As of 11 July 2023, a new bill introduced by Independent Trinity Senator Dr Tom Clonan has passed to the Committee (Third) Stage before the Seanad. The Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2023 aims to amend pre-existing legislation on disability services and the state of equal status in Ireland. The Disability Act 2005 and Equal Status Act 2000 (inclusive of 2018 amendments) are the current governing authorities on disability rights in the country.
The harsh reality of disability rights and access to supports in Ireland demonstrates the governing Acts do not go far enough in protecting some of society’s most vulnerable. The amendments proposed by Senator Clonan in the 2023 Bill would ensure that the reasonable needs of disabled citizens, as per State assessment reports, are met.
Current State of Services in Ireland
Legislation exists for a sole purpose: to safeguard the rights of citizens across a wide range of classes. Due to the heterogeneity of society, some laws are more applicable to a larger population whilst others serve only a smaller group. Regardless of the nature or purpose of the law(s) in question, it cannot be partially fulfilling.
Broadly speaking, the 2005 Act places a legal obligation upon the State and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to enable disabled persons to receive a needs assessment.
The 2000 Act prohibits discrimination in the provision of services, accommodation and education across nine grounds, including disability. However, these safeguards are non-exhaustive.
In particular, Section 11 of the 2005 Act fails disabled citizens on two crucial fronts: time and accommodation. While the Act grants citizens the right to seek out and receive a needs assessment for their named disability, it does not disclose nor enforce a timeframe in which this must occur. In the latest debate in the Seanad on July 11, Senator Clonan disclosed that both children and adults are left on waiting lists for years before they are able to meet with a professional to receive a needs assessment. This is further supported by a report from the HSE released in 2022 confirming the average wait time for an assessment in Ireland is 19 months. Those who are able to receive a needs assessment are frequently unable to access disability services and accomodations necessary to better their quality of life. The needs report acquired from an assessment “recommends” accommodations (e.g. various forms of therapy or surgeries), however, further waiting lists exist and there is no guarantee of services in place.
Section 4 of the 2000 Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of disability. However, Section 4(2) allows for legal discrimination if the provision or accommodation would generate a cost to the “provider of service”. This Act is non-exhaustive insofar as it does not take into account the reality of disability services. While an undue burden should not be placed upon a provider of service, there are few limitations in place to protect the ability of disabled citizens to access accommodations without Section 4(2) being exercised by a provider.
Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2023
As proposed by Senator Clonan, the 2023 Bill extends and protects disability rights based on the shortcomings of the 2000 and 2005 Acts. Succinctly, the 2023 Bill would legally require supports and services to be provided to disabled citizens.
Part 1 of the 2023 Bill amends the 2005 Act, placing a legal obligation upon the State to ensure access to disability services within an established timeframe (or earlier) as named in the assessment report. This amendment, if passed, would restrict out-of-control waiting lists and make it so the needs of citizens are actually met instead of waiting for the prospect of support(s) for years on end.
Part 2 of the Bill amends the 2000 Act where it provides clarification to the obligations of providers of service so as to not disregard the needs of those who are disabled. Striking a balance between the burden of providers and the needs of disabled citizens is necessary in order to best support both parties.
The 2023 Bill is further remarkable in its upgrade to more inclusive language and action. Under the proposed amendment for Section 11(3)(a) of the 2005 Act, the law would formally bind the State to “ensure the equitable treatment of every person in the State”. The distinction between equity and equality is crucial. Under the current Act, there is no mention of equity; in fact, few, if any, legislation in Ireland use “equitable” language in place of “equality”. In utilising the term “equity”, the State would formally regard the differences in disability without being discriminatory.
To provide for the needs of the disabled and balance identifiable burdens upon the State and service providers, it is necessary to acknowledge that the disabled experience is different to the non-disabled, requiring divergent and perhaps more comprehensive forms of support in order for all to live in a more equal fashion, enjoying similar privileges. Accommodations and supports are an avenue to equity.
The existence of an accommodation is not automatically an undue burden. To disregard disability needs places tens of thousands of people in harm’s way.
Future of the 2023 Bill
Although the 2023 Bill is only at the Committee Stage of the Seanad with various stages to come, the prospect of its success and passing into law is compelling as per prior debates. If the 2023 Bill is accepted and passed, disabled citizens across Ireland will be able to access supports and services with significantly less hassle and restraint. Citizens will further enjoy State protection of reasonable accommodations through equitable regard.