When Leona Tuck walked in to Quinn’s pub in Drumcondra on the day of the 2011 Leinster final, she had no idea that she was going to bump into her future husband, tillage farmer Michael Hennessy – almost literally.
“You were wheeling towards me,” she smiles at Michael.
“I went one way to give him space and you went the same way, so we kind of invertedly played chicken.
“It was kind of that awkward situation where you had to say to the person: ‘OK, you go left and I’ll go right’. And I remember I just looked back and thought: ‘Oh he’s cute.’”
Later on that evening, however, Michael’s Wexford jersey would prove to be a perfect conversation starter between the pair, as Leona had spent childhood holidays in the Model County.
“Next thing you know, I was sitting on your lap,” laughs Leona.
“And the rest is history,” agrees Michael.
Indeed, because not only did the couple recently celebrate four years of marriage, but together they have become a force to be reckoned with as advocates for equal accessibility for wheelchair users. They highlight their adventures on their Instagram page, The Struggle Is Wheel.
Spinal cord injury
Michael and Leona live near Tintern Abbey on the Hook Peninsula, but Michael actually farms in Glenmore, Co Kilkenny, where he concentrates on spring barley and oats.
In 2005, the then 19-year-old was playing GAA and preparing for his second year of engineering in college when he was involved in a single-vehicle crash with three friends.
“Thankfully they were OK, but I fractured a bone in my back, so the damage was done,” he says simply of the T9 spinal cord injury that changed life as he had known it.
“Look, no point in saying I just took it in my stride or anything. It was probably a couple of years before I accepted that I wouldn’t play sport again or things were different,” he elaborates.
“So, it wasn’t easy at the start, but then it’s a simple thing: you either stay in the corner and close yourself off or you get on with it. And I suppose I have a mindset that you just have to get on with it.”
As well as rehab, a key to Michael regaining his independence was the support of his local GAA and soccer clubs, who supported him to get back on the road driving. He remained involved in the administration end of the sports he loved, and today is county secretary with Wexford GAA.
He also returned to college, but due to ongoing back issues he went to work in transport management, and in 2011, took over the mixed family farm after the death of his father, James.
“That [mixed farming] wasn’t too accessible for me being with animals, so we did all tillage then,” says Michael, who has been able to farm full-time since with minimal adaptations.
“I got a tractor that had an electric clutch and gearbox, so it was easy enough then just to put a bar on the brake and I could manage the gears, and I just hoisted myself into the chair,” he explains; though he credits his brother Brian for help with jobs such as ploughing and sowing.
While Leona was born in Dublin, she spent her childhood in Clare, so found the transition to country life “very easy” after meeting Michael. Previously a veterinary nurse, she discovered her true passion while studying geography and works as a tour guide at the John F Kennedy Arboretum in New Ross.
Given their jobs, both Michael and Leona have always loved spending time outdoors, and with a detachable motor that clips on to Michael’s manual wheelchair, the couple can hike and bike long distances together.
All too frequently, however, they have encountered obstacles that were frustrating at best and dangerous at worst. They cite one example where they came across a fallen tree at the end of a 4km trail in Sligo.
With darkness falling and not enough time to retrace their journey, Leona had to lift the tree to allow Michael to pass. “We kind of panicked and felt we had no choice at that time,” she recalls.
On their honeymoon in California in 2019, however, they realised it didn’t have to be this way after discovering everything from accessible trails through the redwood forests to embarking on a wheelchair accessible boat to visit Alcatraz.
“Even where you board to get the boat, there’s a wheelchair accessible picnic table,” explains Leona. “California was really the ‘ah ha’ moment where we said: ‘Have we been taking the mick of over in Ireland? Because what I’m seeing over in California are just little tweaks that just completely understand inclusive tourism.’”
Deciding to share their good – and not so good – experiences when it came to accessibility, Leona and Michael set up The Struggle Is Wheel Instagram page but never expected to become advocates.
“It was like, ‘People won’t believe the incidents that we get involved in by accident, so why don’t we just take photographs and explain to people?’ We never expected it to snowball,” says Leona.
