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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Go Irish!

This post is not about football but the city of Dublin. Thanks to BA Haller and Media dis&dat I read that the Dublin City Council is determined to make Dublin the most accessible city in the world for people with disabilities. Yes, you read that sentence correctly: the aim of the Dublin City Council is to make Dublin the most accessible city in the world by the end of the decade. Thus while American politicians are slashing and cutting services for people with disabilities and waiting lists for essential services are growing at an alarming rate on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean one city is embracing access for all disabled people in a big way. When I read about the aims of the Dublin City Council in the Irish Times I was skeptical. Such a lofty goal generates great headlines, positive press, and can be quickly forgotten within days. Based on my reading, the Dublin City Council is serious about becoming the most accessible city in the world.

I never cease to be amazed by the disparity in access for people with disabilities. One town can have a major commitment to access while a few miles away another town is grossly inaccessible. Wealth is not a variable. For instance, Greenwich, CT one of the wealthiest communities in the nation has been in the news because the renovations of the local YMCA have not as yet included wheelchair access. The YMCA is open and serving all Greenwich residents except for those that use a wheelchair. Disabled patrons are supposed to wait to enter the YMCA until next summer when renovations are complete. The backward and negative attitude of the Greenwich YMCA creates a sharp contrast to the progressive policies in other towns and highlights why Dublin's goal to become the most accessible city in the world is critically important. Simply put, the Dublin City Council understands the importance and larger meaning of making a city 100% accessible. According to Peter Finnegan, director of the council's office of international relations and research, access is not limited to ramps and elevators. "It's about people who are getting older, people with children in push chairs, people who might fall and be on a crutch for a period of time. People should realize that this issue is likely to affect them at some stage in their life cycle". Finnegan went on to state that "We're not just putting right the wrongs of the past--anything that's done in the future must be done to the highest standards". Wow! I cannot imagine any politician or public figure in American making such a statement.

As of today, Dublin is not 100% accessible and I am sure there are major issues that need to be resolved. However, the City Council goal is remarkable given the global economic turmoil. Dublin does not want to meet the legal requirements with regard to access they want to create universal access everywhere. This effort reminds me what happens when the bar for access is raised. When I was in college most universities were inaccessible and had no plans or desire to change. But Hofstra University where I earned my BA stated their goal was to make the campus 100% accessible. At the time, I thought this goal was nothing more than an effort to get a headline in local papers. My skepticism was misplaced--Hofstra was and remains a model for other universities in that the campus is entirely accessible architecturally and culturally. This is why I think Dublin's stated goal is so exciting. The goal of 100% access is something that all cities and towns should strive for.

Still a skeptic, I have spent much time reading about Dublin's plans for access for all people with disabilities. The website created by the Dublin City Council, Access Dublin, is impressive if not a model to be repeated by other cities. The plans calls to improve the infrastructure of roads, footpaths and building as a starting point. An audit of the city in terms of access is under way and will include both private and public facilities. The information garnered is available at Access Dublin and residents and businesses are encouraged to comment about all facilities. Disabled Go has been hired and have fanned out across Dublin to identify and assess what is and is not accessible. A list of public and private buildings, parks, roads, streets, pavement types, and pedestrian crossings are all evaluated and available on line. Complaint procedures are simple and easily completed. Raising awareness about the culture of disability is part of the plan to empower disabled residents and visitors. The Dublin plan created and being enacted upon is worth reading and explained in 64 detailed pages.

When I finished reading the Dublin plan for becoming the most accessible city in the world I realized two things: first, too much of my work day was lost. Second, the goal of every city and town in the United States should be 100% access. Our law, the Americans with Disability Act, has enough holes in it to drive a truck through. Frankly, the older I get the more angry I become at how the phrase "reasonable accommodations" is often morphed into second rate services and exclusion both architecturally and socially. These so called "reasonable accommodations" do not seem reasonable much less fair to me. It does not help that the people who usually decide what is a "reasonable accommodation" are often not disabled and know little about disability. For example, rear entrances to buildings with a sign and buzzer never work. Sure the buzzer may buzz inside but no one answers or at best an extensive delay is involved. The Dublin plan does not allow this sort of failure--100% access means exactly that, total and 100% access. Total access means total equality. What a radical idea. Go Irish!


Greg (Accessible Hunter) said...

great post! Thanks

BA Haller said...

Glad the article was of use to you. I hope Dublin makes good on becoming more accessible!

Becs said...

I go to a civic group meeting once a month at the county seat in the county administration building. The building is no more than 10 years old. The wheelchair ramps are hidden off to the side and make a long trip even longer. I don't understand why there should even be any steps in the first place because of the building's age.

I hope the Irish are able to meet their goal. My knowledge of Dublin is very limited, but from what I remember they have an enormous job ahead of them. I hope that the slowing of the worldwide economy doesn't derail their plans.

william Peace said...

Becs, I have not been to Dublin in many, many years. I recall like many other cities it was not accessible. I have no doubt Dublin has a myriad of problems to solve. What is truly exciting is the aim--I know of no other city planners that have made such an attempt.