terms of locating the funding in the Department and addressing the question I posed to him and to other Ministers. Where there is an opportunity to help people with disabilities on a Department by Department basis, it will be done.
I intend to hold a national disability information day on 24 November in Jury's Hotel, Dublin. The theme of the day will be “Progress through Partnership” and the intention is to emphasise the commitment at European and national levels to involve people with disabilities and their representatives in the formation of policy and the planning and delivery of services. People with disabilities, politicians, the social partners and administrators will be told of initiatives in this area by Europe and Ireland and will be invited to buy into the process. The day will provide an ideal forum to revisit the issues raised at the International Symposium on Disability and Human Rights, which takes place in Dublin Castle on 18 November. The afternoon session will be devoted to an open forum discussion with a panel of experts. The audience will include politicians at national and local levels, people with disabilities, representatives of the Irish Council for People with Disabilities, service providers, civil servants and representatives of the social partners, city and county managers and the chief executive officers of health boards. We would be delighted to have the participation of any Senators with a special interest in the area and they will be most welcome to the open day.
We must not lose sight of the fact that Ireland, during its EU Presidency, hosted the first ever Presidency conference on equal opportunities for people with disabilities. It was at this conference that the report of the commission was launched. Also under the Irish Presidency, the Council of Ministers agreed the resolution on equal opportunities and freedom from discrimination for people with disabilities. Following on from the resolution a high level group of experts on disabilities from member states has been set up. An officer from my Department represents Ireland on the group. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform also has an important role as regards people with disabilities in the United Nations and the Council of Europe. Of considerable significance for people with disabilities is the recently negotiated Treaty of Amsterdam which amends existing EU treaties and gives the European Community competence to take action to combat discrimination based on disability. This means, for example, that the Council of Ministers could adopt a directive dealing with such discrimination which would be binding on member states. Active participation at an international level is crucial if equal opportunities for people with disabilities is to become a reality.
The Government is determined to build on progress already made in this area. For my part I intend to ensure that disability will never again be  viewed as a problem to be dealt with by charity or as a medical problem to be dealt with by hospitals and institutions. As we approach the 21st century I am determined to ensure the new millennium will see people with disabilities provided with greater opportunities for pursuing fuller, more independent lives than has been the case in the past. I ask Senators to join me in this endeavour.
Mrs. Ridge: I welcome the Minister of State, especially because of her commitment to and previous involvement with disability issues. I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Leader of the Government group for facilitating this debate, which provides an opportunity to speak on this most important issue. I know that nothing but goodwill exists on all sides of this House towards any attempt to highlight the plight of the disabled in our communities. There has been considerable debate and much highlighting of particular needs but regrettably the response from Governments has never been adequate.
There will be no point scoring in this debate. As a nation we all stand indicted of sporadic lip service to meeting the just needs of the disabled. The only point scoring should be by way of declaring total support, backed with action, legislation and other immediately implementable recommendations. For that reason I will confine my contribution to specific areas of need with suggested remedies or courses of action to meet these needs. I thank the Minister for her invitation to put forward suggestions that arise from our encounters with disabled people. I come from a background of teaching people with a learning disabilities. After today's debate, I hope our combined approach will result in a quantifiable response that we could measure after an agreed length of time. If we are not successful we will be, like the disabled, voices crying in the wilderness.
The proposal to establish a non-means tested disability pension to compensate for loss of income due to incapacity to work full time is welcome and I hope it will be part of this year's budget. At present, a single mature adult in receipt of blind persons pension receives just £70 per week if living at home — it is impossible to live on that. The transfer of domiciliary care allowance and transport grants of cars to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs is a positive step. If one is disabled there is nothing worse than going on the dreadful bureaucratic roundabout to find out where one goes to obtain a grant.
I will give an instance of the idiocy of the rules. A young woman suffering from multiple sclerosis came to me recently. Because of her lack of physical movement she is in receipt of the disabled person's maintenance allowance. She has been in a relationship for some time and she and her boyfriend have a child. She wants to regularise her union, in today's parlance, but the allowance is means tested so if she marries the payment will be based on her husband's income and she will lose her total allowance. She is therefore  not able to marry because she will lose what is hers — her only allowance. Such unthinking conditions are a disgrace and an insult to people in that position. The suggestions I make may not provide immediate remedies but they are worthy of investigation because there must be a better way.
The most ridiculous aspect of this matter, which has been in contention for many years, is the lack of adequate transport facilities. The Minister has addressed this in her comprehensive document. In the 1980s there was a year of the disabled. The Dublin Bus/CIE contribution to the year was the introduction of a special low floored vehicle with a ramp. It was a great design and a good idea but there was only one bus. I have never discovered what happened to it but as far as the disabled are concerned it never left the terminus. It was like a mystery tour. It was a good design concept but the level of accessibility was poor. Bus design should include a mechanical ramp that could be used to allow wheelchair entry into a special bay. I have seen such vehicles in use in France — the bus stops and the ramp comes down slowly; the doors are wide enough and the bay is big enough to allow wheelchair users access without assistance. Their dignity is intact and their right to travel on the bus is ensured.
An issue I have raised in other fora which further highlights the disregard for the needs of the disabled is the situation which pertains on the DART. The voice over facility to announce the stations is not used, although it is available. I am almost afraid to ask why it is not used. A visually impaired passenger must count the stations from the point they enter the train to know when they reach their destination. That is a shameful situation which could be remedied easily.
The possible loss of the Luas system would create more difficulties for disabled passengers. One of the main merits of the light rail system is its accessibility. The trams and the waiting platforms will be at the same level, the doors on the carriages will be wide and disabled people will have on-street access. They will not have to go into tunnels or seek assistance. The voice of the disabled has not been heard amid the demands from the car lobby and the Dublin Chamber of Commerce to put the system underground.
I compliment the Minister of State having read her comments on disability issues during the term of the last Government. Another barrier which could be overcome is the separation of children with disabilities at primary school level. For some children with multiple handicaps special schools are appropriate. However, exclusion and loneliness are being foisted on some disabled children who are taken by car to special schools and back home again in the evening, thus not getting a chance to mix with their peers. In the past, services for handicapped children may have been very bad but the social supports were good. The story of Christy Brown recounts how he was supported  by his extended family, carried on people's backs or wheeled in a cart to the cinema or football matches. He was not excluded and that is the important lesson. With regard to the attendance and education of disabled children in the national school system, I am aware that may be expensive but given the strength of the economic growth being experienced we must be able to fund spending on the inclusion in mainstream education of those who are mentally equipped to benefit but are physically disabled. This would be a realistic approach to combating discrimination among young people.
Another of my complaints regards those able-bodied people who use car parking spaces reserved for the disabled. There should be a heavy on the spot fine for such behaviour. I have witnessed appallingly rude people taking parking spaces for the disabled in supermarket car parks leaving disabled people stranded.
One of our third level institutions allows a blind student's guide dog to accompany the student to lectures and classes but if the student is in residence he or she is not allowed to keep the dog on site on the basis that animals are not allowed. Such matters may appear minor but they are of great importance to the people concerned.
I hope the improvements the Minister of State has outlined will be included in the budget and will take place. We may never be able to do enough because the problem is one of attitudes. We think in terms of hand-outs rather than rights, such as equality, perhaps because there has been such a great input into handicapped issues from charities and the families of the handicapped. However, the friends and parents of the handicapped are not a strong lobby. At election time they quietly and courteously seek commitments, yet pre-election promises rarely become postelection realities. The era of slightly embarrassed politicians patting somebody on the head and promising to do something for the handicapped is over. They deserve more than to be patronised or pitied.
The buoyant economy could easily accommodate the release of funds to deal with the issues I have raised. We should legislate for equality and have a constitutional amendment to enshrine a right to equality and prohibit discrimination. While we await such an amendment we should introduce disability legislation as recommended by the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities. We could also fight discrimination by providing a disabled advisory body. I suggest we examine the possibility of providing a one-stop-shop service in this regard, such as that provided by other agencies. As 15 to 20 per cent of our population experiences disability in some form there should be a Cabinet post to deal with disability which would be an indication of budgetary commitment to the matter. As a last resort there should be an ombudsman for the disabled. Many options are available to us but we must do more than just consider them. We cannot return to the circumstances which prevailed in the past where  the disabled had no votes, no voice and got no response.
Mr. Kett: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I work with the physically handicapped and at all the meetings I have attended and among the people I have met, the Minister of State is held in high esteem. She has been appointed to her post recently but she has a good grasp of the needs of the handicapped. I am sure she also has an understanding of the issues surrounding those with mental handicap. She has graced herself and we see her as somebody who can be depended upon to deliver the services we believe are necessary for those with physical disability.
