Blind World Magazine

Disabled people are denied their rights for one mean-spirited reason.

January 03, 2006. - Ireland.

A LOT of public works are going to be finished this year, and they’ll improve our lives immeasurably. Quite right too, considering the investment we’ve made in them.

Motorways, bypasses, through roads, tunnels - those of us who are motorists will have reason to be grateful to them.

But this ought to have been the year when people with disabilities made their big breakthrough, too.

After years of debate, campaigning and struggle, the Disability Act 2005 became law last year. In theory it did, anyway.

A lot of legislation these days looks like law when it’s sitting on the bookshelf. But when you read them, you discover that they’re full of what they call “commencement dates.” This means that the Dáil and Senate can pass a bill into law, and the President can sign it, but it only takes legal effect when a minister decides to set a date. And the Disability Act has several such commencement dates - dates that mean it ain’t law yet.

Part 3 of the act covers the right of people with disabilities to have access to public buildings.

That right has been sought over many years, and springs from a growing, if sometimes grudging, recognition that the time is long past when the barriers that prevent people from gaining access to education, to necessary services, to a better quality of life, should be torn down.

The recognition is growing among the community at large, but is at its most grudging among our policymakers. In fact, as the Disability Act wound its weary way through the Dáil last year, it became more and more apparent that in official Ireland they are actually interested in erecting more barriers to access rather than tearing them down.

Boiled down, this is what the Disability Act has to say about access where people with disabilities are concerned. It says public buildings should be accessible to them if that is practicable.

It says there should be a code of practice, but the minister can reject it. If the minister accepts the code of practice, public bodies have to comply with them “to such extent as is practical having regard to (their) resources and obligations”.

The act goes on to say that most public buildings will have to comply with accessibility regulations by 2015 - yes, 2015! - unless, of course, “making the building accessible to persons with disabilities would not be justified, on the grounds of cost, having regard to the use to which the building is put.”

There is even a section of the bill that requires heritage sites to be made accessible. But the bill hastily adds that “nothing in this section shall be construed as authorising or requiring the adaptation or modification of any heritage site contrary to law”.

I don’t honestly think that people with disabilities expect the entrance to the chamber at Newgrange to be widened to allow a wheelchair in, or to have lifts installed in the round tower at Glendalough. But it’s clear from such sections that the drafters of the act felt the need to protect themselves from anyone in the disability community who might be feeling litigious. The good news about the Disability Act 2005 is that it proposes the appointment of an enormous army of people to ensure that citizens with a disability get their rights.

There will be liaison officers, assessment officers, complaints officers, appeals officers, enquiry officers, yet more complaints officers, and if all that fails, there will be recourse to the ombudsman.

The bad news is that since the act contains no rights whatsoever, this army of officers will find itself rather redundant. Every single time the act imposes an obligation to make something accessible, it immediately waters it down to the point of non-existence.

And you might have noticed in everything I’ve said about the act that I talked only about public buildings. That is because the act is completely silent on the subject of private buildings. So access to the department stores, restaurants, pubs and hotels of Ireland will continue to be a matter entirely at the discretion of the proprietors of those establishments.

While many have made genuine efforts, there are many others who subconsciously cling to the notion that people with a disability have only themselves to blame.

Does that seem harsh? Next time you see a person in a wheelchair unable to gain access to a pub, ask yourself could it really be the case that his or her wheelchair is too wide. Or is it just possible that the door was designed without the slightest thought being given to the needs of a person in a wheelchair?

NEXT time you see a blind person being slashed by the branches of an overhanging tree, ask yourself why no-one seems to have any obligation to keep trees pruned away from the public path.

I have said it many times before in these pages - these things are a function of public attitudes. They result in a form of second-class citizenship.

That’s why people with disabilities, for many years dependent on charity, have spent the last number of years demanding rights. Because that’s the only way to lift them from the bottom of the political queue. And that’s also the reason why the debate about access has become bound up with the debate about rights, the rights that the Government ultimately succeeded in keeping out of the Disability Act. We are debating issues of access because access is something that is taken for granted by many citizens and completely denied to others. And that will never change until legislators force a change of culture by recognising that access is one of the most ordinary, but nevertheless essential, rights of citizenship.

The Government’s original response to this demand for rights was, oddly enough, to agree to it.

If you read the Programme for Government, you will find there a number of commitments to rights. There are so many commitments to rights in the Programme for Government that one of the most remarkable things about the 52 pages of the Disability Act is that they managed to prevent the word ‘rights’ from appearing even once!

Note the care. A Government that can lash money around on all sorts of public projects, that can spend money like water on everything from computers to tunnels to flyovers, nevertheless goes to huge lengths to ensure people with disability can never claim an unqualified right of access.

Why? Why so profligate with public money one minute, so mean-spirited the next? Could it be they really believe that people with disabilities will bankrupt the country? Give people with disabilities a right to anything and they’ll abuse it.

They’ll drag the Government into court every second day, demanding compensation for the fact that their rights are not being delivered. And if you give people with disabilities rights, won’t other people want rights too?

Then what are you going to do? How are you going to reconcile the rights of people with disabilities with the rights of people lying on trolleys in casualty, or the rights of elderly people in nursing homes? Isn’t that, really, what this mean-spirited act is all about?

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