Symposium on Disability and Human Rights

Closing address by Ms. Mary Wallace, T.D., Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Internet publication URL:

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Dublin, Ireland, 18th November, 1997

Closing address by Ms. Mary Wallace, T.D., Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform


The report of The Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities was launched in Cork, Ireland on November 18th, 1996. The National Rehabilitation Board hosted a symposium to mark the first anniversary of this event and to celebrate 30 years of its own existence. Mary Wallace T. D., Minister of State at The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Rform with responsibility for disability issues delivered the attached speech.

I hope that you find it as interesting and informative as I did.

Gerry Ellis, Deputy Chairperson, Irish Council of People with Disabilities



Closing address by Ms. Mary Wallace, T.D.,
Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform
at the Symposium on Disability and Human Rights
in Dublin Castle, Tuesday 18th November, 1997.

Firstly, I'd like to apologise for not being able to attend this morning. I was unavoidably detained by Government business. I would also like to welcome our two international speakers at this morning's session, Mr. Bengt Lindquist who is the UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission for Social Developments on Disability and Mr. Roderick Skinner, the Acting Head of the Disability Unit of DG5 of the European Commission.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to you today on the important social issues of disability and human rights.

The Rights of people with disabilities are an important aspect of this Government's programme and this Symposium is an appropriate forum for the announcement of a further major development of Government policy for people with disabilities.

Today, as we mark the 30th Anniversary of NRB and the 1st Anniversary of the launch of the Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, history has again been made.

Earlier today, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. John O'Donoghue, T.D., announced his intention to establish the National Disability Authority.

With a view to quickly creating this new Authority Minister O'Donoghue is setting up an Establishment Group, chaired by an Assistant Secretary from our Department, to prepare detailed proposals for the establishment of the National Disability Authority for submission to Government within six months. The Departments of Health and Children; Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Social, Community and Family Affairs and Finance are represented on the Group which will also include two members nominated by the Minister . The Establishment Group will also examine the question of a Disability Support Service and the transfer of certain responsibilities in relation to the training and employment of people with disabilities from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

It is the Minister's intention that the staffing and assets of the NRB as at present constituted will form the basis for the resources necessary to establish the new body. This is appropriate for, while the NRB operates under the aegis of the Department of Health and Children, many aspects of its role and function are not an integral part of the health service. The NRB has been advocating for some time, for a clear and unequivocal recognition of the rights of people with disabilities to equality of treatment and opportunity in Irish socio-economic life. I believe that this is the opportunity the NRB and its staff have been seeking to dramatically improve the position of people with disabilities through their participation in the new National Disability Authority.

The Government regards the recommendations made by the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities in relation to the establishment of the National Disability Authority as fundamental to promoting equal opportunities for people with disabilities. We are totally committed to radical change to ensure that the needs and aspirations of people with disabilities, their families, carers and advocates are comprehensively addressed.

The Role of the National Disability Authority In order to achieve the primary aim of ensuring equality for all citizens, the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities believed it necessary to create an executive body which will monitor the impact of public policy and services on people with disability. Such a body should not only be in a position to monitor the system at local level but should have the power to intervene in particular cases in order to ensure equity. It was against this backdrop that the Commission therefore recommended the establishment of a National Disability Authority which would report to the Department of Equality and Law Reform, now the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

The overall role of the National Disability Authority, as envisaged by the Commission, will be to empower and enable people with disabilities to achieve and exercise their economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights. The key functions envisaged are: 

  • to monitor compliance with the recommendations of this Commission and other relevant EU and international agreements that have been accepted by Government; 
  • to serve as a national focal point to co-ordinate disability policies; 
  • to undertake and commission research on disability issues and to advise on and develop standards in relation to disability programmes and services; 
  • to require the creation of appropriate standards for services provided to people with disabilities and to ensure their observance;
  • to monitor and evaluate programmes and services for people with disabilities;
  • to provide grievance and redress procedures;
  • to publish an annual report to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and special reports as considered necessary;
  • to provide a Disability Support Service at local level; and
  • to organise Community Action Plans at local level.

As regards, the membership of the National Disability Authority, the Commission took the view that it should include a wide range of interests and represent a balance between key stakeholders (government departments, local authorities, health boards, other state and voluntary agencies) and independent users, carers and specialists. It should also reflect a balance between the genders, geographical areas and the different types of disability.

Community Action Plans
The extent to which managers, professionals, users and carers work and plan together across organisational boundaries is a vital element in improving services for people with disabilities. To facilitate and increase that level of co- operation, the Commission recommended the creation of local Community Action Plans. Three year plans which involve a wide range of agencies in planning improvements to the lives of people with disabilities are envisaged. The National Disability Authority will be responsible for co-ordinating these plans at local level.

The Commission recommended that the National Disability Authority should be responsible for convening local planning groups which would include local authorities, health boards, relevant Government departments, arts and leisure services, voluntary sector and user groups.

Each local planning group would include users and carers and should consult widely with users and carers in the community before drawing up the plans. The draft plans should then be subject to further consultation to ensure that a range of perspectives from users and carers with different needs is represented. Local plans should be published and should be available in an accessible format and use the minimum of jargon.

The Way Forward
For 30 years, the NRB has by its dedication and commitment, made a magnificent contribution to improving the lives of people with disabilities, their families and carers. I congratulate you on this achievement and I would like to assure you that your continued participation in serving to end the marginalisation experienced by so many people with disabilities and their families is a critical pre-requisite to meeting the Government's objectives.

