“I have four children and one of my children cannot go upstairs to the first floor to see the animals (Mammals of the World exhibition). The reason why he can’t is because he’s a wheelchair user,” Tom Clonan told the Irish Examiner.
“I have to place him lying on the ground, carry his wheelchair up, run back down the stairs and carry him up, with people taking pictures, and put him back in his wheelchair so he can see the animals in the glass cases.”
Eoghan has a rare neuromuscular illness which confines him to a wheelchair. It does not affect his intellectual abilities and he excels in subjects like history and classical studies.
Mr Clonan said: “Lying him down on the ground, on the dirt of the floor, what does that communicate to my son? He says, ‘Thanks very much for bringing me up to see the animals.’ It reinforces to him that he’s a second-class citizen. You have to turn yourself inside out to access things here. The message it gives Eoghan is that he’s less than.”
Mr Clonan said his son is “routinely and grotesquely discriminated against” in Ireland but this is not the case when the family travel abroad. “I’ve been in the States, UK, and Europe with my family and there has been no problem accessing old buildings.”
He argued that if supermarkets and shopping centres can make their floors accessible to all members of the public then so too can a State institution, carrying a major cultural collection.
“If they say there’s no money, there was enough money to put water meters outside every home in the country, it’s political will that’s missing,” said Mr Clonan, a retired army captain.
He said the discrimination is infrastructural. “There are small little things that can be fixed, and that’s what can enable Eoghan, they’re infrastructural. Eoghan has internalised that he’s less than, he doesn’t want to go places as a result.”
Fionnuala Rogerson, an architect and co-author of a government paper on access to heritage sites, told the Irish Examiner in situations like this the entire family feels the discrimination.
“It impacts on a huge cohort of people. For Tom Clonan, his whole family is affected not just his son or for an elderly person with their family, they have to ask if everyone can get in,” said Ms Rogerson.
Natural History Museum director Raghnall Ó Floinn said it regrets the lack of access and that funding is the issue. “The museum regrets very much that it is not possible to provide full access to all our buildings. The National Museum of Ireland has prepared a plan to build a new structure beside the Natural History Museum that will include a lift and provide universal access.
“This was allocated €15m in funding under the National Development Plan in 2007 but this funding has since been withdrawn and the Department of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts, and the Gaeltacht is not able to fund the development at present.”
Mr O Floinn said the museum, which is housed in a building dating back to 1856, continues to press for much-needed investment.