A Northern Ireland council could face legal action over the level of disabled access to a new sports facility.
Newry, Down and Mourne District Council recently opened a new “tennis bubble” on the site of Our Lady’s Grammar School in Newry.
Funding for the bubble, which covers two of four tennis courts owned by the school, was provided as part of the Your School Your Club, established to promote shared public use of school sports facilities. The rest of the costs of the bubble were met by the council.
The new indoor tennis facility in Newry opened recently but the council has been criticised for the lack of consideration given to disabled users.
There are no toilets at the tennis courts. Anyone using the facility who needs the toilet has to use steep steps to get to the main school building or the nearby Newry Leisure Centre. If they need the toilet, disabled users must have access to a vehicle to drive the mile-long journey from the tennis courts to the leisure centre.
Disability Sport NI, which works towards creating better facilities for disabled people, has created a document called “Accessible Sports Facilities Design Guidelines”.
Under the guidelines, entrance doors for indoor tennis facilities should be 1.2m wide to allow access for specialist wheelchairs. However, the entrance to the Newry facility is 1.1m wide.
Kevin O’Neill, chief executive officer of Disability Sport NI, said it appears the new tennis bubble provides “minimal levels of provision” for disabled people.
“It certainly does not meet accepted levels of good practice as outlined in Disability Sport NI’s ‘Accessible Sports Facilities Design Guidelines. I also believe the level of accessibility could potentially be challenged under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) now that the facility has been opened to the public,” said Mr O’Neill.
“As part of our routine work reviewing planning applications, Disability Sport NI wrote to Newry, Mourne, and Down District Council in December 2018 recommending a number of accessibility improvements to the proposed scheme.
“We did not receive a response and the recommended improvements were not implemented. The fact that the issue of improving access for disabled people to the facility was not actively considered or addressed is very disappointing.”
Mr. O’Neill said the council had previously been “very positive and proactive” about ensuring the new Newry Leisure Centre had “excellent levels of inclusion and accessibility”.
“The centre went through our Inclusive Sports Facility Accreditation (ISF) scheme and as a result has been designed and built to an excellent standard of inclusive design. Indeed, as soon as a few outstanding minor issues have been resolved, the centre will be awarded our ‘Excellence’ level of ISF Accreditation.
“It is particularly disappointing then that a similar approach was not adopted in relation to the tennis facility.”
Nuala Toman, Head of Policy at Disability Action NI, another lobby group that supports the needs of disabled people, said they were also disappointed with the facilities at the Newry facility.
“We believe the issues could be addressed with the provision of a modular changing places toilet which is… best practice in outdoor situations.”
It is understood concerns about the Newry tennis courts have also been raised with Sport NI, the public body responsible for the development of sport in Northern Ireland.
The Sunday Independent contacted Newry, Down & Mourne District Council with a series of questions about the tennis bubble. However, a council spokesperson said no one was available until next week to answer the questions.