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Interview with Kathy Sinnott (August 2004)

category national | health / disability issues | opinion/analysis author Monday June 27, 2005 00:50author by Miriam Cotton Report this post to the editors

You might be forgiven for thinking that the election of two women presidents had firmly established respect for the contribution that women can make to Irish public life. A review of the media coverage of Kathy Sinnott makes you realise, sadly, that we have some way to go. You’re left wondering exactly whose interests some newspapers exist to serve because it is unlikely to be the large – if silent – majority of offended readers who are actually very grateful for Kathy Sinnott’s efforts on their behalf. Thankfully, for the thousands of disabled people and their families, who have benefited from Sinnott’s determination, she is sanguine about this.

On the day I interviewed her she was laughing off another vindictive and deliberately misleading item in a newspaper – this time about her new role as a Member of the European Parliament. Sinnott believes it’s time more politicians woke up to the number of disabled people in our community. A conservative record (Census 2002) shows they are 8.3% (excluding autistic spectrum and similar disabilities) or 320K of people nationwide. When you factor in their families, you are talking about approximately 1 million people – about a quarter of the population. In other words, the disability lobby is a very powerful one.

Since her election in June 2004, Sinnott has not wasted time in Europe. In the vast bureaucracy that is the European Parliament she had in a few short weeks already established herself on several committees (including the Inter-Group on Disability) and had also secured an opportunity to question the then proposed Head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso. On that occasion Sinnott requested an undertaking from Mr Barroso to make up for the EU’s failure to consult the disability lobby with regard to a new UN Treaty on the rights of the disabled. Unlike any other region in the world, the EU is the only one that has so far failed to consult its disabled on the wording of that treaty. Mr Barroso can probably be sure that he will be hearing from the Disability Inter-Group group again if this glaring omission, which Sinnott accepts may be just an oversight, is not addressed.

So how does Kathy Sinnott think, as an MEP, she can make an impact? ‘There is this EU ‘back-off’ from disability issues which is unjustified’ she says. For example, Barroso, while acknowledging that home-based carers are doing work, insisted nevertheless that this was not ‘work’ in the sense of being an EU commerce-related competence. ‘But when we don’t recognise these people as workers’ says Sinnott ‘very often they are obliged to give up the caring because of economic hardship or exhaustion – or both. And then the state pays heavily.’ She continues, ‘why should we regard this work as being any different from, say, nursing or social work? And economically it makes sense because, instead of funding carers from meagre, means-tested benefits, if we pay them properly the money goes back into the local economy.’ Sinnott believes there are two routes of influence open to her. Firstly, she will work, via the Disability Inter-Group, towards ensuring that EU policy – transport, health and safety etc – takes account of disability concerns. At home, she intends to provide information and support for individuals or groups who may not be aware of funding schemes or other means of obtaining help and advice. Two of her primary objectives are to highlight some of the worst problems affecting disabled people - the situation with institutionalised adults and ignoring the importance of early intervention – a costly mistake for the state and a tragic one for many disabled people and their carers. ‘There’s a lot of fear and prejudice about spending on disability’ Sinnott says ‘and a tendency to see it as an economic black hole. But the truth is that in the long run, in most cases, you will save money by helping people to become more self-reliant and to earn a living. But unless you provide the right intervention at the right time, this can’t happen. It’s important to encourage governments to give this approach a chance – once they see how positive the results are they start to feel less afraid.’

Sinnott is also on the Environmental and Public Health Committee. Her concern here will be with the epidemiology of autism, cancer and asthma, for example, instances of which are spiralling. On constitutional matters Sinnott, who sits on the Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee, is determined to do what she can in Europe, but is also concerned to promote the preservation of our constitutional, natural law rights in Ireland. She believes these are under threat from, for example, the new Education for Persons with Disability bill. Here, she wants to address the excessive use of the principle of ‘resource’ and ministerial discretion which, if the bill is faithful to earlier drafts, will destroy the rights of disabled individuals and their parents/guardians even to involvement in the process of assessment and review for educational purposes – let alone to the possibility of an appropriate education for their children. It is also being used to ensure near absolute ministerial control of appointments to the relevant decision-making bodies. '‘Minister for Education, (as he then was) Noel Dempsey, promised us that this education bill would be a ‘taste’ of the Disability Bill itself’ says Sinnott ‘and that’s exactly what it is – the principle of ministerial discretion [both Finance and Education] is, throughout the bill, effectively undoing the safeguards built into the constitution and at the same time rowing back from the gains secured in the O’ Donoghue and Sinnott cases. It’s really an attempt by the executive to weaken faithful judicial interpretation of the constitution in this area. At the same time, the bill is laced with fine rhetoric about wanting to do everything possible – but we need to reject this bill for what it really is’.

