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Monday, 2 May 2011

Experiences of Dublin in a wheelchair

I have just been on a long weekend break to Dublin with my husband. We set off at a stupid time in the morning (left the flat at 3.15am). We decided not to book special assistance, because even when we do it does not always go smoothly. When we arrived at Bedford Station we were pleasantly surprised. We started to head to the platform that we needed, and rather than having to ask for assistance like we usually have to I was asked whether assistance was needed. This is how it always should be but, sadly, rarely it is. When the staff member helped me on the train, he said he would call through to the Luton Airport Parkway. Not surprisingly there was no one to meet us at the other end and so my husband helped me off the train (he is used to this). We then had a painless journey using the airport bus which was accessible and the bus driver was very cheerful.

We completed Online Check-in as we did not have any luggage that needed to go into the hold, this meant that our first point of call when we arrived at the airport was making myself known to the special assistance desk. The staff member we dealt with was friendly enough, took details and explained that when we have got through to the departures that we needed to go to the other special assistance desk. When we arrived here, we found that the area was cordoned off, we could move this out the way to get through, but seemed a bit strange that the area for people who require special assistance would be made more difficult to get to by having obstacles put in the way. The lady at the desk, seemed a little put out that we hadn't been to the Check-In desk, so we did not have a traditional boarding pass, we just had the print out (surely that is the whole point of Online Check-In?)

Anyway she took our information and explained when we needed to be at the gate by 5.45am. We then went off to get a drink and croissant. This unfortunately got rudely interrupted by a fire alarm going off. No one seemed panicked, so we started to head towards are closest fire exit calmly. At this point we were faced with not being allowed to use our closest fire exit. This meant that people began to get a bit more agitated but the only thing we could do was follow the crowd. We then found a group of disabled people and special assistance staff and so followed their lead. This whole experience seemed very disorganised and worrying, thankfully this was only a false alarm, if this had been more serious, I worry we would have not got out. Staff members we spoke to told us they agreed with our feelings that this was badly organised and is never dealt with appropriately.

This blew over and I then headed towards the gate in preparation for my flight. I was then met with a lift that had the words 'out of order' on them. This was the lift as far as we were concerned that I needed to get in because it was labelled with the gate number I wanted. As this was the case my husband went off to speak to someone about this. There are two points I will raise here firstly, thankfully I was with someone who could do this for me otherwise this would have been made even more difficult for me, secondly the person that my husband spoke to did not seem very clued up and so said things like 'so she cant walk down steps then' um... no full time users usually have this problem! Anyway we ascertained that I could use another lift even though it was labelled with different gate numbers to what I wanted. So I made my way to another lift which was in the opposite corner, before getting to it I needed to navigate my way through tables and chairs which were crowded together which made reaching the lift more difficult. Once at the gate, special assistance were friendly and spoke to me and got me on the plane without any hassle. Although the flight attendants referred to me as a 'wheelchair passenger', which is quite rude and insulting. I thought I was a person? It just so happens I sit in a wheelchair to help me get around as my legs don't work. 

I survived my flight, I don't particularly like flying due the effect air pressure has on my head due to my hydrocephalus. Once at Dublin airport we were met by some lovely special assistance men (on time for once!) who helped me off and we were on our way. We went to get the bus, which was fully accessible and being driven by a very friendly bus driver. Once at the bus station we went on foot to the Hostel we were staying in. It took a little finding initially because we went to the sister hostel first. Once we found it, I was pleased with its accessibility, level entrance etc. We asked if we could check in but unfortunately this was not possible until 3pm. We were able to leave our bags there and so we did this. Before heading off I attempted to ask whether there was an accessible toilet, this was unfortunately made difficult by the fact that the counter was very high and he was now sitting down again, but I did manage to get his attention and he was very helpful in the end and showed me where the toilet was. So we left our bags and went out to explore.

Our first stop was to get food and a cuppa, being up at 2.45 was taking its toll especially as we were unable to check in till 3 pm so it was feeling like it was going to be a long day. After finding a cafe for some breakfast we headed straight to where the tickets could be purchased for the hop-on hop-off bus tour. My husband went in to purchase the tickets while I waited outside. We then headed towards the bus stop, to be greeted with a bus which happened to be inaccessible. We spoke with the bus driver who was very friendly and helpful. He explained that 1 in 3 buses should be accessible and that he would ring through to make sure this was true. We were a little surprised to be faced with an inaccessible bus because up to this point transport had been good for accessibility and so hadn't thought they might not be. Why should I think that in the 21st century accessibility is not the norm? The next bus did arrive about 10 minutes later and it was accessible and so we were able to go on our way. All the bus drivers we met were very friendly and always made sure that they stopped people getting on and off while I was getting on. They also always spoke to me rather than my husband. That may not seem like much but when I have regularly been faced with the complete opposite it makes a refreshing change.

