Thanks for reading

In July 2007, I wrote my very first
blog post
before I went to Cork to train with OJ. I didn’t really know how blogs worked, how long I would keep writing for, and if anybody would actually ever read what I wrote. Time has absolutely flown, and we’ve done a lot in those ten years.

I decided earlier this year that I would write my last blog post in July. I didn’t want to be repeating things I have already written, and didn’t want long gaps between blog posts. I think I have told my story with O.J now, and hopefully given people an insight into what owning and working with a guide dog is like. When I made that decision to finish my blog, I didn’t think that O.J would no longer be around. I thought he would outlive the blog, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. I’m just very glad that I kept writing for so long, and now I have so many memories and stories of our life together to read back on.

When I began blogging, I did so to keep a record of training and working with my first guide dog. It wasn’t written to please other people. I really enjoy writing, so I usually put time and effort into putting posts together. I didn’t put much work into sharing and promoting the blog. I posted when I wanted to, not because I hadn’t posted in a few days and needed to update people about my life. It was online,and if people enjoyed reading and learning from it, then that was a huge bonus. People did interact with it and learn from it. I’ve made many new online friends, and some who I have enjoyed meeting and spending time with as a result of this blog. That was something I hadn’t expected. I really appreciate people’s thoughtful comments, advice and encouragement on the blog. Thanks especially to those of you (who I won’t name but you know who you are), who regularly left comments. It was always so nice to hear from you, and I hope we can stay in touch. Those of you who have blogs, I’ll definitely keep reading them. I’m on Facebook, i’m @ojdoherty on twitter, and my email address is
if anybody does want to keep in touch. I’ll be doing something soon in memory of O.J, so you might want to hear more about that.

All I can say now is a massive thanks to everyone for reading during the last ten years. The biggest thanks of all goes to O.J, for changing my life and being the inspiration for this blog and everything I’ve written.
Jennifer xx

Born to Run Audiobook

Approximately 95% of books that are written are never published in large print, audio or Braille. This means that there is a massive amount of material in the world that blind or visually impaired people don’t have access to, and never have the option to read. This can discourage people from reading because they cannot have the same choice of books as their sighted peers. Those which are converted to audio often take so long that the general hype and excitement surrounding their release is long forgotten about.

In September of this year, Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography ‘Born to Run’ was published, along with a companion CD called ‘Chapter and Verse’, and lots of excitement from fans world-wide. I was surprised to learn that I could be excited too, because there were plans to release an audiobook before the end of the year. I only had to wait a few months. I pre-ordered it on Audible, it became available on 6th December, and I was delighted to find that the “unknown” narrator was revealed to be none other than Springsteen himself!

In the story of ‘Born to Run’, Bruce recounts growing up in the small town of Freehold New Jersey, surrounded by a loving but often difficult family life. He writes about his friends, his influences, and his dreams. Seeing Elvis on television for the first time and knowing right then that he wanted to be a roc star, and that nothing was going to stop him. And nothing did.

Bruce Springsteen’s music was something I always heard growing up, but I didn’t really begin to listen to him properly until I was in my mid-teens. The more you listen, the more you want to hear, and when you go to one of his live shows and hear him play with the E Street band, the more you want to go back. It was fascinating to learn about how those friendships, the songs and the music were created. On stage nowadays, over forty years later, Springsteen still plays for over three hours each night. It’s impossible to find a more energetic charismatic performer, and a more tightly-knit band of singers and musicians. Off stage, he regularly deals with anxiety and depression which he writes honestly about in his book. His writing is simple and poetic, just like the lyrics in many of his songs. His story is one of hard work, determination and fun.

I listened to the ‘Born to Run’ audiobook any chance I had during the last five days. Breakfast and dinner were accompanied by Bruce’s raspy tones, the closest I’m ever going to get to having a meal with one of my favourite performers! I’m not sure I would have gotten through it as quickly if I had to read the Braille version, and it definitely wouldn’t have been as enjoyable. He narrates the book in his own relaxed style, like he’s sitting right there telling you a story. I would recommend it to any fan, even if you are able to read the printed copy.

