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Opinion: I couldn't clearly watch my brother play in Croke Park because I’m in a wheelchair

The GAA markets Croke Park as a world-class stadium but, after I was paralysed from the chest down in 2012, I’ve realised how it falls short for wheelchair users.

John O'Brien

PICTURE IT: Colleges All-Ireland Final day Croke Park 2013. My brother representing my former stomping ground St Patrick’s Classical School Navan on the biggest day of his footballing career (so far). A few hundred people in attendance. Hogan Stand closed, but everyone travelling to Croke Park that wet miserable day believed they’d get a clear view of a great match.

Not me, though. I knew I wouldn’t have a clear view of my brother running out on to the hallowed pitch for the first time. Why? Because I’m in a wheelchair.

The GAA markets Croke Park as a world-class stadium, however in recent times I know that to be a lie. I grew up thinking the GAA was the greatest sporting organisation in Ireland and Croke Park was the jewel in its crown. In recent times my opinion has changed. I’ve gained a more open view of the world since I was involved in car crash in August 2012, which has left me paralysed from the chest down.

Let down spectacularly

I try to not let this get me down, I understand that it has changed my life but I’m lucky enough to have a great network of family and friends around me. They are a constant pillar for me to lean on for strength. Another area I gain great enjoyment from is sport, I love debating the most recent twist in the premiership with friends, recently watching the snooker world championships on the telly and going to as many games of my local GAA Club, Nobber, as I can.

The people and facilities in the sports I love the most rarely let me down, however it’s the sport and organisation I love the most that lets me down spectacularly. I’ve been to Old Trafford during the most recent Manchester derby. It was an amazing experience with the Manchester United club organising tickets for me, and during the game I had a perfect view of the pitch – even if it was gruesome viewing for United fans. I’ve also attended a Six Nations game in the Aviva Stadium which gives plenty of space for people in my situation but they also look after the most important thing – the view.

Providing a good experience for everyone

This is where the GAA lets people in wheelchairs down. That day in Croke Park when my brother Stephen took to the pitch, it wasn’t because of my disability I couldn’t see the pitch, it was simply because people in front of me stood up. The GAA obviously didn’t have disabled people high on their priorities list when they were planning the building of Croke Park and, in a way, I can forgive that. But since 2007 the Irish Wheelchair Association has been bringing the issue of people standing up in front of the disabled area in Croke Park to the GAA. And the GAA have been laughing them off since then.

The GAA have used many excuses and reasons for why this happens but the excuse I find the most insulting is when they say, ‘It’s not that bad, Croke Park is only full four times during the year’. I don’t want to sound like a bitter person, I firmly believe there is no better place to be than Croke Park on a warm summer’s day, cheering on your team when the game is in the melting pot, but that is an insult to our intelligence. Trust me when I say Croke Park doesn’t have to be full for people in the wheelchair area to be affected in a negative way.

I also want to make it clear that I don’t blame the actual people sitting in front of me, at no stage are they asked to sit down and be contentious of the people in wheelchairs behind them. If I’m being honest I probably would have been the exact same as them before my accident, jumping up and hugging the closest Meath person to me if we scored a goal – not that it happens that often any more. My frustration is with Croke Park, the lack of care they show people in wheelchairs is shocking, yet they’re allowed claim they are a modern organisation with international stand facilities.

Simple solutions

I don’t want to be a negative Neddy, so my solution is simple. On the tickets printed for the seats in front of the wheelchair area I’d like it to be made very clear as to where they are sitting and ask them to please stay seated while the games are in play. I’d also like to see two stewards either side of the row in front of the wheelchair area reminding people to stay seated, and if anyone can’t manage to obey that request they will be asked to move somewhere else in the stadium.

The main reason I wrote this is so the GAA treat all people with respect and all Gaels treat each other with that same respect.

John O’Brien went to the GAA football stronghold of St Patrick’s Classical School, Navan. Once he graduated from there he went to NUI Maynooth to complete an Arts Degree, which he graduated from in the National Rehabilitation Centre. He has supported and played Gaelic football with the Nobber GAA Club his whole life. After his accident, the club provided great support for John and raised funds for him to build an all-purpose home. He now looks forward to doing more writing in the future. And wanted to thank everyone for the amazing support. Follow his adventure here.

Read: No Sky GAA move for Quinny – ‘I won’t be working or anything like that on GAA games’

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John O'Brien

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