The Minister mentioned the money she made available yesterday. The organisation with which I am associated received some of that money and is grateful for the much needed funding. Apart from the day to day running costs of the departments, such as that in which I work, this was a much needed boost as we approach the end of the financial year.
Down the centuries there have always been people labelled as having disabilities. In preChristian Ireland, the 5th century Brehon Laws identified the following categories: idiots, fools, dotards, persons without sense and madmen. These groups were exempt from certain punishments and exploitation and it was the business of the communities in which they lived to look after them and ensure their needs were met. In England over 1,000 years later Daniel Defoe was the first man to argue for the setting up of “fool houses”. He suggested that they be financed through tax charged on the revenue of authors of books. This was the first vision of publicly provided facilities. Unfortunately, it was the mid-1800s before this became a reality, and some would argue that it is still not a reality. However, the Minister is doing her best in this regard.
In the mid-1800s the development of institutions was promoted, unfortunately more to protect the general public than to assist those with disability. We are still struggling against this old Victorian style legacy, particularly with the attitudes and perceptions of the public. The stigmatisation of people with disability is a major problem and we are probably guilty of not sufficiently educating ourselves in this regard. Folk memories and myths which ask if these people are fully human, if they are a threat to society or if they are a curse on families are still fostered. These myths still form part of our thinking.
People with disability are probably the most neglected citizens in Ireland and in other countries. On the eve of the 21st century they still suffer intolerable levels of outdated social and economic policy. We must address this issue and improve public thinking and attitudes. Change has begun but attitudes are slowly being influenced by international intervention which suggests that disability is a social problem rather than a medical issue. Many of the changes are piecemeal.  Public attitudes to disability are based on charity rather than rights. The disabled are meeting this attitude at every turn and we have to change it. The disabled are treated as second class citizens and they are justifiably angry. There is no forum or committee where disabled people advocating their rights are not encountered. They are becoming very vocal and this is to be welcomed. We are listening to them, as is the Minister, and they see this as a way forward.
Disability has major implications for the family and those of us who are fortunate — if that is the correct word — not to have a disabled person in our house do not know the emotion and ongoing physical and mental strain that the informal carer, generally the mother, has to endure. This is accompanied by a desperate feeling of isolation in many instances. Many of these mothers are meeting early deaths because of the general hardship they endure in minding a disabled child or adult.
The past three decades have seen a revolution in the services for people with disability, spear-headed by a professional workforce and the diversity of people's needs is recognised and attended to. However, there has been little change in public attitudes. The shift of services into the community was not followed or accompanied by an attempt to educate the public. Surveys reveal that people in communities where residences and day centres have been established do not become involved to any significant extent, either in a voluntary or other capacity, in the work of the centres. Such involvement would be beneficial in educating people about disability.
I have been responsible for establishing day centres throughout the city. We try so far as possible to maximise the benefits for the recipients by locating day centres in areas we feel would be of greatest benefit to them and where they will have the greatest level of communication with the public. However, it does not happen like this. We have even tried in some instances to organise open days where people can be brought in to see what is offered in such centres, what the recipients endure and how well they are looked after. We need to educate the public.
The most important factor influencing the advocating of human rights and underpinning all the developments which have taken place is the single ordinary life model which shows that people with disability should have access to ordinary services such as health, education, housing, social welfare, employment and leisure. The United Nations in its world programme of action in favour of disabled persons defined equal opportunity as the process through which the general system of society, such as the physical and cultural environments, housing and transportation, social and health services, educational and work opportunities, culture and social life, including sports and recreational facilities, should be available to all. We should ensure that they are available to all and that these people are not discriminated against.
 The recommendations made to the Government by the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities proved extremely good reading and I know the Minister is fully in tune with the report. One of the recommendations concerned work and training opportunities. The commission was crying out for more workshops. I am associated with a workshop which employ 92 trainees who, by and large, are in sheltered employment. It is impossible to say that any more than a small percentage will ever find their way into the workforce — this saddens me — because through the years the level of training given to the disabled did not allow them challenge employers. Consequently, they ended up in jobs that required skills, such as assembling, bookbinding or printing. Printing is one area where we could encourage employment. Like similar organisations we have a placement officer who is beating his head against a stone wall trying to educate employers and get their assistance. I am aware of the 3 per cent principle in the Civil Service, but I was delighted to hear the Minister say she is going to encourage and monitor this level of participation in the workforce. This is a major step forward and if she implements it she will keep her halo.
The training offered to the disabled has been basic. The skills based programmes funded by the European Social Fund which are now coming on stream and financed through the NRB are excellent. They allow us train adults in computer skills, shop work, including the use of cash registers, etc. Unfortunately, when a placement officer tries to find work for a handicapped person they tend to find lower skilled work, which is a pity. There are some wonderful handicapped secretaries and I have encountered a few as I am sure have others. Fortunately for them, these secretaries have broken the mould.
Handicapped people also need to be trained in the every day workings of life such as how to spend their money and get to shops. We also need to introduce measures to provide easy access to places of employment for handicapped people. It is ridiculous for a handicapped person to get a job if they cannot gain access to the premises. The remit of planners or the environmental brick builders needs to be brought to book. Legislation should be introduced to ensure architects, when planning public places, take into consideration the needs of handicapped people, particularly access. I cannot bring people from my own establishment to a meeting in City Hall which is one of the most important hallmarks of the city.
There is a stigma attached to disabled people because they are seen as being ill. They are not ill but they get ill in the same way as able bodied people. It is very annoying for disabled people when they become ill because all they want is to be treated in the same manner as anyone else.
Disabled people are also entitled to education. Unfortunately, most disabled people leave school at 16 years of age. In the past we tried to get  those children into second level education and, thankfully, the situation has improved in the past five years.
It is unfair that children entering secondary school have to depend on their classroom colleagues to take them to the toilet or help them in other ways. This is intolerable and a back-up service is required. I know we cannot cure all these ills immediately and great efforts are being made. The Minister has developed many of them. If we deal with technology, communications, housing, accommodation, transport and mobility then we will be half way there.
Sport is one of the most uniting forces for disabled people. Funding should be given to sports clubs that facilitate the participation of handicapped people. If clubs receive funding and do not utilise it, then it should be given to another club.
It would be wonderful if Ireland played host to the Special Olympics. We have sent our special athletes all over the world and they have returned home laden with gold, silver and bronze medals. They are a credit to the organisations which sponsored them and to this country. To host the Special Olympics would be a significant boost and major indication to people that we recognise disabled people as part of our community. We must do all in our power to attract the games here.
In September the Minister gave a commitment to do certain things and she reaffirmed that commitment today. I thank the Minister on behalf of handicapped people. The Minister's commitment to implement the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities is a major step forward. Her decision to review the Supreme Court decision on the Employment Equality Bill as it affects people with disabilities is also a step in the right direction.
The disabled payment grant is a real bone of contention for people working in sheltered workshops who receive disabled payment allowances and who also receive a contribution from the organisation to which they are associated. These people see the Minister's review of the disabled payment grant as greatly enhancing their dignity.
I hope we have brought it to the Minister's attention that certain things need to be done. I thank the Minister for her commitment. As someone who works in this area I look forward to being in contact with her in the future.
Mr. B. Ryan: I read the Minister's speech with interest. I do not dispute the Minister's commitment to the disabled. At various levels we have made considerable progress in our collective psyche in terms of our attitudes to disabled people. Perhaps with the exception of Members of either House who work with disabled people, all of us are on a continuous learning process to discover assumptions and prejudices in ourselves. I will be careful not to identify people but where I work  in Cork Regional Technical College I have twice discovered the degree to which I have underestimated the capacity of people with physical disabilities to undertake courses of study leading to higher qualifications and their capacity to gain employment in the competitive mainstream of the economy. In either case if my advice had been sought — and fortunately it was not — by the parents of the two people in question I would have probably said with my hand on my heart and full of compassion that I would advise them they would not be able to do it. As it turned out I would have been completely wrong. It was an education for me to discover the perceptions and presumptions I held and I would not be one of the least informed members of society about issues like this.
I have learned about some of the most extraordinary prejudices, one of which concerns the difficulty of taking guide dogs into theatres. They are refused on the grounds that if there was an emergency guide dogs would panic and be a threat to theatregoers. This is nonsense. The person with a guide dog is far more likely to escape since the guide dog will find its way to safety with far greater calmness than a hundred distraught humans, even if the theatre is in total darkness. Guide dogs are trained to deal with situations like this.