‘Born to Run’ is a real treat for any Springsteen fan who is curious to understand where his passion and longevity comes from. It is Bruce telling his own story in his own words, exactly how it should be told. I’m just so glad that he took the eighteen plus hours out of his time to tell the audio version as well. Nobody else could do it justice by narrating it, and why should they? He is the boss after all!


Even though I’ve lived beside the beach in Buncrana for most of my life, I’m a little bit afraid of waves. I’m afraid for a good reason though. When I was eight, I was knocked over and turned head over heels by a wave on holiday in France. Ten years later I was on holiday in Thailand with my family. We spent a good part of Christmas day on the beach. The following morning we found ourselves in the middle of what we knew later to be the Asian tsunami!
Not only have I still continued to go places on holiday and swim in the beach, I decided that one of the 30 new things I wanted to do this year should be related to water. I knew that Torie had gone surfing before, so I knew there were people not too far away who were willing enough and crazy enough to help a blind person overcome a fear of waves. After finally finding the courage to contact Dan from
Long Line Surf School
by email, I knew there was no going back. Challenge 13 was planned for 1st September, and my PA Donna and I found ourselves at the surf school just outside Limavady at ten o’clock this morning.

Dan was full of enthusiasm when he met me to bring me surfing. I was nervous and not so enthusiastic. When I say I’m going to do something, I stick to it, so I put on the wetsuit and we headed for the beach. Benone beach is one of Ireland’s longest beaches. At seven miles long, there was plenty of space for Donna to walk Sibyl and let her off for a run. The surf school has been operating for five years, and there are six instructors in total, based in Benone and Portrush beaches. Their passion for what they do, along with the fact that they want to make surfing an option for as many people as possible with different abilities through their
disability surf lessons
is very impressive.

After chatting with dan for a few minutes, I quickly relaxed because I knew I could trust him. He’s a trained lifeguard after all. We walked in the water so I could feel the size of the waves and how deep we’d be going. It was always shallow enough which was perfect for a first lesson. I knew if I fell off I could stand up really quickly. Then he showed me how to lie on the board on the sand, before taking it into the water. The nine foot board means it’s long enough for the instructor to move and direct from behind. The first while was like bodyboarding, and I went into a few waves facing them, and then out to the shore. The feeling both times was brilliant, even though I found facing the oncoming wave a bit freaky at first. After a while Dan would tell me when to kneel, and I’d move quickly from lying to kneeling on the board as the wave took it into the shore.
We went back on to the sand again to learn how to balance and put one foot forward after kneeling on the board. I did this lots more times in the water. Apparently I have good balance on the board, especially for a beginner. All that yoga must be paying off!

Obviously the point of surfing is to stand on the board and ride the waves. Dan had a brilliant way of building me up to this gradually, though there was never any pressure to do anything. He’d suggest different things I could do, but If I’d wanted to stay on my tummy on the board for an hour, he’d have let me. The more I went on one knee, the more I was tempted to stand. The more I thought about it, the more I put myself off. We decided I’d do it three more times, as the weather was starting to change. The waves became a bit bigger, and it was harder to walk out towards them. I got a few ear-full and eye-fulls of water along the way, but when you’re totally soaked, you don’t care anymore. On my second last surf in to shore, I stood up before I even had time to think. The feeling was amazing, and I wished I could have balanced longer. Instead I half fell into the water and poor Dan nearly got his hair pulled as I tried to kneel in the sand. Did I mention he had the patience of a saint? I stood again for the final time before jumping into the water and laughing. I was buzzing at that stage. I could have ran the length of the beach!

