“DISABLED PERSONS WITH reduced mobility have the same right as all other citizens to free movement, freedom of choice and non-discrimination. This applies to air travel as to other areas of life.” These were the words written by Equality Officer Orlaith Mannion in her recent report on a case of discrimination on grounds of disability.
Of course I agree, as I am the woman who was at the centre of this discrimination.
When I became ill with the condition ME thirteen years ago, I saw my life very rapidly change from that of an able-bodied woman to one who needed full-time care. One of the hardest things I had to deal with was relinquishing my independence. A hard pill to swallow when all of the sudden you have to ask for help with every single action – from opening a new tube of toothpaste, to having one’s breakfast made, and to be able to go outside your own front door.
For this last action, mobility aids became a necessity. Yet, when my first wheelchair arrived I was not able look at it. I was the one who should be pushing a chair, having been trained as a nurse; I wasn’t destined to sit in one. I avoided the room where it was stored and only agreed to a spin in the chair during the hours of dusk, away from town. However I had to agree to these wheels in the end. So long as I had a pusher – a ‘mobiliser’ – it meant that I would not be confined to my home for ever.
Being seated in a wheelchair changes one’s perspective of life. Literally. Suddenly your view is at a child’s level. With the result that people talk down at you. Literally. It seems that if you are being pushed in a wheelchair, you must have something wrong with your brain, not your body.
I remember a few incidents from those early years. I was wheeled into a shopping centre, which was celebrating its second birthday. A ‘pirate’ ran up to me and was about to give me a kiss and a handful of sweets. I pushed him, with all my strength, out of my face.
A few weeks later, my ‘mobiliser’ was asked: “what’s wrong with the little one?” I reckon that the questioning man and myself were close in age, both in our forties.
Handing money over to a cashier, without fail, the change would be handed over to the person behind the chair. Why?
‘People laughed in my face’
My ever-growing quest for true independence brought me to the decision to purchase a mobility scooter. With this aid, my world opened up for me again as I was able to leave the house when energy allowed, not just when I had someone to push my wheelchair. Looks and comments did not stop. They just changed. People sometimes laughed in my face. One bonus is that being without a ‘mobiliser’ I was able to pay for my groceries and get the change into my own hands.
However, life on wheels is not without its obstacles. There is no transport in my rural area which I can use. In my town there are two banks. Both have large steps into the building. Thank goodness I have some use of my legs and am able to get off my scooter and walk into the bank with the help of a walking stick. The credit union has the same architectural challenges. Footpaths have been upgraded, but the levels of the curbs are now too high. Some have been lowered after a meeting with the council. There might be a bathroom for the disabled in a café, but it is impossible to get inside the door due to the high steps into the building, and if you get in, there are most likely too many tables and chairs to get through the space.
I remember visiting a restaurant situated on the first floor. There was an elevator, and a small floor-lift allowing a wheelchair user to combat the few steps into the restaurant itself. I was very pleased, until I went to visit the ‘disabled’ bathroom. Indeed it was disabled. All the cleaning gear was stored in the large bathroom.
‘People get angry’
We all know the way people abuse the parking disc, which allows people with a disability to park in designated areas. Some seem to borrow their ‘granny’s’ disc, or park in designated areas while the disabled person is not present. When confronted these drivers get angry. Very angry. Some tell me that they have a disabled child – at home – others that “they’ll only be a minute”. Other people park their cars on the sidewalk, leaving no other option than to risk one’s life and continue your journey on the busy main road.
I am aware that people are not thinking about this type of challenge – you only become aware when you’re disabled yourself. With that thought in mind, I would like to propose a national day of disability awareness. On that day local politicians, shop and café owners and teenagers will be given a task to complete in the towns and cities of Ireland. All are disabled for a day: be it blind, seated in a wheelchair or suffering from hearing loss. The tasks they would be given could range from getting the groceries to going to the bank; going for coffee and using the bathroom; visiting a gallery, etc. Maybe, just maybe, this will open people’s eyes and make our country a place where a “disabled person and persons with reduced mobility have the same right as all other citizens to free movement, freedom of choice and non-discrimination”.
That will be the day!
Corina Duyn is an author and artist living in Lismore Co Waterford. Her work is informed by nature and living life in the slow lane. See corinaduyn.com for more.