I also remember a blind person who liked to go to the cinema, and that came as a considerable shock to me. I discovered that the blind person's guide dog was not allowed into cinemas. The reasons for this were fear and prejudice — fear of possible legal liability and a total misunderstanding of the capacity of people with various disabilities to look after themselves. In fact what these people need are rights, not charity. As long as their rights are protected and they have access and the various physical supports necessary, people with disabilities can attend to everything else themselves.
I read an extraordinary letter from a major urban authority about the dangers of allowing people with disabilities access to theatres in terms of fire regulations and so on. I then discovered that those in the local authority who were supposed to be responsible did not know who sent the letter. However, the first the person who was supposed to have signed the letter heard of it was when I mentioned it. That happened some years ago. We have all moved on and learned a great deal since then.
It was a painful irony that the wife of a former Taoiseach, when attending major events in this House, had grave difficulty gaining access to the Dáil Chamber. It was the nomination of former Senator Crowley to this House that galvanised the long overdue decision to make Leinster House — which is not friendly to people with disabilities — meet minimum standards. The former Taoiseach, Deputy Albert Reynolds, is to be complimented because I suspect, apart from his admiration for Senator Crowley, he knew that nominating somebody with a disability to this  House would produce a succession of consequences, and I am very glad it did.
As anybody who has visited regional technical colleges knows, if a person sat down and decided to design buildings to make movement difficult for people in wheelchairs, he would have designed a regional technical college, with steps everywhere, unnecessary in many cases, and minimal space for lifts. There are so many steps that even with a lift the room for manoeuvre for a person in a wheelchair is minimal. Any student in a wheelchair who attended any of the regional technical colleges and has managed to complete a course has done so because of the good nature and kindness of classmates who spend considerable time lifting their wheelchairs up and down stairs.
We are only beginning to recognise rights. Perhaps the single biggest offence given to people with disabilities in recent years were the decisions of the Supreme Court. They are among the most extraordinary decisions made and, most assuredly, were not the sections of Bills that motivated our former President to refer them to the Supreme Court, they were not the reasons anybody expected a constitutional problem. The language used by the Supreme Court and the assumption that underlay the judgment suggested that whoever else in society who may have learned to move from the language of charity to the language of rights for people with disabilities, those to whom we have given the fairly awesome power of interpreting the Constitution, have a long way to go. I found those two decisions profoundly regrettable and offensive to the standards of decency and what we understand to be social solidarity. It was an extraordinary reactionary decision by the Supreme Court; it was extraordinarily limited and offensive and one that, as free citizens, we are entitled to criticise and make our views known.
I regret that in the short term we are stuck with this and that we will have to find a way around it. Nevertheless it does not change the fact that whatever was wrong with the two Bills in terms of understanding and perceptions of various rights, what everybody was agreed upon was the rights of people with disabilities, one of the very worthwhile things which I suspect — I was not a Member of this House when the legislation was passed — was not in the least contentious in terms of the way their lordships found it to be later. That is profoundly regrettable.
There are other areas which may be more contentious. I do not understand why we are still talking about the constraints of public expenditure and the need for prudence in public expenditure when it comes to certain categories, such as people with disabilities. I am making a distinction between capital investment and expenditure on additional staffing because one is an eternal commitment and if we argue about increasing expenditure on staffing then we are inviting a Government to make a commitment for the indefinite future. Surely it is possible now to provide the  capital to make sure every public building in the State is accessible; it would be a once off expenditure in many cases. There is the idea that a frenzy of tax concessions would give money to people on large incomes while leaving people with disabilities waiting for a better time, but this will not happen because there will never be an economically better time than the present. Society is involved now, and will be in the next couple of years, in profound choices about what to do with the fruits of economic growth. We have two choices: either we spend it on ourselves, those of us who are at work and with largish incomes, or we may decide not to spend it all on ourselves and provide for all the things which are so obviously necessary. It all comes down to ideology.
The only reason we will not do it is an ideological belief that public expenditure is a bad thing which must, under all circumstances, be controlled and reduced. This is a very widely held view, both by the people here and by the present Minister for Finance. The Minister of State should dissuade the Minister for Finance from an excess of ideology and remind him that resources are and could be released to do all the things which need to be done to provide at least the physical facilities to end the scandal of mentally handicapped people being detained in psychiatric institutions which are old, decrepit and unsuitable, to end the scandal of people not being able to get access to public buildings, trains, taxis, buses, etc. We must not let an ideological commitment to reduce public expenditure deter us. We are capable of transforming the lives of people with disabilities. For once in our history we have the resources to do this but what we need is a willingness to make that choice.
I know the Minister's commitment, I have read about the Government's commitment but I await the tangible evidence which cannot be in words, writing or in legislation only, it must be manifested in resources. The real issue is do we provide resources that can make a big difference or are we, having educated ourselves, having learned to speak the language which addresses people with disabilities as our equals and having learned to move away from our often unconscious prejudices, now prepared to take the next step which is to spend money to ensure their lives are as fulfilling as our own. If we do not do that, all the rhetoric is meaningless.
Ms Keogh: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. In the Lower House I witnessed first hand her sincere commitment to disability equality. With the Minister of State providing impetus to the Government's commitment to people with disability, I am sure all aspects of the Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disability will be implemented before the end of the current Administration's term of office.
 I am glad that one of the first debates to take place in the lifetime of this Seanad involves disability equality and the Government's commitment to it. Disability equality is an essential cornerstone of the joint programme for Government and we must be committed to it. As a member of the Progressive Democrats, I commit myself to ensuring that disability equality comes about. There is an unfortunate tendency within the political system to depict certain people as being more caring than others. That is insulting because no party or individual has a monopoly on social concern.
The debate on the employment equality and equal status legislation in the Lower House showed a commitment on all sides to trying to get it right. I was extremely disappointed when both Bills were struck down because of the major work carried out by the then Minister who listened to people's concerns and putting strategies in place. I welcome the Minister of State's indication that both Bills will be revisited. It is essential that this be done and I am encouraged by her announcement that a disabilities Bill will be introduced. I advocated such legislation for a number of years in the Lower House. While it is necessary to revisit the employment equality and equal status legislation, it is essential that a disabilities Bill be brought forward.
One bone of contention in respect of the employment equality and equal status legislation involves the definition of the word “disability”. Many people working in the area believe this relies heavily on medical terminology and should be re-examined. A number of the groups that communicated with me in connection with the definition were disenchanted by the response they received, even though they understood the reasons for it. I am sure it can be reinterpreted without undue difficulty. This issue is marked by the degree of support and co-operation available to the Minister of State from all sides of the House and I am sure that will continue with the introduction of the disabilities Bill.
The report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities underpins the Government's actions in this area. As the Minister of State indicated, the commission's findings will eventually come to fruition and be prioritised. It is important that we continue to ensure that people with disabilities participate in the process. We have moved away from having a paternalistic attitude to these people and I would not like to see that reversed. It is indicative of attitudes in society that we have been obliged to introduce legislation to protect the rights of people with disability. However, evidence that our society is maturing is marked by the broad acceptance that such people have rights and they should not be regarded in a charitable way.
There must be real integration of people with disability in society. We must ensure that these people can reach the absolute limits of their capabilities. They should have an inalienable right to achieve this and should not be obliged to struggle.  Everyone must give a commitment to people with disability in that regard. That is not a paternalistic attitude because these people should not be forced to make apologies or fight for their rights. It has been appalling to see various groups protesting outside the gates of Leinster House on many occasions because they had to fight for such rights. I hope that this will be unnecessary in the future and that the listening process to which the Minister of State referred will ensure not only that people with disability are listened to but also that their views are taken on board.
We can reinforce our commitment to people with disability during this debate. However, as other Members stated, we must ensure that action replaces rhetoric. The Minister referred to a plan of action involving the interdepartmental task force which would lead to the establishment of a monitoring committee. This is essential because, as in the case of the Second Commission on the Status of Women, procedures were slow until a monitoring process was put in place. Things do not happen until someone takes responsibility to drive an issue forward. However, with the commitment of the Minister of State, politicians on all sides in both Houses and the monitoring committee to ensure action, those things will happen.
We have witnessed the practical allocation of moneys towards various groups. It is excellent that the Irish Council for People with Disability will receive a support grant of £300,000 because people with disability must be involved in progressing this issue. Unless the council is given adequate funding, it will have to operate on a wing and a prayer and will not do a proper job. Voluntary agencies have led the way for many years and it is essential that they be provided with adequate funding because they know how to achieve things at a relatively low cost. They need our support so that facilities, which should be in place as of right, are provided as quickly as possible.