Surfing with Long Line was such a brilliant experience. The work they do is amazing, and I can’t recommend them enough. It’s a great feeling when you decide to do something completely out of your comfort zone and actually really enjoy it. It takes a certain kind of person to make that happen, and Dan did an amazing job. Believing I could do something that I know nothing about, and describing what was happening during the lesson so well made this challenge work. And it worked so well that I really really want to go back sometime and do it all again.

Going to concerts when you can’t see

I haven’t been inspired to blog much lately for some reason, but I’m hoping a few things happening in September will change that.
I mentioned in my last post that I went to a Beyoncé concert with my friends, and at times it was a very visual experience because of the type of artist she is and the type of show she puts on.
asked if I would consider writing more about my experience of going to concerts as a person who is blind. It’s not something I’ve really thought about in great detail to be honest. Sometimes it takes somebody to ask you a question to make you really think about it. Although I haven’t been listening to as much music as usual recently, and am not finding opportunities to hear live music, I’ve given Beth’s idea some thought.

I have been obsessed with music for as long as I can remember. I was always really interested in different instruments and different sounds, and how things sounded when they were recorded. I got a tape recorder when I was almost three years old, and I took it everywhere. It was hardly surprising then that when I went to my first live concert to see Bon Jovi at the age of ten, I loved every minute of the whole experience. From the anticipation of going when I got the tickets, to traveling to the venue and walking in with the crowds of people. Finding seats or a good spot to stand, depending on the venue, and recognising most of the songs by the first few notes.
There’s nothing better than discovering a band, listening to a particular album over and over again, and finally hearing them play music you enjoy live. I can see bands perform many times if I really like them, and each time will be different.

It might seem strange because I can’t see, but my seats or where I stand at a gig can really impact on how much I enjoy it. If I go to a rock concert in a venue, I prefer to be standing among the crowd, no matter how busy it is. The closer to the front I can get the better! I’ve stood at four out of five Springsteen gigs, and my least favourite was when I had seats in Croke Park a few months ago. Visually, the seats couldn’t have been better, which was great for my sighted friend who could describe everything to me, but I felt so far away from the stage and the rock N roll atmosphere.

If I attend a musical performance in a theatre, I love sitting near the front because I don’t have to hear people talking all around me. This is particularly good when a few of the musicians I like often play a song unplugged during a gig, or when some of their funny banter can be said off-mic, but I can still hear it. Sometimes the fact that I need the disabled area when I bring the guide dog means that I can’t sit in these prefered areas. People who can see might not really understand why I can be so fussy about where I sit, but others just find it entertaining. Once while I was making my way to my seat in the front row of a theatre gig, a friend who always loved to make blind related jokes loudly called out, “Jen it doesn’t matter how close you get to that stage. You still won’t see a thing!!”

Going to a gig and getting there early to watch the special guest or support act who plays before can be a great way of finding new music. Mostly for me, it’s all about the sound, but sometimes, and more recently for some reason, I find myself becoming more curious about how performances look, or how a stage is set up. I don’t perform on stage myself, so have no real concept of how things look or how instruments might be set up. Sometimes I’ll ask friends questions about that, but usually I just wonder myself and concentrate more on what I’m hearing. Beyoncé’s concert was very different though, and I was very glad to have friends beside me who almost automatically provide audio description. I’m not a fan of pop music that usually involves manufactured bands and lots of singers and dancers on stage who really do nothing. I prefer everybody on stage to sing and play to be heard, not to make the performance look good. If I’m listening to instrumental performers or a trad session for example, I’ll just concentrate on the music. But sometimes if a singer is singing a particular way, I’ll find myself wondering what they look like. It’s no secret that I’ve seen Glen Hansard perform so many times, and although I know what to expect, I’m sometimes curious. He’s one of the most emotional and passionate performers I’ve ever heard. He could be singing quietly and then erupt, and I can’t help thinking how crazy his facial impressions must look!

