A WEST Cork couple are fighting to get a place for their daughter in the special needs unit in her home town of Dunmanway, and say they won’t give up until she gets it.
Brian and Siobhan Higgins’ daughter Hannah was born in 2013 with a rare genetic condition called Rubinstein Taybi Syndrome, which has left her with intellectual challenges and developmental delays.
They lived in London at the time and moved back to West Cork four years ago as they felt Hannah would have the best opportunities for education in Dunmanway where she’d also have lots of family support.
However, what followed has been an almost two-year battle, so far without success, to get her enrolled in the mild/moderate special needs class in St Mary’s senior school in Dunmanway.
When making their application, the couple were asked by the school to get Hannah assessed by a psychologist. This is a criteria of their admission policy.
They had this done through CoAction and it found that due to ‘the complexity of her medical and developmental needs… specific educational programmes within classes for children with a severe intellectual disability are likely to best meet Hannah’s needs.’
However, it added: ‘Should this not be available in her locality, attendance within a class for children with moderate intellectual disability could meet her needs if the appropriate amount of access to special needs assistance and appropriate educational programmes were available.’
Yet despite this assessment, Hannah has been turned down for the past two years.
Chairperson of the school’s board of management Mary O’Donovan said they cannot comment on individual cases.
She added: ‘I can assure you the school considers all applications in line with its admissions and enrolment policy.’ She referred The Southern Star to the school’s website which says: ‘It is an essential basic requirement that a child wishing to enrol in the class has been assessed by a registered psychologist as falling within the mild or moderate range of learning disability.’
The special needs unit is run by St Mary’s senior school.
St Mary’s junior school have offered Hannah a place in mainstream junior infants this September.
The couple, also parents to three-year-old Lola, and new-born Maisie, have accepted it, but say they’re not deluded enough to think mainstream school is the right place for her.
Hannah has attended pre-school in New Beginnings for the past two years where she has done well. Brian said the staff and other children there have been wonderful to Hannah, and for her. The pre-school, St Mary’s junior and senior, are all in the same building.
She also attends CoAction in Dunmanway for therapies such as physio and speech and language.
But Brian and Siobhan want her to move on now to a facility where they feel she’ll thrive and can’t understand why they’re facing a brick wall.
Brian spoke out about their battle at a recent ‘meet the candidate’ local election event in Dunmanway.
Speaking to The Southern Star, he described the stages they’ve been through: ‘Her psychological assessment found her need to be in the severe category, but also found that a place in her local school would be suitable for her. We didn’t think there would be a problem but when we went back to the school we were told to meet with the SENO (special education needs officer), who is responsible for assigning SNAs to schools. They told us that they couldn’t look at her case until she was enrolled and the school told us we couldn’t enrol her,’ said Brian.
‘She has an option to travel to the special unit in St Joseph’s in Skibbereen which is a great facility, but it’s an unnecessary bus journey for Hannah, considering we’re five minutes away from St Mary’s. Besides, she already knows lots of the kids from pre-school and she’ll have her siblings coming up behind her in St Mary’s,’ he said.
The couple pleaded their case at a hearing with the Department of Education (called a Section 29 hearing) which took place last May, but were unsuccessful.
In September, they applied for another meeting with the school board which they got in January, but which did not get them the result they wanted.
‘We’re at our wits’ end, and I don’t know how many sleepless nights we’ve had over this. Everyone talks bout inclusion but to have this happen on your own doorstep is awful,’ said Brian, who commutes from Dunmanway to London each week for work.
He said they didn’t want to go public with their story but said if they walked away, the same thing could happen another family.
‘Since we went public at the meeting we’ve had the support of the whole town and we’ve applied for another hearing with the department of education.’
Siobhan said: ‘We are just looking for some flexibility. Things are changing in the special needs world and it’s not about putting people in categories.’
She pointed to the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities which states: ‘Persons with disabilities can access inclusive, quality primary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live.’
Brian added: ‘Our little girl’s future is at stake here. We’re not going away – this is Hannah’s town, her community, and it can’t shut its door on her.’