Councillors Ronald MacDonald, John Finlayson and Calum MacLeod were asked to carry out everyday tasks in both Broadford and Portree using different types of wheelchairs across the course of the day on Monday to gain a brief insight into some of the challenges and difficulties faced by wheelchair users and their carers in the area.
After taking part in a briefing in the main car park in Broadford, the councillors began the undertaking of the tasks which were suggested to the panel by wheelchair users in the Skye community. Each councillor was accompanied by a wheelchair supporter who were instructed not to intervene unless it was necessary and velcro straps were also employed to remind the councillors that they could not instinctively put their feet down.
The Free Press observed Councillor MacLeod — who used an attendant-pushed wheelchair for his first two tasks — which involved assessing the accessibility of the Broadford public toilet and visiting the local pharmacy, where he was asked to pick up a leaflet at the counter, look around, and gauge whether he could gain entry to the consultation room.
Speaking after the initial tasks Councillor MacLeod said: “The toilet was a bit low itself, which wasn’t ideal really – I could see there could be issues from that. The room looked fine, it was manoeuvrable for a wheelchair and there were basic things like a shelf for people to put their equipment on, so, on the whole, it was okay.”
When asked by the Free Press whether he had encountered any issues in terms of general access along pavements, paths and when crossing roads, he went on to add: “I think the drop kerbs were in places where car drivers wouldn’t necessarily realise they had to be left clear – there could be more effort to ensure that there is certain signage or paint on the ground to make it more obvious that these places were essential for access.”
In Broadford, the councillors were also required to undertake tasks such as visiting the health centre where they were asked to go to the reception, find space to sit in the waiting room and use the accessible toilet. At the post office, they were tasked with entering, buying a stamp, having a look around, before leaving and posting a letter in the pillar box.
After lunch, the councillors travelled up to Portree where the exercises included visiting the Royal Bank of Scotland branch and ATM machine, a simulated shopping trip to the Co-op store in Bank Street and trips to access shops, the medical centre and the public toilets.
Following the conclusion of the tasks, Councillor John Finlayson told the Free Press the awareness day was both an “interesting and enlightening experience” and it had made him “more aware of the many issues that wheelchair users face on a daily basis, many of which I would not have thought about before taking part in the day.”
He added: “The experience also highlighted to me the need for all members of the public, planners and decision-makers to be acutely aware of the many access issues people face when they plan projects or improve services. I also believe an understanding of disability and access issues should feature as part of the school curriculum and I have promised to contact Education Scotland to discuss this possibility.
“In my role as a councillor, I would also hope to be able to support the local access panel in a more informed way and of course members of the public who have disability and access concerns.”
Councillor MacDonald said the day brought to light “the access issues that many face in our community” and “how much more difficult life is made for people with access issues when appropriate and well-design facilities are not in places.”
He went on to say: “I regard myself as reasonably fit but found it a real challenge operating and propelling a self-driven wheelchair as I’m sure attendants, who are often family members, do too. I think, as a society, we greatly underestimate the determination and resilience of people in this situation just to get by on a daily basis, far less enjoying a fully rounded lifestyle that many of us take for granted, and I hope that the various misperceptions of this in our community can be changed going forward.”
Skye and Lochalsh Access Panel Chair, James Greer told the Free Press: “The access panel was pleased to have the assurance of the councillors that they would not just leave after the event and say that was a nice experience of awareness raising and not do anything.
They would like to help and do more. The access panel believes that the councillors now have a whole new perspective on what it is like to tackle the world from a wheelchair and will do their very best to help improve accessibility in our local area. The councillors confirmed that they were happy to have ongoing engagement with the access panel and would try to attend meetings in the future.
The access panel looks forward to working with the councillors to resolve access issues for all people with disabilities, not just wheelchair users.
The panel also reserved special thanks for Councillor John Gordon, who was not able to take part in the day due to personal circumstances but had encouraged the access panel to organise the day and had been involved in the initial planning.
If you would like to highlight any challenges or issues you or someone you know has experienced due to accessibility issues on Skye, please feel free to provide a comment below the related Facebook post or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Article by Adam Gordon
Photos by Willie Urquhart.