While I’ll always be curious at times about how things look, for me, a performance is 99% about the music. I consider myself lucky, because when I’m listening, I’m not distracted by what is going on around me. I’m not watching other people. I’m not looking at the stage through the screen on my phone while videoing it. If I’m really interested in something, I’ll hardly speak to the person I’m with until it’s over. It’s one of the only times I can really understand what the phrase living in the moment is like, because I try to do that as much as I can. If the performer is engaging and passionate enough about what they are doing, they’ll make me do that.

So although having eyes that work would come in useful to get around, or when I miss out on a good gig because I have nobody to go with, or nobody likes the same music as me (which often happens), it’s all about the ears when it comes to live music. At the end of the day, I think that’s what the performers would want to hear. Good ears and good music are a perfect combination.

I Believe I Can Fly!

Well I know I can, because last month I did, and here’s the video to prove it!

Donegal CIL had our AGM yesterday. It was our first one in our new premises, so there was a lovely positive vibe around the place. We finished up the afternoon by launching our new video and showing it to our members for the first time before it went online.

We raised é1,350 for DCIL from the flight, which I was very surprised by and of course very grateful for. Along with that, and even more importantly, we raised lots of awareness in our local community and beyond about the work that we do to empower people with disabilities and help them to live more independently. We’ve done this in a fun and exciting way, and ended up with a video that people will hopefully enjoy.

Would You Trust a Blind Pilot?

Last Tuesday I had the amazing opportunity to fly a duel-controlled plane in Newtownards airfield, just outside Belfast. It was, without a doubt one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.

As part of disability pride, an organisation called
brought an accessible plane to Northern Ireland for the week. This gave people with disabilities an opportunity to have a flying lesson with a qualified instructor. I received an email and passed it on to my manager in work, never even considering it myself. She persuaded me to take the opportunity. A work colleague would bring me there, and we could use the opportunity to raise awareness and money through sponsorship for our organisation. At first I wasn’t convinced that this was a good idea, but the thought of a blind person flying a plane is so random that it’s proving to be a great success.

Before anyone gets worried, I left O.J safely at home when I went to fly last Tuesday. My PA took him for a long walk, and he was oblivious to what I was up to. My colleague Shane and I traveled to Newtownards, and to say I was nervous would be an understatement! We had to wait almost three hours before we could fly because the weather was misty. While we were waiting, Michael showed me around the aircraft, which was fascinating. I had a chance to touch everything, even learning how to check the fuel, and going under the plane to feel the wheels. This made me feel much more relaxed, and when it was time to take off, I was so excited!

James the flying instructor was very enthusiastic and explained everything throughout the whole flight. We had to wear a headset with a microphone because the noise of the plane was so loud. He took off, and we flew to 2,500ft, where he let me fly myself. He gave instructions which I carefully followed. I could feel every movement the plane made as I steered it. Making it go up and down was particularly good. My ears popped, and I got that butterfly feeling in my tummy. We flew for about 45 minutes altogether. It went so fast, I would have wanted it to last longer. The landing was surprisingly very smooth. Much better than when you land in Derry airport in an even bigger plane.

One of the best parts of the flight was that we were allowed to film it. Shane filmed out the window on his mobile, and he also brought a tiny Go Pro camera which he stuck on the front window beside the pilot. There are lots of photographs on the
Donegal CIL facebook page
and a video will be put up there soon. I have all the footage on my computer, which is nice to be able to look back on.

It’s not every day you get an opportunity to do something adventurous like fly a plane. Even though I was unsure at first, I’m glad I did it, and really appreciate the opportunity. Aerobility are hoping to return to Northern Ireland next year. Their staff are amazing and so professional.
The whole experience hasn’t put me off flying at all. It’s given me a better understanding of how the whole thing works, and a better idea of what a plane looks like. Funny enough, I’m actually flying to Portugal tomorrow. Well I’m not flying this time!

The Good Stuff: What’s It Like To Go Blind?

Check out this video!

