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13 Aug 2022

We need to ensure that ‘accessibility’ really does mean access for everyone

How much genuine consideration is given to those for whom the regulations exist?

We need to ensure  that ‘accessibility’ really does mean access for everyone

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It has often been said that you can tell a lot about a society by the way its vulnerable citizens are treated. 

We saw in the last week the new Changing Places facility open in Narin, making a day at the beach a reality to many children and adults for whom this would not have been previously possible.

This is great news - but what is more worrying is that it is the first of its kind to be open to the general public in Donegal.

A Changing Places facility caters for children and adults who cannot use the toilet and who need a parent or carer to change them.

We are all familiar with the baby changing benches in toilets up and down the country. I remember when my own children were still in nappies, I knew which shopping centres, cafés and petrol stations had decent changing facilities and I would plan my trip accordingly.

But imagine trying to change a child who is too big for the baby changing bench, who is five, six, seven, or a teenager. Imagine it is an adult wheelchair user. Imagine the challenges for the carer. 

And more importantly, imagine how undignifying it would be to be the person who is  laid out on a bathroom floor in a public toilet, or in the boot or back seat of a car, while someone is  cleaning and changing you, and also trying to protect your privacy.

That is the reality for a lot of people in our society, and there is a lot of room for improvement in who we accommodate their needs.  

I wrote an article about this a few months ago, and one parent shared her experience with our readers.

There were two things that really stood out. One was that not having nappy changing facilities for older children and adults means that they are extremely limited to where they can go and what they can do. 

We are not even talking about special events or big  days out. A simple trip to the supermarket may have to be abandoned mid-way through so that a person can be brought home and changed with dignity.

By not having such facilities, we are really cutting people off from many areas of everyday life in which they could otherwise engage.

The Mum I spoke to mentioned hotels, and how having changing facilities would allow those who needed them to attend  family events such as weddings, First Communions, etc. 

The second thing that stood out was how important it is that the needs of those who use the facilities are fully understood. Moving a person who has little or no mobility from a wheelchair to a bench is no easy feat. Hoists and benches that can be lowered and raised are among the essential requirements, as is adequate space to manoeuvre a wheelchair or large buggy. 

But above all, having these facilities in every town in Ireland is the only way that those who need them can participate fully in everyday community life. 

Sadly, this is not an isolated issue when it comes to the challenges faced by people with disabilities. Yes, there has been a degree of progress in some areas, but a lot of it is tokenism and doesn’t translate into practical usage. 

I remember a few years ago seeing a young man in Donegal Town who was recovering from a serious car crash. He negotiated his way into his wheelchair from his car independently and went towards the back entrance to the Millcourt Mews.

I asked him if he wanted me to move the gate that was  blocking the ramp. He thanked me and said yes. The man then took one look at the ramp and shook his head. 

“Not a f**king hope of me getting down that in one piece,” he said. 

And he was right. It was too steep to be safely negotiated by a wheelchair user. He laughed and set off to use one of the alternative ways through to the Diamond. But it really made me think about how much - or how little - thought goes into meeting the access needs of people with disabilities. How much of it is about box-ticking to meet building regulations and how much genuine consideration is given to those for whom the regulations exist?

A short walk through pretty much any town in Donegal will show that there is massive room for improvement. 

Donegal Town is where I spend most of my time, and so that is where I am most familiar with, but I know the same problems exist everywhere. 

Sandwich boards outside shops and restaurants, cars parking on pavements, in one case a local business placing large planters outside its doors on a section of pavement where there was also a signpost on the footpath. It was clear to see that there wasn’t even room for two people to walk past each other, so it would have been really challenging for someone using a wheelchair or mobility frame to get through. 

The Mum I spoke to when writing the Changing Places article told me that shop aisles are another big issue. A shop could meet requirements to have an accessible doorway, but once inside, there is not enough space to get around. 

Having pushed a double buggy for a few years, I can confirm that this is most definitely the case. There are shops that have wide enough aisles, but have additional goods in boxes or piles on the floor, or have stands and other obstacles. 

Public transport is another concern, with some moves in the right direction, but much more needing to be done.  

Having facilities to cater for people with disabilities does not inconvenience those who do not need them. But for those who do need such facilities, not having them is much more than inconvenient. It is undignifying, disheartening, and can add greatly to feelings of isolation. 

So as members of communities across Donegal, whatever our role or occupation, we can all play our part in ensuring that accessibility really does mean accessibility for everyone. 

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