Kilkenny offers little social life if you use a wheelchair

 

It has been dubbed "the oasis of the south-east" because of the quality of its restaurants, bars and nightclubs. For Lorcan Dowd, however, Kilkenny can be a barren place to socialise. For a 21-year-old with a big circle of friends, it should be the perfect city in which to live.

But Mr Dowd has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair. For him and others in the same position, many of the city's most popular nightspots are no-go areas.

As with other towns and cities, only a minority of Kilkenny's bars have wheelchair-accessible toilets. Mr Dowd, a trainer at the Kilkenny MultiMedia Centre in the Butts, is aware of only two whose toilets are fully accessible.

The options are even more limited for wheelchair-users elsewhere. In Thomastown, for example, there is no pub with a wheelchair-accessible toilet, according to the Irish Wheelchair Association's information officer for the south-east, Mr Paul Madigan, who lives and socialises in the town.

"You'd be more likely to win the Lotto than find a wheelchair-accessible toilet here," he says. "How you manage can depend on the level of disability. I can get in and out of some toilets, but that's not the point. They should be accessible to everyone."

Wheelchair-users, he says, are just as likely to enjoy a few drinks as anyone else. Mr Dowd decided to raise the issue publicly after he was refused entry to a newly opened nightclub, The Zoo, on Parliament Street. Club owner Mr Brendan Morrissey says everything possible was done to facilitate him.

Mr Dowd says he contacted the club in advance and was told he would be admitted through a rear entrance. But when he called to the club on two occasions, a Friday and Saturday night, he was not allowed in, even though, as he says, "about 50 people went in from behind me".

Mr Morrissey says he had given Mr Dowd his mobile phone number and asked him to ring in advance if he was coming. Instead, Mr Dowd had come unannounced to the front door when the club was already full.

"He wouldn't have been comfortable in the club, to be honest. It wouldn't have been safe for him. But if he had phoned me in advance, I would have let him in. There were a lot of people at the front door at the time and I couldn't go out because so many people know me and expect me to let them in."

Mr Morrissey, whose nightclub is a converted basement wine bar, says the club does not have a wheelchair-accessible toilet and says candidly: "It's the last thing you would think of . . . if I was building a big night club, it would be different, but this is a small club which holds about 250. We just wouldn't have the space."

Accessible toilets are also, it seems, the last thing publicans think of. The two exceptions, in Mr Dowd's experience, are Langton's on John Street and The Brog Maker on the Castlecomer road. The Widow McGrath's, on Parliament Street, also has a wheelchair-accessible toilet but, says Mr Dowd, it is not big enough for his needs.

Hotels have a better record, he says, "but you can't spend all your nights out in hotel bars". The Hotel Kilkenny and the Springhill Hotel have the best wheelchair-accessible toilets in the city, he says.

The Kilkenny Ormond Hotel, which opened earlier this year, provided an accessible toilet in its bar "but when you're in it, you haven't room to close the door", he said. The manager of the hotel, Mr Patrick Curran, acknowledged there had been a problem but said it had since been rectified. He added that the hotel had three wheelchair-accessible toilets in total.

Mr Tadg O'Sullivan, chief executive of the Vintners' Federation of Ireland (VFI), agreed that a large percentage of pubs did not have wheelchair-accessible toilets. "It's not something we're particularly proud of or want to see continuing, but it's a fact of life." He said many premises were more than 100 years old and the cost of providing such facilities would be prohibitive. It was not simply a question of installing such toilets; speed of access to and from pubs for wheelchair-users also had to be considered.

He said there were no legal requirements for publicans to include such facilities when opening new premises or converting existing ones, but sometimes such conditions were inserted by local planning authorities.

Mr Madigan says the solution "all boils down to money". If wheelchair-users are to have the same access to pubs and clubs as other members of the community, State grants or other incentives may be required to encourage publicans to tackle the problem.