What is it like being a disabled person in Northern Ireland in 2021, nearly 26 years after the Disability Discrimination Act became law, asks disability advocate and blogger Phoebs Lyle
Keeping in mind that I was born nearly three years after the Disability Discrimination Act became law, and only became disabled after the hit-and-run accident that left me paralysed from the neck down in 2001, I will never understand the struggles disabled people before me had to overcome and the freedoms they had, and still have to fight for.
But, with that said, it doesn’t take only me to say that there are a lot of areas where the Disability Discrimination Act hasn’t been taken into consideration, nearly 26 years on.
Starting with the definition of Disability Pride and whether a disability is ever something you could be proud of, I would argue you can.
As one of the many disabled people who is comfortable identifying as a disabled person, I am proud of my disability because it makes me who I am, and most of the problems that disables me in a way are issues forced upon me by the outside world.
One of the ways society disables me is when disabled people aren’t given the right to go to the toilet in a public building, or aren’t given the correct information regarding disabled toilet changing facilities.
In 2019, there were just 1.4 fully accessible toilets per 100,000 disabled people in Northern Ireland, although since then, Finance Minister Conor Murphy has made changing places mandatory, and one has recently been opened in the Stormont Estate.
Another area, however, that shows the realities of being a disabled person in Northern Ireland, is when you can’t walk down the road without cars parking on footpaths, and you’re also excluded from public buildings, although the Disability Discrimination Act says that all public buildings should be accessible.
Starting with the first point, I can’t go down the road or — before Covid — to one of the clubs or destinations I was travelling to, without a car already being parked on the footpath, or, on one occasion, driving up beside me to park on the footpath.
I’ve covered this issue a lot in recent months, and although it is part of the law and the PSNI do say they take it seriously, there have been times where I’ve had to point cars parked on footpaths out to the police, who were standing at the same side of the road.
Accessible public buildings are another point. Across the country, there are museums and other public buildings I haven’t been able to access or navigate easily in my wheelchair, although the pandemic has provided a solution.
While studying for my HND, I had to attend various museums, including the Crumlin Road Gaol and the Eileen Hickey Irish Republican Museum, both of which had poor accessibility at the time.
During the pandemic, we’ve got used to virtual events and exhibitions, which I’ve been able to attend, and all across the world. If inaccessible museums could provide virtual tours as an exception for disabled access to a building, it would be a compromise with which many disabled people would be happy.
Away from accessible public and commercial buildings in Northern Ireland, there is the issue of accessible housing. In recent years, a lot of new houses have been built where I live. Not one of them includes disabled access into or out of the building, which is a reason why we need to cover education and employment.
Queen’s University and Ulster University both offer architecture courses, but what they should really be doing is employing disabled people to give lectures about accessibility. I would even go as far to say that our local schools should be doing something similar, so that accessible technology and architecture are explored throughout education, so we can get a more inclusive society for all. I know I’d have no problem in giving such talks.
The last point I wish to cover is the representation of disabled people in the media.
Coming after the news that six-time deaf-blind Paralympic swimmer, Becca Meyers, had to quit after being told she couldn’t take her personal care assistant mum with her to Tokyo due to Covid restrictions, we don’t need to say that there is a serious problem with disability representation worldwide, as well as in all workplaces.
Although there has been a massive improvement in disabled people and disabled characters appearing in the media, it isn’t as good as it could be, and the concept is overall that disability is still a bad thing.
A Forbes 2020 article found that disabled people made up just 5.2% of the off-screen workforce and 7.8% on-screen, in spite of working-age disabled people in the UK being around 17%. Furthermore, it has been found that 95% of disabled characters in movies and TV shows are played by non-disabled actors, known as Cripping Up, while only 5% are played by people with a disability. There are plenty of disabled actors available.
But it isn’t only the film and television industry that has a problem casting and representing disabled people in the media. Video game designers could equally include some of the best disabled athletes in e-sport games, or let you customise in your own disability.
Yes, I might not realistically be able to customise myself as being completely paralysed from the neck down, but I’d happily play as a wheelchair athlete. But likewise, technology companies should let you customise a tracheostomy tube and ventilator into avatars, so I can portray my tracheostomy tube and ventilator with pride.
Northern Ireland’s theatres also have difficulties including disabled people in theatrical productions as well, which again has to change. There has to be a big discussion on whether Bluetooth technology can allow disabled people to get involved more often behind the scenes, and how a performance could include disabled and non-disabled people.
One of the last areas that isn’t just specific to Northern Ireland but worldwide is technology.
As readers of my Technology Reviews blog will know, giving tips on how we can start making technology accessible for everyone is one of my interests.
I had to go 18 years thinking that I couldn’t play video games with my brother and our friends, which no one should have to do.
Yes, there are consoles and games that still aren’t accessible for me, but the good news is, accessible technology is now considered from the get-go.
So, what is it like being a disabled person in Northern Ireland in 2021? Moving away from the negatives, let’s look at some positives. While disabled people are still left behind in a lot of areas, there have been big improvements in other areas.
While some areas of transports such as planes still need to sort themselves out, other areas like the Translink train service in Northern Ireland is very accommodating for wheelchair dependent people.
I’ve also received brilliant help every time I’ve gone to a night club — before Covid — with the security guards being more than helpful and pointing out my parking needs to other drivers, as well as other places, and the education system has also improved a lot, with a lot more mainstream primary and secondary schools being more than welcoming to disabled students, but it would still be best if you can joke about your disability.
But we are in the year 2021, so why are disabled people still regarded as second class citizens?
Follow Phoebs on Twitter: @Phoebslyle