Ah, public transport in Ireland… Two-track train stations without elevators or escalators. Buses with seats for supposedly elderly or people with disabilities. Crutches or walking sticks that should indicate some form of disability…
People with disabilities have all been there. Literally too tired to walk another mile, they find high, rusty, wet and windy staircases over train tracks instead of escalators and/or elevators in train stations. Absolutely, public transport in Ireland is slowly moving into the 21st century, with new footbridges being built with elevators inside them, but still… constructing and/or adapting them is not happening fast enough.
Accessibility is not just a fancy term to keep people with disabilities happy. Anyone who suffers an accident which limits their movements, soon realise that accessibility is more than just that.
Three months after moving to Ireland in 2002, I had a rock climbing accident. Instead of climbing down in my harness, I jumped. Instead of preparing my landing position by bending my legs mid-air, upon landing I stood up straight. Result? Patellar tendinitis and crutches for eight weeks. Nice is different.
Travelling to work by train was another matter altogether. Scaling wet train station staircases looked like Mount Doom on a good day. I had never used crutches before, so people walking the stairs behind me were rather pushy. Literally. It took a good while to get used to hopping around this way, so I cursed myself senseless for having caused an accident that could’ve been prevented so easily.
Remember those seats on Dublin Bus that have stickers on the windows saying “Reserved for elderly people or people with disabilities”? Yes, those seats. In theory.
Quite often occupied by able-bodied people. Correction… A-l-w-a-y-s taken by fit, healthy, strong people without shaking legs and knees.
In practice, so?
One morning, after yet another night of neuropathic pain and DMD injection side effects, my way of hopping to work was with a walking aid. When I entered the bus I saw that it was packed with people, including the seats reserved for people with disabilities.
When I walked towards the priority seating area, I was stared at by everyone sitting on the downstairs floor. That walking stick made it very easy for people to see that I wasn’t Usain Bolt. Imagined or not, I felt judged because in people’s minds I was too young to use a walking aid. Big, black rings under my eyes made me look even worse. In short, I looked ill. In fact, I was quite ill and by god, I needed a seat for the next hour as my legs were as frail as cooked pasta.
In a perfect world, and in a world in which people have manners, they should have thought “This girl really does look ill. Let me give her my seat.”
I asked one of the girls occupying those seats if I could please have hers. Acting as if I wasn’t there, she kept staring in front of her.
I asked her again. Same non-reply.
Tears welled up because everyone sitting in the other 25 seats saw my plight, yet nobody helped. I felt ashamed, awful, and heartbroken.
I asked the girl one last time, and finally she replied by shouting “Yeah, yeah, you can have my seat!” followed by a good old insult.
At this stage, I cried of pain. I thought, “Do I really have to walk with my coffin under my arm to get a seat when I’m clearly and physically leaning on a walking stick while holding the handrail as if it was my best friend?”
What hurt most, was the non-reaction from everyone on that downstairs level of the bus. People kept on staring as if I was a stand-up comedy or hidden camera act. When growing up, I was taught to give my seat to elderly people or pregnant women when there were no empty seats left. To this day I still stand up when needed. It was hard for me to grasp why I had to beg to get the same result laced with insults and ignorance.
Eventually it made me use the train again because at least on the train, people stood up to gave me their seat, even when I had to scale those wet, iron-wrought, wobbly staircases.
So, whether it’s physical access in train stations or any other kind of infrastructure, access can be hard to obtain. People with disabilities shouldn’t have to beg to gain access to things able-bodied people have easy access to. Having to get into a fight against ignorance only makes a disability worse.
People with reduced mobility or any other kind of disability do not use their walking stick or wheelchair in vain just to get a seat on a bus or train. They really are living with disabilities. A mind-shift is therefore required both in the minds of able-bodied people as well as in new, architecturally advanced infrastructure.
Access all areas, so? Keep on building bridges, but let’s open our hearts and minds to see real disability at play.
(Written for World MS Day 2014, theme: Access)
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