I was born and reared in the Midlands town of Tullamore for nineteen years.
Between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five, I decided to spread my wings and I moved to Dublin while studying in Trinity. I loved Dublin and living independently, and I think my favourite part was being able to get around so easily, whether it was in my electric wheelchair or using public transport (buses and Luases, I mean. The DART is notoriously dangerous and unreliable for people who use wheelchairs or have mobility difficulties). The Luas in particular became my lifeline when I was living out in Rathmines, and I used to use it coming into work in Trinity during the summer. When somewhere is easy to access and get around, it really adds to your quality of life. At one point, I was both working and studying. It was great.
Although I loved Dublin, I knew that I couldn’t afford to stay there after I graduated. So I moved to Mullingar, then Portlaoise before finally choosing to stay in Tullamore. It was great to be in a place that I felt I belonged in and that I thought I could get around easily and independently. And to be fair, I could – until I started using a wheelchair. Suddenly, certain areas of Tullamore didn’t seem so welcoming to me any more.
I’ve always believed that disability is defined by the obstacles that are created by society rather than one’s individual impairment, and I believe that reasonable accommodations such as ramps, clear signage, wide step-free doors and loud signals at pedestrian crossings can go a long way in ensuring our town is accessible to all who use it. In 2014, the Offaly Leader Forum (now the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum), which is a group of people with varied disabilities – physical and sensory – organised and conducted a full-scale accessibility review of Tullamore, the first of its kind in ten years. As people with disabilities, we were the experts in identifying barriers to access in town. The group took the undertaking seriously, taking photographs and compiling reports, and subsequently these reports were compiled into a hundred-and-one paged document, an impressive achievement by any standards. We then presented it to town councillors in Tullamore Town Library (which is accessible, according to our audit) and urged them to see Tullamore through our eyes.
Since making our presentation, the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum has established good working relationships with our town councillors, who we have met with several times to voice our concerns. Through doing this, we are now working together, and we have urged the council to consult us whenever they make changes in the town. And recently we discovered that our annoying persistence is starting to pay off.
Little changes and repairs are taking place all over town, but for me the most significant of these is the ramps that have now been installed on the top of Main Street and at the Srah Roundabout. I live in Glendaniel, which is ten minutes’ walk from the Town Park, Lidl and Alison’s primary school, Scoil Mhuire, and the installation of these ramps means that I no longer have to proceed beside the footpath on the road onto traffic coming off the roundabout. It’s safer for me, my child and for the poor drivers who I’m sure don’t want to dent their cars on my wheelchair…! And the best part of the repairs is the knowledge that as a group, the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum, were taken seriously and listened to. But then again, we were dealing with people we knew for years, and people who have always supported the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum, for example Eddie Fitzpatrick and Declan Harvey (among many others, of course). Isn’t that the most important thing: being able to truly be an equal part of your community?
Now, more than ever, I’m looking forward to raising our child in a town that means so much to me. The town where I went to school, and developed a passion for writing. The town where I got my first summer job in the Tullamore Tribune, as well as my first ‘real job’ in the Offaly Centre for Independent Living Ltd. The town where my neighbour, who used to live eight doors down us, remains my best friend.
I have to admit, Tullamore always was a pretty great place to live, but with these little changes to our town, it can become a great place for everybody to live independently.