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All aboard Ireland's first boat for people with disabilities launched with three daily trips

New boat is first in Ireland to provide a roll-on roll-off facility for wheelchair users

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A thrilled Samantha Thomsen enjoys her trip.

A thrilled Samantha Thomsen enjoys her trip.

A thrilled Samantha Thomsen enjoys her trip.

Ireland's first custom built boat catering for disabled people is now up and running - and its first users are thrilled.

"It's my first time out on a boat as up until now I was a bit nervous because I've a fear of deep water," explains spina bifida sufferer Samantha Thomsen. "But it was great and I really enjoyed it, I thought 'I'd love to do this again'."

The specialised boat was made in Tallinn in Estonia, and is the first licensed passenger boat of its kind in Britain and Ireland. It can carry up to eight wheelchair users plus crew per sailing, which travels along the Shannon and its nearby lakes for two hours and 20 minutes.

The boat is designed to allow easy access for wheelchair users and people with disabilities and special needs to access the waterways of Ireland, but the service is open to all visitors to the area. There will be three boat trips daily, adding a welcome boost to local tourism.

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Samantha Thomsen on the Access For All boat.

Samantha Thomsen on the Access For All boat.

Samantha Thomsen on the Access For All boat.

The project was the brainchild of long term volunteer Alan Broderick, who witnessed the continuous struggle that wheelchair users encountered.

"This was born out of wanting people with disabilities to feel included, equal and independent and to focus on their abilities and not their disabilities," says Alan. "There are 31,000 wheelchair users in Ireland and we hope that each person will visit and experience what we have to offer over the coming years."

The accessible vessel operates in a similar way to a small car ferry. The bow lowers to facilitate wheelchair users to independently roll on and off the vessel, eliminating the need to lift or hoist wheelchair users. While it is primarily for those with disabilities, the boat is accessible to all.

The project received significant backing in January with financial and business advisory support from DPD (Dynamic Parcel Distribution) Ireland.

"I was asked to try it out by the manager of the Irish Wheelchair Association, who was absolutely fantastic. They have been fantastic throughout this pandemic and I just couldn't let him down," explains Samantha, who also suffers from brain condition hydrocephalus.

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Easy access for Samantha Thomsen on the Access For All boat.

Easy access for Samantha Thomsen on the Access For All boat.

Easy access for Samantha Thomsen on the Access For All boat.

"I just also thought 'maybe I will conquer my fear', so that's why I did it. I'm one of the first people who've been on it, some have been on a trial but it hasn't been used yet for day trips or fishing trips."

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Samantha was out on the boat for about 20 minutes.

"I was never on a boat, it was my first time," she reveals. "It was great and I really enjoyed it."

Samantha, who is originally from England, has been living in Ireland for 19 years with her husband David.

"David is not physically or mentally disabled, he is classed as having a disability as he had a brain tumour," she says. "It has left him with long term complications.

"I alternate between using crutches and the wheelchair, but for this I used the wheelchair."

Samantha adds: "The pandemic is a nightmare, to be honest. We are very grateful for the Irish Wheelchair Association.

"They have been there every week, they bring us stuff, things to do, even little parcels of food, we'd be lost."

She's now looking forward to her next trip on the boat.

"A full day out on the boat would be fantastic," she beams. "The weather could have been better. It wasn't raining though. I got to see some wildlife, loads of swans."

Wheelchair user James Cawley (27) of Independent Living Movement Ireland has also been on a trip on the boat. He is thrilled with the project.

"I have been out on boats before, but I probably would need a PA or somebody to help lift me into a boat, whereas this is me going off with my powered wheelchair - I could go on my own, so it's very liberating for me," he says.

The project design, which took six years to complete, involved consultation with wheelchair users and the disabled community, including the Irish Wheelchair Association and Independent Living Movement, which advised on key aspects such as design features and boat journey times.

Among those involved in the project is RTE Midlands correspondent Ciaran Mullooly.

Ciaran has been part of the small team in Ballyleague Co Roscommon and Lanesborough Co Longford which put together the access for all boat projects over the last five years and will now start daily sailings.

"This is a game changer for people with disability," Ciaran says.

"From the first moment I saw the crucial designs of the boat and the day I witnessed a wheelchair user roll-on and roll-off the vessel with such ease, I knew this was such an important piece of work.

"It's going to change life for so many people and give them equality in an area they have been excluded from for so long."

  • Enquiries can be made to 043 3321734 and loughreeaccessforall2020@gmail.com.
  • Bookings can be made through the website loughreeboattrips.com

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