Access means everything to  people with disability

I’m going to start this week’s column with a confession. I’m owning up to a major admission of fact – it’s something I am finally going to come clean about. Here goes: I have been driving as a provisional license holder and a full licence holder on the roads of Roscommon for over 35 years, and in that period I have parked on the kerb of a footpath on several occasions – and more than often blocked the access way for a wheelchair user and a fair share of pedestrians with buggies, shopping trolleys and mobility issues too. I’m not proud of it.

There’s always a very ‘good’ excuse available for this sort of behaviour. I’ve had my share of 5-star ones over the years: the notion that I was just stopping outside the shop for five minutes, maybe had a load to bring in from the car and wanted to get nearest to the door, I was in a hurry, it was an emergency, or I was merely waiting to pick up somebody and didn’t even get out of the vehicle. These all come to mind, but the hard fact remains that a person in a wheelchair could not physically get past me and travel down the footpath when I was parked there – and I was the only person responsible for blocking their route, interfering with their constitutional rights and, much more seriously, putting them into a really dangerous situation if they had to try and go out on the main road to get around my car and travel onwards on their journey.

Many of us are guilty at some stage in our life of engaging in this type of behaviour. I know better than most that sometimes it REALLY is an emergency that led to this sort of blocking and obstructing. I’m afraid that doesn’t take away from the fact that we have still managed to frustrate and annoy another human being, and sometimes even put their lives at risk.

It was on ‘MAKE WAY DAY’ this year that I got my first real insight into how the person in the wheelchair or pushing the buggy really feels when they come across an obstacle like this. The Disability Federation of Ireland runs this annual awareness day campaign in which they call on people with a disability or anyone else in the community to come forward and take a tour of their local area with their phone or camera on hand. They’re invited to post a photo on social media if they encounter a problem. This is to ensure that we can all get a little reminder of how simple it is to cause upset or block someone’s way.

On the morning of the event I was lucky to be with Helen, Dorothy and John and other members of the newly-formed Access For All Roscommon group as they took a short wander around the streets of Roscommon town, noting the sort of things that cause them problems. By the way, it’s not just the cars parking on the footpath either.

For example, an overgrown hedge coming out onto a footpath is an example of an obstruction that the rest of us pedestrians may not notice. We can all swerve neatly around the hedge, but if you’re in a chair on a tight footpath and there’s a nasty looking thorny hedge and a few briars sticking out – and in your way – it’s not much fun. It’s an obstruction. The presence of wheelie bins – big and small – on a street or path on ‘Bin day’ can be another serious pain in the ass for a wheelchair user, and the absence of a very basic ramp to allow somebody even get up onto a footpath as they cross the street is another frustration that we encountered on our tour.

The development of outdoor seating and other attractions during the Covid-19 lockdown period has not been a particularly welcome one for people with disability. Seats, tables and billboards can be among the worst ‘offenders’, and while I know everybody has to make a living and these were exceptionally challenging times for traders, there really can be no excuse for blocking somebody’s way.

Since I became part of a small group, set up to establish the Lough Ree Access For All Boat in 2018/2019, my own personal awareness of the plight of people with disability has come on greatly. We devised the idea for the boat from our own knowledge that from time to time when fishing excursions and sightseeing boat trips were leaving the marina or quayside in Ballyleague, people in wheelchairs were simply left behind. Modern-day luxury cruisers and the good old-fashioned lake boat of the Shannon have one thing in common – as designed, they do not make it even remotely convenient to get a person in a wheelchair on board. You can, of course, try to lift or hoist the person in the chair up and over into the boat, but this is simply not acceptable to a person with disability. In one fell swoop, you have taken away their independence. Most of the time, it’s neither safe or comfortable either. Therefore, Alan Broderick and myself teamed up with Alan Farrell and Philip Gordon in Ballyleague and began searching for an internationally based design solution to this inequality conundrum.

The result of our endeavours over a three-year period was the successful design and manufacture of the new award-winning Lough Ree Access For All boat. Roscommon LEADER Partnership backed the project to the hilt with EU funding. DPD Ireland rowed in with support, and then Waterways Ireland, Inland Fisheries Ireland, Roscommon County Council and the Sliabh Bawn community Funds also ensured it would actually happen. This support, along with the hard work of volunteers, meant it became a reality.

At this stage I’m sure many of you have seen it on TV on the National Lottery ad. The concept is simple – by arranging for the bow of the boat (the front bit) to lower down like the doors of a little car ferry, the wheelchair user can simply roll on and off the vessel by the ramp on their own strength, and thereby gain entrance to the vessel in a smooth and stress-free manoeuvre. The new service has been an immediate hit with not just wheelchair users but also with lots of people with mobility issues and mums and dads with buggies and prams. I am very proud to say we have successfully carried over 1000 people with disability, and other 2000 able-bodied passengers, since the service began in early June this year.

The people who came on board the boat have come from every corner of the country as this is now very much a national service. I have chatted with people from Cork, Kerry, Donegal, Dún Laoghaire, Waterford and Armagh at the quayside in Ballyleague this summer, and it’s when you start to read the boat trip reviews afterwards that you get a real sense of the sheer joy that this new independent access is bringing. It’s the freedom to be the same as everyone else when boarding…that’s really the only thing that most people with disability want – EQUALITY.

So the next time you pull over to park beside a footpath, perhaps remember the message of MAKE WAY DAY – remember that, no matter how important your mission is, the person in the wheelchair may also be in just as much of a hurry as you – and you are about to block their access. MAKE WAY PLEASE.

Footnote: You can book your place on board the Lough Ree Access For All Boat until the end of November as it is still sailing daily. There’s a special offer for secondary school students at the moment. Visit  www.loughreeboattrips.com.