'The only thing he has is the bus that comes to collect him'


ANALYSIS:Young people with disabilities are facing an uncertain future once they finish school

FRANK CONATY’S son is just one of the hundreds who will be affected by spending cuts to disability services.

Mathew, who turned 18 last year, has a severe disability and is completely dependent on others. He needs assistance for everything, from using the toilet and getting dressed to going to bed. “His entire life revolves around school. He gets on the bus, goes to his day services. It occupies him, keeps him stimulated and happy.

“He’s 100 per cent reliant on us and others to provide this for him,” Conaty says.

“Other kids might go to university, get a job, get into sport. But the only thing he has is the bus which comes to collect him. It is grossly unfair to think that, when school ends, he would be going around this house with nothing in his life.”

Until now, most young people with intellectual disabilities have progressed on to supported employment or day services run by voluntary agencies when they finished school. But now, uncertainty prevails. Last year the HSE was given about €10 million mid-way through the year to provide hundreds of places for school-leavers and young people in emergency situations.

This year, that money has dried up. Internal records show that voluntary service providers are being told to find these resources within their existing budgets and there is no prospect of a bailout later in the year.

Brian O’Donnell is chief executive of the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies, which represents about 60 voluntary service providers.

He says the cutbacks represent a serious challenge for organisations in meeting the needs of school-leavers and their families. “We’re working very closely with the Minister and the HSE to try to find a solution for these families. We’ll be examining each person’s individual needs and looking at how we can reconfigure existing services to meet those needs.”

While many are pointing their fingers at the State for failing to provide sufficient resources, some parents’ groups also reserve some ire for voluntary service providers.

Typically they receive about €1.5 billion each year to provide services for the State. However, there has been little rigorous oversight of how this money is spent.

A new value-for-money report commissioned by the Government is expected to show that the vast bulk of resources is going on staff salaries, with major variations between the cost of similar services in different parts of the State.

O’Donnell, however, says service providers are changing how they work to promote greater efficiency, reforming work practices and doing everything in their power to meet the challenge ahead of them.

Some parents’ groups say the real crisis surrounding the school-leaver issue will hit in the autumn – but many mothers and fathers say they are already being told that there will be no places for their sons or daughters.

Voluntary organisations in Cork, Limerick and Galway are turning some parents away on the basis that they are cut to the bone and cannot cope with an additional drain on their resources. The Minister of State with responsibility for disability services, Kathleen Lynch, has insisted that service providers can come up with solutions.

She also says major policy changes – such as providing funding to people with disabilities and their families to buy services – will dramatically change the landscape of disability services by handing control over to service users.

They are noble aspirations. But there has been talk of moving to this system for years. This change will come too late for families who need solutions within months. For now, they face an uncertain wait to see if the issue can be resolved in time for them.

“Mathew is completely dependent on the State and our family for his existence,” Conaty says. “This means the State needs to come up with the necessary supports for him and us as a family. But what has the State done? So far, it has withdrawn the dedicated funding that we were depending on. This is grossly unfair.”