Nobody can fully comprehend the enormous difficulties that wheelchair users encounter while conducting their daily lives around the town of Clonmel unless you take the time to immerse yourself in the reality.
That is what South Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath did one day last week on the invitation of Bridgewater House and Knocklofty Care Centre.
He accepted the invitation to generate a better awareness among the public of the obstacles encountered by wheelchair users in the town every day and to see what proposals could be made to improve matters.
Deputy McGrath, while he was aware that the situation was far from perfect, was shocked at the level of danger wheelchair users are being forced to engage with every time they attempt to access the swimming pool, post office, the library and other buildings on their daily itinerary.
He set off from Bridgewater House near the Gashouse Bridge with the intention of visiting the library and the County Council offices in the civic area known as Mick Delahunty Square.
It troubled him to discover that his journey proved to be a very difficult one during which he felt unsafe and frustrated.
Among the primary hazards were footpaths littered with dog poo which basically “destroys you. Your hands and sleeves are just covered in dirt”, footpaths were impossible to mount, and some footpaths were uneven forcing wheelchair users out onto the road creating a very dangerous situation and at crossings the button to press was very difficult to access for somebody sitting in a wheelchair.
“These are very simple matters but make things incredibly difficult for anybody in a wheelchair” said Deputy McGrath.
He said improvements had been carried out over the years but much more was required.
Deputy McGrath, in association with Bridgewater House and Knocklofty Centre, is drawing up maps of the town and submitting a series of works required.
The submission will be made to Town Engineer Jonathan Cooney and Deputy McGrath believes that the cost will not be prohibitive.
“These works are basic but will mean everything to wheelchair users who find it very difficult to make their way around the town to do their everyday business,” said Deputy McGrath.
He was particularly concerned about the inability of wheelchair users to get up and off footpaths on a route from the Gashouse Bridge, up Parnell Street, across College Avenue and into the civic area
“The wheelchair users do this route every day and I found it very frustrating.” said Deputy McGrath.
Wheelchair users would like to see the pedestrian crossing from near the free car park to O’Connell Terrace transformed into a amber, red and green light area.
He said the footpaths were hard to mount in the College Avenue area and also on the way to the County Council offices which forced people out onto the road. The footpaths directly outside the County Council building were uneven and wheelchairs could not use them .
It was crazy, he said, that the buttons on the crossings were difficult to reach for wheelchair users and he appealed to the general public to be responsible and to clean up dog poo.
“Hopefully these works will be carried out, generally motorists and pedestrians were very considerate on the day as we were in a very large group and we were easier to see for people. If I was on my own in a wheelchair on a rainy day it could be very different,”
From a personal point of view, Deputy McGrath said that apart from learning about the difficulties of daily life for wheelchair users in terms of getting around Clonmel, the experience also made him appreciate how fortunate he is to be able bodied.
He hoped that progress could be made in alleviating some of the problems in the town for wheelchair users.
“It should be planned out, there should be a planned period of progress with stated objectives and this can be done through the co-operation of the wheelchair users and the planners working with the municipal district”, he said.
He called on motorists, cyclists and pedestrians to be more considerate in the town every day and to put themselves in the position of the wheelchair users and think of how difficult it is for them to manage to get around.
He was pleased to have accepted the invitation and said that it was a massive education for him and he had just spent one afternoon trying to do what wheelchair users need to do every day.
“We only covered a very small distance without going into O’Connell Street or Gladstone Street and it was a real eye-opener for me”, he said.