Appointment of additional special needs assistants to provide vital support for children with disabilities

Full impact will not be evident until 2017

 

A decision in principle by Government last week to recruit an additional 860 special needs assistants to support children with disabilities in schools is a welcome development. It is a matter of concern, however, that funding for this initiative will not become available until the end of the year, so that recruitment may not have an impact in the classroom until 2017.

Following years of retrenchment and a freeze on recruitment, pressure has built up as parents of children with “assessed needs” demand the provision of Special Needs Assistants. The role of a special needs assistant is not to teach; deputise for teachers or take charge of a class. They provide generalised help for the class teacher and individualised support for children.

The scheme was introduced some 20 years ago to facilitate the education of children with special needs in mainstream schools. It represented a significant shift in official attitudes and allowed many disabled children to emerge from the shadows and participate fully in the educational process.

The appointment of a Minister of State with special responsibility for disability issues in this Government was a reminder that empowerment of disabled citizens remains a work in progress. Independent TD Finian McGrath, who has been a consistent advocate on their behalf, was appointed as Minister. The programme for government also contains a commitment to maximise educational opportunities for people with disabilities.

The Minister announced some additional funding to meet the needs of school leavers with disabilities two weeks ago. A task force is also considering how citizens might be empowered to customise services paid for by their State allowances.

A report is due by the end of the summer and its proposals will be submitted to the Health Service Executive. It is a complicated area because of cultural attitudes and resistance from established service providers.

As with other Government priorities’, however, comprehensive change will not take place without additional financial resources and a political commitment to the creation of a fair and compassionate society.

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