I will now deal with the 3 per cent quota for employment in the public service. I raised this issue on many occasions in the Lower House and I wish to discover the position in respect of employing people with disabilities in the Civil Service and wider public service because obstacles are continually placed in their way. Other Members referred to the issue of access. If all Government buildings and offices were examined, how accessible would they be for people with disabilities? The public service must be carefully examined because I do not believe there is a great willingness to employ people with disabilities in the service. In that context, one of the arguments put to me involved the definition of “disability”. Within the public service and employment in general people wanted a widening of the description of disability so that people with a relatively mild disability would be included in the quota. We could not agree with that.
As regards the private sector, in some EU countries a quota system is operated and a fine is imposed if people do not fulfil it. Unfortunately,  in many businesses and industries the quota is not filled and the fine is paid. Under that system, at least funding goes directly towards educating and training people with disability. It also helps to encourage awareness which is something we are poor at doing. With some honourable exceptions, there is little inclination or desire to employ disabled people in private industry. That brings us back to the issue of integration in schools whereby children with disabilities can be supported in entering mainstream education so that there is an acceptance of the disabled within society.
I will give an example of how people with disability have been discriminated against. There is a pub in my constituency near a Cheshire Home which cares for quite a number of people with disabilities ranging from mild to severe. Many of them are wheelchair bound and some like to go to the local pub for a pint on a Thursday or Friday evening. They were discriminated against in that it was alleged that their wheelchairs constituted a fire hazard. The real reason, however, as everybody knew, was that the pub's owners did not like the idea of people with a disability sipping their pints through a straw. They felt this would upset the customers. That is something we must eradicate from the mind set of society.
That type of unspoken discrimination is there and it represents a frame of mind. People would never say so publicly, although it was going through their minds and they might say it between themselves. We all know this is true. Just because somebody looks slightly different and they are not one of the crowd they are excluded from something as ordinary as going out for a drink at night. Nobody could or should agree with such discrimination which should be eradicated from society. That is why I so regret that neither the Employment Equality Act nor the Equal Status Act are on the Statute Book.
I hope a disabilities Bill will have the effect of dealing with that type of attitude. I welcome the cross-departmental work involved. From time to time there may be a Minister who, with the best will in the world, will try to implement equality legislation and attitudes, but unless there is support for that Minister in Government his will be just a voice crying in the wilderness. While that has happened, we can avoid it by having cross-departmental linking on a regular basis. The improvement of facilities for people with disability should have support from the top and the signal should come from every Department.
I am glad the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs has been involved in the announcement of cash investments for people with disability. Unless as a society we ensure equality for people with disability and ensure that the type of boom we are experiencing also benefits those who are not so well able to cater for themselves, ours will be a poor society. My party pledges itself to ensure that the commitment the Government has given will be acted upon. I have  no doubt that with the support of the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, this will happen.
Ms Keogh: I never listen to him anyway. I want to give our support for the Special Olympics. The case for having the games here has already been well made. I pay tribute to all those who have been involved in the Special Olympics and who have shown that disability is no barrier to achievement.
Mrs. A. Doyle: I want to concentrate on one particular aspect of disability. In the ten minutes we have as second line speakers we cannot do justice to the enormous range of problems in the area of disability. If we are honest we will recognise the lack of sufficient commitment that successive Governments can have laid at their door in this area. I want to discuss the independent living movement and the Centre for Independent Living. By getting this one right we will solve many other problems, even though we will never solve them all and will always be running hard to keep up and invest sufficiently to look after people who, through no fault of their own in many cases, find they are not as able bodied as some of the rest of us are lucky enough to be.
I feel passionately about this and have spoken about it many times in the Lower House. I have been on many deputations seeking the provision of personal assistants for wheelchair bound people with physical and sensory disability. The pre-budget submission from the Centre for Independent Living pleads for the establishment of an independent living fund.
In case Senators are not familiar with the concept the independent living movement espouses and what the Centre for Independent Living's 18 branches have been doing, I will put a few words about it on the record. The Centre for Independent Living was established in 1992 and is funded, operated and controlled by people with disabilities. Of its 18 branches, I am familiar with what happens in Dublin and in my own county of Wexford. I do not pretend to be familiar with what occurs in other counties, but I understand the same excellent model operates everywhere.
CIL is involved in a number of activities for people with disabilities encompassing housing, access and mobility, legislation, image perception, terminology of disability and international relations. It is particularly involved in promoting independent living through the use of personal assistants. The investment by the Government in providing personal assistants for wheelchair bound people can only be a winner. It is a win  for those in wheelchairs in that it allows them to move from parental or institutional care to independent living. For some hours a day, hopefully eight hours, someone can undertake tasks that they are unable to perform for themselves. Many people who are wheelchair bound can do an awful lot if mobility is restored to them.
Apart from the extra help the assistant gives them we can all understand what it is to become independent. Most of us are not so old that we cannot remember the transition through our teenage years to full independence as adults. We do not have a quality of life or determination over our lives until we are independent and need no longer defer to our parents or to whoever controls where and when we go out, what time we return, what and when we eat, what we wear, when we get up and go to bed, whether we go out and whether we have one or three pints. We take these issues for granted and do not have to defer to parents or to an institution about every little decision. Independent living is a huge win for those confined to wheelchairs. The people involved in CIL have described the concept eloquently and passionately for several years and no Government has responded sufficiently.
In 1994 an advisory group was set up to investigate the concept of personal assistants. That spanned the period in which three Governments were in office. However, we are still talking about the concept and about a submission to the Minister for Finance in the forthcoming budget.
Independent living is a win for people in wheelchairs. It gives them determination over their lives. It is also a win economically, particularly if assistants are drawn from the local unemployed, are trained and can make an economic contribution by being gainfully employed in a worthwhile job. There are no losers in pursuing the course proposed by CIL in relation to the provision of personal assistants.
There have been pilot schemes in independent living and there are FÁS community employment schemes which provide personal assistants. However, it is a shaky situation. There is no permanent provision of personal assistants and this causes concern. The central monitoring group in FÁS will examine this issue in the context of community employment schemes in the next week or two with regard to next year's scheme. The current schemes finish at the end of this calendar year. Community employment schemes provide personal assistants for a limited number of people in each county at present. There are 13 such assistants in County Wexford.
Personal assistants were introduced in this country through the in-care programme funded by HORIZON through EU funding. The scheme was a great success. The independence it brought to many people with disabilities was such that they were able to leave rural areas to attend college or take up employment in Dublin and other cities. They could come and go and order their lives. Now the scheme is sponsored by the Irish Wheelchair Association through the FÁS community  employment scheme. The ideal would be an independent living fund. That is being sought from the Minister for Finance at present. It could be introduced over a period of three or even five years.
About £5 million per year would provide personal assistants for those who are in a position to make good use of them. The figures have been submitted to the Minister. In the context of the national budget and Exchequer returns, it is but a drop in the ocean. From that figure could be deducted the return to the Exchequer in terms of PAYE and PRSI and the unemployment assistance or unemployment benefit payments which many personal assistants would have received before becoming assistants. There is a huge benefit, first, to the person with the disability and, second, to the Exchequer.
We could discuss forever what could be done to improve the quality of life for those who are so seriously disabled that a personal assistant would never even be an option. However, there are many people with physical and sensory disabilities who are wheelchair bound and who can make a tremendous contribution to their local communities and to the economy. They cannot do that unless they are given a personal assistant who will bring quality, independence and choice to their lives.
We must also remember that many ageing parents who have valiantly cared for a disabled child are getting too old to be able to provide the same service in terms of fetching and carrying and catering for all the disabled person's physical needs. A personal assistant who can relieve some of the burden from ageing parents or other family members increases the quality of life for all members of the family. There is no negative aspect to establishing an independent living fund to provide personal assistants for those who can use them. The numbers are determined and the research has been carried out. There are a number of reports from advisory groups and there is international experience of the scheme.
The independent living movement was started in the US many years ago and was introduced in Ireland in 1992. We have been talking about the scheme for five years and there have been pilot programmes under the auspices of HORIZON, FÁS and the Eastern Health Board, which funded a number of personal assistants. However, the scheme must be put on a permanent footing rather than having to depend on a budgetary response from year to year. FÁS community employment schemes have worked but they are the second best option. The Centre for Independent Living should no longer be dependent on the employment schemes because, although they are a good stopgap measure, there are disadvantages. The disadvantages are those from which many employment schemes suffer, namely, that people must be of a certain age, must be unemployed for a certain length of time and can only be employed for a year on the scheme.
 It takes most of the year to train personal assistants to the point where they are 100 per cent effective for their customer. Sometimes such assistants might get a second year in the scheme but in most cases they are gone after a year. That is wasteful. The scheme must be removed from the community employment scheme because of the restrictive criteria. The independent living fund must be established with a stand alone scheme of personal assistants for those with physical and sensory disabilities. Everybody will be a winner but most of all the customers as they will be able to take control of their lives. The economy will be a winner and the quality of life for all concerned, including the families of the disabled, will be enormously enhanced.
