Scope has exposed a funding gap in equipment provision. Helen Honour reports
Imagine you are a child without speech in school . You are capable of learning but unable to show what you have learned. How do you make friends? You want to call out, join in and take part, but have to wait for someone to notice you. Being able to initiate communication is vital for a child to make friends and succeed in education, but a new report by disability charity Scope reveals that a postcode lottery prevents many children without speech from accessing the right equipment to participate fully in school.
Nearly half of all communication aid users in Scope's survey had not received any state support to buy their equipment, ranging in price from pound;10 to pound;9,000, despite being assessed as needing it. One in five of the survey respondents does not have full access to their equipment. Many children, whose aid has been bought by a school, college or educational authority, are not able to use the equipment during weekends or holidays.
A major cause of this situation is there being no single funding body for the provision of communication aids. Funding depends on the policies of local education, social services and health authorities. Schools often teach children who cannot fully express their understanding for months and sometimes years while families fight lengthy tribunals or raise funds for the equipment.
Heather Hockaday battled for many months for a communication aid vital to her son: "Patrick is fortunate to have had his LIB (electronic communication aid) since 1996 but even so waited over a year for a decision to be made on funding. Only my persistence and a very supportive speech therapist and community paediatrician constantly 'badgering' the authorities succeeded in obtaining it."
Stephanie Lloyd, who raised pound;2,800 to buy her seen-year-old daughter the aid she had been assessed as needing says: "It was obvious to everyone when Sophie was first assessed (aged two) that speech aids would be necessary for her but no one in the local authority planned ahead so there was no money in the budget to meet her requirements."
The problem is intensified by a shortage of therapists specialising in alternative and augmentative communication. This means even when children receive equipment, they do not always get continuing support to ensure their aid matches their changing needs.
Scope is calling on health and education authorities to conduct research and identify the numbers of communication aid users. There are few statistics on the numbers of people unable to speak; 20 out of 23 education authorities contacted held no information on the numbers of pre-school children without speech needing a school place within the next two years. This leaves schools and authorities unable to plan ahead. Good practice does exist, as well as some outside support, such as the Merseyside Communication Aid Lending Library, which lends local residents communication aid equipment and researches local needs.
The long wait faced by children unable to participate in the classroom means lost educational opportunities. Only 12 schools in a survey of 30 had received helpful training to teach children who cannot speak. Scope is calling on education professionals to support its campaign for a central fund to ensure that anyone assessed as needing a communication aid receives the appropriate equipment, support and training.
Speak for Yourself, pound;3.00 to individuals and pound;12.50 to professionals and organisations. Tel: 0207 619 7341The Cerebral Palsy Helpline offers free confidential advice and initial counselling for disabled people, their families and carers: 0808 800 3333