Galway wheelchair users are facing isolation as the infrastructure around the city fails to support their needs.
A number of wheelchair users around the city have raised their concerns over the lack of access and poor infrastructure around the city and county, which is impacting negatively on their daily lives.
The main issues facing wheelchair users in Galway include narrow and uneven footpaths and streets, a lack of ramps and inadequate toilet facilities, which are making simple tasks increasing difficult.
According to Maggie Woods, spokesperson for the Galway branch of the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA), these problems are inhibiting the lives and happiness of many wheelchair users, and may be having a knock-on affect in terms of mental health.
Another problem many wheelchair users have to contend with is the absence of accessible public transport, which serves to isolate individuals further.
“I have a disability myself and I don’t use the public transport service. If I were to go on public transport from Tuam to Galway, I wouldn’t manage it. It’s totally and utterly unacceptable,” Ms Woods says.
At this year’s Galway Film Fleadh, a documentary, ‘Welcome to Our World’, highlighted the physical, social and psychological effects of these problems on the wheelchair community in Galway.
The film’s director, Margaretta D’Arcy, became aware of the difficulties facing wheelchair users when her late husband John Arden developed a tumour on his spine and became dependent on the use of a wheelchair.
The documentary follows a group of wheelchair users and looks at the issues they face each day. It shows that many people struggle with accessing basic services, such as banks and post offices. Small steps, narrow doorways and heavy doors were the main obstacles.
However, the lack of access to bars, restaurants, clubs and venues was also a huge source of frustration for the wheelchair users. One man noted that, without the appropriate facilities, it was “too much hassle” to socialise.
Many of the individuals featured in the documentary felt increasingly isolated and lonely as a result of the lack of resources in place to accommodate their disability.
One woman, who was unable to use public transport due to her wheelchair, said she was separated from her family who didn’t live nearby and worried her young nephews and nieces wouldn’t recognise her if they met.
Living in the countryside meant that buses were the only form of transport available to her but, with narrow doorways and high steps, they were not a feasible way to travel.
“They (wheelchair users) can’t enjoy themselves in Galway. It’s a human rights issue,” says Ms D’Arcy. “They are being denied the things that able-bodied people take for granted. It’s a scandal.”
Speaking to the Galway Independent, a member of staff from the IWA noted how organising group activities for clients could be extremely arduous. Despite ringing ahead to ensure the relevant facilities were in place, groups often turned up to find that they were not sufficient.
“They say they’ve got wheelchair accessible toilets and, when you go in there, they have a wheelchair toilet, but you can barely get a wheelchair in there.”
This, he says, can have a serious impact on the self-esteem of clients.
Asked how the city council was addressing the situation, Access Officer Sharon Lawless said a number of works were being carried out on an ongoing basis around the city in areas of accessibility.
However, she acknowledged that more could be done. “There are areas with broken footpaths and areas that require lamps, but there has been an awful lot of controlled junctions and uncontrolled junctions installed throughout the city. There has been a lot of work done in the area of access,” Ms Lawless said.
The Access Officer also said that government funding cuts in the area of accessibility has left the city council with limited resources. But she said that new works in the city have included accessibility measures.
One problem the engineers have encountered is the retro fitting of ramps and other facilities, to old buildings. This, Ms Lawless said, can be expensive and lengthy, and, in an old city like Galway, can often mean listed buildings cannot be touched.
The most recent building regulations with regards to accessibility were drawn up in 1990 and only took into account basic manual wheelchairs.
However, many wheelchair users now operate motorised chairs, which are much larger and heavier than their manual counterparts, and, as a result, are not in line with the outdated regulations.
Ms Lawless said something needs to be done on a national level to bring these regulations up to date and she said the national Access Officer Network is working on new guidelines which she hopes will be passed through the Dáil in the next year.
Although wheelchair users and carers see the need for urgent changes in the area of accessibility, many feel that a change in mindset is also required.
Ms D’Arcy says that able-bodied people cause many obstructions to wheelchairs. Parking in disabled spaces, chaining bikes to lampposts and parking up on the footpath are simple things that might not cross the mind of an able-bodied person but can cause serious difficulty for wheelchair users.
Like Ms D’Arcy, a number of staff from the IWA feel that an awareness of disability is needed in the city and that a small fine should be administered, for those who don’t adhere to basic traffic and parking laws.
“Fine them €70, €100, something that will stop them doing it,” one worker suggested.
Arguing that these small changes would be to everybody’s advantage, Ms D’Arcy says, “You don’t know when you or a family member might find yourselves in a wheelchair at one point or another.”