I urge aggressive support for this concept on the part of all parties. Five million pounds is but a drop in the ocean because of the current vibrancy in our economy. The Minister of State should urge the Minister for Finance to look extremely favourably at and to deliver on this reasonable concept.
Ms Ormonde: This has been an interesting debate. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, on the amount of time and work she has given to this subject in the past two years. She has sought to achieve progress through dialogue, by establishing commissions and by dealing with the implementation of a detailed programme to alleviate hardship and attain equality for people with disabilities.
The area with which I am most familiar is education and that is where I have most experience of working with people with disabilities. I wish to refer in particular to children who are moving from primary to second level education who discover they have a mental disability, such as a reading problem. They might have the reading ability of a six or seven year old yet they must try to fit into an education programme which is designed for students who have the reading ability of 12 year olds. There is a vacuum in that area.
The debate about special schools as opposed to integrated education has been ongoing for some time. I have attended many conferences and discussion groups and the consensus of parents every time is that there should be an integrated programme if at all possible. We should try to develop the full potential of those with disabilities in terms of their mental capacity, socialisation and physical and cultural development.
There are problems in this area at the moment. Many students cannot be contained in a normal classroom because of their inability to deal with a normal educational routine, yet there are insufficient resources for one to one tuition, psychological services and remedial education to give  them the opportunity to develop and become independent. We are lacking in this area. The Minister has acknowledged this and the consensus is that money must be made available for more educational, psychological and remedial programmes to facilitate the transition from primary to secondary schooling.
We must also address the issue of facilitating very bright, wheelchair bound students who wish to attend normal schools. They often find they are unable to move from room to room because of the layout of the school and the inaccessibility of the classrooms. They immediately feel stigmatised because of this and do not feel part of the group, although they are very bright students capable of tackling any choice of subjects and making a career for themselves.
Parents are similarly stigmatised because they are unable to cope at home due to a lack of facilities for children who are either of a low mental or reading age or are wheelchair bound. There are no carers or home-school links available to them. We should be conscious of our responsibilities in this area and have closer ties between schools and communities, especially in terms of promoting equality for the disabled. It would go a long way towards helping them participate normally in society. There is no one here who does not have some form of disability so no one should feel smug. There should be a local commitment to integrate disabled people and, if that is pursued nationally, this will be a fine country for caring for and promoting the equality of disabled people.
Mr. Chambers: I welcome this report, its purpose and structure. It is a comprehensive document and shows a firm commitment by the Minister and the Government to address this national anomaly. The report shows the State is finally accepting its responsibility for the disabled. For a long time, many voluntary groups accepted that responsibility and played a major part in improving the life and well-being of disabled people. This document sets out in no uncertain terms the State's commitment to addressing the situation by legislation and by establishing an interdepartmental watchdog to ensure disabled people are treated equally. I welcome the overhauling of the State's allowances and grants for disabled people and the reduction in the number of State agencies with which people have to deal. I also welcome the consideration of a tax incentive or tax reduction for carers of disabled people. The 3 per cent quota of disabled people employed in the public service is necessary and something which the State must address if it is to be positive and sincere about this issue. The disability legislation is also important as it sets out the status of disabled people within society, in that they should be treated equally and be told what are their rights.
In my dealings with disabled people in my constituency, there are certain issues which affect  their well-being and care. People with cerebral palsy who are wheelchair bound need recreation areas and facilities for movement. County councils should be able to pay the disabled person's grant to people who need those facilities. The red tape should be dispensed with so that those people can avail of the opportunity of assistance in their difficult situations. The Government should also insist by means of the planning process that county councils make public buildings accessible to disabled people. We have come a long way in our treatment of people with disabilities. I remember some of my colleagues in school who were disabled and I pay tribute to their parents who experienced great difficulties in providing a reasonable quality of life for them. This should not go unnoticed as it took considerable physical and mental effort for families to care for such people.
I support the view expressed on independent living. The Government should address the issue of personal assistants if it is serious about improving the quality of life for disabled people. I have met people who have been allocated those assistants under FÁS schemes and it has opened up a new quality of life for them. It has made a huge contribution to their lives and created new interests for them. The Government should address this issue as a modern way of dealing with personal situations.
I recently spoke to a man who told me that both he and his wife have done an enormous amount of work with their child who suffers from cerebral palsy and who attends the local national school. One can see the effort made by these people. The child has great difficulty with fundamentals such as taking books out of a school bag. Such children are able to function and learn and the Government should look at the proposals before the health boards and Ministers on the concept of independent living. It is an innovative idea. In the past we looked after our pensioners and we should do so in the future.
Mr. Costello: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This debate is on “Disability Equality — the Government's Commitment”. If it took place under the previous Government we would have a Minister who would have access to Cabinet presenting the debate. The Labour Government underpinned its commitment to dealing with the problem of disability by appointing a Minister for Equality and Law Reform. Unfortunately, this Government has not met that commitment. Deputy Wallace has responsibility for this area but she is a Minister of State without access to the Cabinet table where decisions are made and where funding can be squeezed from the Department of Finance.
The area of disability has received shoestring funding and much of the work has been done by voluntary organisations. The Government's first commitment to dealing with disability equality should have been to retain a full Minister. It is  regrettable that this has not happened. The European day of disabled persons is on 3 December, which is also budget day. The real test of the Government's commitment to disability and equal opportunity will be the provision it makes in the budget to deal with these issues.
I will be happy to examine the present shortfalls in areas such as training, education and residential care facilities for the disabled. There is an urgent need for 2,500 places for the mentally handicapped. This does not include the large number of people inappropriately housed in psychiatric hospitals. No one who has been to St. Ita's in Portrane could claim that it is suitable or appropriate accommodation. Much good work was done in St. Brendan's, Grangegorman. However, this included institutional accommodation and community service was provided without the provision of the necessary community infrastructure. There is much to be done before we will have made adequate provision for people with disabilities.
The Labour Party is committed to the full implementation of the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities. That commission was established by former Deputy Mervyn Taylor who began the work of assuring an appropriate and agreed set of priorities. The Minister of State has announced that she is setting up a task force, a monitoring group to advise that task force and further subgroups. I hope the implementation of the report will not be put on the long finger as a result. The more committees, monitoring groups, subgroups and task forces involved the less that will be done in reality. The Irish Council of People with Disabilities should be fully involved as equal partners with Government in the implementation process.
We are also committed to the implementation of the report “Towards An Independent Future”. In particular, we believe in the concept of independent living which must be fully developed. Over the past few years we have seen a number of protests outside this House by disabled people who wished to have the means of independent living. The review group recommends the spending of £50 million over five years and I would like to hear the Minister of State's response as to how she will implement that recommendation, whether the Government has given such a commitment and what are the stages of implementation.
The Labour Party shares the ultimate objective of these reports which is the provision of a high quality and fully accessible range of services from the onset of a disability. Such services must be available on the basis of need and must facilitate the maximum degree of independence and personal autonomy. They must be shaped and geared towards the specific needs of people with disabilities and be available as of right. Disabled persons should not be dependent on charity. In short, as we have argued in the past, they should be the subject of a social guarantee. That guarantee would seek to ensure that from the moment  of birth, diagnosis or the onset of disability the following services would be guaranteed as of right: diagnosis and assessment; counselling, including for carers where necessary; a full range of medical services as required; education and training based on the right of the individual to aspire to his or her full potential and to live and work in mainstream society; open, supported or sheltered employment in an appropriate and decent environment within reasonable access of home — Partnership 2000 introduced a 3 per cent quota in the public service and I would like to hear the Minister of State's comments on the implementation of that quota during the lifetime of this agreement and what steps are being taken to ensure it is fully implemented by the year 2000; six day residential care when needed; the guarantee of a home life in proper and supportive surroundings; respite care when required and accessible public transport.
I am glad that Dublin Corporation is making its small contribution with the issuing of the latest tranche of 200 taxi plates, all of which must be wheelchair accessible. However, I am unhappy that there is no specific provision for sheltered housing by Dublin Corporation where there are a large number of people anxious to be engaged in independent living. Such an approach would be of great benefit and allow these people a better level of independence. The corporation has no policy on people with disabilities applying for housing other than broad medical circumstances which apply across the board. I am not sure if there is such an approach in any local authority. No local authority has addressed this issue adequately.
