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Saturday 7 December 2019

3,000 children with speech problems face one-year wait for help

Ruth Cullen and her son Stephen at their home in Celbridge. Photo: Arthur Carron.
Ruth Cullen and her son Stephen at their home in Celbridge. Photo: Arthur Carron.
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

THOUSANDS of children with speech and language disabilities have been left struggling to be understood, and express even basic sentences, because of a severe lack of therapists in the health service.

A new report has revealed almost 3,000 children are waiting for at least a year for speech and language therapy - and another 1,940 are in long queues just to be assessed.

The working paper report from Inclusion Ireland, the disability support organisation, reveals the full extent of the crisis facing children who are left to endure the negative social and educational effects due to speech and language disorders.

It discovered a "postcode lottery" affects a child's chances of getting therapy. In the Cork South Lee and Wicklow regions there are less than 100 children with complex needs for every therapist. But the numbers waiting rise dramatically in Wexford and Donegal where there are 300 of these children to each therapist.

There should be case-loads of no more than 30-65 children per therapist but no health area in Ireland comes close to this, said author of the paper Pauline Conroy, a social policy expert.

Desperate

She said in order to meet this standard the current number of therapists in HSE disability services would need to be doubled from 283 to 565.

The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that one in 10 staff may be on leave.

In the Laois-Offaly area, parents say children are getting just five speech and therapy session in a full year.

One in four families said their child had not seen a therapist in 12 months.

The report said some voluntary organisations such as Down Syndrome Ireland were trying to plug the gap by funding therapists and financially assisting desperate families to pay for private sessions which cost from €50 for 40 minutes to €100 for an hour.

Paddy Connolly, chief executive of Inclusion Ireland, warned: "The system cannot cope with the demand and families are making huge sacrifices to pay for private therapy.

"The Government allocated €4m in the 2013 Budget for the recruitment of 80 staff across a range of therapies. Just 30 were for speech and language therapists and that is wholly inadequate.

"It requires something in the order of an extra 80 to 100 speech and language posts to be put in place a year over three to five years," he added.

The report found that it can take up to 21.5 hours to assess a child but the therapist can spend up to a day writing up the findings because of a lack of administrative support which reduces further the time spent face-to face with children.

Families can wait an average of nearly nine months before a child is assessed. This wait time is 50pc longer than set out in the Disability Act.

I fear for my son's future if special class ends

STEPHEN Cullen (10), pictured with his mother Ruth,  has to endure a 25-mile round trip every day to attend a special class for his severe speech and language disorder.

He lives in Celbridge in Co Kildare but the nearest school offering him the special tuition is Solas Chriost in Tallaght, Dublin.

Ruth says she is already panicking about his future because he is only entitled to two years in the special class and he will have to return to mainstream school next September.

"Stephen has Specific Speech and Language Impairment which means he has exceptional difficulty with speech, language and communication.

"It is a long-term disability and therapy does not provide a cure. But therapy can maximise his communication potential.

"I have sent the school a letter begging them to keep him on. Without it he is only entitled to five or six sessions of speech therapy once a year for 45 minutes at a time," she said.

"It was a battle to get him into the class. He had a very late diagnosis. He was in a regular school nearby but was lost in a class of 30.

"He kept calling himself the odd one out. This is a life-long disability and I fear for his future if he has to leave the unit," she added.

Stephen is now able to write a sentence on his own and his reading ability is at second class level.

"There is no support whatsoever at secondary school," said Ruth who runs a group to help families with children suffering from the same disability.

"Parents are devastated if their child is not even given those two years in a school unit. The cost of private speech and language therapy is just too much for many families."

Nuala O'Callaghan, from Lucan in Dublin, whose three sons Dara, Evan and Jamie have needed speech and language therapy, said it costs around €100 a session.

Families also encounter a lack of knowledge if their child has Specific Speech and Language Impairment.

"We need more therapists who know about its long-term effects. The area of Dublin south west where I live is badly in need of more therapists," she said.

Irish Independent

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