Video: Council to improve Larne town centre access after guide dog left ‘nervous’ by public realm work

The council is working to improve town centre access during public realm work after a blind woman was forced to avoid the area.

Bay Road resident Vicky Kyle, who is registered blind, relies on her guide dog Ivy to be her eyes and to preserve her independence.

Vicky Kyle with her guide dog Ivy beside public realm works in Larne town centre. INLT-08-707-con

Vicky Kyle with her guide dog Ivy beside public realm works in Larne town centre. INLT-08-707-con

However, retired nurse Vicky told the Times that Ivy had been left “nervous” during public realm work in the town, which forced her to take her owner onto the road in traffic.

“I have had Ivy for five years and she keeps me safe,” Vicky told the Times.

“Guide dogs work from kerb to kerb in a straight line, I give her directions but she keeps me safe and helps me avoid obstacles.

“However, it was difficult with the roadworks as most of the pavements had been blocked off so it is difficult to negotiate to them, and Ivy got a bit nervous as we had to go onto the road.

“There were a couple of traffic cones to direct pedestrians but no clear barriers and nothing to protect pedestrians.

“Ivy is trained that she can come off the kerb and go around obstacles but there is traffic and noisy machinery going by at the same time which makes it more scary, and she will only go if she feels it’s safe.

“We would use the controlled crossings at traffic lights but at times they were blocked off by work vehicles and have been difficult to use.

“I’m not the only guide dog owner in Larne, and it wasn’t just difficult for me, it also affected elderly people and people in mobility scooters and wheelchairs.”

Vicky says that when she could not access the traffic lights, only the kindness of the public enabled her and Ivy to continue their journey.

“Thankfully people helped us cross the road or we would have had to take another route to keep safe,” she continued.

“But it stopped me coming into the town on certain days.

“It was sporadic; some days it was fine to navigate around town but on others it was more difficult.

“I live with my mum and sister so I could rely on them for shopping, but it was bad for my morale and sense of independence when I couldn’t get in myself.

“I would rather not have went into town than compromise my safety.

“I kept trying to get in but on days when it was more difficult I avoided it unless it was an absolute necessity.”

Vicky says that she also feared for the safety of those with young children during the public realm work.

“I would collect my eight-year-old niece from school at St Macnissi’s so I had no choice but to go through Lower Main Street, which was doubly frightening as I wasn’t just concerned for my own safety but also the wee girl’s,” she explained.

“My niece is quite independent and very mature and she has always known me as visually impaired, so she knows about my needs and I have a lot of confidence that she will try and keep herself safe.

“But ultimately I’m the adult and I’m responsible for her.”

On Friday February 20, Vicky and two representatives from Guide Dogs for the Blind met with a representative from Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and a representative of the council’s contractor Earney Contracts to discuss the issue.

“I took them out onto the street so they could see first-hand the difficulties I was having and we gave them suggestions, such as having clear pedestrian walkways, which they said they would take on board,” said Vicky.

“They have acted on our suggestion about clearing the pathway, and they have also put up new clear barriers which are waist-height and don’t have any gaps so pedestrians know where they should walk and are protected from traffic.

“These barriers are filled with water so they can’t be moved, whereas the traffic cones that were there previously could have been moved and didn’t give any protection.

“They will help to protect Ivy from some of the noise and dust so she will be more confident, which in turn will make me more confident.

“The council have suggested that Guide Dogs talk to contractors on issues like this through ‘tool box talks’ to raise awareness, not just in the Larne area but everywhere.”

Since the meeting, Vicky says she feels “a lot more confident” about her safety when accessing Larne town centre.

However, as a member of the Guide Dogs for the Blind campaign group, she believes a plan should have been in place to preserve disabled access in advance of public realm work starting.

“These measures are reactive rather than proactive, but they will make me feel a lot safer for the remainder of the work,” she concluded.

A council spokesperson said that contractors working in public areas “must ensure that the needs of all pedestrians are met” and that the council’s contractor, Earney Contracts, is required to “provide protected walkways and ramps to enable continuous access into shops and business premises.”

“The safety of all pedestrians and contractors is of prime importance,” he stated.

“Council has liaised with a range of disabled individuals and groups while the works are taking place to ensure that there is safe access around the town centre and if possible, to seek to improve working practices.”

A spokesperson for Northern Ireland Electricity, which is one of the public realm scheme contractors, told the Times that the company is prepared to meet with Vicky Kyle to discuss her concerns over access during public realm work.

The spokesperson said: “We’ve previously discussed our public realms work with Vicky Kyle on a number of occasions and we are happy to talk to her again.

“Once we have completed our work the council’s contractor will reinstate the pavement and flagstones, including the tactile paving for those with visual impairment.”