Spike Island exhibition honouring Paralympian pulled as family call for wheelchair accessible bus

Exhibition dedicated to achievements of Kay McShane was due to run from next month in Cobh

The family of the late wheelchair athlete Kay McShane, who won the London Marathon wheelchair race three consecutive times as well as scooping three medals at two Paralympics games, are campaigning for an accessible passenger bus on an island where she grew up in Co Cork.

An exhibition dedicated to the achievements of Kay McShane was due to run from next month on Spike Island. Her sister Anne said that the bus from the island’s ferry dock to the Spike Island visitor centre which is on a hill is not wheelchair accessible. They want the matter to be addressed by Spike Island Development Limited and for the exhibition to go ahead.

Anne says that Kay, who died in 2019 at the age of 70, was known for her advocacy and campaigning for the rights of people with disabilities. She lived in Dublin and was very involved with the Blanchardstown Centre of Independent Living.

Kay won a silver medal in the 1984 Paralympics in London and two bronze medals in the marathon and 800m at the Paralympics in Seoul in 1998.

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Anne says that her older sister was an inspiring figure who overcame any and all obstacles that came her way.

“She moved out of home at 16 and went to Cork to work as a clerical officer and she would come home at the weekends. She would have to get on and off the boat with calipers and sticks. She didn’t have any movement at all in her legs. It was her upper body strength that kept her upright. She was incredible,” she said.

“We did say that it [the exhibition] needed to be accessible because of her fight for accessibility. We couldn’t have any exhibition on her not being open to other wheelchair users. We thought the bus was accessible. We realised it really wasn’t and it was a nightmare.”

“Kay’s husband Michael, who is a wheelchair user, had physical difficulties getting on and off the boat to Spike even with the assistance of his grandson.

“But the most serious problem was that the bus at the Spike [Island] side, which is provided to bring people to and from the fort, was not wheelchair accessible. There were steps on to the bus, making it of course completely impossible for a person who cannot walk.

“Michael managed to get the fort only because his grandson pushed him up and down. But it was very difficult due to the steepness of the hill. It was heart breaking because Michael couldn’t push himself up that hill. It was unsafe.”

Anne said that coming down from the visitor centre proved to be even more difficult as Michael’s grandson struggled to get keep control of his wheelchair on the steep hill.

“This of course caused enormous stress for Michael as he was unsafe. Nobody should have to go through that experience.”

Organisations such as the Irish Wheelchair Association, Independent Living Movement Ireland, the Unite Union, Blanchardstown Centre for Independent Living and Olympic medallist Sonia O’Sullivan have joined the family as they fight for increased accessibility for wheelchair users on the island.

Meanwhile, in a statement the Board of Spike Island Development Company said that as the tourist season for 2022 was challenging and with increased operating costs felt across the sector, finances are tight and no commitments to any upgrades can be given at this time.

“The current van is used for the transport of goods and staff and any alteration to such would mean that it would then be unusable for its intended purpose.

“The board of Spike Island Development Company would also like to put on record that since its opening in 2016, Spike Island Development Company has strived to make the site as wheelchair friendly as possible.

“Obviously with the structure being over two centuries old in parts and the entire island listed as a National Monument there are some areas which will remain untouched as we are required to maintain the original structures.

“Spike Island Development Company has added two wheelchair accessible pontoons and added a larger ferry suitable for wheelchair users. 10 out of the 12 exhibition spaces on Spike Island are also wheelchair accessible and there is a paved wheelchair friendly walkway from the pier up to the fortress and around the inner fortress itself.

“Since the installation of the pontoons and walkways in 2019, Spike Island has welcomed many wheelchair users and there have been no recorded complaints regarding accessibility. As per the wishes of the McShane family we are not currently planning any exhibitions on the life of Kay McShane.”