The Opportunity of Obstacles

“I would have had no interest or knowledge of anything associated with disability up until then,” I’m told matter-of-factly over the phone. If Dubliner Stephen Cluskey hadn’t gone to work on that fateful day 10 years ago, he probably still wouldn’t. But he did.

At 18, Stephen had just entered his Leaving Cert year. The set of exams undertaken by those on the cusp of adulthood and independence are often looked back on with overwhelming relief by all who have sat them. While Stephen’s Leaving Cert also signified his transition into adulthood, independence was not to accompany it.

By the time June of 2002 had arrived, he was part-way into a 16-month stay at Dun Laoghaire Rehabilitation Clinic, the result of a farming accident which had left him with a broken neck and a forever altered future. In the decade that has followed, not a lot has changed for him medically. But that’s only half the story.

The hourly, never mind daily obstacles he has faced have made the easy, pre-2002 tasks immeasurably harder. His business mind, sharpened by the distance-learning business degree that he has been taking for the last 3 years, is helping him to view these obstacles as something completely different – business opportunities.

Having travelled to America and Portugal over the years for treatment, what should have been a non-issue soon became an unwelcome distraction. “I really struggled with public transport over there,” he says. Things were very different when Stephen had travelled to London for similar treatment. “In London, every taxi is wheelchair accessible, which I think is something we should be working towards,” he says.

While the latest grant scheme for wheelchair accessible taxis by the National Transport Authority (NTA) may increase the numbers somewhat (see below for more), the numbers are still far too low in Stephen’s eyes. “It’s not going to make a huge impact by any stretch of the imagination,” he says. Far bigger a problem, however, is finding one of these taxis when you need it.

Take Co. Tipperary, for example. As of the 31st of January 2012, figures from the NTA show that only 4 out of 267 taxis and hackneys were wheelchair accessible – less than 2%. To put in another way, someone who is wheelchair-bound and who finds themselves in Tipperary has a less than 1 in 50 chance of getting a public service vehicle that can actually take them where they want to do.

Something needs to be done, and Stephen is managing to do it. “After a lot of research, I realised I wasn’t the only one suffering from this problem,” he says, when recalling the logistical nightmares which have too often taken the fun out of trips or, worse again, prevented them from happening in the first place.

Launched at the beginning of February, www.wheelchairtaxi.ie is his brainchild. The best ideas are often the simplest ones, with Stephen’s definitely falling into the why didn’t I think of this before category. Offering a way for drivers of wheelchair accessible taxis to register their services through the website has so far led to nearly 70 to date.

Users can then find wheelchair accessible taxis in their locality. Realising that the site is unworkable without suitable taxis, taxi drivers or those looking to use them are not required to pay any fees. Helping to solve a major problem which in turn makes your own life easier in the process doesn’t mean that you can’t turn a profit, however.

Having already spent approximately €1000 on getting the site to where it is today Stephen neither expects charity nor seeks to run one. With a business model in place which he believes will turn a profit, from next month the site will list more types of accessible transport.

Advertisements for wheelchair accessible minibuses, coaches, vans and even boats are planned, with the advertiser paying a fee for access to a niche market. “I plan to make it as much of a one stop shop as possible,” he says. “With the internet nowadays you can search sites for everything, from comparing your insurance to checking out the property market. I suppose it’s just an extension of that for the disabled community.”

Having gotten details from the Taxi Regulator, Stephen has personally sent out text messages via the internet to every taxi driver in the country to alert them of the website. Circumstances may have changed how he interacts with technology, but it has also proved to be the great equaliser for him over the last decade.

Describing our initial contact via email, he tells me how software transformed his words into text, ready to be sent. “A head mouse, which is like a sensor which sits on top of a computer allows me to move my head and the mouse moves with me. To click I hold it in the same position for a second or two,” he tells me, describing the process which has now become second nature to him.

Whether ultimately profitable or not, everything Stephen has done to date has been driven by a very simple premise, which the younger version of himself would never have given a second thought to. “I want to restore that spontaneity back into the lives of people with disabilities so that they don’t have to plan everything.”

They say the best ideas are often the simplest ones. So why didn’t we think of that?

Small Public Service Vehicle (SPSV) licenses as at 31/01/12

Vehicle Category Pie-chart

On the 1st of February 2012, the National Transport Authority (NTA) launched the second Wheelchair accessible Grant Scheme, which made €165,000 available for the upgrading of licensed vehicles to be wheelchair accessible, along with an additional €85,000 for those wishing to enter the profession. For those looking to upgrade, the payout per recipient is capped at €15,000.

If each recipient were to receive the max payout, this would result in the conversion of only 11 taxis nationally, with funds being split 50:50 between Dublin and the rest of the country.

Speaking to Joanne Coffey, whose PR firm represents the Commission for Taxi Regulation, the first Wheelchair accessible Grant Scheme resulted in 16 new vehicles and 5 conversions. Using the earlier example of Tipperary, however, it only increased its number by 1, from 3 to 4.

How the web could save your life

While ideas such as www.wheelchairtaxi.ie have the ability to improve lives, another initiative is hoping to use technology to potentially save them. Currently being trialled until the end of June, those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech-impaired can register their mobile phone number along with other personal information, including any medical conditions, using the website www.112.ie.

In the event of an emergency, a simple text from the registered mobile phone to 112 (the Europe-wide emergency number) will automatically be passed on to An Garda Síochána, the Ambulance service, the Fire service, or the Irish Coastguard. For more information, check out www.112.ie.

Advertisements