Sinnott also perceives a concerning trend in attitudes to disability in a couple of EU countries. At one time it was evident that the Irish government was lagging behind other member states in their failure to act on disability rights to adequate services. ‘Now, I think they are ahead’ she says. It looks like the Irish approach may be being adopted elsewhere in the EU. Worryingly, in the UK, ‘there is now some debate as to whether they have given ‘too much’ to disabled people and whether people’s expectations are ‘too high’, Sinnott says. She attributes the cause of this sort of thinking to an increasing demand on educational, health and social services caused by large increases in conditions like autism, ADD, DCD, Dyslexia etc. The deliberate policy of waiting lists and delays in assessment are an effective means of avoiding expenditure while at the same time damping down expectations. ‘The trend in funding seems to be in the higher more functional disabled person and less and less in people with severe and chronic conditions’. Shockingly, for three years running the government has actually returned unspent EU money intended as start-up funds for child-care facilities. In 2001, for example E38 million was sent back. Sinnott says "the official reason given is that too few are applying but the fact is that the application process has been made so difficult and expensive that few actually manage to apply and even fewer are successful in obtaining the funding. How can funds be returned when we are short of childcare services - especially for children with disability or disadvantage?" Of course, once the successful projects are established they will require ongoing government funding which may not be unconnected with any reluctance to award the start-up grant in the first place. Either way, this European scheme will end in 2006 and it does seem inexplicable that we are not making the absolute most of it that we can in the meantime. We will not be offered 100% capital grants to set up child services again.

And then there is the issue of tax incentives – of concern to Sinnott not least because of the La Pilar project - which, along with others, she has been trying to get off the ground. La Pilar would be an early intervention centre, probably based in Mallow, offering comprehensive therapies to young children and their families in order to maximise their developmental potential. After a round of what had seemed like positive negotiations at senior government level, she was dismayed to receive a letter from Mr McCreevy, erstwhile Minister for Finance, just before the last budget informing her of his intention to withdraw support for tax incentive schemes. In the event, not only did Mr McCreevy not withdraw support for other schemes but he actually renewed one to the Irish film industry. With tax exemption status for intervention centres for children and adults with disabilities, La Pilar and similar initiatives would be able to go ahead. "I don’t mind" says Sinnott, tacitly accepting that this decision may have been politically motivated, "if La Pilar needs me to remove my name from any association with it then I’m happy to do that. What matters is getting this badly-needed centre up and running. If the government can offer tax incentives for horse centres, then why not for a project like this?" It’s difficult not to feel bewildered at the begrudging attitude revealed here towards Sinnott and the cause of disability generally – that she should be made to feel that her personal achievements, which surely can only enhance the likely success of La Pilar, might nevertheless have to be concealed in order to accommodate political resentment.

At this point, we are joined by Kathy’s severely autistic son Jamie, the subject of her long battle with the courts to secure an education for him. Jamie greets us with a big smile. "Until four years ago, Jamie almost never smiled" says Sinnott "but thanks to the educational programmes he has undergone in that time, he has achieved a lot". Kathy Sinnott’s home near Ballinhassig, Co Cork has to be one of the most child-friendly environments possible. Our interview took place in the middle of the daily activities of The Hope Project – an alternative educational and support project which is run from there. The sounds on the recording include a game of hide and seek around our feet, noisy ball-bouncing, happy chatter and a lot of laughter and questions for mum. We are interrupted from time-to-time by Tricia, Sinnott’s assistant with various messages and questions from the Hope Project Helpline. Throughout, Sinnott moves easily between all the varied demands on her attention. I ask how she feels about her political career and whether she had ever envisaged becoming an MEP. "I always wanted to be a stay-at-home Mom" she says, using her native American vernacular "but by the time of the last general election and, aside from my own obvious personal involvement with disability, I had become aware that this was a problem that now had my name on it. I couldn’t just walk away. I’m sure there are lot’s of people out there who would do a better job than me but I had brought this issue to public notice in a particular way and in the process had gained some recognition. It seemed important to continue to use that recognition on behalf of people and especially disabled people – and so here I am!"

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