What’s It Like To Go Blind
is a video made by Craig Benzine and a group of guys who make videos for a youtube channel called
The Good Stuff.
One of my favourite bloggers,
Beth Finke
was filmed and interviewed for a recent episode about the theme of senses, and it turned out great. Its a lively, lighthearted but informative piece that answers a lot of questions people often have about blindness.
Its definitely worth watching!
I’m also looking forward to watching more of the videos that ‘the good stuff’ have already made. They sound like fun!

Do you remember the first time you saw a guide dog?

I remember the first time I ever came into contact with a guide dog. I was in first class in primary school, so about seven years old. A woman called Sheila must have been visiting an older class in the school, and had been asked to come into our class with her dog Beth. I think she was a golden lab retriever. I remember thinking she was quite big and very soft compared to our pet dog, but now I know that’s because guide dogs are so well groomed. I remember feeling the harness on the dog as it sat, and she explained how you weren’t really meant to touch the dog when it had the harness on, but of course i could.
I was fairly shy at this stage, so although I knew from a young age that I wanted a dog, I don’t think I asked her too many questions,even though I was probably dying to. Maybe a year or two later I met a woman from Scotland with a huge German Shepherd guide dog called Tess, and I got my photograph taken with her. I asked more questions then, and even more during the trial walk I had with a guide dog in training called Walter, during a guide dogs open day in Belfast when I was about ten.

Meeting those three dogs had a huge affect on me, as it helped to clarify how much I already knew that I wanted my own guide dog. The first time I met OJ was a special day, and couldn’t have gone better for me.
The reason I’m thinking about this is because a few days ago I found
this video
of little Ellie Clarke meeting a guide dog for the very first time. The instructor is fantastic with her, and its clear from the video and from reading the blog that her parents want to give her every opportunity as young as possible. Ellie seems like such a lovely intelligent child, and I hope someday, if she decides she wants one, she can be as happy with a guide dog as I am with OJ. More importantly for now though, its a coincidence that today is Ellie’s 3rd birthday!

So, even though probably none of us are lucky enough to have video footage, do you remember your first time meeting (or even seeing) a guide dog?

Access to the Stage: Life As a Professional Blind Musician

This is the research assignment that i submitted for the disability studies course. When i emailed it to one of the participants yesterday, he suggested that i should put it online, or somewhere where people could read it. I agreed, because i think both musicians brought up some very interesting points.
Its a long one, but if you read it, i hope you enjoy it.

Access to the stage: Life as a Professional Blind Musician

When I began this research, my original idea was to focus on the experiences of professional musicians with a variety of disabilities in Ireland. I had difficulty contacting people who perform regularly, and if I’d been able to get in touch with everyone I had in mind, it would have been a much longer project. As a result, I decided to focus specifically on musicians with visual impairments. Being blind myself, and having a keen interest in music, I wanted to learn about the reality of performing when you can’t see. I spoke to two musicians/singers who are blind, and their interviews became the main source of information for this project. I wanted to find out how blindness affects their career. Are they treated differently by audiences or people in the music business because of it? What assistance is available for these musicians?

Playing music is a popular activity for many blind and visually impaired people, due to its aural nature. For some people though, its much more than a pastime, it’s a way of life. Music was one of the few career options open to blind and visually impaired people during the 17th and 18th centuries. Irish harp player Turlough O’Carlan was one of the most influential musicians of this time, learning and composing pieces by memory, long before musical notation was in use. More recently outside Ireland, musicians such as Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Andrea Bocelli have brought the work of blind people to a world-wide audience. This has no doubt altered people’s perceptions of blindness among the general public. But what is the reality for performers in Ireland if they have a visual impairment? There are many talented amateur musicians in this country, but few choose it as their professional career today, and very few work as full-time musicians.

