East Antrim MLAs have paid tribute to local voluntary groups for their work with people with special needs and disabilities, but claimed the borough has been ignored by statutory bodies.
And they have appealed to Employment and Learning Minister, Dr Stephen Farry to take steps to address the issue.
Sinn Fein representative Oliver McMullan, who is himself the father of a child with special needs, secured a debate on the matter at the Assembly recently.
Speaking directly to the Minister, Mr McMullan said there are many families who have serious concerns regarding the “minimal services” in the borough for children and adults with special needs.
He said parents are asking themselves: “What will happen when my child leaves school? Where will they go? What can they do?”
Mr McMullan praised the two “excellent” special needs units in Larne – Roddensvale and Larne Adult Centre – but said “much more needs to be done to facilitate social inclusion and help fight the disability discrimination that exists in Larne and the coastal district”.
“Families are struggling to put their children through school with the appropriate support and it is getting harder with pending cuts and benefits reform,” he added.
“Outside school, basic help for disabled and special needs people in society generally stops, or at best struggles to be made available. There are no services provided for by government and we are witnessing an increasing numbers of families suffering hardship, existing on the bread line and in quite a few cases forced into forced into poverty whilst living with a disability.”
The Cushendall man, who is chairman of a special needs group in the Glens of Antrim called the Friends Group, highlighted the work being done in Larne by disability group Kaleidoscope.
He pointed out that the group – which is run entirely by volunteers – have no permanent premises to operate from and cited this as an example of government services being “practically non-existent”.
And he told the Minister that there is “a lack of day care provision” in Larne for when pupils leave school.
Mr McMullan added: “I am a parent of a special needs child. She is 16, and we still do not know where she will go when she leaves school or what she would do without the help of her voluntary group.
“Despite the wonderful help of volunteers in groups such as Friends and Kaleidoscope, there is little that can be done in the day centres beyond playing games or watching TV. For pupils who are able to go on to further education, there is a limited choice of courses at the Northern Regional College during and after their school career. I believe that there are no full-time courses post-19.”
The East Antrim MLA also described the practice of making young people travel long distances to continue their education as “totally unacceptable”.
“Pupils in Larne are required to travel independently to Newtownabbey or Ballymena, and for many pupils that is impractical or impossible,” he added.
Mr McMullan urged the Minister to instruct his Department (DEL) to carry out an investigation into the “appalling lack” of special needs provision in Larne and the Glens.
He referred Dr Farry to the NI European Social Fund Programme, which is run by DEL and supports projects that offer training to disadvantaged people.
The Sinn Fein man said: “At present, there are 17 projects in receipt of assistance in relation to participants with a mental health difficulty, learning disability or physical disability. Therefore, Minister, I can perhaps look forward to you telling me how much of that has been put into the east Antrim area, and where.”
Meanwhile, DUP MLA Alastair Ross highlighted a the case of a young boy who travels from Larne to Mitchell House in Belfast to receive care.
“It is a 50-mile round trip every day, and the fact that the young boy is having to travel this distance is causing huge concern to the family,” Mr Ross added.
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs raised the issue of the long-awaited hydrotherapy pool at Roddensvale, which has been left in limbo for the past two years after government funding was withdrawn.
He added: “Planning permission was successfully obtained in October 2009. Funding was originally awarded, but it was ultimately lost as a result of a legal challenge. So, I ask the Minister to find out whether funding can be made available to put that very worthwhile project in place for the benefit of these most disadvantaged children.”
Responding to the concerns of members, Dr Farry said the position of young people with special needs represented “a major challenge for all of us in government”.
“I recognise, sympathise and empathise with the situation that Mr McMullan set out about his family’s situation; it brings the discussion very much closer to home,” the Minister added.
He acknowledged that a particular challenge occurred when the young person left school at age 19 and said: “For many parents it can seem that you are dropping off a cliff.”
Dr Farry outlined some of the educational and employment opportunities in the Larne area.
The Minister said: “I was with Acceptable Enterprises Limited in Larne recently and saw at first hand the efforts it is doing in its base in the Northern Regional College.
“Turning to further education, the Northern Regional College offers a range of provision. For example, the part-time Wider Choices course, which is run in collaboration with the local health trust, aims to improve communication and independence skills and is present in east Antrim.
“Also, a new life skills course is set to be offered in Larne from September 2013, and it aims to develop life skills for those who do not have the ability to complete the Wider Choices programme. That is a small addition to the provision in the east Antrim constituency,” Dr Farry concluded.
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