Covid-19 and the Impact on People with Disabilities

Thu, Jun 17, 2021

Read in 4 minutes

Neasa spoke in the Dáil on the impact of Covid-19 on people with disabilities within the education system.

Transcript: I am going to speak about a particular group this evening, namely, that comprising children with visual impairment. I lived the experience over the last 15 months with my own eight year old. Other Deputies have mentioned the AsIAm report. One could pick any group and speak to its specific needs, or indeed any child, because every child is unique and will have experienced the pandemic in a particular way.

It is worth saying at the outset that my experience - and indeed that of many parents - was that the staff at the school really tried their hardest. Visiting teachers, resource teachers, class teachers and the incredible SNAs that are almost part of the family did heroic work during the pandemic to bridge the gap that Covid-19 threw up and exposed in our services. NGOs did a huge amount of work for children with visual impairment. The National Council for the Blind of Ireland, NCBI, provided support, advocacy and advice. Parents groups such as Féach and ChildVision in Drumcondra did great work.

The pandemic had an impact in two areas. It had an impact on and caused disruption to children’s academic lives, but for children with disabilities, it also had a huge impact on the social, developmental and emotional side of their lives, which they access through the school environment. It is important that we have these debates and bring it all out into the light now in case it happens again - and I really hope that we do not see another pandemic or go into a third wave lockdown. The pandemic also exposed failings in our own system and in education delivery and services.

For a child with visual impairment, much of the academic side that they access in school is based on assistive technology. For a child in primary school in particular, assistive technology includes CCTV, and reveal technology. These are big bulky items that the schools do not necessarily send home. Indeed, I am not sure they should be sending them home. Even if they could, certainly in my constituency, most families do not have the space to set up a large, permanent screen-type learning environment. Therefore, during the pandemic, most children in mainstream education with visual impairment were required to do much of their learning online and through Zoom. Many children with visual impairment have other diagnoses. For example, they might have hearing difficulties or other complications. Zoom learning is simply not workable. It is very difficult to get a child to concentrate on a Zoom call when they cannot see the screen and they are not having the same experience as their peers in their class. That has a huge knock-on effect. The pandemic really brought to the fore the need for a greater focus in educational settings on the expanded core curriculum. It is an issue that the NCBI highlights often. It encompasses everything on the curriculum except the academics.

I have an excellent experience of visiting teachers and they are fantastic. However, their focus and their task from the Department is academic in nature. They are excellent at supporting the other elements of the curriculum, but it would be even better if there was a renewed focus on an expanded core curriculum for children who are visually impaired. It includes the social and occupational therapy aspects, such as making friends and children taking responsibility for going to the toilet by themselves. To do that, one very clear thing that we could do would be for the Department of Education and the NCSE to recognise the NCBI as a complementary service provider so that it could support children, parents, families, visiting teachers and the schools themselves in that more social side of how education is experienced by children with visual impairment.

Finally, at the meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Disability Matters earlier, we had a very clear discussion with the chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission on the need for better data. There is a huge gap between the data on self-declared vision impairment in the census and the number of children in our educational system who are receiving support. That simply does not add up. We need to get it right.