Ah, public transport in Ireland… Two-track train stations without elevators or escalators. Buses with seats for elderly or disabled people. Crutches or walking sticks you want to throw from the train or bus right into the Irish Sea…
People with disabilities have all been there, literally too tired to walk another mile, needing escalators instead of high, rusty, wet and windy staircases over train tracks. Absolutely, public transport in Ireland is slowly moving into the 21st century, with new footbridges being built with elevators inside them, but still… not fast enough because we need more.
Soon after moving to Ireland in 2002, I had a climbing accident. A silly high jump from the climbing wall to the floor made me yelp like little Simba from the Lion King. Result? Crutches for eight weeks. Nice is different.
Travelling to work by train was another matter altogether. Scaling train station staircases looked like Mount Doom on a good day. I had never used crutches before, so people walking the stairs behind me were rather pushy. Literally.
Three years later, and now with MS in my life, I decided to travel to work by bus instead when my balance was reduced to nothing. Walking stick instead of crutches.
Remember those seats on Dublin Bus that have stickers on the windows saying “reserved for elderly people or people with disabilities”? Yes, those seats. In theory. Quite regularly taken by able-bodied people. Correction… A-l-w-a-y-s taken by fit, healthy, strong people without shaking knees.
In practice, so?
One morning, after yet another night of neuropathic and MS DMD injection pains, my way of hopping to work was with a walking aid. The bus was full of people, including the seats reserved for people like myself.
When I walked towards the seats, I felt judged because I used a walking stick that made it very easy for people to see that I wasn’t exactly Usain Bolt. Big, black rings under my eyes made me look even worse. In a perfect world, people should have thought “Hmm, this girl really does look ill. Let me stand up and give her my seat.”
I asked one of the girls occupying those seats if I could please have hers. She kept staring in front of her. I asked her again. Same thing. Tears welled up in my eyes because everyone sitting downstairs on the bus saw my plight and need, without doing anything about it.
One last time I asked her. The girl shouted at me “Yeah, yeah, you can have my seat!” followed by a good old insult. Nice is different, at least in my world.
At this stage, I cried of pain, physically and mentally. I thought “Do I really have to walk with my coffin under my arm to get a seat when I’m physically leaning on a walking stick while holding the handrail as if it was my best friend?”
People just kept on staring at me, not standing up themselves and looking at me as if I was a stand-up comedy or hidden camera act. I was hurt in my mind because when growing up, my mom taught me to stand up when elderly or pregnant women got on the bus when there were no empty seats left. Why did I have to beg now to get the same result and when I am clearly in need of a seat?
Result? It made me use the train again because at least on the train, people stood up to give me their seat, even when I had to scale those wet, iron-wrought, wobbly staircases.
So whether it’s physical or mental access in train stations or buses, access can be hard to obtain. People with disabilities shouldn’t have to beg, steal or borrow seats reserved for disabled people. I still stand up when elderly people need a seat on the bus, even when I need a seat myself. I know what it’s like to desperately need a seat on public transport without having to get into a fight.
When people see a walking stick, wheelchair or crutches, people do not use them in vain, just to get a seat on a bus or train. More than likely, they really are disabled. A mind-shift is therefore required both in people’s minds as well as in new, architecturally advanced creations.
Access all areas? Keep on building bridges, but let’s open our hearts and minds to see real disability at play. Please.
(Written for World MS Day 2014, theme: Access)
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