An open letter on the Importance of Early Intervention, to Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton TD

15 August 2016

Richard Bruton TD, Minister for Education snd Skills Dáil Éireann,
Kildare Street,
Dublin 2.

An open letter on the Importance of Early Intervention, to Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton TD

Dear Minister Bruton,

I hope this letter finds you well. As I said in my previous letter to you on July 4th, it is my intention to write to you each month outlining some issues I have identified in the special education system in Ireland. A copy of this letter will also be sent to the NCSE. As you are the Minister for Education and Skills, I feel it is of the utmost importance that both you and the NCSE continue to receive these letters, as you have the power with a circular to effect a change in the system. Please allow me to take this opportunity to thank you for welcoming my first contribution so warmly in July.

It can sometimes be difficult to measure in quantifiable terms the importance of early intervention in a child’s education, but I can say from my personal viewpoint as a service user for over 20 years, it lays a foundation both educationally and socially for a child’s development and growth in society. Educational benefits aside for the moment, the early years of children’s school experience designs the slate they will base many of their social interactions on – a good social experience in school helps a child to develop their confidence in social situations.

As a child with a disability that was sometimes misunderstood, I wasn’t always afforded this positive growing experience. As I mentioned in my previous letter to you, my disability has resulted in severe sight loss, and some coordination issues. To put it to you quite simply Minister, I was a little girl in a big classroom who couldn’t read the blackboard or see clearly any demonstration by our teacher whenteachingushowtodrawlettersandnumbers. Thisoftenledtomeaskingquestionsofthe teacher that were already answered on the board or during her demonstration. As you can imagine, this would often lead to teasing by other kids about me not being as smart as them – but also to teachers forming the opinion that I wasn’t a good listener or that I was a child with a short attention span. Withbothofthoseopinionstocontendwith,Igrewintoayoungchildwithaverylow opinion of myself and my ability to learn.

While I still tried my best to learn at the same rate as my peers, I often missed out on parts of a lesson because I was afraid I may ask a question that was already answered on the board, but that I hadn’t seen because of my severely short sight. Although I sat at the very top of the classroom, I still could rarely read the board without the use of a small handheld scope. I also needed to use a handheldmagnifiertoreadmybooks. AndbecauseIwassuchanobviouslydifferentchildtomy

classmates, I ended up being treated differently by many of them and their parents; I was never picked for PE teams even when I was the only child left; I was unable to identify my friends at lunchtime break and often would play alone unless another child came to me; I was excluded from birthday parties of my fellow pupils.

In the early years of a child’s primary education, playtime and PE play a very big role in the school day,andsoagainit’swhereachildisexpectedtolearnandgrowtheirsocialskills. Manyofmy teachers tried their best to encourage the class to include me, but children will always follow the lead of their parents. And because their parents saw me as a child with special needs that they did not understand, they felt the best option was to exclude me. Not all children in my class did, but unfortunately the majority did, and so it coloured my social and emotional view of myself as I grew up. Our social experiences are just as important as our educational experiences in our early years, and as such, I feel there must come a change in Ireland’s approach to early intervention towards a more inclusive one.

Having dealt with the social aspects of early intervention, I would like to now focus briefly on the educational aspects of it – I say briefly here because I have seen during the research for my Masters thesis that there is already a wealth of information on the importance of early educational intervention for children with all manner of special educational needs. From personal experience, I know the value of early intervention in my own education – I know the value of it because I did not have it and because of this I struggled.

As I mentioned above, I could not always follow the blackboard demonstrations of my teachers, and although they did their best to assist me, they also had twenty-eight plus other children to teach. Due to the lack of a special needs assistant to help me with understanding what I was unable to see, I could not follow many of my earliest lessons on reading and writing, and I fell behind significantly. For many years I could not read as well as my classmates because I had failed to learn the spelling of many every-day words. I did notice an improvement when my school was eventually allocated resource hours which allowed me to have one-on-one tuition – but in reality my resource teacher and I were only ever playing catchup to everything I had already missed.

To this day, my mathematics ability is limited at best, and I attribute this deficiency to my failure to learn basic maths skills as a child, which in itself was a failure of the educational system to support me. I also have limited writing abilities – I consciously avoid many situations that require me to writeorfilloutformsasmyconfidencewasconsistentlyshatteredasachildlearningtowrite. I generally write lists in block capitals as my fine-motor skills and co-ordination is restricted by my sight. Again, this was another issue I faced in school while learning to write which was often misunderstood by teachers as laziness, and misunderstood by classmates as stupidity.

