Seán O’Kelly was stranded in a Dublin train station last March because the lift was out of use.
As a 23-year-old wheelchair user, this was his breaking point and so he decided something had to be done to challenge and change the society we live in.
“Living in a wheelchair is a nightmare,” Seán said. “There is no spontaneity in my life nor in the lives of the 40,000 other wheelchair users in Ireland.”
Due to the steep steps on either side of the footbridge at the station, Seán would not have asked a passerby to carry him in his chair up and down the stairs.
In the end, someone had to come and help him back on to another train and he got off at a different stop that did have a working lift.
He took to social media and also made a formal complaint to Iarnród Éireann. He received an apology from the transport body and, as a result of the experience, his home station is now manned around the clock so he will always have access in and out of it.
However, for any journey he makes, he must phone 24-hours in advance to make the stations aware that he will need a ramp and assistance to get on and off the train, as well as access to a lift if he has to cross a bridge.
“A month after the incident, I knew I wanted to do something because I was so fed up, I just didn’t know where to go and I didn’t want to protest because that can get nasty,” said the student.
He then came up with an idea called ‘A Day in My Wheels,’ where an able-bodied person spends 24 hours using a wheelchair.
So far, Today FM broadcaster Anton Savage and Fianna Fáil councillor Cormac Devlin have taken up the challenge.
“You do it by yourself, on your own. I have a spare chair,” explained Seán.
“I’m challenging the public, politicians, and the media to spend a day in my wheels.”
Aside from transport challenges, Seán meets barriers in his day-to-day life when it comes to restaurants and coffee shops.
“I’ve never ever had that (discriminatory) experience in shops and restaurants but most places public bathrooms are a nightmare to get into,” he says.
“There was one restaurant I was in and I couldn’t get into the bathroom so I went into the restaurant next door to use theirs and I couldn’t get out of it
“So I had to ring my friend to come and get me. They both had disabled stickers on their doors.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge Seán faces is in securing gainful employment, despite his qualifications in digital marketing and social media.
“I’ve done various one-year courses and I’m currently looking for employment,” says Seán. “A lot of wheelchair users find it hard to get employment. It can be so, so difficult.
“I don’t know if it’s down to accessibility or the mentality of employers, maybe you’re better off setting up your own company.
“We are people with a disability, but we also have abilities, there is a portion of society that looks at our wheelchair and not at us but I just look past that.
“It’s their problem that they belittle us. I am who I am, I’m not going to conquer Everest, but I’m going to do lots of others things. I’ve had huge support from friends and families and those around me.”
Seán has since bought himself a specially adapted car and is taking driving lessons.
“Friends and family said I should have a name for it and I do, it’s ‘Freedom’, because it is, it is my freedom.
“We should be able to go where we want when we want to,” he says.
See www.facebook.com/adayinmywheels2016 or twitter.com/adayinmywheels
Cormac Devlin spent 24 hours in a wheelchair last week and was blanked by people who knew him.
“There’s a certain level of invisibility,” says the Fianna Fáil councillor. “I met people I knew and they blanked me.
“One person I called out to and they looked straight through me and just kept walking.”
Mr Devlin was spending the day navigating Dublin’s street in a wheelchair as part of ‘A Day in my Wheels’ challenge, started by 23-year-old wheelchair user Séan O’Kelly.
“The pre-planning needed for just one day was the first thing I noticed,” says Mr Devlin.
“The bus was ruled out because we couldn’t have two wheelchairs on the one bus at the same time.
“Two disabled companions can’t use the same bus. We could use the Dart but we had to give 24 hours’ notice because some stations are unmanned and you need a ramp to get in and out of the train.”
Mr Devlin is also the cathaoirleach of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.
Aside from the level of organisation that was needed, he was struck by several other issues over the course of his day in the chair.
“The natural eye-opener for me was the physicality of it, for an able-bodied person to be aware of the physicality of wheeling yourself around, the smallest incline that you wouldn’t notice,” he says.
Choosing the most accessible restaurants, on a number of fronts, was another issue he was confronted with.
“Accessibility isn’t an issue there by and large, but when we went to eat we had to carefully decide where we’d go,” says Mr Devlin.
“Internal building doors could be fire doors, so they’re extremely heavy and if they are pull doors, you’re on wheels trying to pull heavy doors, it’s counter- productive, you’re being pulled towards something you’re trying to pull.”
Mr Devlin is encouraging other politicians to take the challenge if they are serious about making Ireland accessible for all of its citizens.
“Anybody who’s looking at writing public policy on disability access — there’s no better way than to participate like this and see are these policies working in a practical way,” he says.
“At a time when we are looking for people with disabilities to live in the community, how can they do this if something like travel is an issue?
“Maybe the Minister for Disabilities Finian McGrath could consider taking on this challenge.”
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