Saturday December 3 was the UN International Day of Persons with Disability. We marked it in Galway by holding what we called a ‘Speakout,’ at one o’clock outside Brown Thomas’s, where the Christmas shopping crowds were thickest. Ten of us, men and women in wheelchairs, all ages from late twenties to over eighty, spoke in turn about the need to combat our social exclusion in the city, letting the public know the everyday obstacles we face to our mobility and ease of access.
Here I was at the age of 81, two and a half years in a wheelchair. I surprised myself by my own anger and frustration as I spoke of the very real fear that overcame me when I was first shoved into busy streets, so low down between my wheels among pedestrians’ legs as to seem invisible: why, they’d walk into me and over me as though trampling stubble. When we had to cross traffic, I felt like an army defaulter sent out in advance of the troop to detect landmines with his feet. If there were a smash, the wheelchair would be blown away while the shover could probably jump clear. Unable to manipulate the chair by myself, I had to be shoved by somebody – I say ‘shoved’ deliberately; no milder verb will do; I weigh over 13 stone, I sit there like a sack of coal – and that somebody is my own beloved partner.
The anger was not mine alone; each of us one by one told of our experiences in much the same words and with much the same emotions. The experiences, of course, are not exactly the same; everyone in a wheelchair is an individual with an individual history and an individual type of vehicle, whether self-propelled, shoved by a helper or powered by an electric motor. But everyone is assailed by the same tormenting deficiencies of the dreadful townscape – pits and ridges in the road, cracks and subsidences in the pavement, inspection holes with ill-fitting lids, formidable kerbs, and the agonising shock if you’re jolted into them unaware. When kerbs are ‘dished’ for a crossing, the studded tiles are often broken; or the gutter they are supposed to meet has sunk, so that the smoothness of the run from pavement to road-surface is dead and gone. We found one appalling stretch of pavement, so suddenly narrow at the corner of a blind junction that to navigate it your wheelchair is forced willy-nilly into the road, on the wrong side, while the opposing stream of cars, vans, trucks, motorbikes, and the occasional bus, cannot see you till the last desperate moment.
Then there are dished kerbs with no twin on the opposite pavement: the wheelchair must be trundled across the road at an angle to find a low kerb, or else the shover has to struggle on the edge of a high kerb, poising the chair neither up nor down, while the traffic swings angrily round her. At one very busy junction, a traffic-light has been sited, with its little green man apparently directing pedestrians and wheelchairs safely across; but neither side of the road has a dished kerb nearer than 30 yards, and they are surely two of the highest kerbs in town. Who can have sanctioned this atrocity? Are there separate departments, one for lights and one for kerbs, prohibited from comparing plans by some weird bureaucratic protocol?
I cannot write too strongly about inadequate law-enforcement: for example, nothing ever seems to be done about motorists frustrated by double yellow lines who do not hesitate to park all-the-way or halfway on the pavement. Attempting to direct my shover between one of these chancers and the living-room window of a little house, I succeeded in getting the wheelchair thoroughly stuck for several minutes – if we left the wretched car with scratches along its paintwork, who was to blame?
Being wheeled into public buildings is a frequent ordeal: awkwardly high door-cills; self-closing doors too heavy to be held open by the rider or the shover or both; sets of inner and outer doors so close together that they all have to be held open at the same time to allow passage. The library, the theatre, an art exhibition, a notable bookshop – entry to these delights is painful and uncertain.
And maybe most distressing of all, the permanent anxiety when I’m wheeled away from home: how near is the nearest public lavatory? and how accessible? A self-fulfilling apprehension, it creates instant mischief in the bladder; on its own it has been turning me into a depressed and timid recluse.
Many of these obstacles are actually impossible to overcome if no help arrives from a good natured passer-by. Indeed, the astonishing good nature of Galway people constantly shows itself to a wheelchair user in difficulties, all ages always ready to offer a hand at awkward places. It truly warms the heart. But we are dependent on their charity; and Lord, we should be independent.
All this simply demonstrates how blind I used to be – how blind nearly everyone was, and is – to so many restrictions on the mobility of so many people. The irony is that our population continually increases in age: year by year more and more hitherto physically-untroubled citizens will be forced to accept the eventual wheelchair. As one member of the Speakout put it, pity is not appropriate, just common sense and foresight: we simply require the same safe and easy public access that everyone else automatically assumes. Indeed it has been promised in the current Galway City Development Plan. We are constantly told there is not enough money in these days of the tyrannical Troika: but we are also told – with equal authority – that some €511 million is regularly wasted on various layers of local government... Let me therefore emphasise Galway’s signature to the Barcelona Declaration of 2002 which states that “Municipal Governments will adopt [my emphasis: J.A.] measures towards the necessary adaptation of urban spaces... in order to allow full use by disabled persons.” Galway, moreover, has its Healthy Cities Project -- part of a World Health Organization initiative, involving more than 80 cities throughout Europe: aiming to “enhance the health of the city,” the project is managed by a multi-agency group, including the City Partnership with its own sub-department Access For All.
It is not as though the city fathers have entirely forgotten what they have signed, and remain unaware of our problems. These have continually been pointed out by such longtime campaigners as Martin Davoren; Ronnie Conlon, founder of Galway Independent Living Centre (GILC ), member of The Irish Wheelchair Association; Mary Tierney and Adrian Reidy, both of Patient Focus Of People With Disability (within the past year, alas, this national organization has been left high and dry by a curt official ‘cutback notification,’ ie, a total withdrawal of funding ). Other voices amongst the wheelchair users at the Speakout, notably Kathleen Faherty, strongly exposed the whole displacement to their lives by the working hours insisted upon by the personal assistant agencies – the immediacy of that particular problem was well demonstrated when we heard that the noted film-maker Frank Stapleton and the poet Eileen Gormley were unable to come to the Speakout because their PAs’ hours were incompatible. A classic example of ongoing social exclusion: left unchallenged it is the sort of tiresome pedantry that can only breed depression and a deep-seated sense of second-class citizenship. Sean Healy of GILC pointed out that he had had to drive around for 45 minutes on the day of the Speakout to find a disability-designated parking space not already occupied by an able-bodied driver. The most shocking story was of Ciara and Noelle who live next door to each other in Ballybane, in a dedicated civic housing project. Access to the city centre is by bus, but their PAs have been instructed not to push them up the hill to the bus-stop (Health’n’Safety ), while Bus Éireann refused to change its route and bring the buses down the hill to accommodate them (once again, Health’n’Safety ).
We are not demanding preferential treatment; the deficiencies are comparatively minor; correcting them would benefit everybody. It could be accomplished very rapidly – match the dished kerbs; paint them to make them visible at night; repair broken street-surfaces; provide compatible pavements for disability-designated parking spaces; encourage (and enforce ) motorists’ awareness of no-parking rules in such spaces or beside dished kerbs; encourage shops, pubs and restaurants to display disability icons to show that their internal arrangements (particularly toilets ) allow for wheelchairs; encourage modification of heavy or double doors.
Ronnie finished the Speakout on a high note: he declared that militancy in the past got us the benefits we already have; only by militancy will we persuade the “powers that be” to fulfil their promises, their commitments, their solemn undertakings – not tomorrow, he proclaimed, but today!.