On our first day we went to a number of places along the Hop-on, Hop-off route which were good. We also found that although not all buses were accessible we timed it right and were always able to get on a bus without having to wait for long periods. Unfortunately this was not true on every day and the lack of accessible buses became evident on the second day, where we found ourselves waiting 45 minutes for an accessible bus. fellow tourists had got on 3 buses prior to the one which were accessible. This was not helped by the fact it was also raining slightly on this day and that this just added to my feeling of inequality in society. As I said we finally got an accessible bus turn up and we were allowed to be on our way. We stopped at Trinity College and the National Gallery on the first day. Trinity college was reasonably accessible and we we looked round, at a leisurely pace.There was library/museum which was very informative where we were able to see the Book Of Kells. Much of this museum involved me having to go up and down in a lift operated by a member of staff, but this was not a problem as they were more than happy to help. Especially one lovely man who would make conversation and provided me information about the place which was not readily available. This just added to my positive experience of this attraction.  The main problem that I experienced was that of other tourists who seemed oblivious to my existence, walking in my way or, in the case of one person, placing their bum in my face because I was where they wanted to be. So inconsiderate of me, of course I don't have the right to learn and experience culture in the same way the rest of society does.

We then went around the national gallery, which was fully accessible and very interesting. There was no problems with this venue, apart from the obvious ones, which involved other tourists but sometimes you have to learn to accept it and so can become blind to peoples attitudes.

We then finally headed back to the hostel to check-in which was very welcomed because although up to this point we had a good day we were both exceptionally tired and ready for a rest. On route to the hostel, the front wheels of my chair got caught on the cobbles and I fell out of my wheelchair. When this happened people came to help straight away, I was not hurt so I was able to brush myself off and carry on into the hostel.  Unfortunately this has happened too many times to count!

The room as you can imagine for a hostel was very basic, but they had tried to make it as accessible for a disabled person and for me personally it was more than adequate with a wheel in shower and a few grab handles. I was very tired and hungry which was beginning to affect me physically, I was aching as well as began to gain a migraine style headache. So very ready to have a rest and slept for an hour. When I woke up, not sure I felt that much more awake but was thankful that the migraine that was threatening had dispersed. We went down for dinner (Irish stew for 5 Euro was on offer) in a canteen area (for those of you who don't know hostels, they are more friendly and it is not unusual to sit on a table with complete strangers). We then went out for the evening. Through our previous exploring we had found a pub that we liked the look of and so decided to give this a go. We went in and found ourselves a table, when my husband went up to the bar he was asked if I was with him, when he said yes the barman explained that although they did not have an accessible toilet in the bar, there was one in the restaurant next door which I could use. We later found out that they both the same business, and that due to the age of the pub building it hadn't been possible to put a disabled toilet in. To me it didn't matter that there wasn't one in the pub, because I realise that sometimes it is not possible due to the age of a building for example. It was good that they had put a strategy in to place to cope with this difficulty and it was never an issue for me to go out one door and in the next (there are some places I have been and never had this option). The staff were all very friendly in this pub, so much so that we felt welcomed to want to come back again on more than one occasion. One staff member in particular seemed to go above and beyond to ensure we had a good visit. Having said that it was not done in a patronising, singling me out as different kind of way. It was just a genuine, helpful lad who wanted to ensure of customers got the most out of their visit. This was one of those occasions where , I can thankfully say equality was in motion. As I said we went back on more than one occasion, always getting a high level of service, so much so that when we first got in to the pub on one occasion a table was being found for us straight away. We also went into the restaurant next door and again received a high level of service that any owner could be proud of.

Each morning we had breakfast at the hostel, which was a free for all, making your own toast and getting your own cereal etc. This was quite nice and was a different experience to what I was used to as I was not singled out and was the same as everyone else (equal!). One morning my husband left me to finish breakfast and when I was done a staff member helped me to put my dishes away without it being a problem and feeling a burden. 

On our second day, I unfortunately experienced more inequalities than the first which at times became frustrating and only added to my feeling of not being equal. It started when as I have already said we had to wait for 45 minutes for an accessible but, which put a dampener on things (quite literally due to rain). The first place we visited on this day was, St Patrick's Cathedral. For a very old building they had put thought into accessibility. There were steps going down into the Cathedral but they had installed a wheel on stair lift. One nice elderly gentleman told us it might not be working but that their was an alternative route in if we needed it. It's a pleasant surprise for their to be 2 accessible routes into a building when so often their isn't even one!

