The Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon will address the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education today about education for children with special needs.
Dr Muldoon will specifically discuss the Education for Persons with Special Education Needs (EPSEN) Act (2004).
After many years, there are still parts of the Act which concern the assessment of special educational needs that have not been commenced.
This means that children and their families are relying on an Assessment of Needs (AON) to access educational support.
Speaking ahead of his appearance before the Committee, the Ombudsman for Children said: “The fact that the EPSEN Act has not been fully implemented places huge pressure on the AON process. The resulting hold up in access to services is not serving anyone and only adding to problems coming down the line."
“In October last year the OCO published a report called ‘Unmet Needs’, which sets out the challenges experienced by children who may have a disability and require an assessment of their needs (AON).
“The Unmet Needs report raises serious concerns about ongoing violations of the rights of children with disabilities due to significant delays for children in accessing an assessment of need (AON), despite the HSE’s legal obligation to commence an AON within three months of receipt of a child’s application.
“Given that the AON process and the EPSEN Act were designed to work together, we believe that an Independent Expert Group should be established to review the Disability Act (2005), which outlines the statutory obligations around AON’s, and the EPSEN Act. Changes are needed to cut down on times for an AON, while improving access to educational supports.
“Only last month, the OCO published Mind The Gap, research outlining the barriers facing children with disabilities Ireland. The conclusions are stark, but not surprising. Children with disabilities are not seen - they are overlooked in laws, policies and programmes. Children with disabilities are not heard - they are not actively or effectively involved in consultations. Children with disabilities are not counted - they are relatively invisible in data.
“Looking at the delays and the barriers facing children with disabilities, it is clear that they are always at a huge disadvantage. However, Covid-19 has added to that disadvantage and had a disproportionately negative impact for this group.
“The loss of school for this group of children was much more than a denial of education, it was the loss of meaning, routine, therapy, socialisation, peer interaction and fun. It was no surprise then that stories of regression and challenging behaviour were consistently arriving into our Office every time we had a lockdown, and that parents were crying out for schools to be re-opened for this group of children.
“It is high time that children with disabilities and their families stop having to battle to overcome barriers. Our laws and policies must serve all of our children and allow them all to access the best education possible. It is our duty to empower them to be the best they can be and the structures must be there to support their development. It is high time for the State to lead, not impede.”