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Thursday 30 November 2023 Dublin: -1°C
Sam Boal/ Senator Lynn Ruane

Lynn Ruane In Ireland we're forcing carers to change their children on toilet floors

The Community Participation Bill 2019 has made me think about what real access looks like, writes Lynn Ruane.

THE RIGHTS OF people with disabilities are often overlooked -  and that’s putting it mildly. 

When the Civil Engagement Group in Seanad Éireann came together, inclusivity and access to policy making were at the heart of our agenda as newly elected senators.

Senator John Dolan’s most recent legislation, which has passed the second stage in the Seanad, made me think about what real access looks like – not just to policy but to your own community. Access many of us take for granted.

Thanks to the work of Dolan and all the disability advocates involved in bringing the Community Participation Bill 2019 to life, it is so glaringly obvious that accessibility does not always mean inclusivity. 

At the moment, many families can’t enjoy a trip to the local playground together as children with disabilities are often excluded from play due to the lack of accessible and inclusive play equipment.

Senator Dolan’s bill requires local authorities to follow the principles of universal design which is the recommended approach to achieving inclusive playgrounds. This, in turn, would provide the opportunity for inclusive play. 

As a mother, my days were spent at the playground with my daughters. We often had several trips a week, spending hours there, especially during the summer months. 

Oftentimes there would be pebbles beneath our feet in these playgrounds, I even remember the struggle of dragging prams across them. But at least I knew that when we got settled on a park bench or grass verge, my kids would be gone for hours climbing up steps to the slides and spinning each other on the merry-go-round.

Most of us as kids expect to progress from the toddler swings to the big kid swings. Our play was only ever impacted by our age. I hate to even think about when one of my girls managed to access the playground but was then completely excluded from play due to the lack of universal design in her surroundings.

It is painful to think kids living with a disability have their play impacted by so much more than that, and the lack of universal planning quite literally removes the ability of many families to be out in the community.

Having equal access to all stages of a child’s development is also a way of educating our young on diversity and inclusion in a fun environment -  in turn creating a greater social and community awareness across the board.

Children will grow with the knowledge they receive from a very young age. This encourages inclusion in the workforce, in residential settings, and of course in all social aspects of life.

Changing places 

Another section of the proposed legislation addresses the embarrassing lack of changing places in Ireland. 

There is an urgent need to improve current accessibility building standards as they do not meet the needs of people with a profound disability.

The bill changes the current standard so that changing places are provided in addition to the usual toilet facilities -  this applies to both new and pre-existing builds.

The alternative to not correcting the standard is to say to parents and carers that it is ok for you to continue to change your child/teen/adult on a toilet floor, something many of us find abhorrent. 

The mother of a young girl living with a disability at a recent briefing recently said: 

The choice is between changing your child on the floor or leaving them soiled.

This isn’t really a choice at all, it is inconceivable.

What we consider normal everyday life is curbed by the lack of accessible changing place for many looking to enjoy a day out in their own communities. 

In Ireland, there are just 11 registered changing places and eight of these are in Dublin.

In comparison, the UK  has over 1,300 changing places and Northern Ireland has 27.

There is so much we take for granted such as trips to the local shopping centre or the cinema. Most of us will never have to consider what we will do if we need to use the bathroom while we are out.

Imagine only being able to leave the house for as long as you can hold your bladder, having the panic of trying to get back home in time to use your facilities.

Everyone should and can be an active citizen and participate fully in their lives, society and community. We now have the opportunity, through this legislation, to move from the mere promotion of participation to the reality of it. 

This cross-departmental piece bill is grounded in the reality that many people with disabilities are excluded from equal participation due to a number of barriers, many of which are addressed in the tabled legislation. 

Public benefit and public good will be better served by the adjustments that this bill proposes. The government has stated its fully behind the bill, it’s upon us to ensure it remains that way.

To quote John Dolan, “public affirmation and celebration of participation in the community is the most potent antidote to the slippery road of ‘special’, ‘separate’ and ‘other’ that easily leads to ‘they are different’”.

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator. 

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