Monday 5 December 2016

'I can't go on date with my girlfriend because Dublin isn't wheelchair-friendly'

Sean O’Kelly with councillor Deirdre Donnelly Photo: Dominic Lee
Sean O’Kelly with councillor Deirdre Donnelly Photo: Dominic Lee

A young couple in wheelchairs have not been able to date freely due to the capital's lack of wheelchair access - and now they hope a campaign will help to achieve greater disability equality.

Sean O'Kelly (23) and Megan McGuckin (21) have been dating for almost five-and-a-half years - but not once has Sean been able to fulfil what is a simple wish for most couples - to go on a "spontaneous date".

Sean, from Dalkey, Co Dublin, says there is a lack of disabled access on public transport, in restaurants and other venues and this has restricted the couple's lifestyle.

"If Megan and I want to go out for a date we have to get our parents to drive us from A to B," Sean said. "We have been going out a long time, but still, if I wanted to surprise Megan and take her somewhere, I can't."

Sean, who has spina bifida and hydrocephalus - fluid on the brain - said he and Megan, who has the same conditions, have been unable to take simple bus journeys together because the average bus only has room for one wheelchair.

The train, he said, presents similar problems. Recently, Sean said, he was "stranded" at Clontarf Dart Station after a train journey.

Sean boarded the train at Dalkey Dart Station but when it arrived at Clontarf, he could not get off because there was no railway worker to assist - even though he had called ahead to say he would be on the train.

"The driver had to help me off - but drivers don't always want to do this. It's happened before," Sean said.

"Then, when I finally got off the train, the lift wasn't working so I couldn't get off the platform.

"I was stranded. I couldn't ask someone to help me. My wheelchair is heavy and there are a lot of steps up from the platform."

Sean has set up the A Day in My Wheels campaign, asking politicians and the public to spend one day in a wheelchair - to see how difficult it is to get around on public transport.

Discriminated

"It feels like, as disabled people, we are discriminated against," Sean said. "It makes me furious. I should be able to go on dates on my own with my girlfriend. I should be able to go to meet friends without a problem. Disabled people do not have equality in Ireland. We had the marriage referendum to improve equality - now it is time to offer disabled people equality too.

"The campaign is to challenge politicians and the public to spend a day in a wheelchair and to use public transport.

"Then able-bodied people will see what life is like in a wheelchair." Any social situation, Sean says, has to be organised with precision planning by phoning ahead to restaurants to see that they have disabled access.

But he said that even though he phones to check premises out, they often still don't fit the criteria for wheelchair access.

Sean says he has been "stuck" in restaurant toilet cubicles because they are too small for a wheelchair and he has had to phone his friend on one occasion to help him get out.

"And I've been using the Dart for the last 10 years and I've noticed it gradually getting worse. The main problems are that the stations aren't being manned so that disabled people can get on and off trains."

Sean, who last year completed a higher education qualification in digital and social media marketing, said he has also been looking for a job since late last year.

Independent Councillor for Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Deirdre Donnelly has called for better disability access on public transport.

"I am quite shocked that citizens are being treated this way in this day and age," she said. "There are thousands of people around the country who have mobility issues and it is so wrong that they are denied their basic right to travel."

A Dublin Bus spokeswoman said that the company is committed to providing an accessible service. "All our buses are 100pc low-floor accessible and our new fleet additions, from 2015 onwards, have capacity for two wheelchair users on-board."

Visit the A Day in My Wheels Facebook page to support the campaign and follow the Twitter campaign @adayinmy wheels.

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