‘The environment with which people surround themselves is the only thing that enables or disables a person” – Jack Kavanagh

“I’m running slightly late” the message read. An unusual statement for a man who is exceptionally punctual; however the direct result of an avoidable obstacle. 

Jack had dinner plans made for 6:30, But he could not get on the bus due to the presence of a buggy in the wheelchair zone.  Unfortunately, this is a regular occurrence and makes navigating the city that little bit more difficult for an individual like Jack. 

At the age of 20, Jack went on a holiday with friends to Portugal. It was his final hurrah before setting into the second year of an intense pharmacy course in Trinity. As Jack ran down the beach for one last swim, he didn’t anticipate the life-changing event that was seconds from occurring.  He dived head first into a wave that was more shallow than expected and broke his neck on the sand bed. As a result, Jack was paralysed from the armpits down with limited use of his arms and hands.

A devastating injury to come to terms with, Jack swore to himself he would not allow it to stand in his way – how right he was. Just 13 months post-injury, Jack was back in College in Trinity after gruelling rehabilitation and hard work.

“I made a conscious decision at that point, that the challenge life had placed in my way would not rule me”. Jack set the aim that he would learn and grow from this injury, and began learning how to negotiate the physical and mental aspects of such a drastic change in his way of life”

Jack has insight from both perspectives having spent most of his life able-bodied.  He once had the freedom of stepping down off the curb to cross the road, booking a table at any business and not having to think twice about it; hopping onto the bus or getting the dart to a particular part of the city.

Now as a wheelchair user, Jack has to take out the magnifying glass quite often when organising a meet-up, in particular with someone new. 

“I’m quite adventurous but I tend to go back to the same places, that I know work well for me rather than venturing out. This is the case particularly if I’m meeting someone new or going on a date. I don’t want there to be any sense of  issue made out of assess ability and I don’t want the wheelchair to come into the equation as a barrier to the meeting- So I will purposely pick somewhere that I know will work seamlessly”

“It can be quite daunting going out into the city and meeting people somewhere that you have not considered before. What means wheelchair accessible to one person, may not be wheelchair accessible for another”

Jack began to view Dublin in a different way, having once been a small city that was easy to get around. He now noticed hills, footpaths that were sloped toward the road, bins, and lampposts that are positioned awkwardly on the footpath. 

Regardless of the daily obstacles, Jack is extremely pragmatic in his approach. He was an active participant in the design of his wheelchair to make it as small and nimble as possible. Despite tailoring his wheelchair to suit the setting, the setting often offers many obstacles that have not been altered for him. 

“The dart is criminal” he says. 

“You have to book 24 hours in advance on a particular train time. If you miss this particular train, for one reason or another, you have missed your only chance of getting home”

Jack compared this to Holland where he experienced a far better system. He had to book only one hour in advance and arrive a few minutes before departure where he was greeted by assistance and guided onto the train from there. 

Dublin bus has a long way to go too. 

“It’s really only suitable off-peak times, and even then you have to take on the steep ramp. Once on the bus, you have to make an extremely awkward turn and navigate your way to the wheelchair zone where you are positioned behind a pole”. 

Jack experienced a better system on the bus in London. The wheelchair entry point is in the middle of the bus, and the wheelchair zone is positioned right in front of that, meaning you don’t have to make any awkward manoeuvres to slot in. A practical difference that could be worked into the Irish system. 

Despite there being a need for improvements in Dublin, Jack is impressed by how far the city has come in recent years. 

“The Luas is amazing in terms of accessibility. It is almost all level access with barely any gap between the platform and the Luas itself – which is really nice. There is loads of room to position yourself inside, so that’s brilliant. I use it a lot”

Jack speaks of the benefit he has having been able-bodied for most of his life to date. He never really understood the concept of being restricted and he has chosen to continue having that exact mindset. 

” I won’t allow myself be restricted following my injury and subsequent use of a wheelchair. People are incredibly accommodating and as long as you are confident in the manner that you portray the way people can help – in a very pragmatic way – it reduces a lot of the barriers that people might find in terms of being awkward”. 

Jack informs me that it is important to create mechanisms that dispel the fear of encountering barriers when navigating the city. 

A society called Enactus in Maynooth university have been pro-active in developing such mechanisms. Akin to google earth, they have created an app called access earth which asks wheelchairs users to map the places they go, and rate them based on their framework of how accessible or inaccessible a place is. They will look at bathrooms, table heights, entryways amongst a range of different features.

Enactus in Maynooth university have been pro-active in developing such mechanisms. Akin to google earth, they have created an app called “access earth” which asks wheelchairs users to map the places they go, and rate them based on their framework of how accessible or inaccessible a place is. They will look at bathrooms, table heights, entryways amongst a range of different features.

“If somewhere is accessible for a wheelchair user, it should also be accessible for someone who is visually impaired or sound impaired. If you make or design an environment that is suitable for those categories of society – who are just people like the rest of society- you inadvertently make that space accessible for everyone else as well”

Jack has always said, “The environment with which people surround themselves, is the only thing that enables or disables a person”. 

“I see it in terms of transport after being in Holland this year, I have seen it in the united states in terms of accessible businesses. These countries are leading a movement to create more inclusive environments which is accessible for everyone, and there is a huge opportunity for Ireland to do the same. I believe it is already happening here and that makes me really happy”  

Jack continues to educate people on topics such as “overcoming adversity” through his public talks at events such as TEDx Tallaght, Fresh Resolutions and Zeminar along with many more. 

Photo Credit: Marie Tonra

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