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The City We Live In Is Different To Yours

“No offer of help. 50 yards of cobbles.”

That was one of Anton Savage’s tweets from his 24 hours experimenting as a wheelchair user. Those eight words fogged out everything else going on in the world as I furiously tweeted why putting a non-disabled person – a famous and well-recognised, non-disabled person at that – in a wheelchair limits our views on disability.

When a disabled person goes out, either for lunch, dinner, visiting friends or getting hammered, they do a lot of research so that they can enjoy themselves. This is where we differ to you; we have to put every social event under a magnifying glass to see if it suits us whereas you guys just rock up and go with it.

No offer of help. As a wheelchair user of five years and a disabled person my entire life, I do not wait or expect help to be offered to me until I ask for it. I know that a number of non-disabled people worry about this aspect because I’m asked about it almost any time I am interviewed about disability. My reassurance to those without disabilities is that if you see us out and about, you do not need to worry about us. Interjecting with unwanted help or not taking ‘I’m grand’ for an answer diminishes our independence, something we have fought so ferociously for. And besides, it is Anton freakin’ Savage in a wheelchair. You’re famous, mate. We know you’re not actually a wheelchair user so why on earth would we drop our groceries and help you across 50 yards of cobbles?

Oh, yes. 50 yards of cobbles. You’d have to be born yesterday to think that cobblestones are in anyway wheelchair friendly. I map Dublin’s city centre out in a number of ways and I consider places like Temple Bar to be a black hole because of the cobblestones. I avoid them. The cobbles are an almighty pain in the arse and completely unnecessary so when you are a wheelchair user, you know to avoid them and that’s exactly what these experimental pieces overlook.

24 hours in a wheelchair is not a realistic way to learn about disability or being a wheelchair user. I wrote a similar piece a number of years ago, when I was younger, naive and not totally sure about what my own disability meant to me. I was coming to terms with my disabled identity and I didn’t have the social cop on to realise then that I did not need to put an non-disabled person in my shoes – or wheels, as it were – when I have a voice of my own.

I’ve been on the Anton Savage Show a number of times and I know that this slot is well-intentioned but it’s also an angle that’s been done to death. Almost every minority group in the world has been subjected to A Day In My Shoes piece, even though we have millions of voices raising very different and very real subjects across the world every single day. Unfortunately, as often is the way, some of these issues aren’t taken very seriously unless a white, straight, wealthy, non-disabled man comes along and wants to fly our flag.

But shall we try something here? Listen. Listen to us. No one knows better than we do. When I tweeted “I do not spend my day going “woe is me”. Yes it is a pain in the hoop but these experiments always overlook the tenacity of wheelchair users” earlier,  one woman asked if I could speak for all wheelchair users. She’s right. I can’t. And that’s important to understand. These experiments offer a blanket opinion on disability when disability is just one term to cover a multitude of disabilities. When you live with a disability, you develop a thick skin as a result of being excluded from so many elements of society. Even though I cannot speak for anyone but myself, I cannot deny the tenacity of any disabled person I know and our voices need to be heard.

The Freedom of a Ponytail by Keah Brown was an incredible piece I read during the week that perfectly captures individual achievements when you have a disability. One of my biggest coups was figuring out how to lift my wheelchair into the car without hitting my face so when Keah figured out how to tie up her hair by herself, I cheered. When you are disabled, you learn how to do things differently so when Anton couldn’t make it into O’Briens today for lunch, his tweet made it seem like he just gave up. That’s not how I react. When I’m looking for lunch, I set out an extra five or ten minutes just in case the first few places have steps into them. That’s how I have to react to a city that forgot about me in the blueprint stages. I do not give up. I do not for a second pity myself. Also, I have a huge range of lunch places reviewed here on the blog. I’ve got your ass covered.

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This world is not designed for disabled people and Dublin is certainly not designed for disabled people. I’m pretty sure all of the folks in Dublin City Council know this too and these radio pieces or this blog aren’t going to rile them into action. Someone recently told me that I am the only disabled person that they know. I immediately called them up because thanks to the 2011 Census, I know that there are more people living with a disability in Ireland than there are Protestants. Isn’t that a fun stat? We are everywhere and yet people seem surprised when we show up.

