It’s a story in itself that it was quite shocking last week to see a minister stand up to her officials, but Minister of State for Disabilities Anne Rabbitte did the right thing by vulnerable children and their families and teachers.
The decision this week by Disabilities Minister Anne Rabbitte to suspend the roll-out of the controversial Progressing Disabilities Services (PDS) scheme – which would have seen special schools lose their on-site therapists to community-based hubs – followed months of lobbying by special schools and parents’ groups, and a series of what were reportedly increasingly frustrated meetings between the minister and Health Service Executive officials.
That Rabbitte informed officials of the halting of the introduction of PDS after 4pm on Thursday afternoon, just as her pre-recorded interview on Newstalk announced the same decision, was a clear power play by the junior minister, and one she was extremely unlikely to have made without the full support of the Taoiseach, in whose constituency is one of those special schools about to be negatively impacted by PDS.
A well-placed source said last weekend: “You can be damn full sure Anne Rabbitte wouldn’t have done that without Micheál’s 110% backing, and that backing absolutely makes sense when kids in his own back yard were about to be affected by this”.
Under the PDS scheme, services for children with complex needs would be provided within a community setting rather than in a school setting, with Children’s Disability Network Teams (CDNT) being established to provide services and supports for children with disabilities within a defined geographic area.
St Columba’s Girls National School in Douglas has a facility for 34 deaf and hard of hearing boys and girls from across Cork county, and its principal had warned that the PDS scheme would have forced parents to transport their children, during school time, across long distances to access their local CDNT.
With deaf and hard of hearing students travelling daily from across Cork county, St Columba’s principal Triona Fitzgerald told me PDS would result in her students losing significant amounts of class time if they were forced to travel to their communities to access speech and language therapy.
“I would fear that some parents, whose children travel long distances to and from school, are going to be forced to make the unfortunate decision to keep their child at home on the day they have their speech and language session,” she said.
“That’s a lost day once a week, which would have a devastating effect on students, whereas under our current arrangements a child can have their half-hour session in school and go back to class with no time wasted and the child isn’t exhausted.”
Ms Fitzgerald said HSE officials had offered what she called 'a sop', that deaf and hard of hearing pupils at St Columba’s GNS could be accommodated at the nearest CDNT facility, which is in Curraheen.
Describing that proposal as 'of no use', she said: “Given that students’ parents would need to travel to the school, collect their children and take them to the CDNT, and then return them to class after their therapy, it’s simply not a workable solution.”
As one parent of a child with disabilities told me last week, if you were trying to imagine the sort of hare-brained idea the HSE might come up with, Progressing Disabilities Services is exactly what you’d imagine it is.
It’s the kind of “Okay guys, let’s think outside the box here, there are no stupid ideas”, ideas which inevitably and immediately proves that there are indeed incredibly stupid ideas, and the stupidest of them are usually the ones which sound initially plausible until they make contact with reality.
PDS is a management consultant’s dream, a notion which seems to make sense until you have to go from the general to the specific. In general, who could be against the idea of taking specialist therapists scattered all over a county and instead localising (streamlining, guys, streamlining) them into – management consultants simply cannot resist the word 'hub' – a community hub? It’s a hub, right, and best of all, guys, it has the prefix 'community', and I mean who doesn’t love community, am I right?
The general hit the specific when 34 kids in Douglas (and 140 kids in the Holy Family School for the Deaf in Cabra) were about to lose their speech and language therapists, and Anne Rabbitte, to her credit, shouted stop.
Describing the decision to halt the removal of therapists as “part of a broader conversation I’m having with the HSE about PDS”, Rabbitte said that while she remained confident in PDS, her decision had come after listening to the concerns of parents and teachers.
“Having spoken with St Columba’s principal, I want to reassure the school, its pupils, and families, that speech and language therapy will continue two mornings a week at the school,” the minister said.
“There will be no change. Hopefully, this will ease the worries of all involved.”
Triona Fitzgerald, St Columba’s principal, welcomed Rabbitte’s statement, saying: “Language development and communication are vital for children with hearing impairments, and the retention of the in-school speech and language service is a much-needed support.”
Gillian Davies, whose son Liam is currently in Sixth Class in St Columba’s, said parents are cautiously optimistic that the minister will ensure that Deaf schools will keep their on-site therapists, adding that such therapy works best as a 'seamless' and complementary part of a child’s normal school day.
“All any parent of a child with additional needs ever wants is for their child to have equal access to education, as is their constitutional right.”
Anne Rabbitte is an interesting character, and I confess that I was somewhat leery of her since her 2019 suggestion, as reported by Michael Brennan in the Sunday Business Post, that the projected cost of excavating the site of the former Tuam Home – where the remains of as many as 796 children lie abandoned in a disused sewerage system – would be money better spent on helping the homeless children of today. This is the sort of zero-sum game thinking which illustrates that homeless children can be weaponised to deflect attention from any issue at all except, presumably, homeless children.
In January of this year, Minister Rabbitte told Alison O’Reilly, the journalist who broke the Tuam Babies story, that she had been 'misquoted' in that story.
A widowed mother of three, Rabbitte was first elected to the Dáil in 2016. Opposition representatives who know the Galway East Fianna Fáil TD are generous in their praise, saying she’s not a conventional politician, but rather a consensus-builder happy to work across party lines and although an instinctive people person, Rabbitte has steel in her spine, with Sinn Fein and Labour members saying – even before her decision to blindside the HSE – that she’s not someone who would be easily cowed by civil servants.
Perhaps she’s the right woman to show the HSE that their spreadsheet solutions have real-life impacts on flesh-and-blood children already facing life at a disadvantage.
Nobody could deny that the current patchwork of disability services is in need of urgent attention, but most parents and teachers agree that the number one systemic problem is not geographic spread, but rather a shortage of therapists.
Forcing vulnerable children to miss class times is not going to fix that, and would instead have a terrible effect on their lives.
Minister Rabbitte may have halted the introduction of PDS for now, but it seems clear that the HSE is wedded to the scheme with an almost religious certainty, and this is likely only to be Round One.
With some 25,000 children waiting right now for speech and language therapy, the battle is far from over.