Having considered the differences I have seen between my own situation as a child in the nineties, and the supports offered to children now, I am heartened to see there has been such a vast and consistent improvement to the supports offered to children, and also to the training given to teachers in terms of understanding the special needs of children with education needs. I would like to

applaud you Minister for continuing to reinforce the provision of these services. Having completed my Masters thesis in special education service provision, I am fully aware that money as a resource itself is always in demand across the education sector as a whole.

However, I would like to take this second letter in my series to you to note some of the suggestions I feel could make improvements in the education sector from the point of view of a service user. As I detailed above, social interactions form a very big part of the early years of any child’s education, and I feel that by using more inclusive teaching methods, teachers and schools can often avoid many of the rather harsh situations I found myself in as a child. These methods might include giving oral instructions to a child with a reading or vision impairment, so that the child won’t end up in the situation of missing out on a direction or demonstration they are unable to read from a blackboard. Other examples of successful teaching methods in other European countries have included concept based teaching for children on the Autism spectrum; demonstrations with oral descriptions for children with vision or reading impairments; team-teaching strategies for children with learning disabilities etc.

Simple differences here can be identified by a teacher or special needs assistant, but often need the approval or support of department officials or visiting teachers which in itself would require more flexibility from the education system. There is also a cultural change which will need to happen in conjunction with this – a change in the way children with disabilities are viewed not only by their teachers but also by parents and other children. During my time in school, the needs of a child like me were often misunderstood and left me in situation where I was ostracised by others which has had a long-lasting effect on my self-esteem and confidence to this day. I would very much welcome an age-appropriate lesson-time for children to help them understand that those with disabilities aren’t to be feared, or “broken’’ – they are children who are the same as them, but may need extra help in some situations. This can assist us in developing a more inclusive and accepting society, but it can also prevent later issues surrounding a fear of school, low self-esteem, and the development of social anxiety and related mental health disorders in Ireland’s children and young teens.

Again, I appreciate you taking the time to read this correspondence Minister. I feel Ireland is working well in terms of its objectives with early intervention in schools, but that there must be a social-focus to this as well as the educationally-based approach, as both can have far-reaching and long-lasting effects on Ireland’s next generation of school-goers with special education needs.

I look forward to hearing from you, Is mise le meas,
Jessica Ní Mhaoláin, BSc., MBS.


An open letter to Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton TD

4 July 2016


Richard Bruton TD, Minister for Education snd Skills

Dáil Éireann,

Kildare Street,

Dublin 2.

An open letter to Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton TD

Dear Minister Bruton,

My name is Jessica Ní Mhaoláin, I’m a 24 year-old student from Cork City.  I’m writing to you to give you an insight into my world as a student with a severe vision impairment, and I would also like to offer some recommendations to you as a service user of special education services for more than 20 years.  I completed primary and secondary school, and am currently applying for a PhD in UCC, where I have  already completed a BSc in Health Promotion and a Masters in Government.  My masters research was around the area of special education, and my PhD topic (if approved) will follow on from it.  I’m hoping that by reading this letter, you will take some time to think about the plight of many other children, teens, and adults like me who are currently working their way through the education system – some with more success than others, as is the case in my situation.  Hopefully, an insight like the one I will write you can assist you in deciding how best to apply funding in sections of your department ahead of the next Budget, and may also open a dialogue between a service user, like me, and you as Minister.

Firstly, I would like to give you an overview of my disability.  From birth, I have suffered from a condition known as oculocutaneous albinism accompanied by nystagmus.  Oculocutaneous albinism is a rare disorder due to a genetic abnormality that effects the skin, hair and eyes; my body cannot produce melanin because of it, and therefore my optic nerves failed to develop properly.  Because of this malformation, I can see about 3-4 feet in front of my face, and after that my world starts to blur.  I also suffer from an involuntary movement of the eyes, known as nystagmus; my eyes ‘shiver’ (for want of a better word) and this prevents me from focusing my eyes on anything, including when I’m reading or writing.  As you can probably imagine Minister, this disorder has a considerable effect on my day-to-day life; I use a cane to navigate my way around, I cannot drive, I cannot read menu boards or small print in newspapers, and it also effects my fine motor skills which restricts my ability to write neatly or draw diagrams.

