A New Government – A New Disability Reform Agenda

Election 2016  

A New Government – A New Disability Reform Agenda. 

Reflections from the Centre for Disability Law & Policy

At NUI Galway.

9 February, 2016

The hard-won economic recovery is now well underway.  The Government deserves credit for this.  But we now need a social recovery to match it – one based on the equal citizenship as well as productive capacity of persons with disabilities.

All political parties need to address these reform challenges and show the voters they mean it.  Otherwise they cannot claim the support of citizens with disabilities who have had to put up with a lack of innovation, bad services and low expectations.  We – at the Centre for Disability Law & Policy at NUI Galway – contend that those who contend for high office have to provide convincing plans to meet the following challenges.

  • First of all, our service model needs a drastic overhaul.  It is still premised on a medical model of allocating resources to meet specific needs.  These needs are important.  But they should be put alongside the higher importance of enabling people to get a life and live independently and in the community.When the present Government came into office it promised a radical shake-up of the way the public service functions.  Nothing of the sort has happened.  We are left with the same unfit-for-purpose service model – the only difference being that it now has a static or shrunken budget.  The stated goal of successive Governments has been in favour of the personalization of supports with budgets devolved to the person (and freedom to shop beyond traditional service providers).  While we pour money in to an old and discredited model the world has moved on.  Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme is particularly impressive.  Some services are innovating.  But isolated pockets of excellence simply aggravate people’s frustration.  Someone, somewhere in public office has to grasp the public interest and enforce it throughout the country.  All parties should declare now their intention to forcefully re-engineer our existing service model and transform it to meet best international practice.
  • Secondly, the endemic poverty of persons with disabilities has to be tackled.  Everyone knows that employment is a key to independence as well as social integration.  The recently announced Employment Strategy is a good start.  But we also know that employment for many people with disabilities will not necessarily generate the resources needed to get a life.  And our social welfare system on its own will not do.  It needs to be complemented by positive wealth accumulation strategies particularly in favour of persons with disabilities and especially those with intellectual disabilities.  There is a lot of fiscal innovation throughout the world now which enables trust and other funds to grow in favour of persons with disabilities without impacting their social entitlements (e.g., Canada).  Often this requires Government to incentivize third parties to invest (with appropriate tax breaks).  There is no reason why the Department of Finance cannot innovate beyond the well-known limits of our social welfare model.  There is no reason why we cannot break beyond the assumption that people with disabilities will either remain resource-poor or dependent on social welfare (more or less the same thing).    Our political parties need to commit to innovative with new fiscal models to grow the assets of persons with disabilities to ensure they have choices and do not fall into steep poverty traps.
  • Thirdly, any new Government needs to accelerate the implementation of the long-standing plan to end institutionalization.  The main scandal about Aras Attracta was that it still exists.  Its continued existence is not merely an affront to the right to live in the community but is also against longstanding Government policy (‘Ending Congregated Settings”, HSE, 2011) .  It is time to get serious about community living which means connecting housing strategy with services and support strategy.  It means, for example, getting beyond a reactionary or response–led service model that cannot plan for inevitable lifecourse events.  What is the point in being allocated housing if one doesn’t have the support to take advantage of it?  No one can rationally plan their lives if they cannot predict how the system will respond in advance.  And carers have a right to live independently too instead if being used as a permanent form of support regardless of the opportunity costs to them – and to the larger economy.

This Government managed to turn around a backward looking Bill it inherited from the last Government on mental capacity.  Minister Kathleen Lynch deserves the lion’s share of credit for converting this Bill into Europe’s first Assisted Decision-Making Act (December 2015). The Act is far from perfect but at least we now have something to build on.  This Act has yet to be commenced.  This has to be a priority of the incoming Government.   And even when commenced it will remain symbolic unless people are also enabled to get their own lives.  That is another reason why action on closing own institutions is long over-due.

The next Government could start by ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  Rather shamefully, we are among only a handful of countries that have not ratified.  We have to ratify with an attitude that we can contribute to positive strategies for change throughout the world – and not just defend ourselves every four years before the UN.  The imagination shown by this Government to produce landmark legislation on Assisted Decision-Making shows what is possible.  The next Government has to show similar imagination in changing our service model, tackling poverty through innovation and ensuring community living for all.  Indeed, strong legislation on the right to live in the community would be an ambitious but also an achievable goal.

Otherwise, given the Poor Law mentality behind so much of our model, one is left wondering what 1916 was all about and whether it was worth it.

Professor Gerard Quinn, Director

Professor Martin Naughton, adjunct chair

Dr Eilionoir Flynn, assistant Director

Centre for Disability Law & Policy

NUI Galway.