Barriers to using public transport continue to exist for people with disabilities even as more and more buses and trains become wheelchair accessible, attendees at the Access Now conference hosted by taxi app, FreeNow and the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) heard on Thursday.
"It's improving but it could be improved more. Lifts, ramps and audible announcements are all good when they work, but is there always a commitment to maintaining them and repairing them quickly if they aren't working?" asked Elaine Howley, disability advocate. [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 transport is one thing but getting to buses, trains and even taxis in a wheelchair is another issue. Allen Parker, chief customer officer from Bus Éireann spoke about how, through Spinal Injuries Ireland, he used a wheelchair for 12 hours to experience the day-to-day difficulties of wheelchair users. "I struggled with pavements, lips on kerbs and bus stops. We have so much more work to do to make everywhere accessible," said Parker.
Currently only 1,300 out of 5,000 bus stops on Bus Eireann routes are wheelchair accessible.
Howley explained how new shared spaces for pedestrians and cyclists developed during the Covid-19 pandemic are sometimes treacherous for people with disabilities. “I’ve had so many near misses with bicycles and scooters. We see advertisements about how cars should treat cyclists but I’d like to see advertisements about how cyclists treat pedestrians. Pedestrian space is being eroded,” said Howley who is vision impaired.
Pharmacist and motivational speaker, Jack Kavanagh, who had a spinal cord injury on a student holiday in Portugal, spoke about how 75 per cent of people with spinal cord injuries never work again. "This is not because they aren't qualified but because they can't get to work. Overall, 30 per cent of people in the disability sector work compared to 70 per cent of the rest of society," said Kavanagh.
Other speakers at the conference said that not having enough space for a wheelchair on a bus or arriving at a train station with a broken lift deters wheelchair users from using public transport.
Joan Carty, head of advocacy at the IWA said that lack of access to transport - especially for people in rural Ireland – has a huge knock on effect on people's access to employment, education, sport and social activities. "Companies should be part of the transport conversation for workers," she said.
Christabelle Feeney, director of the Government-funded Employers for Change organization said the labour market needs the skills of people with disabilities who [by dint of their experiences] are "fantastic problem solvers and brilliant organizers".
“Remote working 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,” said Feeney.