Disabilities and Special Needs
All government ministers pay lip service to helping those with disabilities and special needs. And, slowly, hesitantly, services and impeding policies are being changed. But...
An open forum with the Minister of Education took place before a packed auditorium of parents and teachers. The Minister came to talk of the great new initiatives on the way, but the battle hardened audience was having none of it. The following polite summary cannot hide the frustration obvious from the floor:
"Problems frequently raised were: perceived lack of resources; delays in their allocation; lack of early identification; delays in assessment and the expense involved - for parents who can afford it - in private assessment; lack of specialised training for teachers; difficulties with school transport; and insufficient awareness of disability on the part of teachers."
Take away the education specific notes and you have a fairly accurate summary of the situation - lack of resources and delays once they're allocated.
Here's a great example from a few years ago. Dublin Bus needed hundreds of buses to replace their aging fleet. But, they actually paid additional money and waited additional months so that the standard wheelchair accessible buses could be refitted so that they wouldn't handle wheelchairs. Go figure that one out. The screams of outrage were so huge that even the thickheads in the various transportation services are getting the message. Slowly, 3 baby steps forward, 1 giant step back....
Enrolling in Special Schools
You can search the Education Department's web site but you'll be hard pressed to find anything about how to enroll your child in a Special school. Lots of upbeat speeches from various Ministers, but nothing to guide you along.
I had to cajole the following information from the Department of Education.
1. Contact the Department of Education. You can send them an e-mail but don't count on a response. Your best bet is to phone them or write.
There are two sections. If your child is in Primary School, ask for the Primary section. If your child is in Secondary School, then ask for the Secondary section.
Special Education Section (Primary or Secondary)
Department of Education & Science
Telephone - within Ireland: (090) 648 3600
Telephone - outside Ireland +353-90-648-3600
2. The Special Education section will put you in contact with the Executive Officer of your particular county. In other words, the system is set up based on where you live. The Executive Officer will then start the wheels turning, inform you of the options, start the proceedings, etc.
3. However, this is Ireland, so it never hurts to have someone pushing from the inside. The alternative procedure, which is actually more common, is to contact the principal at a nearby Special school. He or she will be able to tell you what's available and who to contact. If their school will able to serve your child, then the principal will move the process along, deal with the necessary paperwork and generally act as your personal champion. With this is mind, you will not find it strange that Special school principals are generally among the most highly regarded people in their community.
Mainstreaming and the Schools
If your child needs extra help but does not require the level of support found in a special school, there is help. An ever greater number of Remedial Education and Special Needs staff are to found at all levels of the education system. Generally what's available are pullout programmes where children needing that bit of extra help are given it by specialist teachers. Speech education is an example, though speech specialists are hugely oversubscribed and generally can provide only an hour or two per week. Students with dyslexia or math-o-phobes would be the kind of kids for which such services are designed.
Such services are provided after assessment tests. To start the ball rolling here, speak to your school's principal or set up an appointment with the Special Education teacher. These days, the title has changed to Resource Teacher, but it's the same thing.
The smaller, rural primary schools usually share the services of a Special Education teacher. Such a teacher spends Monday at one school, Tuesday at another and so on. One day a week is often set aside for paperwork, testing and meetings with parents and psychologists.
Students with physical disabilites are catered for as appropriate. As one example more schools are getting elevators to help those in wheelchairs. But, as an example of the delays, one local school started campaigning for an elevator when their first wheelchair student entered the student body. Two years later, it was approved by the Department of Education. Two years later, it was put out to design. Two years later it was put to tender. Result: One year after the student left the school, the elevator went in. Of course, the next student who arrived is putting the thing to good use, but you get the idea. Rome wasn't built in a day and if it was under the charge of the Dept. of Ed. by now they'd just about have managed to put up those walls for old Romulus.
Health Services - Preschool through Adult
If your child is too small for school or someone is past school age, it's the Department of Health and Children that provides services. The actual level of service provision is with the Regional Health Boards. Call or check out the website of your region's health board. Services are myriad, including setting up appointments with doctors and specialists, home help in certain cases and much more. When searching a few of these sites, I've found the term "disability" brings up a wealth of appropriate links.
The actual services available will depend, to some extent, on where you're living. Once in contact with a Health Board, a team will assess needs and attempt to provide for them. However, there are waiting lists for some services. Priority is given based on severity of the problem and not just on length of time on the waiting list.
I've been advised by a disability specialist working with one of the Health Boards that the best way to start the ball rolling is to first give them a call and ask for the "Disabilities" section. After you've explained to them your problem and gotten some basic advice, you want to be sure to follow up with a written letter. Don't trust email - do this with pen and ink or printer. A piece of paper is the essential passport to open any bureaucracy's door. By law, civil servants have to deal with a written request.
Here are links and phone numbers for the Regional Health Service . In one of those much trumpeted paper shuffles, the Health Boards are now part of the Health Service Executive. The difference is in the name.
There is tax relief for vehicles purchased for use by people with disabilities. The Revenue Commissioners have put a booklet online with full details about qualifying and claiming this tax benefit.
I spent hours googling and yahooing and allthewebbing to find links to disability and special needs providers. I didn't find all that much that was useful, which was surprising to me. But, Scoilnet provides the best directory of links to advocacy and help groups that I came across.