Hundreds of millions of pounds are already invested in the provision of services for people with disabilities. In too many cases these funds are not well enough directed and too often reflect the needs of the agencies rather than the needs of people with disabilities. Many people with disabilities are deemed ineligible for training not because they will not benefit from the training but because their inclusion might jeopardise the attraction of matching money from European funds. The development of one-stop-shops is envisaged as part of the disability support service proposed by the commission. This would go some way towards closing the information gaps that are often a barrier to the supply of services. A proper social guarantee would also require some restructuring of services, greater co-operation between agencies and a strong political commitment. Implementing the social guarantee for people with disabilities means starting from the perspective of the rights and needs of the person and adapting the service to meet those needs. The Irish Council for People with Disabilities, launched by President Robinson in March of this year, should play a major role in advising the Government on the implementation of the report.
The Government made a bad start by abolishing the Department of Equality and Law  Reform. It is a shame that the Minister of State is not at the Cabinet table to argue her case. That is where real funding can be secured. Only in the last short period of Government has there been any attempt to provide substantial funding for this area. Responsibility for law reform was removed from the Department of Justice because this area was not getting a fair crack of the whip It seems clear now that Minister O'Donoghue sees his role as a traditional Minister for Justice. Anything else is of less importance. It has been suggested that the Department of Equality and Law Reform has fulfilled its agenda but problems thrown up this week regarding procedures in the courts, particularly the District Courts where horrendous problems are looming, suggest that there is a considerable amount of work to be done both in the criminal and civil courts as well as the areas we are talking about.
The Government has committed itself to an urgent review of the Employment Equality Bill, which I welcome, but five months into its term this Bill has not been published. I would like to know when it is likely to be published. The Minister has indicated her intention to ensure that the Equality Bill will be passed into law next year. We hope that this will happen. What work has been done on the promised disabilities Bill and when it is likely to be published? Many of the Government's commitments in respect of the income of people with disabilities and of those who care for them are outlined in the Government programme. We will have to wait until budget day before we can judge them. I am concerned about the proposal to allocate tax allowances to carers of people with disabilities. Will these allowances be at the standard tax rate and will we see further discrimination against those carers who are struggling on low incomes?
In the course of the presidential election I again noticed that we still have many polling booths which have steps. It should be possible to find suitable public buildings. While there is postal voting we should, nevertheless, facilitate all sections of the community in exercising their franchise. I welcome the Minister of State's reference to sport and leisure and the need to provide funding for the Special Olympics. I understand that we have made an application to hold the Special Olympics in Ireland. This area requires substantial funding and I hope the Minister of State proceeds with her proposals in this respect. The Government has made a bad start and we are waiting anxiously to see if it redeems itself.
Ms Cox: When we consider the complex problems of disability we need to keep one sobering thought in mind — it can happen to any of us. Many who now regard people with disabilities as a class apart may, one day, join their ranks. Others may become parents of children with disabilities or, in some other capacity, may have to take on the responsibility of caring for somebody with a physical, sensory or intellectual disability.  No day passes without this possibility becoming a stark reality. Parents suffer the emotions of shock, fear, dismay, anger and resentment when their child is born with a sensory or intellectual handicap. It is important that parents, at this very early stage know their entitlements and their children's rights and entitlements.
I listened with some amusement to Senator Costello's suggestion that we should have a Minister of State for disability affairs. I will read into the record something that was written to me by somebody who is intellectually disabled: “The idea of a Minister of State for Disability Affairs would be something that, although it looks logical, would offend many disabled people, me included. People with disabilities do not want special treatment. They want fair treatment with some common sense and an understanding of their needs”. In a recent column in The Irish Times my friend Máire Geoghegan-Quinn wrote that many of us will inevitably become disabled as we move through life and that this should make us scared because of the way that many people of disability are deprived of equality and inclusiveness in our society. In that same column she urged Deputy Wallace, the Minister of State dealing with disability to go boldly where no-one has gone before. It is heartening that, after only a very short time in her new ministry, Minister of State, Wallace has shown tangible evidence that this is what she intends to do. This is good news for those with disabilities. The Government's programme on disability, which the Minister of State will be steering towards full implementation, holds the promise of radical changes to address the needs and aspirations of people with disabilities along with their families and carers. It is my hope that it will give vibrant reassurance to the many people working on their behalf. I have in mind such people as Frank Mulcahy who is chairing the Irish Council for People with Disabilities who, a few months ago, made despairing utterances that disabled people are totally alienated from the political system. Such an attitude is understandable when one considers the dereliction of responsibility towards people with disabilities that has been so shamefully evident in the past. I am confident that the Government's detailed and comprehensive programme will go a very long way towards redressing this sad situation and open up a new optimistic scenario for people who have been treated so insensitively and unthinkingly for so long. At the time Mr. Mulcahy made his complaint he was expressing dismay at the Supreme Court decision to declare the Employment Equality Bill unconstitutional. As we are all aware, the court ruled last May that clauses in the Bill outlawing discrimination against the disabled would interfere with the property rights of employers. It is little wonder that Mr. Mulcahy was dismayed; as he saw it, the ruling gave employers the opportunity to openly discriminate against people with disabilities without the people directly affected having any recourse to appeal.
 One of the measures proposed by Mr. Mulcahy was that a clause banning discrimination against people with disabilities should be inserted in the Constitution. This, of course, would require a constitutional amendment which, as we know from past experience can throw up all sorts of unexpected difficulties and anomalies. Mr. Mulcahy is not alone in his thinking and, even before he expressed it, his idea had been given solidity by the constitutional review group.
Senators may recall that last year the review group proposed an anti-discrimination clause with the suggested wording that no person shall be unfairly discriminated against directly or indirectly on any grounds such as sex, age, disability and so on. The concept has already been given serious consideration. Whether by constitutional amendment or legislation, the problem must be tackled and I am glad the Government is mindful of its importance.
One of the key priorities in the Government's programme is an urgent review of the Supreme Court decisions on the Employment Equality and Equal Status Bills as they affect people with disabilities. This particular legal aspect highlights the fact that disability is a social issue, not a medical one. As Mr. Mulcahy pointed out, the Supreme Court, through its ruling, has laid the blame on people with disabilities and has ignored the huge barriers which are placed in their way on a daily basis.
There is one central, resonant idea at the core of all disability issues, namely, equality. That is the ultimate aspiration of people with disabilities. Equality is a simple enough idea but it rings right through history as the driving force in revolution for the betterment of humanity. It is memorably enshrined in the words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of American Independence when he said that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We must ensure that people with disabilities are not deprived of their right to pursue happiness in the same way as other people.
Senator Costello referred to the problem of access to polling booths during the presidential election. I agree with him on that issue; in Galway West some polling booths were inaccessible to people with disabilities. The Minister of State was responsible for bringing into effect a Bill which gave everybody the right of access to polling booths.
The report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities explores the many ways in which equality can be understood. They range from formal legal equality to equality of opportunities and status at all levels of life in Ireland. While formal, legal equality is a precondition to everything, the commission declares that there must also be equality of opportunity so that people with disabilities can participate in education, employment and all other walks of life on an equal basis. However, such an ideal would not  ensure equality of status. The commission believes that in order to ensure people with disabilities have equal status and are widely represented at all levels of Irish life, affirmative action of the most dedicated kind is needed. Such action must come primarily from the Government but also from other sectors of Irish life including local authorities, churches, public bodies, employers, trade unions and other organisations.
The Government's new programme on disability is committed to a positive kind of action which has not been taken at official level hereto-fore and which has the potential to transform the lives of people with disabilities and those who look after them. The outlook is very encouraging. The Government will doubtless take cognisance of the positive action or positive discrimination which the commission has in mind. Such action could include training policies to develop senior management skills among employees with disabilities or university access programmes for students with disabilities which would enable them to participate on level terms in the university system.
The commission has also drawn attention to the principle of maximising participation for people with disabilities. This means that people with disabilities should have the right to participate in all areas of Irish life to the fullest possible extent and that, individually and collectively, they should be in a position to influence decisions which affect their lives. This should also apply to their families and their friends.
Independence and choice are other concepts highlighted by the commission which have always been dear to my heart. This means that people with disabilities should have the right to be able to achieve their full potential. They should have the right to make their own decisions and choices regarding the conditions of life which are best suited to their circumstances. They should also have the right to quality services which meet their needs at all stages of life. They must not be dependent on charity or voluntary effort. Like all of us, they must be allowed to shape and pursue their own destiny. They must be allowed to reach their own goals in life and to pursue happiness in their own way.
Forty autistic people live on a farm in Enfield, County Kildare. They grow organic vegetables and make and sell pottery. This experiment has now become a way of life for these people and has been copied in Claregalway, County Galway. It is an example of how pursuing their own destiny and reaching their own goals has made life tremendously different for people with that particular type of disability.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I know she has a great commitment to this area as I have seen her put a great deal of work into it in her former capacity as chairperson of the Joint Committee on Women's Rights.
