Fears Among Families Regarding Disability Cuts – Stephen Mooney

Special Needs reaching 'breaking point'

With the 2014 budget due to be released in the coming hours fears are rife among both workers and families of special needs children throughout the country.  With the previous budgets amounting to major cuts in this area and Minister Brendan Howlin confirming that “the budget will not be easy”, it’s not hard to see why.   An increase in drugs payments, a cap on Special Needs Assistants and a reduction of disability allowance are just some of the tough measures enforced in the name of austerity in the past.   There are huge numbers of people struggling with disabilities in Ireland.  In the 2011 census 595,355 people, equivalent to 13% of the country reported to having a disability.  However, these are just facts and figures and fail to tell the story of the individual.  Speaking to a woman that has lost her job as a result of the cuts, a mother whose son has Down syndrome and a current Special Needs Assistant reveal the devastating repercussions the cuts are having on families and workers throughout the country.

Former Special Needs Assistant Maria Boyle was made redundant after the cuts.  Having worked with children with disabilities for the past ten years it seems unthinkable that her skills were no longer required.  She paints a bleak picture of the impact and future prospects the cuts have had on her family:

“Personally, I’m down about €700 a fortnight and at fifty one I don’t know what my opportunity will be in another job besides Special Needs Assistant.  I’ve lost my job and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get another job in that line.”

When asked what she missed most, she was quick to reply “I miss the kids; I miss the friends I made.  I enjoyed seeing   a change in the kids.   It’s just getting up in the morning and going out and enjoying what you do.”

Yet she made it clear that it was not her that should receive the sympathy but the children:  “It’s them I feel sorry for more than anything.  They need attention and with more and more SNAs losing their jobs, they’re not getting it.”

With her job already lost Maria goes into the todays budget with “no expectations, not for me anyway”.

Catriona Ivory, a mother of seven, whose son David is nineteen and has Down syndrome has been greatly affected by cuts made in the summer and has serious concerns about the possibility of cuts in the budget today:

“We actually weren’t affected by the cuts in the past, but in the last cuts in the summer they’ve just totally cut his transport, they’ve cut forty four adults’ transport and I think they’ve left the ones that ‘need it most’, so transports gone totally”.

With six other kids to worry about, Catriona now has to include dropping David to and from school into her already busy schedule. She fears the cut won’t end here:

“They said originally that if they didn’t cut transport they’d cut a unit and basically something would be closed on David.   Then my husband Declan went down to a meeting that was to explain the whole thing, thinking they’d be telling us when its coming back, but not at all. There is going to be more cuts, it’s just mad.   I reckon they’ll cut more, they don’t seem to care about special needs anyway, and the problem is they might start cutting more staff and units.  Someone told me that if transport comes back David would get it but anyone new that started wouldn’t have a hope of getting it.  There are an awful lot of people waiting for places in schools now and they’d be lucky if they get them.  The next thing would be that they cut their hours down.  Other parents are voicing similar concerns for sure.”

Catriona and her family feel abandoned by a Government that have continued to make cuts which affect the most vulnerable in society.

“The kids can’t fight for themselves, they need a voice, and the thing is they’re not asking for much.  The training they’re getting there is fantastic, it’s just not fair. They can only work a couple of hours.  They need it, it’s his life, and he loves his independence with them.”

David himself loves swimming and is currently taking part in lessons in the Glenview as he pursues his dream to become a lifeguard.

Finally, the ones lucky enough to keep their jobs are struggling to deal with the increased work load that comes about as a result of others losing theirs.   Linda Keily has witnessed four of her colleagues become redundant and therefore the number of children under her care rise from one to five in the past two years.   The children’s disabilities range from autism to ADHD.

“One child has issues swallowing and has to be monitored at all times while eating to make sure he doesn’t choke.”

When asked if these redundancies made it more difficult to take care of the children she said:

“It is difficult to give them the attention that they deserve.”

Unofficially Linda has to take care of another boy who has yet to be allocated a Special Needs Assistant, although she maintains that “whether he can get one or not is debatable.”   She also voices fears about the upcoming budget:

“My colleagues and I fear that there could be more job loses, we could be divided amongst even more pupils and they will lose hours allocated to them. “

When asked if the children were receiving the best possible education, her answer was clear:

“I think the children who are allocated a Special Needs Assistant benefit from the dedication of the staff but there are those who would benefit from the help of a Special Needs Assistant but as they do not qualify under the existing Department of Education guidelines will miss out in the long run.”

With jobs being lost, struggles to ensure that a child has a good education and increased work for assistants is it any wonder that people are feeling abandoned?  It is this feeling of abandonment that that ties these three women together. The bottom line is children who need this attention are flying under the radar as cuts are forcing assistants to care for more children and forcing some out of essential jobs.  Both parents and workers alike are reaching breaking point.