Sight loss charities welcome High Court judgement

Joanna Toner pictured outside the High Court in Belfast. Pic by Michael Cooper

Joanna Toner pictured outside the High Court in Belfast. Pic by Michael Cooper

Local charities RNIB NI and Guide Dogs NI have welcomed the “landmark judgement” delivered at the High Court in Belfast about the height of kerbs in Lisburn city centre’s £5m public realm scheme.

Lisburn woman Joanna Toner, who is blind, successfully argued that Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council failed to consider its Section 75 equality obligations, which required the council to consciously consider the needs of blind and partially sighted people when designing and implementing the public realm scheme.

Around �5m was spent on the public realm scheme in Lisburn city centre. Pic by John Kelly

Around �5m was spent on the public realm scheme in Lisburn city centre. Pic by John Kelly

As a result, the court quashed the council’s decision to allow 30mm high kerbs in the scheme and ordered them to think again in light of the negative impact on blind and partially sighted people.

The court confirmed that public authorities who fail to give consideration to the needs of blind and partially sighted people when carrying out their duties risk being subject to judicial review proceedings.

Guide Dogs NI and RNIB NI, who have been supporting Joanna throughout the Judicial Review, have urged local councils to champion inclusive design, making town and city centres accessible to all.

A joint statement issued by the charities said: “Local councils have to give due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity. This legislation exists so that public authorities play their part in making society fairer and remove barriers that people with sight loss face on a daily basis.

“The accessibility of public realm schemes in Northern Ireland and across the UK is an issue increasingly affecting blind and partially sighted people. Shared surface streets are a significant safety concern for people who are blind and partially sighted, as they rely upon the presence of the kerb to know they are on the pavement and not in the road.

“Guide Dogs commissioned research into the safety of such schemes has shown that a minimum kerb height of 60mm is required to ensure that it is detected (University College London, 2009). This advice has been accepted by the Department for Infrastructure and was issued in May 2015 as guidance for the future planning of public realm schemes. During the hearing the judge referred to the importance of this research and the need for councils to take it into account.”

Both leading sight loss charities have called on local councils across Northern Ireland that are undertaking public realm schemes to comply with government guidance in relation to kerb heights.

Joanna Toner, who campaigned against the lower kerb heights when the council was planning the public realm scheme at Market Square, explained the difficulties she and other blind people have faced since the work was completed in 2015.

“If you have a guide dog or a long cane it is impossible to tell when you are on the footpath or when you are on the road, so you don’t know when you’re safe and when you’re in danger,” she said.

“Many times I have been coming down the stretch past the church and going to cross over towards River Island and I’ve missed the paving and because there is no kerb I’ve just walked out across the road. There’ve been times I’ve got to the other side and just thought ‘oh my goodness, I’ve crossed the road again without even realising’. It’s very disconcerting and very dangerous.”

Welcoming the judgement, Mrs Toner said: “I’m delighted we’ve gotten this decision. The council will now have to start the process again and, this time, take into consideration the needs of all disabled people. This has been a long battle and I’d like to thank the many people and organisations who have supported me including RNIB NI and Guide Dogs NI.”

Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council has said it will now carefully consider the detail of the court’s decision. It declined to make any further comment.

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