I’m disabled, not by my wheelchair, but by society

Forced to separate from family and friends at matches and concerts, along with my ‘carer’, it’s clear society only sees my impairment

Disabled or differently abled? The first is generally viewed as a negative – preference is to focus on ability. However, I will continue to use the term disabled because it recognises that I and others are disabled by society’s response to disability.

I'm just home from Semple Stadium, Thurles. Galway have beaten Clare in the All Ireland semi-final replay. That's it for this summer, but what a summer we've had. Sun. Sandwiches. Extra-time. Sitting in crawling traffic on the way home from Thurles. The banner roar.

I was nine when Clare won the All-Ireland in 1995. I didn’t know much about GAA, but I’ll never forget those celebrations. That summer, we all bought Clare jerseys, hurleys and footballs. When Clare won again in 1997, I was in fifth class. My friends and I did a GAA camp that summer. I remember wondering why I was a bit slower than everyone else and why I couldn’t kick the ball as far. I knew I’d never be a sports star, but at that stage I didn’t really know why.

It was 16 years before Clare made it to Croke Park for another All Ireland. A lot changed for me in that 16 years.


As a child, we all piled into the car and stood and cheered in the packed terraces. I remember running onto the pitch in Cusack Park for autographs after the final whistle blew. I remember the anticipation and excitement. I felt that excitement again in 2013 from the wheelchair area of Croke Park’s Hogan Stand. There are moments in life when you completely forget about your disability. Moments like when Domhnall O’Donovan scored that point in extra time to level the game for a replay, or when Shane O’Donnell scored that famous hat trick.

There’s nothing like being in a packed stadium. Watching and cheering among 80,000 people. All equally excited. All equal.

Wheelchair tickets are limited

It can be difficult for everyone to get tickets, especially for the bigger games. Tickets for last Sunday’s replay were scarce. My friends queued in shops and online. One of my friends got five tickets. There were five of us. But wheelchair tickets are limited and have to be applied for separately. Even though I’m used to this, every now and again it’s important to think about these everyday accessibility challenges and to think about how we as a society provide disabled people with equal access. Not just access to hurling matches.

Access to transport and to accommodation. Access to personal assistance hours to enable disabled people to participate meaningfully in society. My friends and family always keep a space in the car for me while we wait to hear about my ticket. The rule of thumb is one attendant per wheelchair user.

Last week, Cork’s 96FM took a call from James ahead of a trip to Croke Park with his brother-in-law and two children. James had a dilemma. One wheelchair user. One attendant. Should James let the nine- and 11-year-old off on their own, or let one of them accompany him, and provide any assistance he might need?

These are the little known dilemmas. Disabling.

Awkward moment

I think about the term ‘disabled’ when I’m sitting in the allocated wheelchair seating in the front row of the cinema, trying to adjust my position to watch comfortably, or when I have to park my wheelchair a row behind my friends. That awkward moment. Being separated from friends or family diminishes the experience.

I went to a concert in Dublin recently with two of my sisters, one had flown in from London. Back to dilemmas, which sister would sit with me in the wheelchair area and which one would stay downstairs with our friends. As it turned out, there was lots of space downstairs so we all stayed together. Relief. The concert played in the background.

After an hour or so, one of the officials approached and told me that the wheelchair area was upstairs. I thanked her for letting me know. She came back a few minutes later and said her boss was insisting I go upstairs to take my seat in the wheelchair area. I explained that we were happy where we were. One of my sisters asked why, and she said it was for “health and safety reasons”. The concert was nowhere near full, there was ample space around us. I couldn’t see any health and safety concern. I couldn’t see risk. I could only see my sisters and friends. The official could only see the wheelchair. The the last thing you want to do in a situation like that is to make a fuss. So my sister and I followed the official into the lift and to our allocated seats, while the others stayed downstairs.

We felt confined. Separate. This may be accessibility, but it’s not inclusion or equality.

How has society responded to segregated seating in the past? In relation to gender, race, sexuality? We are all equal.

Many sports and entertainment venues continue to offer tickets for wheelchair users and their “carer” or “assistant”. Going to matches and concerts is about spending time with friends and family. Having a good time. Forgetting about problems and impairments. It’s about being a spectator among the spectators. I see myself as one of my five friends, one of my family. I see 80,000 differently abled people, but equal.

However, as long as my ticket provides for my carer or assistant, it’s clear that society still sees my impairment. My disability.

Platform Series: Aisling Glynn
1) Weren't they good to give you a job
2) 847 in Dublin, zero in west Clare
3) It's impossible to forget
4) I'm disabled . . . by society
5) Wheelchair versus plane
6) The number 42
7) What makes us disabled
8) Life's challenges
9) I don't think I'd get up in the morning