Wouldn’t you be exhausted if every time you left your home, you had to cross your fingers and hope that your path and plan for the day wouldn’t be impeded by a sign advertising a sandwich special offer, or a wheelie bin that was left on the footpath instead of the road or driveway, or a dog poo that a dog owner couldn’t be arsed to pick up, but was now all over the wheels of your wheelchair or the end of your white cane, and eventually your hands when you fold your cane away?
Wouldn’t you want to scream with frustration that a delivery driver thought it was OK to park on a footpath and completely block your way, and you didn’t have the option to go around the truck because the kerb was raised and you might tip your wheelchair into moving traffic?
Wouldn’t you want to cry with disappointment if you were stranded and didn’t have an alternative route and had to turn back home because poor physical infrastructure means there is only one safe navigable way for you to leave your house and get to where you want to go, but it was blocked by someone who couldn’t find a parking spot?
These are scenarios that people with disabilities encounter regularly.
This Friday is ‘Make Way Day’, a campaign organised by the Disability Federation of Ireland to increase public awareness and knowledge of the range of hurdles that are put in the way of wheelchair users, crutch users, visually impaired people or people with hidden disabilities like acquired brain injury.
I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately as I watch the creeping takeover of the public realm by restaurants, cafés and pubs. I’m all for outdoor dining, I think it’s a wonderful addition to the city and I hope it remains long after the pandemic has receded.
But the explosion of furniture, planters, umbrellas, road signage, bollards and sandwich boards placed without consideration for people with mobility issues or visual impairment needs curbing.
The already narrow laneways, French Church Street and Carey’s Lane, have been encroached so much that a stop and go light system is almost required at pinch points to allow people pass each other.
Flushed kerbs, tactile paving, safe pedestrian crossings, navigable streets and footpaths and easily accessed buildings should be the norm, not a nicety. Inclusive design of our city and protecting pathways helps everyone.
New, able-bodied parents venturing out into the world with buggies are often shocked when they are forced to push their precious cargo out into the road to get around a car parked on a kerb, or at how inaccessible many of our buildings are.
The onus to complain to businesses about their blocking furniture or signage or illegally parked employees should not be on access groups and disability rights groups, we should all speak up if we see something dangerous or obstructive.
But of course well-meaning feedback is sometimes met with hostility or simply ignored and that’s where greater enforcement of existing rules is needed.
Cork City Council have, or intend to, appoint a new Tree Officer to protect and manage the trees of the city. Maybe it’s also time for an Access Officer to help make our streets safer and accessible for everyone.
An Access Officer could liaise with local businesses and help drive awareness and enforcement, and could be a key point of contact for activists and advocates who want to see specific issues fixed.
I’ve been guilty of locking my bikes to street poles in the past, but after checking out the #MakeWayDay hashtag on social media and seeing a video of a bike falling over on a wheelchair user as she tried to inch past, I’ll be parking at dedicated bike racks in the future.
I’m going to make sure to leave my bins on the road or driveway and not block footpaths, and ask our refuse collectors to do the same with the empty bins.
Education and awareness of the difficulties faced by people with disabilities can really change people’s behaviour.
People living with a disability deal with enough societal obstacles, let’s all play our part in removing the physical obstacles and make our city accessible for all.