An electric bike helps with actual hills, but the mountains of inaccessibility in Cork University Hospital are just too much to deal with and it should not be this way, writes Orla Burke.
COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Mine is a minority experience. Several long-term conditions impair my ability to participate in certain aspects of life that others take for granted. I am disabled and have invisible impairments. 13.9% of us identified as disabled in the last census.
Around 80% of people with an impairment have what’s known as an “Invisible Disability”, which means you can’t immediately tell the person has a disability. I am also a person who gets around predominantly by walking, cycling and public transport.
I engage in active travel, but disabled people like me are often ignored in debates around active travel. Or worse, we are used as the subject of “whataboutery” in online forums. If a proposed new cycle lane means the loss of six (non-disabled) parking spaces, the people in online community forums seem to jump to our defence: what about disabled people? Everyone is suddenly a disability rights advocate!
Disabled people bear the extra costs of disability whilst being less likely to have a job and less likely to be able to afford the burden of owning and running a car. We are also less likely to achieve national targets for exercise. While not every disabled person can or will want to cycle, plenty are willing and able if the appropriate high-quality infrastructure is in place.
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However, there are barriers before we get to the implementation of new infrastructure. These take the form of “kissing gates”, absent curb drops, and signs mandating that “cyclists dismount”. We often must deal with an old exclusionary mechanism and campaign for that to be removed. However, it is incredibly frustrating and upsetting to see it appear in new schemes. We are using public funds to exclude one of the most vulnerable groups in our society from accessing active travel infrastructure.
Healthcare is an essential service, especially for people like me who have long-term chronic illnesses and need regular hospital access. It is one area that seems to be years behind in providing the basics like bike parking on site.
The exclusion starts with when the letter arrives with my appointment, and there are no details on bike parking in their access instructions. I call, and the admin staff doesn’t seem to understand my question: “Where is the bike parking onsite?” They keep asking me to repeat the question. When I get there, there is no bike parking or it is inadequate.
Recently, Cork University Hospital (CUH) moved their Outpatient Department offsite, where there is no bike parking at all. On the CUH site proper, there is one adequate (though narrow) bike parking facility, with much of the rest being “toaster” type racks where you lock your front wheel to the stand. Using these would be an invitation to have your bike stolen. (This is a regular occurrence in CUH). Other bike parking facilities are squeezed into narrow crevices in underground car parks. They are so bizarrely sited that one would be forgiven for thinking they are an ironic art installation.
Travelling around the site by bike is a gauntlet. Recently CUH replaced Internal rising barriers with longer bars, so I have to turn my bicycle sideways to get through or cycle on the footpath. One-way systems for cars cut off cycling permeability. On the one stretch of open road on the campus, I have been aggressively beeped at and overtaken while doing the 15kph speed limit. On leaving the site, I must navigate a kissing gate, which involves me lifting and jostling my 45kg bike. I have arthritis.
Sometimes, I can’t face the battle. I’m just so tired of fighting the hostility. It is an easy 4km journey to CUH from my house. I have an e-bike, and I should be able to do it sustainably. My e-bike helps me with actual hills, but the mountains of inaccessibility when trying to access health services are just too much for me. I get tired of doing battle with bureaucracy too. On-site staff and visitors like me have tried for years to get some improvements, but all that comes back is excuses and kicking it down the road because X has to happen before we can get to you.
Access can’t wait. Access is not an add-on. Access is a fundamental right and should be embedded in every design from day one. CUH proudly displays its Green Campus status, but it all feels meaningless to me when my patient experience of trying to access the site sustainably is so poor.
How could we change this? First, HSE sites could prioritise upgrading and installing high-quality bike parking, such as Sheffield stands. There are readily available funds for this. New bike parking sites should be in convenient places near entrances. Many disabled cyclists find cycling easier than walking, so their bikes should be seen as a mobility aid. Bike parking closer to clinic entrances will benefit from passive surveillance and make it safer for cyclists, especially women, to feel safer. Bike parking should have curb drops or be level with the roadway. No HSE site in the country should have kissing gates at its entrances.
All new projects should be subject to disability and gender audits. Planning should involve listening to the patient experience of access as well as staff, and not making assumptions: that all service users have access to cars.