Featured in Spokeout Winter 2011
Written by Sarah Fitzgerald
Thu, 23 Aug 2012
Recent Changes to Trinity College

Recent Changes to Trinity College

Trinity graduate SARAH FITZGERALD recalls many a student day spent nursing her damaged wheelchair as a result of damage inflicted by the historic cobblestones, so she was delighted to try out the new accessible pathway through the Front Square when she revisited her alma mater in October.

Recently, on a visit to Dublin, my husband John Paul and I decided to take a stroll through Trinity College Dublin (TCD), where I had studied English for four years. I graduated from TCD in 2007. A lot has changed in four years, but I couldn’t believe the extent of these changes. As we walked into the Front Square, I was delighted to discover that a new pathway had been laid. Actually, ‘delighted’ cannot describe how I felt.The pathway in Front Square for me represented a very positive step forward towards making the college more accessible for students with a physical disability. As a parttime wheelchair user myself, this is an issue that is close to my heart.

Seeing the pathway brought back a particular memory of being a wheelchair user in Trinity prior to the pathway. I remember sitting in the offices of TCD’s Student Disability Services (SDS) one rainy January day. As usual, I had a problem with my wheelchair, and I needed the help of one of the Disability Officers. I was feeling a bit nervous as I waited to be seen, unsure what reaction I would get. Finally, both Amy O’Shea and Declan Treanor, who were both working as Disability Officers at the time, came out. ‘Ah, hello, Sarah, how’s the wheelchair holding up these days?’ asked Amy, with a huge smile. The smile quickly faded as she saw what the problem was. I had lost a whole armrest and side belonging to my electric wheelchair. Where, exactly, I wasn’t sure, as I hadn’t noticed it was missing until after my lecture.

How, you might ask, did I manage to lose a whole side of my wheelchair? I mean, electric wheelchairs are not small and if I didn’t see the armrest falling off, surely I would’ve heard something? Well, this was not the case. I had travelled across the Front Square in my electric wheelchair from my accommodation in Botany Bay (which is on the main Campus) to the Arts Block, mere yards away. This meant taking the wheelchair across the legendary Front Square and the beautiful cobblestones. Aesthetically, the cobblestones are absolutely beautiful. It’s a pity that the same could not be said for my battered and sorry-looking wheelchair after a few journeys across them.

It was only after my lecture, which I had rushed across the cobbles to make on time, that I noticed that the arm of the wheelchair was missing. My first thought was: ‘Why would somebody steal the side of my wheelchair?’ However, once it had dawned on me what had really happened, my second thought was, ‘Oh God, I’m going to have to tell Declan about this, and he’s going to know that I was on those cobblestones again!’

I had been in and out of the SDS office over the previous month with wheelchair related problems, all caused by bringing it across the cobbles in Front Square. At one stage, Declan might as well have booked my wheelchair in for a weekly service! In an attempt to alleviate the abuse to my wheelchair, Declan had mapped out a cobble-free route which involved entering the Arts Block via the Berkeley Library. However, this added ten minutes to my journey and sometimes, I simply forgot to allow myself the time.

You may be glad to learn that the side of my wheelchair was handed in to Lost and Found a few hours later. I doubt that the security guard knew what it was at first, but when I asked whether he had found it, he had a massive grin on his face! We found somebody from the Buildings Office to weld the arm back onto the wheelchair and that was the end of that particular fiasco. Yet, I knew that it wouldn’t be long until I was back in the office again, with my tail between my legs.

On leaving the SDS office with my newly repaired wheelchair, I was reminded to avoid going across the cobblestones as much as possible. I couldn’t help feeling as if I was being punished like a naughty child because I was in a wheelchair. It wasn’t Declan’s fault - he just wanted to save me more hassle - but in my eyes, I had succeeded in gaining entry to Trinity College and thus I had a right to enjoy all aspects of college life, especially something as simple as walking through the Front Square. It occurred to me as I left the office that day that the cobblestones didn’t only cause problems for wheelchair users, but for people with mobility impairments, parents with strollers, and so on.

Every time the wheelchair broke down, I would avoid Front Square for a day or two, then gradually I would begin to bring the wheelchair across the cobbles again. A cycle developed thus: Wheelchair broke down; wheelchair was repaired; Sarah vowed to avoid the cobbles from then on; Sarah avoided the cobblestones for about a week; one day, Sarah woke up late and didn’t have time to avoid the cobbles by entering the Arts Block via the library; Sarah flew across the cobblestones hoping not to get caught by Declan; wheelchair broke down again, and so on.

I’ve always been headstrong. If somebody tells me that I can’t do something, I make it my mission to do it. I didn’t want to go around the college, using the library entrance at the back of the college as if I was different from everyone else. I wanted freedom to do as I pleased, to walk around the Front Square like everybody else. And the more I was asked not to use my wheelchair in the Front Square, the more I wanted to, and the more I did!

The cobblestones are very pretty but they are not practical. I have seen parents struggling to push prams across the cobbles. I have witnessed people using mobility aids tentatively negotiating the Square. My mind boggles when I see ladies walking in their high heels, albeit cautiously, across the Front Square. I’ve been to two Trinity balls and I have seen people falling over the cobbles in both high and flat shoes. Some of these people were quite drunk but a few were sober, too.

Yet, it would have been a pity to pave over the Front Square completely, so a suitable compromise had to be reached. The Buildings Office drew up some plans to pave a path through the Square. I remember being shown these plans and thinking: Why did nobody think of this before?

When I left college, I still spoke to Declan occasionally. As I settled into life in the Midlands, I thought of my days at Trinity College often. Now and then, I would feel a nostalgic twinge as I thought of my old life and the many casualties suffered by my two electric wheelchairs (yes, I’m ashamed to say that I ploughed my way through two electric wheelchairs in four years). So, when I heard the new pathway had finally been completed, I simply had to call into Trinity one October afternoon while my husband and I were up in Dublin shopping.

Nothing could have prepared me for the elation I felt as my husband and I wandered through the Front Square that day. I couldn’t help but feel a little proud of the progress that has been made. Passers-by were looking at me a little strangely as I squealed in delight and posed for a photo. For years I had wondered whether placing a path through the Front Square would detract from the beauty of the remaining cobblestones, but this is certainly not the case, because now they can be appreciated without having to be walked on. For me, the path through Front Square is a metaphor of how Trinity College is slowly adapting its physical landscape to accommodate the needs of as many people as possible.

I am so glad that Trinity College has taken such a positive step in making its environs more accessible for everybody. Now, when I visit Trinity College, I can take my wheelchair through the Front Square without worrying whether random parts are going to fall off it! And if they do, perhaps that’s a reflection of my poor driving skills rather than the cobblestones!