I was born with a physical disability called Arthrogryposis which affects my upper and lower limbs and spinal cord, confining me to a wheelchair. Disability is not something that tends to set me back; if anything it drives me to focus on my ability. Growing up in a busy rural household with my parents and eight other siblings, of which I’m the youngest, has definitely shaped me into the person I am today. They have always supported and encouraged me to reach for my dreams and goals in life.
Currently, I am in my final year of a Bachelors of Arts degree in Business and Geography at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. University was a big “roll” forward for me in life as it marked the start of a new journey into the big bad world. At first it was a daunting experience as I was leaving the family home for the first time and had to adapt to new surroundings, make new friends and live independently, but overall the past three years of university have been wonderful.
NUI Maynooth is very accessible and socially a great university to integrate or "fit into". There is a great close knit community of students and the vast majority of clubs and societies are open for everyone to get involved in. Socially, my life is as it is for any 20-year-old social animal – mad, hectic and generally just out for the laugh!
However, a recurring problem that I’m sure every wheelchair user faces in social settings is the lack of fully accessible buildings. Going out should be a relaxing activity with little planning or thought involved, but for many wheelchair users it’s very hard to find a pub, and even harder to find a club, that is fully accessible. While many pubs and clubs claim they are “accessible” a lot of them are not. It’s all good and well saying they are wheelchair accessible by displaying an access symbol, but on a practical level they have bathrooms where you’d have to be Spiderman to get in and out.
In one pub recently, I drove through the door of the supposedly wheelchair accessible bathroom only to find that once in, I could not turn left or right and therefore could not close the door behind me. To make matters more comical, a sign on the window read, “This toilet is for disabled persons only. Please contact a member of staff for the key.”
Not being able to use toilet facilities is a fundamental problem – enough to ruin any night out. But that’s not full extent of the challenges wheelchair users like me face in a vast majority of social settings. Other common problems include steps and out of order lifts. These barriers to socialising are problems we as a society need to challenge and change, and to do my bit to highlight this, I will be conducting my final year undergraduate thesis on ‘Geographies of disability’ – which basically means examining access in the built environment and trying to understand who allows and regulates (or fails to regulate) these “accessible”, or in most cases, “not so accessible” facilities.
By national standards, my home town of Longford seems worse than average in terms of accessibility, with the exception of a couple of pubs that are leading the way (see my list of ‘Top accessible locations’). Admittedly lots of the buildings in Longford town are quite old, but even in the modern student part of Maynooth, where I live in term time and enjoy largely accessible educational facilities, accommodation and streetscapes, there is only one fully accessible nightclub. Surely having fun and socialising is an important part of life too, and shouldn’t be overlooked? It would be great to see an improvement in access to pubs and clubs across the country, but meanwhile I’m determined that these inaccessible venues won’t hinder my social life!
James’ top five accessible places to socialise
Fortunately there are some venues that have done the work and deserve our business. Here are five of my favourites:
- Mantra – Located in the middle of Maynooth, Co Kildare, Mantra nightclub is fully wheelchair accessible with an elevator to the back of the building which allows you to enter the club. The club itself inside is fully on the flat including the main dance floor. The club has very obliging staff and an accessible bathroom.
- The 3 Arena – The 3 Arena in North wall Quay, Dublin 1, has an inviting atmosphere with excellent big elevators near to all allocated seating areas and close to facilities including the accessible toilets and the bar.
- Guinness Storehouse – The Guinness Storehouse bar in St James’s Gate, Dublin 8, which includes the spectacular rooftop Gravity Bar, has a separate wheelchair accessible entrance, staff that are happy to assist, and great accessible elevators and bathrooms.
- MB Coys, Co Longford – Situated in the heart of the midlands, this spacious pub has numerous low tables which suit wheelchair users and a wheelchair accessible bathroom to the rear of the building.
- Kelleher’s bar and bistro – Situated on Longford Main Street, the first floor premises has an elevator which allows people of all abilities to comfortably access the bar and bistro.
While these venues suit my requirements, individual needs vary, so it is always advisable to contact a venue directly to discuss your specific access queries.