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Disability access: is Cork changing for the better?
Are changes to Cork's streetscape through Covid recovery measures, and soon through a new active transport fund, changes for the better for all, or are people with disabilities being sidelined?
We’re all supposed to be hungry for our 15 minutes of fame, but for Mark Lahive, hitting the newspaper headlines was no joke.
Mark and I are sitting in a city centre café off Emmet Place and he’s showing me newspaper reports from 2015, when a brutal crowbar attack that could easily have claimed his life left him with life-altering brain injuries.
Next, he shows me photos of the aftermath of the attack. They are not easy viewing. After initial pictures of stitches, as he heals over time, the photos reveal a deep depression in the top of his head where his skull was caved in.
“They destroyed me,” he says of his assailants. “The attack went on for four and a half minutes. That doesn’t sound like a lot of time but believe me, it is.”
Mark’s story continued long after the headlines stopped appearing, and it’s been one of a long, painstaking attempt at recovery, a battle with the lasting impacts of his injuries.
His motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls signals to the limbs, was damaged: he has memories from hospital of being asked to move his legs and of being unable to do so.
“They were coming around every morning asking me to move my toes and my legs and I couldn’t move them,” he says. “I thought I was paralysed. They told me I had a bleed on the brain.”
“You’re in a wheelchair and you’ve to learn how to walk again. You’re lifted in and out of bed, blood transfusions, the whole lot.”
After Cork University Hospital, Mark went to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire, where he underwent months of rehabilitation, eventually recovering almost the full use of his left leg and partial use of his right leg.
“Because it was my right hand side that was affected, it should be my left leg that’s affected, but it’s my right leg that’s worse and they can’t understand it,” he says. “But the brain is like a universe, isn’t it?”
Brain injuries can often have profound impacts on mood and even personality, aside from the obvious emotional impacts of having to come to terms with an acquired disability.
Over the past six years Mark, who has four children with his wife, Rebecca, has run the gamut of a full range of physical fallout from his attack. “My hearing is affected, my eyes, my short-term memory, I have Tinnitus,” he says. “I’ve been told there’s a personality change. The stupidest little things could start me off and I get odd.”
Attending brain injury services charity Headway has helped Mark considerably.
This morning, on his way for our coffee, Mark was lucky: he hit the jackpot with a disabled parking space outside the Crawford Art Gallery, under 100 metres from where we’re sitting. But other days, he tells me, he could be driving around searching for a space for half an hour or more.
“To get in and out of my car, I have to lift this leg out, and then this one,” he says. “I have to have the door open fully so normal spaces are too tight.”
Dramatic and awful as Mark’s story is, we’re actually here to talk about something that, on the surface, seems far more mundane: disability access and parking in Cork City.
When Cork City Council undertook a range of changes to Cork’s streetscape in 2020 as part of its Reimagining Cork City Covid recovery plans, the focus was very much on economic recovery and on helping the floundering service industry weather the storm of indoor restrictions.
Active transport advocates and environmental activists were happy too: pedestrianisations like the Marina were hailed as safety measures that would encourage cycling, which saw a notable uptick during lockdowns in 2020.
While the pedestrianisation and outdoor dining arrangements on side streets like Princes’ Street were heralded in glowing terms by many in the business community, who made starry-eyed comparisons with other, trendier European cities, the impacts on accessibility were mostly mentioned in relation to access for emergency services or delivery drivers.
Princes Street in particular, due to its narrow footpaths and the cafés and restaurants now occupying the roadway, became completely impassable to anyone in a wheelchair, especially an electric wheelchair, or indeed to anyone pushing a double buggy.
Since last year, grants for outdoor street furniture for Covid-compliant businesses have continued to cause a proliferation of umbrellas, windbreaks and seating which serve as a totem of progress, Europeanness and economic recovery for some, while turning streets into veritable obstacle courses for others.
Meanwhile, in January, the Oireachtas Housing Committee heard calls to cut car parking spaces and to continue to reduce car access in cities and towns in order to disincentivise car ownership.
Reimagining Cork City for who?
The 17 streets initially pedestrianised temporarily as part of Reimagine Cork City in 2020 have of course become a permanent fixture, with resurfacing works to facilitate their permanence taking place in April 2021.
On Pembroke Street in Cork City Centre, a sign on a barrier reads, “welcome to our people friendly reimagined street.”
I wonder how this message must feel to the people for whom the street has become decidedly less people-friendly. The accompanying graphic inadvertently compounds the message: able-bodied, smiling walkers? Good. Cars, no matter the age or mobility requirements of their occupants? Bad.