 I am glad so many Senators are enthusiastic about people with disabilities becoming involved in every aspect of life. Some Senators pointed out the difficulties experienced in relation to access to polling stations, something which prevents people having political equality. Some people who applied for postal votes under the provisions of the Electoral Act 1992 experienced difficulties. A neighbour and friend of mine who has multiple sclerosis applied for a postal vote well in advance of the end of September but received no reply. I have written to the Minister about the matter although I was too late to achieve anything in time for the presidential election. It is extremely important that we should enforce the legislation we have and make it work.
I am glad that the point was made that any of us could become disabled at any time. It is important to remember that. I would particularly like to address the issue of people who suffer head injuries. We are experiencing terrible problems with traffic accidents on our roads. Head injuries occur particularly in the 20 to 40 year old male age group. In spite of their head injuries, some people may have very few other physical disabilities and are quite likely to have the same life span as they would have had prior to the injury. However, they will experience behavioural, psychological, sociological and emotional problems. Many of them, who would have been in gainful employment and now find themselves house bound and unable to return to their previous employment, have a very serious problem. About 850 cases are recorded each year.
We sometimes do not address these areas of hidden disability as much as we could. People with serious psychiatric illness may have grave difficulties reintegrating into the workforce. We should make sure that we address our efforts towards them too. In such cases, marriage breakdown is very common. For example, if the male partner is seriously injured, Canadian figures show the marriage breakdown rate is 90 per cent as against 50 per cent if it is the female partner who is injured. This shows the serious social, behavioural and psychological consequences of accidents which may also develop and not just those related to employment and the physical aspects of dealing with life.
There is little community support for people like this and the burden falls on the family and the women in the family in particular because generally it is the women who are the carers in any family. This is not to denigrate fathers, brothers and sons who help in the care of disabled people but to highlight the fact that women are more frequently expected to give up their jobs and stay at home. They are often left with little support trying to deal with unemployed, socially isolated people. A similar situation exists with those who have suffered spinal injuries. Perhaps it is because they are so much more obvious that we try to make a great effort in this area. The lack of support can be so serious for the carers  that they have been known to be reduced to suicide or serious illness. It is important that we remember those whose disabilities are not as obvious. We should try to help those who are caring for them and introduce respite care where possible.
I congratulate Senator Cox on pointing out that one could become the parents of a disabled child. This is a source of great shock and dismay for families because they realise what they must cope with.
It is particularly important that we research the prevention of disabilities. I was rather disappointed in the council's report “A Strategy for Equality” in that only page 281 was devoted to research. When one considers the number of disabilities which can be prevented, it is a great pity that we do not address this in greater depth. Indeed, Senators may remember that on the Adjournment the other night I addressed the high instance of neural tube defects in children here leading to spina bifida and anencaphaly. Because it is a genetic problem, it can be overcome to a large extent by a high intake of folic acid and folates and we should consider the possibility of putting folates into bread. Minister Moffat said that it could be considered but there seems to be great difficulties in the way of doing something as important as this. Hundreds of cases occur every year causing tremendous distress to families. We need to address matters with greater urgency.
The US authorities are introducing folates in bread at the beginning of 1998. Why can Ireland not lead the way in the EU? We know of the high instance of it here so why not lead the way and urge the rest of the member states to follow?
It is also important that we should address acquired disabilities. We should look at our accident rates, be they in the workplace, on the farms or on the roads. Every day there are people who get up and go about their business in the morning with no disability but who may have the most shocking disabilities that night. It would be well worth our while putting greater effort into the prevention of disability.
Mr. O'Toole: I thank Senator Henry for sharing time with me. In welcoming the Minister, who is my neighbour and was a colleague in this House at one stage, I wish her well in her appointment. Her portfolio is so broad as to be almost impossible to cope with.
The Minister referred earlier to the Employment Equality Bill along with the Equal Status Bill. I welcome the commitment to reintroduce that legislation with one small caveat — the section which refers to teachers' private lives should be excised. It is not necessary and it is creating much hurt and worry to people. I am fully committed to that legislation for the reasons outlined by others but I ask the Minister to have a look at that matter to avoid negative reaction to the presentation of the Bill.
I noticed earlier that some visitors with mobility problems had difficulty getting into the  Visitors' Gallery. It has long been the position of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges that visitors with mobility problems may use the lift and sit in the Distinguished Visitors' Gallery. I make that point because it is unnecessary to put people through that kind of difficulty.
Since the 1950s the INTO has been instrumental in bringing to the attention of the authorities various categories of disability or handicap — I hate getting involved in trying to find the most politically correct word of the moment. Senator Cox mentioned autism. I spent six years trying to convince the Department of Education and Science to recognise autism. Autism is such a puzzle it is ironic that it has been so difficult to have it recognised by decision makers. That is the kind of difficulty that every category of disability has experienced.
I feel strongly about how little officialdom cares for people who are different in whatever way and how slow we are to include and accommodate people with disability. I do not know of a special school or institution which is not dependent on the support of parents and friends for its continuing existence. There must be something very wrong in our democracy when that is happening. In effect, the parents, friends and relations of the child with a special need who must be educated, who take on this extra responsibility, share the difficulties and try to find solutions are also hit with what I call the extra taxation of having to raise additional money for the school, sheltered workshop or institution. There is something wrong with that and it should not be allowed. This relates to a human right. There was a great phrase in the Proclamation of the Republic, that we might cherish all the children of the nation equally. It is unfortunate that we have never inserted that phrase into any Constitution. A Minister for equality can only have one objective, that is, to cherish all the children of the nation equally. I look forward to the day we vote on a constitutional amendment to insert those words into the Constitution but I do not expect to see it. No Government would ever risk it but that would be the test, and I would welcome it.
Siblink, the national association of the brothers and sisters of mentally handicapped, is a newly formed group. The association has only existed for six or seven months. Its members are important but they have always been silent. They have coped without having a voice, worked without being recognised and been supportive without receiving fundamental support themselves.
Siblink has a double agenda — it provides its members with a forum where they can share their personal experience and, more positively, it can suggest strategies to deal with circumstances. The organisation has identified certain issues which must be addressed. It suggests that a life plan, from birth to geriatric care, must be put into place for every handicapped person. Such a plan was mentioned in the report and I commend the suggestion to the Minister for her consideration.  The big worry for the parents of a mentally handicapped person is what will happen to their child when they die. This is especially so when the youngest person in the family is mentally handicapped, as is often the case.
The life plan must take into account the needs of the siblings as well as of the mentally handicapped person and his or her parents, and siblings should be seen as complementary to the parents, not as an automatic replacement. I do not have time to develop this point further but I ask the Minister when she considers carers in general to look specifically at siblings, who have an important role to play. In her response, I ask her to give a commitment to listen to what this organisation has to say and to meet a representative group. They do not have strong voting power but neither do most of the people she deals with in the Department and it is for that reason that their commitment should be all the more valued by democratic structures. The test of any democracy is how well it deals with its minorities and this is a minority that needs our attention and help so that it can cope properly and with dignity with its place in society.
Mr. Dardis: I join in the congratulations to the Minister. Her record in this area is good and she will bring her experience to bear on this important portfolio. I have no difficulty with the inclusion of the former Department of Equality and Law Reform with the former Department of Justice — as long as the job is done it does not matter what label we put on a Department. I am confident the Minister will do the job well and will proceed to improve the lot of the disabled.
An important and fundamental principle is at stake here. Things that are required by people with disabilities are not matters of discretion for the State. nor are they merely desirable, they are rights. It is a right of a physically disabled person to be able to move around comfortably and easily. There is an obligation on society to provide the facilities required to ensure no one is discriminated against by virtue of physical and mental disability, but unfortunately our record as a society has not been good. The degree to which people with disabilities are included is a mark of a civilised society but inclusion should not be by way of charity but as of right. I applaud the Minister's intention that “disability will never again be viewed as a problem to be dealt with by charity or as a medical problem to be dealt with by hospitals and institutions”. While there are cases of severe disability or mental handicap where permanent care is required, the Minister is to be congratulated for her statement and I hope she keeps it before her during her Ministry.
We must also recognise the talents of people with disability, which have often been undervalued or not given the expression they require. Those with sporting talents have been allowed to develop them but there are other talents which are equally manifest — in the intellectual or artistic  spheres — and they should be given the chance to develop.