My journey in the Education system began in the mid-nineties when I started at my local Montessori in Ballyphehane, Cork.  At first, the differences between other children and I went largely unnoticed – we were all learning skills at the same rate as 3 and 4 year-olds do.  It was when I started primary school that my disability really began to hinder my ability to learn at the rate my schoolmates were.  We learned, as every child does, to read and write through exercises on a blackboard demonstrated by our teacher.  Similarly, we learned about history, geography and maths the same way.  But I couldn’t see the blackboard from my seat at the front of the class, and there were no vision aids available to me at the time.  I didn’t fail to learn, however I learned far slower than my friends and fell behind quite early in my schooling – despite the help I did receive from my school who, at the time, had no legislative requirement to assist a child like me but did so because it was what I needed.  Being honest and very candid about it all, I was almost nine years-old before I really grasped how to read and write properly, and this only occurred because services began to step in and help me – the Education Act of 1998 came into force but did not really ‘filter down’ until around 2001 for me – I was almost 10.


Services I availed of in school were largely in the area of teaching support and resourced learning hours.  These were put in place to help me catch up to where my class was – I missed the basics of reading, writing and maths, and unfortunately I still feel I never regained what I have missed in those starting years.  The help came a little too late for me, because of many reasons; financial decisions within the Dept; lack of understanding of my disorder; lack of training for teachers in different learning modes; and lack of classroom assistance like an Special Needs Assistant.

Luckily, the availability of these services improved within the Primary teaching setting after I moved onto secondary school, something I was so happy about.  Until I heard they have begun to disappear again.  Before the last election in February I spoke out about my worry at the effect recent special education cuts in Cork would have on the future of the children at the centre of these cuts.  I know better than most, Minister, that a child with any kind of disability is at risk of failing to learn the basics if the help of a scribe or SNA isn’t in place for them – my case isn’t just a once off.  My heart broke for the families of these children when I learned that their SNA’s had been cut – for me, that would mean a ‘working pair of eyes’ were taken from my classroom experience.  An SNA is more than a classroom assistant to children with a disability – for some of us they can replace a sense we have lost such as sight or hearing, for others they are a physical support if their impairment has left them unable to write.  And especially for children on the Autism Spectrum, these assistants are a major support for them as they integrate into mainstream aspects of school life.  I sometimes wonder if the role of an SNA is underestimated or misunderstood by some in the education sector, and perhaps this is why their position is sometimes treated as a luxury by Department officials.  Of course, I’m fully aware that financial resources are an issue in every government department and also the idea of special education is to hopefully allow the child independence from the assistant at some point – but depending on the disability the child is dealing with, it isn’t always practical to have the aim of eventually removing such an important support.

Although I have been lucky in how I got through my school years and made it to a fantastic university which has been constantly supportive of my needs, it is just that – luck.  I have been lucky with the teachers and SNA’s I have met along the way.  And I’m sure you would agree with me when I say that no child’s education should be left to chance with only luck on their side.  Education is a basic human right for us all, education the tool that helps people escape from the poverty trap, education is our way to integrate into different aspects of society and enhance our lives with both knowledge and the enjoyment of reading our favourite book, or discussing a recent play – or just being able to balance a chequebook.

Minister, I intend to write to you monthly with these education updates and with ideas I have researched into improvements that can be found in the Special Education sector.  There are so many things that can be done – big and small changes – that they are too numerous to detail in one letter alone.  I don’t believe that your government, or any other government before you, has ever intended to wilfully neglect the Special Education sector.  However, I do believe you and your officials can benefit from the input of a service user like me to assist in targeting areas which need improvement.  As I have said above, I have been lucky to find my way successfully, but many coming through the system before and after me have not been as lucky.  My hope is that you or your staff would be open to establishing a rapport with me.  Although I have the research experience having completed a Masters Thesis in the area (which I will happily forward to your office should you wish to read it), I also have the practical experience of dealing with the Dept of Education as a service user for more than 20 years.

I believe you and I both want the same thing for children with special educational needs – we both want them to have an equal playing field when it comes to learning and reaching their full potential.

Is mise le meas,

Jessica Ní Mhaoláin, BSc., MBS.