The Munster Express Tuesday, 17 August 2021yar
In May last year, Waterford Disability Network received a certificate from former Metropolitan Mayor Cllr Breda Brennan which acknowledged “the work and effort of the Waterford Disability Network in providing valuable services and information to its users and their support groups.”
It was well-earned recognition for a local group which has been diligently to improve life for people in Waterford living with any type of disability.
Waterford Disability Network is a registered charity with Lynda O’Shea as Chairperson and Jo Cregan as Treasurer. Both are active in running the organisation and have been on the committee since 2012.
Office manager with Waterford Disability Network Seán Rohan explains that the aim of Waterford Disability Network is to act as a voice for disability organisations in Waterford City and County. The Network does not represent one particular group but acts as an umbrella group incorporating a variety of different disabilities.
Much of the public work of Waterford Disability Network involves lobbying and engaging with political representatives and the local authority in order to create awareness and bring about change. These dealings usually relate to issues impacting people with ‘visible’ disabilities such as access issues for wheelchair users or street hazards for visually impaired people. These are issues which impact people collectively, however, the Waterford Disability Network also deals with people’s concerns on an individual basis.
Many people contact Waterford Disability Network by phone, email and via social media in relation to a wide range of individual issues. In particular, Seán explains that the Network receives numerous calls from parents of teenage children with autism and ADHD.
“Someone with a ‘visible’ disability has to fight for their rights but for someone with an ‘invisible’ disability, before they can even begin that fight, they have to fight to be recognised as having a disability,” he explains.
“If someone is in a wheelchair, we know that they have a disability. If someone has Down Syndrome they are seen as ‘special needs’ and given a special education from a young age. However, with something like autism, it’s often not diagnosed until teenage years so children may not have been getting the same help and there is no clear direction in relation to their education and future.”
Seán says there are many varied issues faced by disabled people and points out that the Waterford Disability Network deals with anything that is regarded as being a disability. “Invisible disabilities are just as important as the visible ones,” he adds. “There is a wheelchair image but the truth is, wen going to an employer for example, most people are comfortable saying they’re in a wheelchair or that they have bad eyesight or need a hearing aid. However, many are unwilling to say they’re suffering from depression, that they need a counsellor or that they have some other mental health issue. People won’t say they were in rehab for mental health issues in the way you’d have no problem saying you were in rehab for a broken leg.”
Seán explains that the Waterford Disability Network intends to expand its reach outside of Waterford City and Tramore to incorporate all of Waterford City and County. “Many Waterford based organisations, including ourselves, are guilty of being called a Waterford organisation but primarily acting in Waterford City and Tramore,” he says. “People in West Waterford, beyond Dungarvan, often relate better to an organisation if it has Dungarvan in the title so we’re trying to change that perception.”
As part of these efforts, the Network plans to hold meetings in Dungarvan and had been aiming to do so before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Like many organisations, we are 15 months behind where we wish to be,” explains Seán.
Covid-19 has also directly impacted on the issues which Waterford Disability Network is being contacted about. One of the main issues of concern for people with disabilities which has been brought to the fore relates to transport. “If you don’t live in a city, transport is a huge problem if you’re disabled,” says Seán. “Many rural areas don’t have bus services and, if they do, those buses might not be wheelchair compatible. There are a number of taxi companies that provide this service, but you have to book in advance as you do with Iarnród Eireann.”
Additionally, Seán explains that there has been a noticeable increase in social isolation as a result of the pandemic and repeated lockdowns. Many service centres catering for people with disabilities were closed for a prolonged period of time which exacerbated this issue. “In many cases, this might have been the only social outlet someone had each week,” says Seán. “They might not have seen anybody outside of family or a visiting carer from week to week and for months on end.”
He believes issues caused by Covid-19 will continue to exist for years to come. “People are still afraid to come out and many of them are vulnerable,” he explains. “One of the problems for Ireland as a whole, and across the world, is that people who otherwise would have been going to hospital for various treatments have been terrified to attend. As they haven’t ad the treatment they need, minor problems have become major problems. What could have been dealt with easily a year ago might be very serious now.” Seán notes that mental health issues are rising and, in particular, waiting lists for counselling are a cause for concern. “It’s a tsunami waiting to happen,” he says.
However, on a more positive note, he says Waterford is fortunate to have so many organisations providing help for people with disabilities including the National Learning Centre located in the IDA Industrial Estate on the Cork Road. “It’s an absolutely fantastic facility which caters for people with many different disabilities including people with autism who can get special advice in addition to the education and training everyone else receives,” he says. Seán also praises InvincABLE Fitness Gym, located in the Six Cross Roads Business Park, which enables people struggling with mobility and disability issues to set and reach their activity goals.
