A FORMER international wheelchair basketball player is mounting a campaign for a useable court in Verwood after being “extremely upset” by a new sports hall’s lack of facilities.
Joanna Birley, 52, says the new hall at Emmanuel School has turned out to be not only useless to wheelchair users, but the toilets are designed in such a way as to embarrass disabled people who try to use them.
Mother-of-two Mrs Birley advised the architect, the school and VALA on the type of floor needed for her team, which currently practises at Ferndown Leisure Centre.
She says she was “really excited” by plans to renew the facilities in Verwood when the old leisure centre was closed to make way for an extension to Morrison’s, and managed to negotiate a discount on the same type of sprung wooden floor used in the Paralympics, making it cheaper than the modern rubber floors.
A wooden floor would have enabled her to run all types of wheelchair sports, including tennis, table tennis and more.
But when she saw the new hall at Emmanuel she was horrified to find her advice had been ignored and it had a £35,000 rubber floor which would make it tough for wheelchair users to pick up the type of speed needed to play the sport competitively.
She was also “gutted” to see that the disabled toilet did not open into the changing rooms, but opened straight onto the large foyer instead, which would embarrass wheelchair users and make it hard for them to use the loo while playing sports, even if they could use the hall.
She also says the changing room doors were too narrow for wheelchairs.
Mrs Birley helps train eight wheelchair users and another 16 able-bodied sports people who join them in special sports chairs to play every Friday night. Players come from far and wide, and the team is set to apply for the Southern League Division in April.
But now their hopes could be dashed, and Mrs Birley fears the hall in Ferndown, where the disabled toilet is through several doors and up a creaking platform lift, could be refurbished with the same rubber material due to its age.
She said: “What they’ve provided is so squishy it’s like cycling in wet sand.
I can honestly say that it's the squishiest floor I've encountered in the 26 years I've been in a chair.”
Mrs Birley broke her back when her horse reared up in 1986, and fell backwards on her. She spent ten months in hospital, where she got into basketball, playing in the Stoke Mandeville Games where she was spotted by a Team GB coach.
She added: “I did all the research and got them a cheaper quote than a cushioned floor, and the school seemed really enthusiastic about the prospect of having a wheelchair team playing there.
“It would have been a far superior floor – it just doesn’t make sense.
“We have half a mind to make a case under the Disability Discrimination Act. Why should disabled people have to come out into a public thoroughfare to access a toilet? You’d never be able to open one door and stare straight in to able-bodied ladies’ and gents’ toilets.
“But they say that because we can access the toilet and the hall there’s no discrimination - what, even if we can’t use it?
“That aside, we need somewhere, so we’re asking for people to help us make a rolling sports hall that could be used as a blueprint for new sports halls - a centre of excellence’ for disability sport.”
Neil Farmer, strategic director at East Dorset District Council, said: “When the sports hall was designed we ensured that everything in it was compliant for disabled people.
“The floor used in the sports hall is suitable for wheelchairs, although it may not be as fast as a wooden floor. We have not been contacted with regard to any problems with the disabled toilet/changing room.
“The original design for the sports hall had two disabled toilets within the changing rooms but they were small and only had space on one side of the toilet. The design was changed to this larger room in order to give more space on either side of the toilet, which we understand is more suitable for different types of disability.”
Emmanuel School headteacher Jill Watson said: “The aim of the new sports hall was to provide a multi-purpose centre catering for the needs of our school, as well as providing an excellent facility for local people.
“We always consider the needs of all our pupils and any disabilities they may have so it goes without saying that, when designing the hall, we considered the whole community.
“We wanted as many different groups as possible to use the hall and made sure that the floor was suitable for wheelchair use.
"Our hall is used for a wide variety of sports and activities on a daily basis. While we recognise that it is not possible to gain 100 per cent satisfaction from all potential users, we are delighted with the outcome and have had a lot of positive feedback.”
Anyone who can help Mrs Birley achieve a wheelchair-friendly practice court can email her at email@example.com .