Born in Dublin in the 1930’s, Joe Bollard has had a long and varied career as a pianist and singer. When you talk to him about this, three things quickly become obvious; his enthusiasm for music, his determination, and his positive attitude. His family moved to Liverpool when he was six years old.
“It was there, in the school for the blind, that I got my very first music lesson. I can remember every minute of that lesson. It was half an hour. I sat down at the piano. The music teacher said, ‘put your hands on the piano and tell me what you feel?’ And I said, ‘well there’s some flat things here, and there’s some lumpy things at the back. The lumpy things go in a sort of pattern, two three, two three.’ ‘Yes she said, ‘the flat things as you call them are white, and the lumpy things are black.’ And then she told me to press a note, so I pressed one. I remember I pressed middle C, and the sound was amazing! Me, producing this sound by just one note gave me butterflies in my tummy. From the first day I played that middle C on the piano all those years ago, all I wanted to do was become a musician.”

Joe played classical music and learned to read Braille music in school. When he left school, he began listening to the popular music at that time, and learning it by ear. People started hearing about “this blind piano player” and offering him work. He joined a band with a drummer and a bass player, who often played at weddings, private functions and in nightclubs. He also regularly played piano with a female singer, travelling around the U.K, learning his trade.
“Around this time I had started visiting local dance halls. I wasn’t dancing, but all the big bands went there. I’d go and sit all night at the front of the stage with a glass of lemonade, listening to all the bands and talking to various people in the bands. I’d listen to the arrangements of the music and learn about the arrangements, and how singers presented themselves and how they looked. I’d ask questions like what’s he wearing, or how are the band situated onstage? I wanted to know that they were sitting with their heads bowed, rarely smiling, always looking like they had lost a tenner and found a fiver. When you’re blind you can’t see that, so always ask. When you’re blind, you really have to push yourself. If you sit down in a chair and wait for somebody to bring you up to the piano, you’re going to sit there all day. You go in and say, ‘where’s the piano?’ You just have to push yourself. I have to do that even now. You have to ask questions, and get people to show you things. Sometimes you’ve got to be cheeky and forward and say, where’s this, where’s that?”

Joe had always wanted to return to Ireland, and it was a job with an eight piece band in Ballina that prompted him to do this. Even back then, he was determined to show people that his musical talent was more important than his blindness.
“The first gig we played was in the town hall in Ballina. Everyone was reading music except me and the bass player. About half an hour in, the place was packed, and Jack said, ‘Now ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce you to my new musician in the band. This is Joe Bollard, the blind piano player’, and I hit the ceiling! I didn’t say anything there and then, but when we took a break I said ‘Jack, don’t ever do that again. Don’t introduce me as the blind piano player. I’m not using my blindness as a vehicle.’ I told him that if he did it again, I’d be on the train back to Dublin. He’d just had a load of posters printed for the various dance halls we were playing for the next month, with “Joe the blind piano player” written on them, and I said, ‘you can get rid of them!’ I wouldn’t allow him. I became really good friends with Frank the saxophone player, and I made sure that he let me know if he saw the posters anywhere. He saw two, and I told Jack that I wouldn’t go on until he took them down, and he did. I stayed with that band for seven years, and by the time I had left, I was doing three different jobs. I was playing piano and singing, I was the arranger for the band, and I was doing a sort of a roadie thing. If we were in Ballina and we were playing in Newcastle West, Jack would ring me up and ask how we would get down there. I had a map of Ireland in my head, so I was always able to help.”

Joe left the band in order to spend time with his wife and children. They moved to Dublin, and then to Bray in Co. Wicklow, where he currently lives and works. He does a lot of freelance work, and is very involved with his local church, training the choir and playing the organ.

