Saturday 13 August 2016

Wheelchair access

As a society, we're well engaged with wheelchair access. In designing lecture-theatres, you can't tick that box by imagining the wheelchairs perched at the very top of the tier right next to the door: many of the wheelchair-bound have sight-problems as well and so architects (and lecturers, students) have to get them access - if they need it - near the front. As part of the wall-to-wall coverage of the Rio Olympics, someone wheeled out Margaret Maugham to remember the very first Paralympic Games in 1960. It was called the 9th "Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed" and was the first time when the lads had gotten away from Buckinghamshire. Only later did it get rebranded as the 1st Paralympic Games - it's a bit like King James of the Bible being James I of England and James VI of Scotland. Margaret Maugham won the gold medal for archery [see R] in 1960 and gave and gave to the paralympic movement for years afterwards. She was reflecting that those first games were held immediately after the reg'lar 1960 Rome Olympiad and the competitors were housed in the recently vacated Olympic Village. Each athlete was assigned two squaddies from the Italian Army to bring them up and down the several flights of stairs between beds and buses. That was the pragmatic solution to wheelchair access in the years when the occupants of wheelchairs were bluntly called The Paralysed. The paras were delighted with the care and attention they received from the Italians "We had packed lunches delivered. We thought they were lovely - they each had a bottle of wine."

About 40 years later, just as the Celtic Tiger was starting to flex its muscles, I used to walk past the offices of the Irish Wheelchair Association in Fenian St, Dublin 2. Every morning someone used to put out a little plywood ramp, so that it was accessible by people in wheelchairs. I spend a few weeks pointing out the irony of the situation to anyone who'd listen and asking rhetorically if Ireland Inc. could not afford £250 of ready-mix concrete and some shuttering to do that properly. At about the same time there was an event at a public building in Dublin when the President was going to honour a citizen in a wheelchair. The Office of Public Works were on to it: they got in some scaffolding and planks and rigged up a system that made it possible for the honoured guest to attend her own gig. But the honoured guest refused to accept such a temporary and undignified delivery system - she was not a barrow of blocks and a bag of cement. She thought that things should have moved on since Jesse Owens had to use the service entrance of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. And just how wheelchair-accessible would that building be the following week after the celebrities had gone home?

That made the news and help shift the public perception towards a more fully inclusive system of integration. Students should be able to sit with their mates regardless of their mobility status; same with going to a concert or having a cup of coffee or taking the bus. Irish legislation eventually caught up so that, by 1st Jan 2010, every new building that required a fire-certificate also required a Disability Access Certificate. My Alma Mater, for example, retro-fitted entry to the mid 19thC houses of New Square, so that nobody had to negotiate 3 moderately uneven granite steps to the front door. Now everyone can get inside up a swish architect-designed ramp [L] which nods to the existing building but does pretend to be mid-19thC itself.

At some point we'll have to put a cap on making everything [The top of Croagh Patrick [prev]? The Camino de Santiago? Mt Everest? Thoor Ballylee? Every bus and train? Every car? Every toilet? Every house?] wheelchair accessible in the same way that we'll have to put a cap on the amount the state is prepared to spend on minority medications. But I don't think we're there yet. The VP of Paralympics Ireland, for example, couldn't get access to her polling station in the Spring 2016 elections for example.

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