Disability and life on the Isle of Skye

The water trickles down the mountains, colourful houses welcome sailors into the port, and the sense of community is evident: island life is unlike any other. However, with a disability, living on a remote Scottish island poses some challenges.

“Generally, accessibility is very poor – particularly if you use a wheelchair, have a visual impairment or a hearing impairment,” explains Donald MacLeod of the Skye and Lochalsh Access Panel.

The Isle of Skye is one of Scotland’s most stunning and quaint locations, with winding roads and luscious greenery. It is also a very typical island with narrow roads – one track in areas – and mountainous terrain. 

ACCESS

“Some of us were not always disabled, but since becoming disabled have found that our whole world has shrunk and we can no longer go places or do things which we could before; and which we should be able to do,” continues Donald. 

“This is a huge disappointment given we should be equal members within our community.

“People are very kind and well-meaning but often really don’t understand what needs to be in place for us to be able to live a full and included life.”

Members of the Skye and Lochaish Access Panel have either lived on the island their entirety or for decades.

With a love of the area or returning to Skye after leaving for employment, the group compile different stories and experiences.

One aspect of life they all share is disability. Together the members work to promote understanding of disability on an island.

VISIBLE

Donald continues: “There is very limited access to shops and amenities in the two largest villages of Portree and Broadford.

“Sometimes this may be because buildings are old and don’t have ramped access and pavements, where there are any, they are often narrow and lack dropped kerbs, but sometimes there is no excuse when new buildings are built that are still not independently accessible, because the necessary information on making things accessible was never sought.

“The Access panel work very hard to improve the understanding of disability access issues with Highland Council’s various departments, NHS Highland, service providers and local communities,” explains Donald.

“Co-production really works, but everyone has to be committed.”

Visibility is a prominent issue on Skye, with the Access panel promoting an increased understanding of disability within the community and services.

Donald adds: “There is a lot of ignorance around what makes a service or facility accessible… However, there are some amazingly thoughtful and helpful individuals who don’t treat you as different.”

AWARENESS

One of the selling points of island life is the sense of community. Unlike city life, where everyone can be seen as a stranger, living on an island is extremely close knit.

The true sense of community spirit and caring for your neighbour is prominent within an island.

Despite this, even with such companionship, living in a remote location can contribute to, unfortunately, outdated ideology.

Donald explains: “Individual attitudes towards disability are very much outdated and often based on the medical rather than social model of disability.”

Donald, alongside members of the Access panel, wish there was an increased understanding of disability as a whole on the island.

From awareness that dementia is not just experienced by the older population, a belief that the disabled community is only living on benefits – which is false – to appreciating the hidden disabilities doesn’t mean that disabilities are not real. 

In a bid to promote understanding of life with a disability on a remote Scottish island, members of the Access panel got people to spend a day in their wheelchairs.

IN OUR WHEELS

“Last year in August, the Access panel ran a very successful Wheelchair Awareness Day for our local councillors,” recalls Donald. 

During the awareness day, councillors used four different wheelchairs across the island, including a self-propelling wheelchair and a powerchair, to do two simple tasks in Broadford before travelling with their wheelchair to Portree.

On the surface it seemed like a simple ask, but the day shone a poignant light on accessibility on the island.

Donald continues: “The councillors said it was a real eye opener and they had underestimated the effort and concentration required to get anywhere in a wheelchair.

“Another local councillor said his first instinct when he was using a wheelchair was the different way in which people looked at him; he explained he didn’t mean the looks were in a particularly complimentary way.

“He said he was quite shocked by the way people seem to perceive him as being a different entity entirely.” 

And, on the Isle of Skye, for wheelchair users who don’t drive, the use of public transport can also pose hardship.

“There is a severe lack of accessible public transport. Where such public transport exists, wheelchair space on buses needs to be booked 48 hours in advance, and cannot always be guaranteed for your return journey. 

“Wheelchair space is limited to one or two spaces per bus. Most ‘taxi-like’ transport is private hire and private hire does not have to be accessible (the government obviously didn’t think of remote rural areas),” adds Donald. 

The day was a resounding success and allowed people an insight, even if only for a day, of what accessibility is like on an island.

As the group continues to advocate for improved services, Donald fervently advises: “Get involved. Together we can make a difference.”

Discover more about accessibility on Skye by visiting Skye and Lochalsh Access Paneland Euan’s Guide.