International Developments
Under the Irish Presidency the Council of Ministers agreed the Resolution on Equal Opportunities and Freedom from Discrimination for People with Disabilities. Following on from this Resolution, a High Level Group of Experts of the member States on Disability has been set up, and Mr. Pat Wylie from the Disability Equality Section of my Department represents Ireland on the group. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform also has an important role in relation to people with disabilities with the United Nations and the Council of Europe.

The Treaty of Amsterdam
Of considerable significance to people with disabilities is the fact that the recently negotiated Treaty of Amsterdam, which amends the existing EU Treaties, gives the European Community competence to take actions to combat discrimination based on disability. This means, for example, that the Council of Ministers could adopt a Directive dealing with such discrimination and this would be binding on member States.

Active participation at an international level is crucial if equal opportunities for people with disabilities is to become a reality.

Equality Legislation
It is the intention of my colleague, Minister John O'Donoghue, to publish as early as possible a revised Employment Equality Bill to take account of the Supreme Court decision. Work on the new Bill is well advanced and it is intended to publish it as soon as possible.

A revised Equal Status Bill will also be developed to take into account the Supreme Court decision in respect of the Equal Status Bill, 1997 and I expect this to be published during 1998.

One of the most far-reaching recommendations of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities was that a Disabilities Bill should be introduced. Work has recently commenced in my Department on the preparation of a Disabilities Bill. 

Department of justice, equality and law reform responsibilities

Irish Council of People with Disabilities
My Department allocated £300,000 to the Council this year and the allocation for 1998 announced last week in my Department's estimates is more than double this year's funding, at £700,000. The Government is fully committed to the work of the Council and recognises the real need for a permanent independent voice, constantly highlighting issues of concern and ensuring that the rights of people with disabilities are vigorously defended and this increase for next year reflects the depth of our commitment.

3% Quota for the Employment of People with Disabilities
On my appointment as Minister of State, I was assigned responsibility by the Taoiseach for monitoring the 3% quota for the employment of people with disabilities in the Public Service. Partnership 2000 contains a commitment that the quota will be met in the Public Service during the period of the Partnership and I intend to pursue this issue with vigour and determination.

Inter-Departmental Task Force
An interim Report is being finalised for presentation to Government shortly and I am committed to having the final Plan of Action drawn up as soon as possible thereafter.

Monitoring Committee
The Monitoring Committee met for the first time in July 1997 and has met 4 times since. It is actively working on devising appropriate mechanisms to monitor the implementation of the Report.

Pilot Projects
Four Pilot Community Services Projects aimed at people with disabilities have been set up by my Department in Ennis, Cork City, Tallaght/Clondalkin and Cahirciveen with funding available for the recruitment of Project Workers and associated costs. Indeed, today a cheque for 25,000 is being presented to the Disabled People of Clare towards the Ennis Pilot Project. Project leaders have already been appointed in Tallaght/Clondalkin and Cork City.

National Disability Information Day
I intend to hold a National Disability Information Day on 24th November in Jury's Hotel in Dublin. The theme of the day will be "Progress through Partnership" and the intention will be to emphasis the commitment at a European and national level to involving people with disabilities and their representatives in the formation of policy and the planning and delivery of services. People with disabilities, politicians, the social partners and administrators will be told of initiatives in this area by Europe and by Ireland and will be invited to "buy in" to the process. The day will provide an ideal opportunity to re- visit the issues raised at this International Symposium on Disability and Human Rights.

Cross-Departmental Working
I have had numerous meetings with Ministerial colleagues in an effort to develop cross-departmental working mechanisms to facilitate the effective delivery of services, to minimise bureaucracy and to promote equality for people with disabilities.

As a result of my commitment to cross-departmental working, it has been possible to deliver the package of measures aimed at people with disabilities which was announced recently by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Dermot Ahern, T.D., in conjunction with myself. A package of funding of £4,325,000 announced will directly benefit people with physical and sensory disabilities and voluntary agencies. Eleven thousand people with disabilities will benefit from the package.

A further £50,000 was made available to the Irish Council of People with Disabilities for computer equipment for their 30 county networks to substantially improve communications between the national office and local networks. It will also be used in the training programmes the Council will provide under the Horizon project for which EU funding has been secured.

Brian Cowen T.D., Minister for Health & Children, has approved funding of £240,000 to the Independent Living Community Services to help it defray accumulated debts. He has also approved a grant of £130,000 to the Centre for Independent Living itself to help cover its debts. The Centre also receives an annual grant of £50,000 from the Eastern Health Board towards its core funding.

In relation to Sports and Leisure, the Government Programme identifies, as a key priority, the need to increase State funding for Special Olympics in Ireland. My Colleague Dr. Jim McDaid T.D., Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation recently announced a grant of 5m towards the hosting of the Special Olympics in Ireland in 2003. This represents a significant contribution by the Government to this area of sport.

New parking regulations were introduced by Noel Dempsey T.D., Minister for the Environment and Local Government to offer greater facility to people with disabilities in securing on- street parking. People with disabilities who display the appropriate symbol on their vehicles now have a legal right to avail of their parking bays and anyone using them without proper authority is subject to a parking fine, as they would also be if parking illegally elsewhere.


In conclusion, I want to say that the Government is determined to build on the progress that has already been made in this area and to assure you of my own personal commitment to making progress through partnership in promoting equal opportunities for people with disabilities. As we approach the 21st Century, I am determined to ensure that the new millennium will see people with disabilities provided with greater opportunities for pursuing fuller more independent lives than has been the case in the past.

Thank you.