Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Limits of Irish Disability Act

See this article. An excerpt:

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.


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