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'Social isolation' warning after accessible transport funding cut

Hilary Connolly (82) with bus driver Terry Russell. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA
Michael McHugh, Press Association

SOME of Northern Ireland's disabled and older residents face "social isolation" following a 5 per cent funding cut to accessible transport, a charity warned.

The door-to-door bus is funded by the Department for Infrastructure and helps prevent loneliness among people with mobility problems, learning disabilities, dementia, or serious sight loss.

Charity Disability Action organises the buses and said services had just been reduced due to funding pressure.

It said: "This will effectively mean that disabled people and older people that depend on this service will not be able to get out and about in the evenings or afternoons at the weekends.

"The impact of this will be significant and will increase social isolation and decrease quality of life."

It is the latest in a series of cuts to the Disability Action Transport Scheme (DATS) over the last four years which have already resulted in reduced service and fare increases for passengers.

Recent changes mean buses will stop running at 6pm instead of 8pm during the week and weekends will be limited to a four-hour window based on demand.

Orla McCann, assistant director at Disability Action, added: "We are very aware that this further reduction in the hours of service will prevent people with disabilities from taking part in social, cultural, leisure and other activities and will inevitably impact upon individual's health and well-being leading to social isolation."

A mini-bus service from north Belfast into the city centre for shopping or museum exhibitions has been a lifeline for retired civil servant Hilary Connolly (82) who uses a mobility aid.

He said: "It gives me total access into an outside world - to be truthful."

Mr Connolly has been using the door-to-door service for the last five or six years, up to three times a week.

The basic charge for the buses adapted to carry wheelchairs is £2.50 a trip, compared to up to £15 if a wheelchair user had to use a taxi.

Mr Connolly normally uses the bus on a Sunday afternoon to go to church but said he would have to return by taxi if it was stopped earlier in the afternoon.

Under the reduced hours, if he wants to go somewhere after 6pm he will need a taxi.

He added: "I know money is tight and all this but I think money is wasted on other things which could have gone to help subsidise our service."

A spokesman for the Department for Infrastructure said its budget had been cut in real terms and it was also responsible for vital core functions like roads and water.

"An inclusive public transport system is a priority for the department and part of this work is ensuring that our transport network enables access to essential services and social and employment opportunities," he said.

The department grant funds community transport organisations and said funding cuts of the order in question should largely be managed through greater efficiency rather than reductions in front line services.

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