FOR adult students with disabilities who are learning life skills at Cork’s National Learning Network (NLN), a €31.80 weekly training allowance buys more than material things.
The small amount guarantees a tall sense of autonomy and self-confidence, reflected in a proud ‘No’ when Jason O’Callaghan’s parents ask him if he needs pocket money.
Jason, aged 20, a student of NLN with a learning disability, uses his €31.80 for “social outings” that make his life “less boring”.
Eligible learners, however, are set to lose the rehabilitative training bonus soon.
Earlier in the summer, the HSE announced its decision to axe the bonus payment programme, effective from September. The health authority has said that it would save €3.7 million in four years by ending the programme, stating its plans to reinvest that money into upgrading “disability day services”.
About 2,300 adult learners are reportedly entitled to receive the bonus training fee.
According to the HSE, those who are already receiving the weekly payment may continue to retain it until the completion of their course, with the decision only impacting new, qualified learners.
“Therefore, the decision to discontinue the (rehabilitative training) bonus will not impact negatively on any individual,” the HSE said.
Adrian Brady, a rehabilitation instructor at NLN, however, warns about the divisive nature of the approach, reasoning that their old students will feel “guilty” for retaining the payment, while their new classmates are being left out.
“It’s horrible, it is making us (old students) look bad,” Jason agrees, staring at the floor.
The NLN offers a range of life-skills courses for those with intellectual and physical disabilities — as Dave, a rehab instructor, puts it, “it prepares them for the big, bad world”.
Inside the NLN’s building at Hollyhill, all students are acutely aware of the HSE’s new announcement.
In their mission to oppose the cuts, some of the learners have become accidental activists.
Most of them have already been to a large protest outside the Leinster House, and even though an online petition for the cause is available, students have drawn up a paper petition, collecting Corkonians’ signatures on the streets every day.
Aoife O’Farrell, a 28-year-old learner with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), speaks with a steely passion in her voice when it comes to the imminent cuts.
“People are going to be severely impacted by these cuts, we get things necessary for our daily life with the €31.80. “It’s absolutely disgraceful,” she says.
“It’s not going to affect me, but it’s going to affect people who are coming in from September, and it is very unfair to them.”
Aoife is afraid that her future classmates who live outside the city might be discouraged from enrolling in the “useful” course, as most students use the bonus payment to travel to Hollyhill.
Aoife, whose Facebook cover photo depicts a montage of her friends at NLN, says she would be “physically lost” without the programme and the friends she has made at the centre.
“My confidence has gone way up. I’m actually doing an accountancy working experience now,” she explains, smiling.
She is particularly upset “about the way this was done”.
“We feel it’s very unfair that it was all (decided) during our summer shut down,” she says.
“We feel so strongly about this because we think (the new students) don’t have a voice yet, but we do, and we need to fight for them.”
Ciara Horgan, a 21-year-old learner with severe visual impairment, buys lunch and breakfast with her €31.80, and she used to travel to pick up her disability allowance with the extra money.
“I think it was very sneaky that they brought this in during the summer shutdown, so none of us knew and couldn’t say anything about it,” she reasons.
Adrian says that he read the news on the internet while on holiday in Italy. The genial rehabilitation instructor worries that his new students, ashamed of relying on their families for travel expenses, might refrain from buying necessities such as sanitary products.
Walking through the centre’s purple-tinted doors, Adrian proudly shows off his students’ works, a sprawl of art that covers almost all the centre’s walls. A mural of a jungle painted by a student who has since passed away brings life to the centre’s backyard.
The learners’ social room is an airless space furnished with sagging, second-hand furniture. Adrian explains that Cork people have donated every object in the room, from the furniture to an old pool table.
The therapist’s door is currently locked as the centre cannot afford to offer daily counselling.
In one of the rooms, two large boards hold a cornucopia of images, all of them showing NLN’s learners on social outings and activities.
In one image, two learners are giving a thumbs up to the camera while go-karting. A novelty €500 note depicts the smiling image of one of the students, a prize won during one of those social outings.
A black and white photo shows four students in front of the city’s Christmas Ferris wheel on Grand Parade, one student is holding her hands in front of her mouth giggling.
Adrian says that these photos are going to be the only remnants of NLN’s happier days, as the centre can’t afford to take new students to such excursions without the bonus fee.
Inside the centre’s kitchen, Annette Cummins, a 46-year-old woman with a learning disability, is busy making chicken curry.
Annette, who has a special penchant for “cooking and making sandwiches”, uses her allowance money to “go to places like Blackrock Castle”.
In the meeting room, Adrian picks up a piece of paper that Aoife has left, a letter consisting of the things she wanted to be highlighted in this article.
“I want future students to be able to have the allowance money that I am able to have,” the letter’s last line reads.
To add your signature to the NLN students’ online petition visit: https://www.change.org/p/save-the-training-bonus-minister-simon-harris.