A disability for a day: 'I felt like a hindrance'

Wed, Feb 27, 2013, 00:00

Three volunteers had their mobility, vision and hearing restricted for a tough day in Dublin.

Christine McGuinness’s first difficulty was when she tried to pay for a Luas fare on a touch-screen machine. “I almost bought a ticket for €75.” She had just learned her first lesson in what it’s like to be blind.

McGuinness (21) has perfect vision, and is one of three “able-bodied” people who recently spent a day learning what life is like for people with disabilities on the streets of central Dublin.

They altered their sight, hearing or mobility and attempted to carry out everyday tasks with an assistant at their side. Routes were planned so they had to interact with people, cross the Liffey and go through busy and quiet streets.

McGuinness knew the day would be challenging. “Of course it’s going to be difficult,” she said. “I don’t know what to expect, how to walk and to be trusting someone else.”

Christine McGuinness’s sister Dorothy, who assisted her, received training from Fiona Kelty of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland.

Without the training, Dorothy says, she “would have done it completely wrong. I would have thought of leading her and holding her, rather than her holding me. [Fiona Kelty] pointed out that when you approach a blind person, you forget that they can’t see you, and you shout at them, asking to help, and you startle them.”

Eoghan Donoghue (25), who is studying medicine, navigated the city centre in a wheelchair, with help from his friend, Jonathan Clarke. “I like to do things myself,” says Donoghue. “I wouldn’t normally, being male, ask for help.”

Mick Power (32), a musician, had his hearing altered by industrial headphones, and was accompanied by his girlfriend, Louise Callan.

On Jervis Street, Christine McGuinness, now blindfolded, used touch to gauge where she was. “I had a bit of a problem crossing the road but I felt the button at the pedestrian crossing and the bubbles on the ground.” Dorothy McGuinness points out that these “bubbles”, which alert visually-impaired pedestrians of road crossings, would also help with staircases in public places. “[If I hadn’t been there] she could’ve walked right off a step because there was no mat or anything to warn you.”

Christine noticed that when she addressed shop assistants, they would often respond to her sister. “They should have some standard training on just how to understand their customers.”

Eoghan Donoghue’s day in a wheelchair was filled with physical perseverance. Clarke didn’t have to assist too much but says that in Temple Bar – “a nightmare” – Donoghue would have been stuck without him.

At one point, their path was blocked by bin bags. These were cleared away but only a few yards further on, they stumbled on a mattress. Blocked pathways are a frequent occurrence in the quarter, and the cobbled roads are a serious challenge. “The most difficult thing was definitely the cobblestones. And the rocking motion. I felt they would catch the front wheels or that I’d fall back,” says Donoghue.

He was self-conscious, especially in places with more people traffic, such as one city-centre supermarket, where aisles with displays were a problem.

“It was barely wide enough for the wheelchair so I felt like I was going to knock things off the shelf,” he says. “There would be people coming towards you and you’d be apologising all the time. People were trying to move around quickly and I wasn’t the quickest so I just felt like I was getting in people’s way. I felt like a hindrance.” Clear signage and wide paths make supermarkets easier to negotiate.

In a nearby menswear shop, Donoghue had difficulty browsing clothes. “The jeans were hanging up so I had to ask Jonathan to take them down for me. Even with the sizes, the tags were at the top of the jeans, so I would have had to get someone over to look at all the jeans to find the ones I want.”

Changing rooms were also problematic. “The first changing room I went into, the chair didn’t fit in.” The next was a little bigger but, even after removing a stool, Donoghue got stuck at the door. “It was a 45-degree angle. I went through the process of figuring ‘can I actually get changed’.”

Donoghue developed blisters on his thumbs, but says “the overriding thing was self-consciousness. Feeling awkward and feeling that I was annoying other people. And people looking at you. It made me feel uneasy.”

A fine line of help

Clarke adds that the help received from other people was a plus. “People were helpful but it’s a fine line. You’re still very independent in a wheelchair and you appreciate kind acts being done for you; you’d still like to be able to do things for yourself.”

Mick Power experienced a similar self-consciousness when he tried to talk to people. “It was the awkwardness of having to engage with people and appreciating when you are dealing with someone with a hearing disability,” he says. “I wasn’t involved in conversations, I kind of stepped away because I didn’t know what was going on. It’s more of a general attitude. I think I had the easiest job. I could see what I was doing and I could walk, so getting around wasn’t the problem.”

One behavioural change he made was at pedestrian crossings. “I’d normally be jaywalking all the time. I felt a bit disorientated at pedestrian crossings because normally you’d wait to hear them rather than watch for the green man.”

“You find at the side of the road that you’re looking after him,” says Louise Callan. “Every time the pedestrian crossing beeped, I’d tap him on the shoulder to let him know.”

Blocking out sound entirely for someone with full hearing is almost impossible, but with industrial headphones, Power’s hearing was partially reduced, and he got some understanding of how hard it would be with all sound eliminated. “If I’m having difficulty at 90 per cent, I can only imagine the difficulty for someone that’s completely deaf.”

Dealing with staff in shops was frustrating. “I didn’t want to have to deal with them at all,” he says. “It would be nice if people knew how to engage with [the deaf].”

All three candidates were physically and mentally exhausted after their day but they had viewed their city from a different perspective, one that is all too often overlooked.

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