View from a chair: ‘Even going out for a meal can be an ordeal’

  • September 8, 2010
  • Bruce Bromley

KIARA LYNCH was pleasantly surprised to be asked to test disability access at Dublin Airport’s new terminal. It was a rare moment in a country where everyday activities such as travelling, eating out and even going to the loo are often frustrating experiences

LAST WEEK I took part in an operational trial in the soon-to-be-opened Terminal 2 facility at Dublin Airport. The Dublin Airport Authority invited me, as a full-time manual wheelchair user who travels extensively, to test the terminal, to ensure that when the facility opens in November it will be accessible to everyone who walks, wheels or limps along its shiny new floors.

Completing my snag list, I made a mental bookmark of the moment, gratified that a government agency was reaching out to the disability sector to make sure it had been done right. It wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago when I was 16 and had just started using a wheelchair.

Back then, I thought I was going to change the world. From my chair I looked around and saw that access in this country was woeful. I mistakenly believed that if only I could communicate this to the politicians and to the general public, everything would change. Laws would be put in place to make wheelchair life more equitable and soon there would be nowhere in Ireland that people in wheelchairs could not go. I’ve spent the past 10 years learning that life doesn’t work like that.

Airport Access

I was 12 years old when I started to lose my balance and was diagnosed with a rare degenerative neurological disorder called Friedreichs Ataxia. Gradually, I became less mobile. By the time I left the family home in Co Longford five years later to train as a software engineer in Carlow, I was a full-time wheelchair user.

The job I eventually got in that industry was about as boring as spending eight hours a day with my wheelchair tied to the back of my Dad’s tractor. So I handed in my notice and blew all my savings on a sailing trip around the Caribbean.

I’ve travelled widely since then. For three months of last year, I backpacked with my boyfriend, now my fiance, around Australia and New Zealand. We went scuba diving and snorkelling and my boyfriend proposed to me on a mountain in Queenstown, New Zealand. We live together in Dublin where I work for the Irish Wheelchair Association, writing for their quarterly magazine, Spokeout, on issues that affect Irish people with limited mobility.

THE VIEW FROM A WHEELCHAIR in Ireland provides plenty of material for my job. There are a few exceptions of excellent access, but they’re so rare as to be almost mythical. I’m only 26 but I’ve already lost count of the farcical scenarios I’ve encountered just trying to live and enjoy my life.

Even something as simple as going out for a meal in this country can be a frustrating ordeal. I grew up in rural Ireland, where the main entertainment was watching my older brother being chased around the field by the ram, so I always feel guilty about snubbing offers to socialise. But sometimes I just can’t face it, due to this country’s lax attitude to wheelchair access.

Having said that, a girl can’t stay in watching boxsets of The Wire and polishing her spokes all her life.

One friend, well used to tricky negotiations in her job, recently took on the organisational role of finding the restaurant for a rare night out with friends. Eventually, she emailed me saying she’d found a restaurant in town claiming to have full wheelchair access. My past experiences led me to phone the venue for the obligatory double check.

The usual conversation ensued. I sought the management’s assurance that they were wheelchair accessible and they swore blind that they were. On that basis, we went ahead and booked.

On arrival, the first thing we noticed was a staircase just inside the front door. I took a few deep breaths and counted to 10. Pointing in the direction of the staircase the manager said: “Your table is up there, these waiters will lift you up the steps.”

There was no awareness that perhaps lifting me and my wheelchair up a flight of stairs might not constitute best health and safety practice. They risked doing their backs in but I was more worried about me; I was already in a wheelchair and a broken arm or worse was not going to enhance my look.

More deep breaths.

I suggested it was a tad disingenuous to advertise the premises as wheelchair accessible when access was via stairs. The manager replied that the restaurant met all the minimum building requirements to be deemed wheelchair accessible. The subtext was clear: “What’s your problem, wheelchair lady?”

I didn’t want to drag my friends cold and hungry into the streets with little chance of finding an accessible restaurant at 7pm on a Saturday night. So a staff member on either side of me grabbed a wheel and lifted me up one flight of stairs, and then another.

Perhaps it was all the excitement, but now I badly needed to use the bathroom. One of the waiters didn’t even blink as he told me the accessible bathroom was on my left. At the top of another flight of stairs.

BEING A STEREOTYPICAL culchie living in Dublin means I’m a regular on the Connolly to Edgeworthstown train, going back home for my dose of Mammy’s brown bread. Being a wheelchair user, the train journey is always eventful.

On a recent summer’s evening I was making my usual Sunday trek. The train, normally packed with students, was practically empty. More often than not, the designated wheelchair space is loaded with luggage, but this time I was free to use the space without any awkward encounters. Fellow commuters tend to gaze at me blankly when I explain their bags are in the wheelchair users’ space.

The man with the food trolley trundled past and spoke to a man sitting opposite me. When he’d gone, the rattled-looking passenger told me that the man with the trolley had presumed he was my carer.

“He told me to come and see him when you got off,” he said. I sighed. This is not uncommon. Staff members often presume I have a carer and often talk to my “carer” without even addressing me.

Twenty minutes later, when we came to the final stop I assured my “carer” that he could proceed on his merry way without me. I knew that it would be another 10 minutes before someone remembered I was there and found a portable ramp so I could leave the train.

I wasn’t his responsibility, I told him. He was free to go.

But he wanted to help. He looked out the window and spotted a portable ramp. Before I could tell him that it was probably locked to the wall, he took off and I could see him tugging at it. He came back in and kept me company, chatting about music and travel until finally, an attendant appeared. He hadn’t been informed there was a wheelchair user on the train.

The ramp eventually appeared. My new friend and I parted ways. I hoped to see him again for a chat the next week, but the two wheelchair spaces were filled with luggage and I had to sit in the corridor.

FROM MY RECENT VISIT to Dublin Airport, it’s clear there are still accessibility issues to be addressed at the new terminal. For once, though, I am confident that somebody in charge wants to know about these issues so they can be dealt with in advance of the opening.

Maybe I’m not going to change the world (sorry 16-year-old-Kiara) but perhaps I can be part of changing Ireland and making it a fairer place for all of us.

Here’s hoping.