Nicky Kealy has been working as a professional musician since the year 2000. His love of music began at a young age, when music was always being played on the tape recorder at home. At St. Joseph’s school for the visually impaired in Dublin, Nicky was encouraged to learn piano and join the school choir. He played classical music and did piano exams, and also had the opportunity to learn to play the Uilleann pipes. Nicky joined the schools traditional band, who participated in many competitions. He took an interest in solo traditional singing, learning the songs by listening to recordings and picking up the ornamentation. In 1995 he won the under fifteens Fleadh Ceol, came third the following year and later won the under eighteens. It wasn’t competitions, but his first experience of recording which helped Nicky to decide that singing was what he wanted to do as a profession.
“I had been in a studio when I was sixteen, and I recorded my first 4-track EP, and that’s when I knew that this was what I wanted to do when I leave school. People were telling me who were in it at the time that it was a profession that I was not going to be able to walk into. Others were saying, “aah, if that’s what you want to do, try it out.” So there was a bit of a conflict of people wishing me well, but others being cautious at the same time.”

Since then, Nicky has recorded and released albums and EPs, performed on many cruises and trips abroad, as well as putting on his own shows in his hometown of Carlow. One of Nicky’s biggest achievements was winning the 2011 series of the popular country n’ western talent show glór Tíre.

I was curious to know, what, if any affect does Nicky’s blindness have on his ability to perform?
“When I’m on stage it doesn’t. In fact I really forget about it. If I’m doing a show, I’ll have a set list beside me, because myself and the band will have a running order of what we’re doing. I’ll have that in Braille beside me, and I’ve often made a joke about what Braille is, people will see you reading it and you have no choice. I’ve done other dances and gigs were you wouldn’t have a set list. You’d do maybe two or three together and you’d know what you’re doing. Then you’d have a little break and you’d converse with the guitar player or someone in the band. Then you’d go off and do something else. Because people are dancing, you have to change tempos for them all the time, depending on what kind of crowd you have. On stage you don’t see the disability, but I think off stage people do. When you’re on stage, and you know everything is going right, you can just perform and be as natural as possible. It’s when you meet people and your off stage, you have to be conscious of how you look at them, how you shake hands with them and appear interested in them. Funny enough, it’s the audience who you have to work with, because when you talk to fellow musicians or performers, they don’t see the disability. Sometimes people will come up to me and say, ‘God you’re absolutely fantastic. Isn’t it great the way you can get up and do that’, and I don’t think they would say the same to a person who is fully sighted or doesn’t have a disability. That annoys me, because blindness has nothing to do with what I do.”

We live in a sighted world, where image speaks volumes, and we are often instantly judged on our appearance. How does a blind musician, who regularly performs on stage in front of an audience deal with this? While filming for the Television series Glór Tíre, image was something that Nicky was often conscious about.
“There was a scene after every live performance where the performers would be up on a balcony looking down on the people below. The presenter Aoife would finish the program, and everyone would have to wave, and it may sound stupid to some people, but somebody had to show me exactly how to do it properly. I wanted to look like everybody else. People would be smiling and waving directly at the cameras or the audience, so I got somebody to show me exactly how to look or where to look. I think image is very important. If you’re trying to persuade somebody that you are as good as everybody else at doing something, you have to make 110% of an effort in your image, your looks and your fashion. You do have to work that bit more than everybody else, because people will notice. Someone might think, ‘aww, he didn’t look at the camera there, he didn’t smile or he didn’t wave. God love him, he’s blind, sure what would he know.’ So you have to look your best. You have to look better than the sighted fella standing beside you. That’s just the way it is. Like it or not, there are some things that you are going to have to be aware of more than others. You need to put yourself out there as being independent and fully capable.”

