The recent AGM of Clonakilty Access Group at O’ Donovan’s Hotel was attended by 26 people, including many with physical disabilities, their family members and carers, two local County Councillors, a clergyman, people interested in equality and access for all and a visitor from the US and her assistance dog. It was a very energetic and determined meeting but a lot of frustration was vented also.
Originally founded in 1996, the Access Group was re-activated again in 2014 when the plans for the new streetscape was being proposed and the group wrote in a formal four-page submission to Cork County Council as part of the public consultation process, requesting the inclusion of many accessible aspects to the “new town centre” as detailed by the inclusively and accessibility promoted in Universal Design.
There was also an issue around this time (which still remains) of the proliferation of advertising signs, tables and chairs, large pot plants and other items placed on footpaths creating obstacles, impediments and sometimes even danger for wheelchair users, the visually-impaired and others with walking aids. All of these items should by law receive a licence from the council before they are put out in a public place.
As the groundworks of the new Clonakilty town centre streetscape commenced, problems were soon identified by people with disabilities in the community, and during the initial few months the Access Group met with County Council officials on a number of occasions to point out issues both before and after they were put in place. Despite this engagement, there was huge disappointment with the final outcome when the contractors left town.
Outgoing chair Elizabeth Walsh reported to the meeting that having received little satisfaction and no action from the County Council – even in relation to resolving minor issues on the new streetscape, the Access Group invited two national disability bodies – the NCBI (National Council for the Blind) and IWA (Irish Wheelcahir Association), to carry out independent accessibility audits of the new streetscape in May 2016. Their subsequent reports confirmed many of the concerns the Access Group had been highlighting to Council officials for well over a year, in relation to issues of accessibility on the “new” completed town centre streetscape.
The IWA and NCBI reports were subsequently sent to the County Council officials.
A few months ago, Elizabeth Walsh also met with Finian McGrath, TD, Minister for People with Disabilities on his visit to Clonakilty and they drove around the town centre where the minister saw for himself some of the issues of concern. He has subsequently been in contact with the Access Group.
Many of the attendees at the AGM outlined the personal challenges that confront them daily in Clonakilty town centre as disabled people or family members. Among the issues raised are: Camber of the new footpaths; Gradient of ramps on footpaths in certain areas; Loss of disabled parking spaces; Impractical locations of some of current parking spaces; The illogical locations of council-installed street furniture on footpaths and at crossing points; The continuation of unlicensed, illegal signs, furniture, pot plants, etc. placed on footpaths by some businesses; Impractical crossing areas; Access to Library.
As well as being impediments to people being able to access their own town centre, some people told the AGM that they can no longer come into certain areas of the town centre, as they feel they are actually in danger and could be injured.
Elizabeth Walsh, John Phair and Cionnaith Ó Súilleabháin, members of the outgoing committee, reported on efforts to resolve some of these issues with the council authorities during and since the construction of the new streetscape.
It was emphasised that the group must try in a positive way to get the authorities to amend and change things for the better. To date, successes are minimal. They said while it was great the Clonakilty is a popular destination and has received many awards – including ironically for the new urban streetscape, the fact remains that the local authority appears not to be interested so far in taking the concerns and rights of people with disabilities seriously.
Elizabeth Walsh said the group needed a stronger committee going forward to take on the considerable challenge in hand. She also proposed that following Tom Clonan’s ‘Yes, Equality’ campaign, which he started very successfully last August backed by many of Irelands foremost citizens, that the Clonakilty Access Group would now adopt the concept of ‘Yes, Equality’, to demand exactly the same rights and access to Clonakilty public streets and spaces and public buildings as everyone else as equal citizens.
She laid down the challenge that everyone who has a moral compass and who chooses to use it, could work to make Clonakilty the first ‘Yes Equality’ town. “The start of this must be that people look down their street and realise that people with disabilities are being discriminated against in Clonakilty and ask why? “ she said.
Local County Councillors Paul Hayes and John O’Sullivan both addressed the meeting and promised to work with the Access Group to resolve issues of concern.
The election of the committee resulted as follows: Chairperson – Elizabeth Walsh; Vice Chairperson – Mary O’ Driscoll; Secretary – Evie Evans; Asst. Secretary – Jo Caldwell; Treasurer – John Phair; PRO – Cionnaith Ó Súilleabháin, Committee members Siobhán O’ Regan and Ulrike O’ Beirne.
The new committee will meet regularly and continue to campaign with the council, businesses, and those responsible for public buildings, etc. for positive change, so that everyone can traverse the public spaces of their own town comfortably and safely.
They called on County Council officials to enforce their own byelaws in relation to unlicensed items placed on footpaths by third parties, and also called on the local authority to immediately begin a plan of work to rectify many of the problems, which can be resolved with little effort or expenditure – if the will is there to do it.
Elizabeth Walsh, re-elected Chairperson thanked everyone and said the committee welcomes new members as well as the public to contact them with relevant issues.
She also said the group will hold one or two public meetings annually to keep the public informed of their work.
Interested people should follow the Clonakilty Access Group Facebook and Twitter pages to keep up with developments going forward.