“It’s getting better but it could still be improved”

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Barriers to using public transport continue to exist for people with disabilities even as more buses and trains become wheelchair accessible, attendees at the app’s Access Now conference heard on Thursday. Taxi, FreeNow and the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA).

“It is improving, but it could still be improved. Elevators, ramps and audible announcements are all good when they work, but is there still a commitment to maintain them and fix them quickly if they’re not working? asked disability advocate Elaine Howley. [The requirement to book in advance use of a ramp at a train station is another issue that prevents spontaneous use of public transport for wheelchairs users.]

Accessible transportation is one thing, but getting on buses, trains, and even taxis in a wheelchair is another. Allen Parker, Customer Director of Bus Éireann, explained how, through Spinal Injuries Ireland, he used a wheelchair for 12 hours to deal with the daily difficulties of wheelchair users. “I struggled with sidewalks, sidewalk lips and bus stops. We still have a lot of work to do to make everywhere accessible,” Parker said.

Currently, only 1,300 out of 5,000 bus stops on Bus Eireann routes are wheelchair accessible.

Howley explained how the new shared spaces for pedestrians and cyclists developed during the Covid-19 pandemic are sometimes dangerous for people with disabilities. “I’ve had so many near-misses with bikes and scooters. We see ads about how cars should treat cyclists, but I’d love to see ads about how cyclists treat pedestrians. L Pedestrian space is being eroded,” said Howley, who is visually impaired.

Pharmacist and motivational speaker, Jack Kavanagh, who suffered a spinal cord injury while on a student holiday in Portugal, explained that 75% of people with spinal cord injuries never work again. “It’s not because they’re unqualified, but because they can’t get to work. Overall, 30 percent of people in the disability sector work, compared to 70 percent in the rest of society,” Kavanagh said.

Other speakers at the conference said that not having enough space for a wheelchair on a bus or arriving at a station with a broken lift deters wheelchair users from using transport in common.

Joan Carty, advocacy officer at the IWA, said lack of access to transport – particularly for people in rural areas of Ireland – has a huge impact on people’s access to jobs, education, sports and social activities. “Companies should be part of the transportation conversation for workers,” she said.

Christabelle Feeney, director of government-funded Employers for Change, said the labor market needs the skills of people with disabilities who [by dint of their experiences] are “fantastic problem solvers and brilliant organizers”.

“Remote work has opened up opportunities for people with disabilities, but it shouldn’t be an alternative to providing reasonable accommodations — many of which cost nothing — in the workplace,” Feeney said.

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