Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Accessibility of Public Transport for People with Disabilities: Motion


5:35 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the report of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport, which sets out a number of recommendations to improve accessibility to all public transport services for people with disabilities. The recommendations will go some way to improving access but they may not go far enough in improving the situation for people with disabilities living in rural Ireland. The number one barrier that people with disabilities face in places such as County Donegal is the lack of public transport. Measures in the report, therefore, while well-intentioned, are not suitably targeted to the reality of living in a rural constituency if one has a disability. Nevertheless, I support the implementation of the report's recommendations in the hope that improvements in rural public transport will be a consideration in the context of all public transport planning, funding and development. While this will require resources, including time and monetary investment, that is what is required if we are to be a country that prides itself on notions of equity and equality. Let us not forget that in the context of our climate action obligations and our necessary transition to a low-carbon economy, we will need greater public transport infrastructure throughout the country and, in particular, in rural Ireland.

People with disabilities living in rural Ireland face an inordinate number of barriers in accessing public transport. County Donegal has no rail or motorway, which makes the Bus Éireann fleet a vital part of our transport infrastructure. For a person with a disability coming from Donegal, a number of gaps in the planning, funding and development of rural public transport lead to significant service interruptions, journeys being cancelled or delayed, or people being unable to attempt a journey at all. There have been recent improvements, however, particularly in the area of upgrading bus stops to make them wheelchair accessible. I have been in contact with the National Transport Authority for years in respect of the provision of wheelchair accessible bus stops in Donegal. While I acknowledge that the bus stops have been successful, they are not enough.

To emphasise this point, I will read aloud an account of Frank Larkin, a disability activist from County Donegal. It is important that the voices of those affected by the issues being debated are heard. The journey from Donegal to Dublin is straightforward for me as an able-bodied person. I get in my car and drive uninterrupted for four hours to Killybegs numerous times a week. For Frank Larkin, however, as we will hear from his own words, it is an entirely different scenario. He told me that he would not use Bus Éireann ever again. He said he had not used the service for some time because he had too many bad experiences. He went on to say there had been improvements in that the route is now accessible but that all bus options should be accessible rather than needing to be booked 24 or 48 hours in advance and that it is impossible to make spontaneous trips as circumstances stand. He said disability awareness and equality training would definitely be required by staff due to the attitude of some to people with disabilities, even though they say they receive training.

Supporting Frank Larkin’s point, the Irish Wheelchair Association recently carried out a survey which found that seven out of ten people with disabilities were dissatisfied with the service offered by Bus Éireann. On Frank Larkin’s point about the advance booking required for journeys, I am glad the report recommends the rolling-out of accessibility services and facilities without prior booking. How we achieve this will fall on the Government's lap and whether it is content with increased spending in this area, but transport companies also need to get on board. It is clear that we need to focus on transport companies and how they deliver their services. It appears that more intensive training is required for service providers to help eradicate stigma.

In a previous report, the National Disability Authority, NDA, stated: “Ease of access also depends on the attitudes of the community as well as those transport staff.” We need to contemplate that and take on the NTA's recommendation that the Government develop a public awareness programme and a staff training programme for customer care. The report recommended that, where possible, the training should be conducted by people with a disability. I am happy with the report’s call for minimum standards of accessibility to be set and monitored by a statutory agency with powers to impose sanctions on transport companies that fail to assist people with disabilities. I also welcome the report’s recommendation that the NDA be given powers to monitor and enforce access for people with disabilities, and I hope it will be followed through. I acknowledge that disabled people are on the boards of the transport companies, which is welcome, but much more needs to be done.

Greater joined-up thinking is required among the various Departments to increase access for people with disabilities. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection must reflect the need for greater accessibility by providing the necessary income supports for all people with disabilities. Some social welfare payments, such as disability benefit, do not cover the free travel pass, but anyone with a disability, whether temporary or permanent, should be offered a free travel pass until he or she no longer needs it. Let us not forget that barriers to transport create barriers in other parts of life. For example, they can restrict the options for a person attending a third level institution or a person’s access to the job market. As we know too well, it also restricts a person's access to healthcare.

It is worth measuring how Ireland stands up to Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which we recently ratified. The convention explicitly states, “To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications". While we have made progress, we have a long way to go and I hope that we will keep going in the right direction.


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