There are 22,700 people living in Donegal today with a disability or chronic illness. This represents 14% of the entire population of the county. Nationally, one in every eight people in Ireland has a disability. Disability is a community issue – it affects people of all ages and their families directly and indirectly. And when one considers that each and every person who is living with a disability is also a family member – a son, daughter, sibling, mother, father or grandparent– it is clear that concerns relating to the lack of supports and services for people with disabilities encompasses a far larger percentage of Donegal’s population.
A mistake that is often made is to define disability as an issue for “a sector.” The reality is that disability should concern every one of us. It is a key community issue that will affect nearly everyone at some stage in their life, especially as disability increases sharply with age. If the serious gaps that currently exist in service provision for people with disabilities in Donegal are properly addressed, this will support our entire community and everybody will benefit.
The recession hit Ireland hard and it seriously impacted on people with disabilities. Since 2008, there has been a steady erosion of services and supports for people with disabilities. As a result, people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty than others.
The most recent Survey on Income and Living Conditions in Ireland found that over 53% of people who were not at work due to disability or illness experienced enforced deprivation. For everyone who cares about living in a fair society such facts are a cause for grave concern.
As Ireland now enters into a critical stage in our economic recovery, it is vital that people with disabilities and their families are not left behind. The recovery needs to be fair and it needs to deliberately give a lift to those who have been left behind by the downturn.
The Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, recently confirmed that he has almost €1.5 billion available for tax cuts and spending increases in the forthcoming Budget. Now that there is funding available, it has to be invested in those who need it most. There is a pressing need to ensure that community supports and an accessible health infrastructure are prioritised in order to allow people with disabilities to live independently alongside their family and neighbours.
It is a sad reality of our modern republic that people with disabilities are every day facing serious barriers to their full inclusion and participation in our society. This is unfair, this is unjust and this has to be fully addressed to make our nation more equal. Budget 2016 provides the Government with a real opportunity in this regard.
Services for people with disabilities have been historically underfunded in Ireland, making the cuts implemented during the recession all the more devastating. Access to services, such as physiotherapy, speech and language therapy, personal assistants and other key supports, is now totally insufficient. Furthermore, people with disabilities are not entitled to participate in many employment and activation programmes and are, therefore, further excluded from the labour market.
In its budgetary submission, the Disability Federation of Ireland has identified a number of core actions, which it is calling on Government to now achieve, including:
Increasing disability payments by €20 per week, as an interim measure, to offset the cost of disability.
Restoring the respite care grant to pre-austerity levels by increasing it by €325 per annum.
Increasing the Housing Adaptation Grant by €30 million to support people with disabilities currently living in communities.
Cutting waiting lists for specialist and mainstream health services by 50% by 2017.
Increasing the disability health budget by €50 million each year for the next three years.
As this Dáil fast approaches its final budget before a General Election, it is important that all shades of political opinion reflect on the following question: What will be the Disability legacy of this Government? People with disabilities and their families have been given lots of promises in the past. But what is now needed is concrete action. We need to hear and see fully funded plans from Government in this Budget. The outcomes of these plans need to be experienced by the people across the length and breadth of Co. Donegal. There can be no recovery without us. The provision of the necessary supports and services which enable people with disabilities to live as equal citizens in their own communities must be a budgetary priority.
* Jennifer van Aswegen is the Disability Federation of Ireland Support Officer for Co. Donegal.