Pembroke Street used to be home to five disabled parking spaces, where disabled drivers opened their doors towards the footpath on a quiet side street. When it was pedestrianised, Cork City Council relocated these spaces to the busy South Mall, where delivery and good vehicles, buses and cars all vie with each other on a newly narrowed two-lane road.
As far as the council is concerned, this is equivalence: there has been no loss of disabled spaces overall, their PR spokesperson tells me in an email.
“Luckily I didn’t fall.”
Just months after the Pembroke Street closure was made permanent, in July 2021, Mark Lahive pulled in to park in one of the South Mall spaces.
Although there is an ample grid painted on the road adjacent to the driver’s door, what happened next was a close call for Mark: a van towing a trailer pulled in alongside Mark to double park. The driver was “just dropping something off,” he later said.
He was blocking Mark’s ability to exit his vehicle, but when the driver took off to move, the van trailer swung out in an arc and caught the driver door of Mark’s car, almost pulling it off its hinges.
“The door was hanging,” Mark says. “I had my hand on the door about to get out when he decided to pull out into the lane, so it could have pulled me with it. Luckily I didn’t fall.”
The car, though, incurred over €2,000 worth of damage. The van driver immediately admitted liability.
The issue of parking spaces may seem trivial, but for Mark, who lives in Ballyvolane and can’t use buses, in part because he has poor balance and drivers take off before their passengers are seated, it’s anything but. It’s vital to his wellbeing and sense of self for him to be able to independently do routine things like meeting for a coffee or doing the school run to collect his children.
Limerick City and County Council launched an innovative Spacefinder app last November that takes some of the pain out of finding a disabled parking space. They were the first local authority in the country to do so. Mark would love it if Cork City Council would follow suit, he tells me.
“Our cars are our legs”
Elsewhere, in a cosy house on the northside, Carol Rice has asked me to come to her home to interview her: it’s just such a hassle getting into town, she told me on the phone when arranging our interview.
“Town just drives me bananas now,” she says. “I always feel we take one step forward and ten steps back. When I was a child, you could have got parking in town anywhere. Grand Parade used to have parking, and now it’s all pedestrianised. There were eight to ten parking spaces there, that were all taken away and not replaced. That was a big loss.”
Carol is known for many things: she’s an author, a keen musician, a former PRO for Cork County Basketball Board. She used to have a basketball column in the Echo and she’s been a guest on the Tommy Tiernan Show and the Ryan Tubridy Show. She is 4’2” and drives a specially modified car to suit her needs.
She has restricted growth caused by a condition called pseudo-achondroplasia, which also causes osteoarthritis and attendant chronic pain.
“Our joints are affected and that’s actually more crippling than the restricted growth,” she says. “Normally I’d be climbing to reach stuff, but when you’re in constant pain that gets hard. I’ve had a double hip replacement. The knees will be next. I’ve started experiencing shoulder pain since Covid, and I’m starting to get worried about that.”
For Carol and others with short stature and limbs, standard design means sinks, countertops, toilet bowls in public restrooms and self-service checkouts are all out of reach: this also applies to most private car parks, because she can’t reach ticket dispensers safely from her car, nor validate them at ticket machines which are too high.
“If you don’t have someone with you, you’re thinking, how will I validate my ticket?” she says. “I can’t have someone with me 24/7; you want to be independent and to do your own thing. For us, our cars are our legs. It’s how we get around.”
The “forgotten community”
When the temporary pedestrianisation of several city side-streets including Pembroke Street was first announced in summer 2020, Carol did something she says is uncharacteristic and complained to Cork City Council.
She was not happy with the response she received.
“I feel they brush everything under the carpet and that can be so frustrating,” she says. “It can make you feel like the forgotten community. It can make you feel like they don’t give two flying fucks and that you’re just a hindrance and a burden. Are you just an inconvenience? We’ve had to settle throughout life already. They talk about equality for everyone, but if we have to keep fighting for everything, when do we get to feel equal?”
I ask Cork City Council how they respond when they receive complaints like Carol’s.
“Any issue highlighted to Cork City Council is logged to our Customer Requests Management system, investigated and actioned as appropriate subject to the resources and priorities of our works programme,” their PR spokesperson says in an email.
All the recent upgrades to the city have happened with public consultation, the council are keen to point out. They work with a group called Cork Access Group, which has been in existence for 10 years and which is made up of “representative members from organisations such as the Spinal Injuries Organisation, Inclusive Cork, Cork City Partnership, NCBI, Cork Deaf Association and representatives from Roads and Traffic Operations and the Infrastructure Development Directorate.”