The tenacity that I addressed on Twitter means that we navigate our city differently to yours. We know all the raised curbs, potholes, cobblestones, alleyways and hills that make Dublin. We are basically an ordnance survey map. The city we live in is different to yours because someone decided to make it inaccessible. The city we live in values protected buildings over disabled people and that shows no sign of changing. The city we live in is different to yours because it is a smaller city. We can’t get into all of the buildings you can but we are certainly not giving up too easily and that is what makes us tenacious.”No offer of help. 50 yards of cobbles.” We know better than that but you’d know that if you just asked us.

About the author

Louise Bruton

Reviewing Dublin, step by step, in terms of wheelchair accessibility. Freelance journalist and pop culture enthusiast.

2 Comments

  • Hi Louise. As a fellow wheelchair user since 2001, I feel I need to take issue with some of the points you make here. Yes things like this may have been done before and of course 24 hours doesn’t possibly start to show all of the challenges we experience daily, but to criticise the exercise for this is unnecessary. I particularly take issue with your point about not being taken seriously unless it is said or done by “a white, straight, wealthy, non-disabled man”. That serves to demean what Anton did. He was willing to use his show as a platform to highlight our challenges, so why draw attention to his colour, sexuality, gender and social standing? If the same exercise was carried out by Oprah Winfrey or Ellen DeGeneres, would you highlight the same objection?

    Like you I plan my days and activities to minimise the impacts of my disability. I am also tenacious and often belligerent to find a way to do something I want to do. But surely I shouldn’t have to be? Why should I have to see Temple Bar as “a black hole” and avoid it? Maybe Anton’s experience and publicity of the issues won’t help, but it might. Yes maybe our town planners and others should do this too but they haven’t so far. Maybe this exercise will shame them into doing something similar? It helped Anton to understand and appreciate our daily challenges, so why would it not work for those who make decisions that can limit our lives every day? If we as wheelchair users continue to adapt, or worse still, limit our lives because of these unnecessary challenges that are (in my opinion) relatively easy to fix with some forethought, understanding and consideration, then we won’t change anything and in 10 years time we’ll be facing the same obstacles.

    You say you think the folks in Dublin Corporation know the issues but I wonder if they really do? If they do then I think it is a sad situation. Lots of able bodied people truly believe they understand our daily challenges, but it’s only when they do an exercise like this that they really appreciate it. Able bodied people don’t recognise slopes and gradients like we do and often don’t see steps. How many of them know there’s a slope on Grafton street, something Anton discovered? He also flagged a kerb dished but not to the road level. A bug bear of mine too. This shouldn’t happen. We invested in dishing but didn’t fully appreciate why it was being done. To dish it properly would not have incurred any additional cost. I surmise the incomplete dishing was more likely a complete lack of understanding by the person doing the work rather than neglect. Let them try to get up on that kerb in a wheelchair and that understanding would be hard earned!

    I think we can only benefit from this publicity

    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comment. When writing about minorities, the phrase “white, straight, wealthy, non-disabled man” is commonly used because they are the people who, historically, have very rarely suffered any form of discrimination. If Oprah or Ellen were to do the same experiment, which they probably wouldn’t as they are both hyper-aware of social issues, I would still be opposed to it as they would be removing disabled from a discussion that we are very capable of leading.

      Yes, it is great promotion and raises awareness of poor access but because these experiments are done so often, I fail to see any action taking place.

      You are correct in saying that we do not need to be tenacious in our every day lives but these experiments fail to highlight the alternative routes we take or how we conquer obstacles like a dished curb. Maybe Anton’s piece will actually put a fire under city and county councillors’ arses to take action and if it does, I will eat my very words but the fact remains that in 2016, we still have to prove the merits of having good access. Dublin City Council absolutely know about these issues because access and disability is in a huge part of building regulations and city planning. Every new building will fit the criteria but every building constructed before 2010 fails to meet the correct access standards and that is where they are failing us.

      But overall, my point is that it is not necessary to put a non-disabled person in a wheelchair in a day to prove that these problems exist. You have very eloquently outlined a number of problems you face day-to-day so your voice alone, as a guest on the Anton Savage show or a contributor to some other radio show or newspaper, you could give an in-depth insight into life as a wheelchair user. Your experiences are so valid and so important that it feels like a missed opportunity where they could have let a member of our community voice their own authentic experiences.

      But it can’t be denied, it’s great publicity but it would be great to see if this round leads to something bigger.

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