Disability as a Human Rights Issue in General Election 2011

This is a joint post with Charles O’Mahony and Mary Keogh.

Following on from Mairead Enright and Darren O’Donovan’s posts about human rights and equality as election issues in political party manifestos, this post will focus specifically on the key policy issues affecting people with disabilities, which have, to a large extent, been overlooked in the election debate thus far. Maman Poulet has also provided an excellent analysis of the main parties manifestos in relation to disability issues, and this post will build on this analysis to suggest concrete areas for action which should be addressed by the incoming government in their next programme for government. In addition, some insight will be provided on responses to many of these issues given by election candidates at last week’s Lifecourse Institute – Critical Perspectives event in NUI Galway. In advance of the political event, a critical perspectives paper was prepared setting out key issues for the incoming government to consider.

Firstly, on the broader issue of disability rights, while most parties are committed to the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, there has been little analysis by the political parties of what this step would mean in practical terms for Irish law and policy, beyond recognition of the need to introduce modern legal capacity legislation. None of the political party manifestos address how supported decision-making might be introduced.

In order to be compliant with the UN Convention, Irish legal capacity legislation will have to substantively provide a structure to formalise and give legal weight to supported decision-making mechanisms, short of the imposition of adult guardianship (see Gerard Quinn’s article in the Irish Times). Models of supported decision-making already exist and work well in other countries, such as the Representation Agreement system in British Columbia, where persons whose capacity is in question select a decision-making network, and determine which decisions they need help with and how they will make them with the assistance of others. These structures obviously need safeguards to prevent abuse and exploitation, but are clearly less restrictive than the imposition of guardianship.

Secondly with regard to the right of disabled people to services and to take up civic roles in society, members of the deaf community who were present at the Lifecourse event highlighted two important issues. First of all, the lack of funding for interpretation services was raised, e.g. for parent teacher meetings in secondary schools between deaf parents and teachers of their children. The ban on deaf jurors (see Charles O’Mahony’s post) was also raised. All candidates at the event stated that if elected, they were committed to reforming the law on this issue to allow deaf persons to serve on juries and to have sign language interpreters present during jury deliberations.

In relation to the lack of funding for interpretation, it is interesting that the  only party manifesto to moot the idea of giving official recognition to Irish Sign Language is the Green Party’s, despite a constant lobby by groups such as the Irish Deaf Society to have ISL recognised as an official language of the state. This is currently the position in a number of countries including New Zealand, and would significantly enhance opportunities for deaf people to participate in all levels of public life. The level of controversy which Fine Gael’s policy on the Irish language has inspired certainly stands in stark contrast to the position of the deaf community in Ireland, which lacks the same protection for its language as Gaelgóirí currently enjoy. Fine Gael’s manifesto only commits to “examine different mechanisms to enhance the recognition of Irish Sign Language” and none of the remaining political parties’ manifestos address this issue.

The issue of choice over where and with whom to live was also raised at the Lifecourse event. As the congregated settings report indicates (see Carl O’Brien’s article in the Irish Times and Charles O’ Mahony’s blog), there are over 4000 people with disabilities in Ireland living in residential settings with 10 or more people. Most of these are people with intellectual disabilities. For the most part, people living in ‘congregated settings’ did not choose to do so and find themselves subject to restrictions on their daily activities which most of us would not accept. The majority of election candidates at the Lifecourse event were not aware of the congregated settings report and even those who were had no concrete proposals about how to implement the changes it recommends in order to ensure that independent living in the community is an option for all.

Linked with the right to choose where to live, is the need for independent living support services. Financial independence is key in giving people with disabilities the ability to purchase the supports they need. Questions were raised at the Lifecourse event with regard to political parties commitment to introducing a direct payments system. The current system operates on the basis of allocation of funding to service providers and the commitment to investigating new approaches as always been promised by governments, however never acted upon. Most recently, the Minister of State for Disability and Mental Health committed to introducing a system of direct payments for people with disabilities.  Fine Gael’s manifesto also includes a commitment to introducing “needs-based personal care budgets so that they have much greater choice and control over the services they need” and Labour has also promised “to consider moving a proportion of public spending to a personal budgeting model”. However, no party has specified how such a system would be implemented and managed, and what supports would be available to individuals and families managing such a budget for the first time. In addition, the potential implications which the Croke Park Agreement might have for the restructuring of disability services and the introduction of a system of direct payments has not been considered in any of the main political parties manifestos.

Another key factor in ensuring that independent living becomes a reality for all is the introduction of legislative powers for personal advocates. Personal advocates are state-appointed individuals who assist people with disabilities to access services. The Minister for Social Protection, who was present at the Lifecourse event, announced the establishment of a National Advocacy Service in October (see here) but did not clarify when statutory powers outlined in the Citizens Information Act 2007 will be assigned to advocates in the new service. Such powers include the ability to enter any premises where services are provided to people with disabilities, to access any information about the person necessary to pursue a claim and the creation of a specific offence of obstructing the work of a personal advocate. No party manifesto has committed to introducing these legislative powers.

Finally, most of the manifestos refer to the need to restructure the National Disability Strategy, introduce more transparency and accountability in how public money is spent on disability services, and ensure more effective implementation and monitoring of the strategy’s goals. However, no party manifesto has identified what precise changes would be made to the current system of implementing and monitoring the National Disability Strategy (via the National Disability Strategy Stakeholders Monitoring Group), and Fine Gael and Sinn Fein’s manifestos do not provide concrete proposals for how this group should be reconfigured, although they refer to ‘whole of government monitoring in partnership with the disability sector’ and the creation of a ‘National Disability Strategy Implementation Group’ respectively.  However, if the National Disability Strategy is recognised as the key mechanism for ensuring domestic implementation of the UN Convention, then certain concrete changes will have to be made to ensure that progress is measured coherently and that the goals of the strategy itself are reframed to accurately reflect the aims of the Convention. For more on how to configure National Disability Strategies to implement the Convention at domestic level, see the Centre for Disability Law and Policy’s research on this issue.

Given that both Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore cited disability (and mental health in Kenny’s case) as their key social justice and equality priority in last night’s final leaders debate on RTE, the issues raised above must be carefully considered by these leaders and all those involved in forming Ireland’s next government, if true equality is to be achieved.

Disability as a Human Rights Issue in General Election 2011

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