Máiríde Woods studies a familiar Gospel story from the perspectives of present-day models of disability, and applies some lessons to our own time.


It struck me one Sunday recently that access for the disabled was the subtext of the Gospel story of the paralysed man. He arrives outside the synagogue to see Jesus and can’t get in–because of the press of the crowds, it says, but I bet there were a few rogue steps there as well. Limited technology means he’s a stretcher-user, so his enthusiastic helpers haul him up onto the roof, which they proceed to demolish (that was a pre-building regulations era) before swinging him down beside Jesus–who can hardly fail to notice such an entry. Jesus tells him that his sins are forgiven, and to take up his bed and walk–which he does. A straight miracle. The Sun would love it!

Nowadays, various glosses would be put on such a story. The assumption that disability is a consequence of sin would be challenged head-on–though I suppose it’s equally stereotypical to assume that the paralysed man was some kind of saint. Neither are miracles politically correct–at best, they are an individual solution in the personal tragedy model of disability, although the paralysed man was probably happy enough. The jaundiced observer might hold that he had been shocked into recovery by the prospect of being hauled back through the roof. And what about those helpers? Were they resourceful or foolhardy; did they ask the paralysed man if he really wanted to make such a dramatic entry, or did they just carry on regardless? And what about the synagogue manager? Did he revamp his building after that unscheduled bit of demolition, or did he just put it back the way it was, in the hope that he wouldn’t be hit twice by the same miracle?

Perhaps the paralysed man and his friends were (like me) frustrated at the slow pace of change. There have been improvements in accessibility since Gospel times. The Building Regulations (Part M) seem to be better known than they were; new public buiildngs do have accessible entrances, and the Minister for the Environment’s move to make all new houses visitable is a ramp in the right direction. And hallelujah! I’ve seen one loo (in a university) that provides a changing table for disabled people. But despite all the cranes gobbling at our skyline, new buildings only form a small proportion of our environment. There have been no incentives to make existing buildings even partly accessible. The pavements on my street are still an obstacle course for a wheelchair (because of some long-running dispute between the now-dead builder and Fingal County Council). My doctor’s surgery, about fourteen inches above ground level, is still only reachable via two steep steps and two narrow doors. No wheelchair-user can enter without help, and only helpers with good backs should apply, as the chair has to be heaved up backwards. My unfavourite monument to the oil-crisis–the aluminium porch door complete with metal lip–is still much in evidence. New restaurants still open in first-floor, liftless locations–and even when you find one you can get into, you may have to disturb half the clientele in order to reach a table.

The new cinemas have good wheelchair access–but, despite refurbishment, the older ones have not. Theatres provide very limited access to wheelchair-users (although The Gate has recently installed a lift). Often the wheeled consumer has no choice of ticket price bracket–the cheapest seats are not accessible. Cinemas and theatres cater badly for those with other mobility problems; there are no extra-space places for those whose joints make hopping up and down difficult. And why has the National Concert Hall, which has won an accessibility award, not come up with a few disabled parking spaces?

Some flexibility on dimensions may be necessary if existing premises are ever to be adapted. The 1 in 12 gradient for ramps is what a non-powered wheelchair-user would ideally like, but if strictly adhered to it may prevent any adaptation of premises with restricted frontages. I’d much prefer a 1 in 6 ramp than nothing at all. Similarly with steps: while waiting for them to wither away entirely (new UK building regulations apparently outlaw the doorstep), I’d like them to be extended so that they can take all four chair wheels.

All around me, Celtic Tiger’s cement mixers are gurgling to churn out concrete and brick buttresses to defeat the driver. Couldn’t some of that cement be more usefully channelled into extending steps and ramping entrances? And what about a grant, or at least a tax-break, to encourage doctors, dentists, lawyers and chemists into some sort of accessibility? Or would that be a politically correct miracle?