As Senator O'Toole said, personal space is extremely important. One example of that can be seen in Moore Abbey, Monasterevin, County Kildare, which cares for profoundly mentally handicapped people. The residents shared accommodation but when they were provided with individual accommodation and their own rooms, their condition — if I may use that word, although I would not wish to use it — improved dramatically. The reason for the improvement was that they had personal space, which had an effect even in cases of profound mental handicap.
The report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities was mentioned by several speakers. I applaud the work done by the former Minister, Mr. Taylor, which was also applauded by people on all sides of this House when he spoke to us after announcing his retirement. I am glad the Government intends to act on the report, to establish priorities and to implement them. It was a matter of some satisfaction to me that the Progressive Democrats' election manifesto contained a section on disabilities as I insisted on its inclusion. I am also glad that the Programme for Government also referred to people with disabilities. For far too long they have been excluded from mainstream political consideration and that was not good enough. That resulted from an attitude we had in the past which I hope is now behind us.
I strongly urge the Minister to do something about respite care. It is a capital intensive area and it is extremely desirable that people with disabilities should be cared for in the home. It also should be a priority that families who have coped with a disabled person, particularly a person with mental handicap, have a relief system whereby if they need to go on holiday or to get some respite from their tasks, that will provided. In Kildare there is a big shortage of adequate respite care, by which I mean a place where a person with disabilities can be cared for while their families — or siblings, as mentioned by Senator O'Toole — can have a break. As the Minister is aware, people with disabilities who in earlier times might have died young are now, thankfully, living to a greater age. That brings with it, however, an attendant problem. Parents now worry about what will happen to their handicapped child after they die. I endorse the Senator's remarks about siblings.
I am glad that the Employment Equality Bill and Equal Status Bill are to be revisited, so to speak. There were long debates on both Bills in this House and it was unfortunate that they were found unconstitutional not because of the sections which were referred but because of the sections on people with disabilities. It must be a priority to rectify this matter and to ensure people get their rights.
I endorse Senator Costello's remarks on the election. My mother, who is 90, insisted on voting  on the presidential election and referendum. She is not particularly disabled but it is convenient that she should use a wheelchair. In my polling station there was a magnificent metal ramp, although it might not have been required there; while in my mother's polling station, which has a nursing home adjacent to it and where many elderly people vote, there was no ramp. Why was that the case? Someone should attend to this matter.
Another disability which is relevant to elections and also needs attention is illiteracy. In debating the Electoral Bill dealing with presidential elections I said that photographs of candidates should appear on ballot papers. It should not be required of somebody who is unable to read to have to avail of the so-called “shouted vote” at the polling station. People must not be excluded from our democracy by reason of physical disability or illiteracy. The argument put forward for not accepting those amendments was that it would lead to a beauty contest whereby those with better pictures might be elected. If by the end of a presidential election campaign we do not know what the candidates look like we may give up in despair. This matter should be examined with a view to including people in the democratic process to the extent that is necessary.
I compliment the Government for the provision of £2.8 million for people with physical disabilities and for the other funds announced during the week. We must remember the contribution of the voluntary sector with regard to disability. Without its commitment circumstances would have been much worse. The effectiveness of the voluntary sector in the past allowed the State to stand back while the voluntary sector undertook tasks which the State should have undertaken. I am aware of the work done by KARE in County Kildare and the Camphill communities. Without such voluntary sector input the situation would have been far worse. Therefore, we must underpin its work. Where that sector experiences difficulties we must ensure they are resolved.
With regard to employment, I welcome the “quota” approach. Many disabled people are able for full-time employment and they should have the opportunity to be so employed. I agree with Senator O'Toole's point on the Employment Equality Bill, 1997. That matter must be addressed.
The local authorities have not fulfilled their role with regard to disability. In Newbridge the chamber of commerce had dips put in the pavements to facilitate wheelchair users. Local authorities have not been proactive enough in this regard and in making their own buildings accessible to people with disabilities. They should give an example in this matter.
I applaud the developments taking place. Progress is being made in a positive manner. This progress must be governed by the notion that equality must be accorded to disabled people as  a right because they are citizens. That is the only adequate response from Government.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Miss M. Wallace): I thank Senators for participating in the debate and expressing their concerns. People with disabilities are frustrated, marginalised and denied much of the access and opportunities that people without disabilities take for granted. They have suffered in the past from fragmented services, exclusion from planning, lack of basic information and misunderstanding. Hopefully this will change. Senators referred to the report and the recommendations of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities and the other work we are doing. The listening meetings were important in allowing us to get the views of people with disabilities, their families and their carers at first hand.
Disability is a social issue not a medical one. We are presented with the task of tearing down the barriers which stand in the way of those with disabilities leading full and independent lives. We propose an equality strategy involving legislative solutions, proposals for new policy initiatives and new structures for the delivery of quality services within a framework of rights, not charity. As Senator Dardis said, the disabled have rights and that idea must guide the direction we take.
The task of implementing the report is important in improving the situation of people with disabilities, their families and carers. Its implementation will not take place overnight nor in one fell swoop. It must be done in a programmed way over a period of years. This much is realised by all concerned. It is important that a start has been made and the Government is committed to ensure that all Departments and agencies will play their part. We are moving away from the old health model to a point where disability is an issue for all Departments and agencies.
I intend to press ahead with the preparation of a comprehensive plan of action on the rights of people with disabilities based on the commission's report as quickly as possible. I am committed to continuing my Department's work on the preparation of disability and equality legislation to which many speakers referred. My Department is giving urgent attention to the Employment Equality Bill and the Equal Status Bill and, following the Government's decision, work has begun on the disability legislation.
Senator Costello expressed concern about funding and the report of the review group. At the beginning of the year a budgetary provision of £2.18 million was made for people with disabilities. The funding was welcome but its level was disappointing because, on foot of the report of the review group, to which the Senator referred, more funding was expected. The Government announced recently an additional £4.3 million — double the funding available earlier in the year. We are committed to continuing  to identify funding wherever possible for people with disabilities.
I agree with Senator Dardis that the title of the Department does not matter. What is important is that the work is done. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, who represents the interests of the disabled at Cabinet, is committed to the area. He is a powerful advocate for people with disabilities and has been fully supportive of my efforts in this regard. Since my appointment the Minister has been outstanding in putting forward at Cabinet the case of people with disabilities.
I am concerned about Senators' comments about the inaccessibility of some polling stations for the presidential election. I proposed the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 1996, which passed both Houses last December, to ensure that polling stations would be accessible. The aim was to select an accessible public building for use as a polling station — a local school which is inaccessible should not be chosen in preference to an accessible community hall. If Senators have information on inaccessible stations they should be brought to light because such inaccessibility should not be as common as has been the case in the past.
The establishment of a national disability authority and a disability support service was recommended by the commission. The commission's recommendations are significant and I regard the setting up of these bodies as crucial. I am consulting with my colleagues to see what action can be taken to that end.
Senator Ridge and others referred to the abuse of parking spaces for the disabled. On 1 October 1997 the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, announced that henceforth this abuse will constitute a parking offence punishable by an on the spot fine.
Senators raised the issue of supporting the Special Olympics. This afternoon while we were debating this issue the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, announced Government approval for up to £5 million in grant assistance towards the cost of a bid to host the Special Olympic summer games in Ireland in 2003. Should the bid succeed, it will bring to our shores the biggest international sports event ever to take place in Ireland, involving 7,000 athletes and coaches from more than 160 participating countries and up to 30,000 volunteers. Hosting the Special Olympics would provide an exceptional opportunity to promote awareness of disability as well as opportunities for North-South co-operation and the whole island would be engaged in delivering the games. The outcome of the bid to host the games in 2003 is expected to be announced next summer.
I and my colleagues in Government are determined that disability issues will become issues of mainstream political, social and economic rights. As Minister of State with special responsibility for disability I will continue to work closely with my ministerial colleagues and people with disabilities  and their families and carers in progressing disability issues.
Senator O'Toole asked if I would meet the Siblink group. I would be delighted to do so and perhaps he will ask them to contact my office. The pilot community disability projects which I spoke about will assist in ensuring access at local level by people with disabilities to all information in appropriate formats on issues affecting their lives. Information and access to it is a very important issue and has been raised by many people in terms of the commission report.
As Senator Cox said, it is important to go boldly where no one has gone before. That is where we intend to go. We are absolutely committed to people with disabilities. I hope that commitment has been evident since my appointment on 9 July and that it will remain so as we go forward with further announcements. From meetings I have had with Cabinet Ministers and Departments I can say that the Government, both individually and collectively, is committed to the issue of people with disabilities and I am delighted to say I am pushing an open door.
I have taken a note of all the points raised during the debate including that of the 3 per cent quota and I will gladly follow up those issues. I thank Senators for taking part in the debate and for putting forward their suggestions.
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