Many of their posts chart their experiences on tracks and trails. While they are keen to profile positive experiences – such as the Anne Valley Walk in Co Waterford or the Fethard Castle trail in Co Wexford – they encounter the same obstacles frequently; such as disabled parking not being on a level surface, deep gravel that causes the wheelchair wheels to sink, and barriers and stiles that are either too narrow to negotiate in a chair, or are inconsistent.
“We’ve been on many trails where we actually get into it at the start, and you go further into the trail and there’s another stile, and it’s narrow and you can’t get in or it’s not as deep,” explains Michael. “So, you have actually no set dimensions.”
They also share their experiences in Irish hotels. Like many young couples, they enjoy a weekend away, but a frequent issue is the lack of a hydraulic pool chair that would allow Michael to access the swimming pool and spa facilities with his wife.
“It’s not like we’re asking for a massive water slide to go into a pool,” says Leona. “It’s purely a hydraulic pool chair that just elevates, and I don’t understand how Fáilte Ireland can accredit these hotels with four and five stars when their paying guests are still segregated.”
Poor design also frustrates, such as having the wardrobe rail or shampoo dispenser at the wrong height, even in what are supposed to be accessible rooms. “I often laugh,” says Michael. “At the door they have the little spyhole down low so I can look out to see if there is anyone out in the hallway, but I can’t go into the shower. It’s just so inconsistent.”
Of course, access isn’t just an issue on holidays, but in daily life.
Michael cites the example of a local bank that has a button to open the door to his wheelchair, but the fact that there are two steps to negotiate beforehand means he can’t get that far in the first place.
A lack of respect for disabled parking – including people parking in the “door access” zones either side of the spots – is another issue, as are paths and dropped kerbs being blocked with everything from bins to abandoned or idling cars.
“That mentality of, ‘I’ll only be a minute, I’m only going into the shops,’” Leona expands.
Furthermore, they are worried about the threat to what decent, safe and accessible parking is available for wheelchair users with increased pedestrianisation of areas like market squares in towns or the re-aligning of road design to facilitate cycle lanes.
While environmentally conscious themselves, they class some recent developments (eg moving disability bays to less optimal locations) as “eco-ableism” and feel that the push towards a car-free future has not factored in the needs of wheelchair users.
For instance, to date, wheelchair accessibility at electric vehicle charging points has been a big issue (see panel for ESB ecars’ response regarding developments in this regard), while they feel that they can’t rely on public transport either, eg in the case of taking a bus in Dublin city if they are visiting Leona’s family. “[There is] only one space for one wheelchair user, so it’s a lottery whether you will get a space,” says Michael.
“Every time you get on a bus, you’re just hoping it’s not going to be a confrontation with the disability space on the bus being used for luggage, buggies, shopping,” adds Leona. “It’s awful anxiety to have hanging over you.”
“You can rely on your car,” continues Michael, who drives a hatchback automatic with adaptive hand controls and a steering ball.
“It’s out there, you can put your chair in beside you, there’s no one going to tell you you can’t get on to it or you’re waiting around, so that’s big … especially when you live in rural Ireland.”
Equal, not special
Michael and Leona luckily share a sense of humour about many of the challenges they encounter. “We have a saying: ‘Leona is the legs of the relationship,’” jokes Michael; but on a more serious note, they acknowledge that unequal access can change family dynamics.
Through their advocacy work, they have engaged with community groups to advise on accessibility for walking trails, highlighted poor design issues with local councils and had questions raised in the Dáil. This year, they hope to examine the bigger issue of why such issues persist in 2023.
“It almost feels systematic,” says Leona. “But that is something that we really need to get to the root cause of, because there’s only so many pictures you can take before you start to say: ‘Let’s just deconstruct this and work out where is it going wrong?’”
Because at the end of the day, Michael and Leona don’t want any special treatment. “It’s just equal treatment,” stresses Leona. “The point is to show people we have lives, we’re just a regular couple; a boring, regular couple!”
“We just want to be a part of society,” concludes Michael. “The same as everybody else.”
Follow @TheStruggleIsWheel on Instagram