Social class is a key factor behind the reluctance of schools in wealthy areas to enrol students with special needs, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Adam Harris, chief executive of autism charity AsIAm, said recent attempts to force schools in the south Dublin area to open special classes resulted in most additional places opening in less affluent areas.
By contrast, only a handful of additional places were provided in the wealthiest parts of the area such as Dublin 2, 4, 6 and 6W.
Mr Harris said there appeared to be a “hierarchy of rights” operating in some affluent schools which were open to expanding generally or improving facilities for existing students, but were opposed to enrolling pupils with autism.
“What they are arguing is that they have an obligation to some pupils , but that is negated if they had a disability,” he said.
He was speaking at an Oireachtas committee on education where there were calls by campaigners to fully implement 17-year-old legislation which relates to the assessment of special educational needs.
Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon many parts of the Education for Persons with Special Education Needs (Epsen) Act have not been commenced despite being signed into law in 2004.
He said this was placing “huge pressure” on the assessment of needs process and was adding to problems coming down the line.
Dr Muldoon said his office has serious concerns about “ongoing violations” of the rights of children with disabilities due to significant delays for children in accessing an assessment of need.
This was despite the HSE’s legal obligation to commence an assessment of needs within three months of receipt of a child’s application.
He said an independent expert group should be established to review the relevant legislation with the aim of cutting down on times for a needs assessment while improving access to educational supports.
Dr Muldoon added that children with disabilities were not seen and are overlooked in laws, policies and programmes.
“ Children with disabilities are not heard. They are not actively or effectively involved in consultations. Children with disabilities are not counted. They are relatively invisible in data,” he said.
“Looking at the delays and the barriers facing children with disabilities, it is clear that they are always at a huge disadvantage. However, Covid-19 has added to that disadvantage and had a disproportionately negative impact for this group.”
Inclusion Ireland's interim chief executive Lorraine Dempsey said the Epsen Act had been seen as ground-breaking back in 2004 when it put inclusive education on a statutory footing and provided for children to have their education needs assessed and met.
“Seventeen years after the act has been passed, the main pieces of the act that benefit disabled children have yet to be commenced,” she said.
“In short, this means a child with a special education need does not have a legal right to an assessment of their education needs and have these identified needs addressed through an inclusive education plan. Parents have no legal right to have an input into the IEP,” she said.
The failure to implement the act fully meant children’s rights “are at the whim of policy makers, changes in government, funding priorities and other factors”.
Mr Harris added that his organisation believed it was vital that the Government take a rights-based approach to the provision of educational supports for autistic students and other young people with additional needs.
“It is clear that the non-statutory approach to providing supports, which the Department of Heath presently advocates, has left many children without the support they need and has forced too many families into adversarial interactions with schools and the department,” he said.
“ We therefore believe that it is vital that the Epsen Act, alongside the other relevant disability legislation, is reviewed, updated and commenced without delay.”