As a child, I was once an unused substitute on our school’s junior Gaelic football team when we played at Croke Park. It was sadly a once-off and the opportunity to play a sport on its hallowed ground never came my way again.
But this week, after waiting a lifetime, I did manage to ‘perform’ at our country’s most famous stadium.
I co-presented, along with the fantastic Deirdre McHugh at the Ahead Conference hosted at Croke Park, a talk on the Crowd4Access footpath mapping initiative run by the Insight Centre and the Access Centre which is about improving the accessibility for all users of the University of Galway campus. The theme of the conference was on ‘How Staff and Learner Communities Drive Inclusion in Tertiary Education', and particularly in supporting equity/inclusion of people with disabilities in further/higher education.
It was so inspiring and I learnt so much about the great work being undertaken by so many people across Ireland’s universities in developing programmes to integrate those with intellectual and physical disabilities into mainstream university education and then how those that participated as a result have contributed greatly to ensuring cultural and systemic change that benefited all.
Amongst these wonderful pioneers of change are the staff of the University of Galway’s Access Centre who attended the Ahead conference, namely its visionary director Imelda Byrne, Campus Accessibility Project Coordinator Deirdre McHugh, and Mature Student Officer Kathleen Hartigan. We were proud to be at Croke Park as a team of four!
Crowd4Access is a partnership between citizens and professional technology researchers to map the accessibility of footpaths of Irish cities initiated by my fellow Insight colleagues Bianca Pereira and Venkatesh Gurram Munirathnam.
Everyone has challenges when navigating the footpaths of a city, or a university campus. The wheelchair user and the parent pushing a buggy may need access ramps, the runner may need an even surface, the user of crutches may need shorter street crossings, the person with low eyesight may need a good contrast between footpath and the street, whereas the blind may need tactile pavement. Led by the Access Centre, University of Galway staff and student volunteers met for a series of online workshops (given by myself) and on-site mapping sessions to learn about how different people use footpaths in different ways and how to capture and share data on footpath accessibility. Our university community is the first to map a campus and one of a number of local communities nationwide that are through collaborative action mapping accessibility in their localities, and in making this information publicly available using free open-sourced software.
Croke Park -once the Preserve of the Young Abled Bodied Male.
Whilst I was attending the conference, I was struck by the fact of how the ethos and culture of the Gaelic Football Association (GAA) and the wider Irish society has over the last few decades dramatically changed for the better.
The GAA has since its inception been a powerful force for good within Ireland and the wider Irish diaspora. It was a key part of the struggle against colonialism, of overcoming a sense of backwardness and inferiority promoted by imperial racist British values, and of helping to imbue the Irish people with a strong sense of pride in their rich heritage of language, mythology, music, poetry, and of course sport.
It also helped foster and nurture in local communities across Ireland devastated by famine, poverty and emigration a strong sense of place, togetherness and purpose.
However the GAA also promoted a conservative patriarchy where leadership was almost exclusively the preserve of men and where sport belonged to young able bodied males. There was no place for those that were physically disabled on the playing field, nor of those that were LGBT nor of the ‘foreigner’, most GAA sports were not open to women, and over time it became strongly associated with the Catholic Church. But that has fundamentally changed over the last few decades and today portraits of female players populate the halls of Croke Park which has become a venue for conferences such as the one I attended this week promoting inclusivity, diversity and equality.
Thank you GAA.