“This structure works very well and provides a mechanism for regular engagement between the City Council and the disabled community.”
City centre will lose 400 parking spaces
Through the recent remodelling of our cityscape, and into the near future, through “sustainable transport projects and pandemic-related projects,” Cork City Council tells me that a total of 400 city parking spaces either have been or will be removed in the near future.
“There will be no corresponding impact on disabled parking spaces,” their PR spokesperson writes.
No Disability Officer at Cork City Council
However, they also tell me that Cork City Council currently doesn’t have a dedicated disability officer. Given that Cork City Council now has a dedicated trees officer, and given the upheavals to the public realm currently underway, what does Carol think of this?
Carol says there should be one, and that, furthermore, the role should be filled by a person with a disability themselves.
“I always feel that unless you’re personally affected somehow, you can’t possibly understand,” she says. “Imagine if you’re working in the council and you have no disability at all, it’s not the top priority for you because it doesn’t affect you day to day.”
“But what people don’t seem to realise is that you can’t stop it. We’re all going to get old one day, including the people who are making these changes. And you don’t have to be born with a disability: you can have an accident or an illness. That’s when it comes knocking on your door, and that’s when you realise.”
Cork City actually has one of the highest rates of disability in the country.
While 13.5% of Irish people have a disability, 18.1% do in Cork city and 12.6% in Cork county, according to Census 2016. This figure does not necessarily reflect only mobility issues. It relies on answers to census questions relating to long-term conditions and also includes those with psychiatric and learning disabilities, but 40.9% of those classed as disabled in the census were those with a “difficulty with basic physical activities.”
Still, as Carol points out, we will all age, or get sick, or, like Mark Lahive, catastrophe will come calling.
And while there are a quantifiable number of people with disabled parking badges, how about the elderly, who may slowly lose mobility but never think to apply for a badge and just gradually retreat from their city, or those temporarily disabled through injury?
Cork City Council tells me an audit of all relocated spaces was conducted “during the latter part of 2021” alongside Cork Access Group. It found that “substantially, all spaces were in order” with some minor adjustments added to their works programme.
Some of the spaces are clearly still not suited to all. On the Lower Glanmire Road, near St Patrick’s Church, I note two disabled parking spaces with such narrow protective grids between the space and a lane of extremely fast-moving traffic that there’s no way a driver like Mark Lahive, who needs to open his door fully and for a protracted period of time to leave his vehicle, would be able to use them.
Elsewhere, disabled drivers have pointed out that locating spaces to the outside of cycle lanes is a potential hazard; Carol tells me they are an “accident waiting to happen,” both for disabled drivers and cyclists.
Active Transport budget
This week’s announcement that €289 million nationally will be invested in “walking and cycling infrastructure,” delivering 1,000km of new infrastructure by 2025, has been touted by Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan as a means to a “more attractive and safer local environment."
But already he’s come under fire by disability activists for the potential side effects of some of the measures mentioned, for example, the unintended impacts on families with children with disabilities should car exclusion zones be introduced at schools.
You may imagine that disabled drivers would be automatically exempt from any and all car bans, but on St Patrick’s Street, this is not so, Cork City Council confirm.
The “Pana Ban” applies to disabled drivers
The so-called “Pana Ban,” where driving is restricted on St Patrick’s Street between 3 p.m. and 6: 30 p.m. daily, also applies to disabled drivers.
This means that those trying to access the five disabled parking spots on Academy Street, again, favourites because the driver doesn’t have to step into traffic but exits on the footpath side, are essentially blocked from doing so for the daily duration of the ban.
Carol says she has been ordered by a Garda to reverse up Academy Street in order to leave a disabled parking space.
She’s not against pedestrianisation, she says, and is as much a fan of having space for quaint cafés and restaurants as anyone. But the recent relocation of disabled spaces that are, for her, not a convenient extra but key to her sense of autonomy, dignity and independence, are a major frustration.
“Do you have to take a whole city away?” she says. “You could have done half of Patrick Street and left access from Academy Street up. Do you really need to take over the road? What are you trying to achieve?”
“I can’t use public transport and I can’t cycle a bike. So how do they expect me to get into the city? I love pedestrianisation too, but I am against it when it’s harming disabled people because everyone has a right to access their city. As a person who was born and reared in the city, I have the same equal right to access it as anyone else.”