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The ambiguous meaning of “Accessible” in Ireland.

Stupid me! I had always assumed that a door with the word “accessible” and a wheelchair symbol on it, carried more weight that it apparently does.

In reality, it seems to be first come first served!

Such matters are left up to, the often suspect discretion of the offending bodies, particular management.

In shopping centres, I have often caught male and female’ coming out of the accessible loo, obviously having made frantic use of the extra space.

In another, I was told that the bulb had been changed, to a very low wattage, to dissuade drug users from going in there.

Unfortunately from what I know now, there is absolutely no legal compulsion for them not to do so.

There is no financial penalty that would apply, if for example an accessible parking space, were to be occupied by someone who clearly didn’t need them.

A reliance on people’ good will is innately flimsy and weightless legally.

This incident happened two weeks ago. After it happened, I sent out a number of emails, to try an find out if I was at all valid  in complaining. The following abbreviated email was sent to Finian McGrath TD

I’m a manual wheelchair user in ******* who uses the local (Council owned) gym here.

A few months ago, I was outside waiting because one of the gym instructors was using the “supposedly “accessible” loo/shower.

I was very annoyed at the time and complained to the on duty manager. He assured me that this would never happen again and that certainly no staff member, would us that facility: only disabled and children who are not allowed by law, to use the adult male or female changing room.

Yesterday the same thing happened again, with the same instructor coming out of the facility.

I got very annoyed and went to the same manager and asked why this was happening again and again (yesterday was the third time).

To my surprise, he got annoyed with me and said “would you ever go on, accessible means that its a public toilet and open to everyone”.

I’ve been onto Dolores Murphy, Access Officer of I.W.A and she explained to me, that there is no legal enforcement for the wheelchair accessibility sign.

That is seems to be completely up to the feeling of the facilities management, what stance they take.

She said to me that it is the position of the I.W.A, that a wheelchair symbol denotes that the facility designated, is only to be used by somebody who needs it (extra space,bars,extra width…)

Can you give me some clarification on this issue?

Could the same instructor, not have used the other toilet in the men’s changing room which is inaccessible? (I’ve since found out that there are 5 other able bodied toilets closeby)

I’ve also seen a Steward allow a line of able bodied girls, use the wheelchair accessible toilet in the Avia Stadium while I was forced to go hunting for the next one.

Is it the case, that there is no legal strength/backbone attached to this and that we are all in reality forced to rely on managerial whim?

Surely, this defeats the whole purpose?

Is it just survival of the fittest, that its first come, first served!

I hope that you can clarify this matter for me. I always just presumed that the presence of a wheelchair accessible symbol carried some sort of equality law weight”………..

Up until now, I naively assumed that there were definite equality laws underpinning these situations.

All of this is shocking to me. I thought I had “rights” not discretionary whim”. To be left at the discretionary mercy of changeable interpretation’ of accessibility.

Finian McGrath, Minister for State with special responsibilities for Disabilities responded on 23/9/16:

Yes, I agree with you it is appalling that the legislation is not enforced concerning the usage of disabled toilet by those without a disability. 

In relation to the rights of people with disabilities, the officers in my department are working hard at the moment to get the United Nations Convention of the Rights for People with Disabilities ratified in the next couple of months.   This will give people like yourselves more rights in relation to services, provisions and facilities be made more available and solely for people with disability.

 

Disability advocate and confidentiality recipient for the HSE promptly responded.

Hi Eric

I also live in this world of wheelchair users and can totally understand your frustrations as I too have faced similar.

Ireland is so wishy washy on laws affecting people with disabilities…….

In a follow up call to my email, she told me that when she is in the same situation, seeing an able bodied -person, come out of the disabled loo, she just says “really, you couldn’t walk ten feet?”.

Exactly!

One of the most informative responses was from Gary Lee of the Dublin Centre for Independent Living, himself a Lawyer specialising in disability law.

When it comes to accessibility there is a higher onus on public bodies than private ones. Having noted that I should say that the law even as it exists in relation to public sector obligations is wholly inadequate.

In relation to the private sector accessible toilets are installed usually as part of planning permission and not any equality specific obligations. The big problem we are faced with is the concept of ‘reasonable accommodation’ – this is one of the main stumbling blocks.

In 1997 Mary Robinson, the then President, referred an equality bill to the Supreme Court which then held that the section referring to reasonable accommodation was unconstitutional as it infringed upon the property rights of business owners! The court said that any mandatory accommodation could only be ‘nominal’ – herein lies the problem and this has been used by civil servants and politicians as an excuse ever since.

In the interests of impartiality, I relay part of the response from Cormac of Inclusion Ireland

I think it’s important in the instance of the use of accessible toilets to keep in mind that many people have hidden disabilities such as Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease and may require the need to use accessible toilets with extra space and facilities, but should not be expected to have to “prove” their disability before using them.

That is the reason perhaps why organisations would prefer to adopt an “open-door” policy in relation to the use of their accessible toilets.

I think this strongly stretches credulity! Remember, this happened in a gym, with a muscular instructor no less!

Notwithstanding the public/private sector divide, the hurtful fact remains that there  no action can be taken, to stop a gym instructor or any other selfish lazy slob, from hogging the loo.

So it seems, that we really don’t have a leg to stand on!

Hopefully as Finian McGrath wishes that the UN convention will be ratified here shortly.

Apparently anyone can use these so called accessible toilets and the weight of the law is passively indifferent.

Its insulting logic to spout out that accessible means “accessible to everyone”, when even the law of supply and demand strongly dictates otherwise!

It was a revelation for me and hopefully a burning source of anger for others, through which positive changes will come.

Many thanks to those who took the time to respond:

  1. Leigh Gath :confidential recipient for the HSE and disability advocate.
  2. Gary Lee: Dublin Centre for Independent Living.
  3. Adrian Moore: Access Officer for the Office of the Ombudsman.
  4. Finian McGrath, TD Minister for State with special responsibility’s for disabilities.
  5. Cormac Cahill from Inclusion Ireland.

Thanks for nothing:

National Disability Authority for not responding to the email sent on the 23rd of September.

Your advocacy and interest, leave a lot to be desired!

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