People with disabilities are entitled to salaries, not just social welfare

This could be a real, inclusive republic if we let people with disabilities make a contribution at work too


All too often, political debate about disability matters centres on only one issue: social welfare allowance. Clearly such an issue is important. We need to ensure we live in a country that provides financial supports for people who need them. However, it is only part of the debate we need to have.

The State cannot think that its sole responsibility when it comes to people with disabilities is funding social welfare payments. That is an ignorant and offensive view. We need to change and challenge how the State interacts with people with disabilities if we are serious about living in an inclusive country that wants to harness the potential of all our citizens.

Traditionally, our approach to disability services in this country has been to write a cheque, but never to examine if the systems and structures are in place to empower people with disabilities to live the lives they want to live.

So we have a situation where our laissez-faire attitude has led the State to believe, wrongly, that it has met its moral and legal obligation by issuing disability allowance payments and outsourcing the delivery of services to a variety of organisations.

This viewpoint is completely out of step with any modern country, and with the needs and wants of people with disabilities.

Fixing the economy

The first half of this Government’s term was focused on fixing the economy. That work is now well in hand and, as we continue to bring about economic recovery, we need to recognise people with disabilities as part of this recovery, just like every other citizen.

This means doing more to help people with disabilities to access the workforce by developing a comprehensive plan for supported employment. We cannot continue to sideline people with disabilities. Instead, we must enable them to fulfil their potential and make their contribution to society by putting structures in place to help them access the workforce and pursue the careers of their choice.

The Programme for Government contains a number of key commitments on improving the quality of life for people with disabilities. Some progress has been made, but we have much more to do. Those commitments are ambitious and innovative and they are light years ahead of anything proposed by previous Governments.

So we must push ahead with their implementation. We need to introduce individualised budgets. This reform will be essential if we want to move away from the days of just throwing money at disability services rather than reforming them.

We must move towards a personal budget model so that people with disabilities, or their families, have the flexibility to make choices that suit their needs best, and stop providing block-funding grants to service providers. This will empower people with disabilities to choose the services they want, with adequate State support.

Only by radically reshaping the relationship between the State and people with disabilities can we stop reducing every debate to arguments about social welfare payments. As citizens, people with disabilities deserve better than that. Supported employment allows people with disabilities to gain a greater sense of value and self-confidence while providing a tangible economic value to the employers and contributing constructively to our economy.

In fact, if we want to get real political buy-in for this mind shift, we must recognise that this issue is economic as well as social. There are many people with disabilities sitting at home today who want to be at work. Helping them get there will not only make a huge difference to their lives, it will benefit the economy.

So how are we going to make it happen? The next budget and subsequent HSE service plan must include tangible steps to move away from the system of block grants to individualised budgets for people with disabilities.

The Department of Health’s “Future Health” policy points to a number of measures that will be needed for individualised budgeting, including suitable financial systems, transparent governance arrangements, a new regulatory system and new legislation to underpin the changes.

Employment strategy

Minister of State for Disability, Equality, Mental Health and Older People Kathleen Lynch has asked the National Disability Authority to develop a 10-year employment strategy for people with disabilities.

This must include a range of realistic and tangible measures that will help people with disabilities to enter both mainstream and supported employment.

All of these changes must be implemented with the full buy-in of those who will be affected by them. Groups representing people with disabilities must tell us how the relevant Government departments can actively help people with disabilities access employment in a meaningful way.

I was motivated to get into politics through my work as a disability advocate. When I was in my teens, I set up the Wicklow Triple A Alliance, a charity to support children and families affected by autism. I know, without doubt, the contribution people with disabilities make and can continue to make on our road to economic recovery and to a real, inclusive republic.

We have a moral and an economic obligation to get there.

Simon Harris is a Fine Gael TD for Wicklow. He can be contacted at

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