Illegally parking in designated disability spaces is a contentious issue which often rears its head and remains one of the most obvious issues which people associate with the day-to-day impediments faced by people with disabilities. Members of the public can often make judgements on people seen using such spaces, but Seán is wary of becoming too critical. “It’s important to remember that some people who have designated parking stickers aren’t necessarily in wheelchairs,” he says. “Because they are not using a wheelchair or crutches, they can often be hassled by people.”
He says it’s not up to the general public to decide who should or shouldn’t be using a designated parking spot and says we must all trust that permits have been obtained in the correct manner. He says instances of parking permits and spaces being used incorrectly should be brought to the attention of the authorities such as Waterford City & County Council or the management of the relevant car park.
Just as it’s wrong for someone without a permit to use a disabled parking space, it’s also wrong for someone to be abused just because a passer-by can’t see what the disability is,” he says. “It could be someone whose child has autism. It’s not that they’re weak, they might be too strong so the parent needs to get them into the shop safely. Just because somebody doesn’t look physically disabled doesn’t mean they’re not meant to be in a designated parking area or that they are using a permit belonging to their spouse.” Seán believes there is a need for more disabled parking spaces which are designed and positioned appropriately. Waterford Disability Network is also in regular consultation with An Garda Síochána and Waterford City & County Council in relation to cars parked on footpaths.
“We need to see far more work being done in relation to people parking on footpaths which remains a huge issue,” says Seán. “The blackspot I usually mention to people is Dunmore East. If you’re in a wheelchair, and of course for people with prams also, you cannot go from the Park down to the Strand because of the cars parked on footpaths.” He is pleased that the Gardaí issue fines for such behaviour but believes the potential imposition of a fine isn’t a sufficient deterrent to stop people from engaging in such practices. Seán would like to see details of such fines made public – similar to ongoing calls for details of people fined for illegal dumping and littering to be publicised.
The Waterford Disability Network remains active in terms of policy suggestions and has been engaged in the submissions process as part of Waterford City & County Council’s Development Plan 2022-2028.
The Network would like to see certain issues considered whenever any plans for urban realm works such as pedestrianised streets, footbridges etc. are being drawn up. Seán notes that there are many pavements which ae “aesthetically pleasing” but present a hindrance to people using wheelchairs.
Meanwhile, ‘Changing Places Ireland’ is an ongoing campaign promoting the inclusion of Changing Places Toilet Facilities in public places nationwide. Changing Places Toilet Facilities are different from standard accessible toilets. They provide extra equipment like a hoist and an adult-sized changing bench. There are currently less than 20 in the State but over 40 in Northern Ireland. The Waterford Disability Network would like to see at least one in Waterford City and one in Dungarvan. Seán believes the installation of such facilities would hugely benefit Waterford as people who require their use will plan their holidays based on the proximity to such facilities. “Currently, if you’re in Dublin and thinking about visiting the South-East, you wouldn’t go to Waterford but you would go to Wexford which has such a facility,” says Seán.
Waterford Disability Network this week unveiled a new website which contains a directory of information and outlines the broad range of activities of the Network. The website was designed by David Fitzpatrick Web Design, with the Disability Directory compiled by Emily Breen in the Waterford Disability Network Office. Mayor of Waterford City & County Cllr Joe Kelly officially launched the website on Monday August 16th and praised the ongoing work of all involved with Waterford Disability Network. He also presented the first annual Waterford Disability Network/InvincABLE Fitness Inclusion Award to Bohemians FC in recognition of their Football For All programme.
In recent months, significant work has been carried out to revamp the disabled-friendly offices of Waterford Disability Network, located at Enterprise House on New Street in the city, which are courtesy of Waterford City & County Council. As Covid-19 restrictions continue to ease, it’s hoped that the building will host guest speakers and facilitate group meetings. “Any disability or support organisation in Waterford wishing to use our office can do so free of charge if they’re a member, and it’s only €20 a year to become a member,” explains Seán.
The services Waterford Disability Network provides to individuals, such as advice and lobbying, are free of charge. Additionally, a wide variety of information, including in relation to government policy, is provided across the Network’s social media channels.
Certainly, the Waterford Disability Network is providing an invaluable service in Waterford and will hopefully continue to be supported in its ongoing attempts to improve the lives of everyone in the locality with disabilities.