We do not accept the claims made in the Government’s motion and its record on provision for those with disabilities, but we are happy to support the measures the Government proposes to take, which are outlined in the latter half of the motion, along with Senator Dolan’s amendments. As we all know, people who have disabilities face discrimination in terms of housing, transport and many other areas. While proposals on guidelines are welcome, the introduction of legislation is far more important because guidelines are often ignored.
It is only when something affects this House that action happens. It was only when we had a Member of the Seanad, who was one of the first Members of these Houses to be in a wheelchair, that it became apparent how inaccessible the Houses of the Oireachtas were, but that was only because he was a Member of the Oireachtas. For decades prior to that members of the community who were disabled and used wheelchairs who tried to access their Parliament could not gain entry to it. They could not access their own Parliament. That was rectified because it affected a Member of this House.
It was only when a matter affected this Parliament that the rules were changed to address the issue of the inaccessibility to it experienced by members of the deaf community. Again, that was only because it affected the running of this House. When a debate took place on the issue of the deaf community and having sign language interpreters in the Dáil Chamber, it became a showdown between the Houses of the Oireachtas and the way they did their business and members of the deaf community who wanted to understand what was going on in their Parliament and could not do so because no interpreters were available. Again, that change happened only because of the interaction with this Parliament, but for decades prior to that people who had to access Government, private sector services and other services were faced with an immovable object. Guidelines will not move the Government to act, unfortunately, only legislation will do that.
While the plans and the strategies regarding street furniture are welcome and even if the laws that are in place were enforced in that respect, the fact is that people can get licences from Departments and local authorities to put in place impediments to members of the blind community who might be using wheelchairs to get around. The Government is trying to take money at one end of the spectrum and at the other end of it is seeking to enforce the law to protect people’s rights in terms of their ability to get around.
We would like consideration to be given to the various proposals that have come forward from the National Council for the Blind of Ireland and the Disability Federation of Ireland on the issue of its members navigating their way around and the necessity for change. Ms Elaine Hoey, the director of policy and advocacy for the NCBI said:
Our aim is to raise public awareness of the impact that obstacles on our footpaths have on the everyday lives of people [whose sight loss is a factor in their ability to move around]. We are asking the public to come along with us on this campaign and join the movement to ensure that people with sight loss can move around freely and independently.
We can only support that, but a campaign is only as good as the sustainability of the campaign. We have that with respect to so many other issues. Making people aware of the impact is fine on an individual issue by issue basis for the people who take it on board. However, it is only when a proposal becomes a law that has to be enforced that it will make a sustained, long-term difference. It should not be up to the NCBI or any other organisation to keep campaigning for people to be able to navigate their way around their own country.
Mr. Joe McPhillips who lost his sight at the age of 33 as a result of diabetic retinopathy said:
I know people mean well but they have to be aware that sometimes their actions can make life hell for people with sight loss. Parking on footpaths is a practice that has to be stamped out. People need to have consideration and realise that while they may be able to get around with no bother, those of us with sight loss are experiencing huge difficulties as a result of their actions.
No guidelines or policy are necessary, the law is there and it needs to be enforced. All the existing legislation must be examined and we must see the enforcement of it and how many convictions there are for parking on footpaths. The Garda has enough to be doing. The planning requirements for street bollards would prevent it rather than the Garda having to do it. Putting such a provision in guidelines is simply not good enough because their enforcement and being required to be part of a planning application is at the discretion of individual planners. Perhaps that is something that could be examined.
If Senator Dolan introduces legislation to improve accessibility we will all support it, but it is my belief that legislation must be enforced and I worry when people talk about having more guidelines. We would not be happy with that but we are happy to support the amendment Senator Dolan has tabled.