State's Yes agenda geared to rid children of real rights
Parents of children with special needs have seen it all before. We now listen with scorn to the slogans of the political parties, the media, the State-funded charities in this so-called children’s referendum.
Until the O’Donoghue (1993) and Sinnott (2001) landmark judgments, many special needs children were denied education and other vital services by the government.
Annie Ryan, in her book Walls of Silence, exposed the cruelty visited on children and adults with disabilities in State care.
In the O’Donoghue and Sinnott cases, the State fought bitterly against parents.
Labour’s minister for education Niamh Bhreathnach’s departmental legal team argued that some children were simply ineducable and therefore not protected by article 42 of the Constitution.
Seeing how this argument failed, FF’s Micheál Martin, as minister for education, had the State legal team change tack. He argued that a child’s basic rights should be subject to resources and that government, not the needs of the child, should decide the help a child receives.
However, our Constitution required a full and appropriate response to the child’s educational and other fundamental rights and needs. In other words, the courts declared the State was wrong and negligent.
But the government did not give up, it just changed tack. Responding to the public outcry at its crass treatment of children with special needs and their parents, minister for education Michael Woods announced that he had “an open cheque book” to meet their needs.
Things started to happen, new services were started, therapy became more available, early assessment and intervention teams were set up, facilities got the go-ahead for construction.
Behind the scenes, however, the State was working to regain control of special needs children and put parents back in their box.
It came up with the perfect strategy. Harness this newly awakened public support for children with special needs by having the State campaign and legislate for the “rights” of these children.
Many people smelt a rat: the same State which had neglected children with special needs for decades, and spent millions fighting to deny them their rights, was suddenly claiming to be on their side, even claiming to be their strongest advocate.
The State anticipated our incredulity. Acting like a humble penitent, it consulted selected stakeholders, lulling their suspicions and neutralising potential opposition one by one.
The government, aided by its National Disability Authority, gathered opposition politicians, media, academics and even many State-funded disability groups into its campaign for the “rights” of children with special needs.
Those of us who knew how strong the constitutional rights of our children with special needs were, and how much the State despised them, tried to sound the alarm. But we were asked: “How can you be against ‘rights’ for children with special needs?” When the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill was released in 2003, our suspicions were confirmed.
In the proposed law, the State was not going to commit itself to giving children the constitutional rights that they had established beyond a doubt in the courts. Rather, government was blatantly seeking to substitute these real rights for “rights” they could manipulate and control.