We were shocked at how much it cost to get in (11 Euro for both of us), but were willing to pay it because we really wanted to look around. When we got in I was a bit saddened to find a souvenir shop which looked like it had literally been plonked in the middle. This seemed to change the atmosphere not for the better, and perhaps this down to the capitalist society we live in. We continued to take photos and move around the Cathedral until we got to a smaller side chapel, which was behind a cordon. At this point a lovely old lady asked would we like to look around, we were quite honoured at the prospect as not everyone was allowed. She spent quite a lot of time talking about the history of the cathedral and seemed genuinely passionate about what she was saying to us, which was lovely. What stuck out was that the lady spoke to me and not just my husband, I was treated equally. Perhaps we did get let through because I am a wheelchair user but with so many barriers put in my way it's nice to have a few perks!

After going to see the Cathedral we went to something completely different, the Guinness Store House. This is basically a museum attached to a factory and so we were unable to see any of the working factory. This is an experience that people always say you must do, but to be honest it is completely over commercialised. At this venue I also found that there was quite a lot of discrimination at work. Firstly the flat accessible entrance meant going over cobbles, which for anyone who has had experiences of a wheelchair or pushchair (for the mothers out there) is not the easiest of surfaces to have to cope with. The next problem I experienced was the ability to access all areas, as I am sure you will appreciate due to being a full time wheelchair user I can never use stairs so rely fully on the lift to get to different levels. For the first few levels there was a different lift to the rest of the building, which to be honest I was quite grateful for because it never meant I had to wait for long on the first few levels. The problem with the first few levels was that I had to go against the crowd of people to get back to the lift. I have spoke about feeling invisible in previous posts and this is exactly how I felt at this time. People just didn't see me and when they did they looked at me with distaste as though I shouldn't have been there. I wonder whether there could be a way to add more lifts to prevent this problem (I am not an architect/builder so that may just be ideology). The further up I went meant that I had to use the lift which was used by everyone (whether they were able to walk up stairs or not), this added insult to injury when people would use the lift instead of the escalator which was actually right next to the lift and they had to walk past the escalator to get to the lift. This increased my waiting times by quite a lot, because so many people chose to use the lift rather than use the legs they were born with that work. I have always known not to judge people, because I do appreciate that on first look it is not always possible to tell, but the level of people who were choosing to get the lift was far greater than the number who needed the lift I am sure. In one experience there was a quite able family who were waiting for the lift in front of me, and when the lift came there was not the room for me and them. So what did they do? Do you think they let me in first as that is the decent thing to do? If you answered yes you are sadly mistaken. I had to wait for the lift again which took a very long time to come. I am not saying the only people who should use the lift are wheelchair users, but there is a great abuse of this, due to the lazy culture of using the lift rather than expending some energy climbing stairs. Anyway we survived the Guinness Store House and got our free pint from a bar that reminded me of a loud, busy and soulless pub and then went on to our final attractions for that day which provided me with a much more pleasing experience.

The next stop was the old Jameson Distillery. It has a much more relaxing feel and I felt a much more valued customer throughout my whole experience. There were ramps and lifts to all areas which were not abused by the customers and so was able to move freely at the speed the tour guide intended. Everywhere was accessible and at the end of our visit when I mentioned that there seemed to be a rather large puddle on the floor in the disabled toilet the manager was very apologetic and was on the case straight away. He was also keen to get my feedback about accessibility and my opinion did seem to count.

On the last day, it was a more relaxed day with little to write about, we didn't use the bus on this day and so just made our own way to places. We attempted to go on a tour around the medieval area, but we would have had to wait for a couple of hours and we were unsure what we would have done for all this time, so instead we did a bit more wandering. We went to the Chester Beaty Library where there were exhibitions on and we stopped for refreshments. All areas needed were accessible and no major problems were experienced going around this venue.

We then went for a general wander around Temple Bar (lots of cobbles!) before going for a meal in the restaurant next door to the pub we had been going and went for a swift half before going to the bus station. We got a bus to the airport which went smoothly. When we got to the airport we found the special assistance desk and they said that someone will be at the gate to meet me - note in Dublin there was only 1 special assistance desk! So we went through the motions and waited. Time was getting on and there seemed to be no sign of special assistance, which began to worry me, they finally turned up very last minute and I managed to catch the plane I want. Due to the rushed nature of this, I was very worried that my wheelchair would not be there at the end not least as when we were boarded they had closed the hatch to the hold!
However thankfully it was and I could make my way home. When I arrived at the train station someone asked me straight away if I needed assistance, which as with the journey out was amazing and quite rare for First Capital Connect. We accepted the help and he said he would ring through to Bedford. We did not expect anyone to be there once we got to Bedford but we were pleasantly surprised and had someone to meet us with a ramp a friendly chap called Jason who I have met before. It's nice to be met with a smile at 12:30am!

So this is my experiences of Dublin in a wheelchair. There were a few issues, but nothing that was specific to the location. I would definitely think about going to Ireland again as most people I met there were very friendly and helpful. The people that weren't were the tourists who were too wrapped in their own lives to care about anyone else.

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