Joe has a similar attitude. The fact that he can’t see means that he has to put more of an effort into how he appears in front of his sighted audience.
“I do a gig regularly on a Sunday night in my hometown of Bray, which is a kind of sing-along. At this regular gig I have two friends that come in regularly and they are brilliant. I hate saying it, but I’ve trained them in. When they come in they sit at a table near to me so I can hear them. I call people up to sing, and as the evening goes on they will quietly tell me things like, “Johnny’s just come in.” or “Mary’s just had her hair done.” Or “Alice got a new dress.” So that when they come up to sing I can comment on their lovely hair or their new dress, and they’ll be thinking, ‘I thought he was blind!’ It brings me in on the same level, and in the summer for example when we have a lot of visitors in, they don’t even know that I’m blind. I want to be on a par with the audience and talk about them like I can see them. It makes my sighted friends feel more comfortable around me. No matter how good you are, you have to have a relationship and a rapport with your audience. Sometimes I might sing a song and they don’t like it, or there’s no applause, and I’ll just say something like “oh well. Thank you. That’s another one you didn’t like.” That causes a ripple of applause and I’ve got their attention again.”

Performers who are blind want to look as natural as possible on stage, equal to their sighted peers. Knowing the layout of the stage is very important. Using a microphone stand to keep a central position, and being aware of the surrounding objects ensures that the performer is facing in the right direction at all times.
“I don’t put much effort into learning my way around a whole place”, Nicky admits. “I’d have to be performing there for a few nights to do that. If I’m walking on to a stage, someone will discretely walk me on and leave when I’m set up. I have a friend who prefers to do all that himself, down to the art of counting how many steps, and knowing where to turn and everything. I think that’s far too much pressure to put myself under. His coordination is obviously so much better than mine. I think that I have enough to do to plan the gig myself, and that’s what I use the assistance for. Trying to navigate your way around big hotels or venues is difficult. I don’t bring my guide dog with me, and some of the places are huge!”

A report entitled ‘becoming a national resource’ (ADAI, 2010) states that:
“Many artists who have impairments deliberately decide not to mention their disability or make it part of the marketing of their work. Some believe that knowledge of their disability will influence the interpretation of their work, leading to condescension, and possibly even exclusion from, or discrimination against, their participation in mainstream arts.”

Both Joe and Nicky have no problems disclosing and discussing the fact that they are blind when looking for work. For Joe though, especially in the early days of his career, finding work wasn’t always easy.
“I sometimes got turned down for work because I was blind. I got turned down more times than I got work. I actually heard somebody say once, “Joe Bollard’s good, but he’s blind.” The biggest thing of all seems to be, how are you going to get to the loo! It’s not how are you going to get out if the place goes on fire! Things have changed and I’m glad to see that they have. This change is to do with a lot of younger people’s thinking about people with disability. Years ago people were put away. Now more people with disabilities are going to third level education and being accepted by their peers, and you know I think that’s great. There are still difficulties of course, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it was.”

Nicky has benefited from this change in attitude towards people with disabilities, and his experience of finding work has always been positive.
“It’s never came up in discussion that, how could I play a pub or a venue because I am blind. I think they want you for your performance. Venues and promoters, if they know you can sing, if they’ve heard you or heard people talking about you, they want to get you in there. Being blind has never been an issue for me.”

Having a disability can add a significant extra financial cost to a person’s everyday life. This is a challenge which many musicians with visual impairments experience, as Joe explains.
“At the moment I do a couple of gigs and I have a guy who does roadie for me. I pay him for it, and that’s an extra cost. If I could see I’d throw all my stuff into the back of the van and drive away. You can’t see so you pay somebody to do it. It’s a pain in the rear but you still have to do it. He carries the stuff in because I’m not physically able to do it. He puts the speakers up on the stands but I set it up. I connect all the speakers and do all the testing, and the same happens when I’m finished I take it all down myself. All he is doing is carrying the heavy stuff and driving me there and back, but he still gets paid for it. That’s one of the prices of being blind. You have to rely on other people, but there’s no shame in doing that. I have no problem with it.”

There are some funding options available to artists with disabilities. The Arts and Disability Forum (ADF) is just one example of an organisation which can provide grants of up to £5000 to fund specific projects. If successful, a musician could put this funding towards the recording of some music, but it cannot be used for practical assistance such as the cost of transport, or paying somebody to accompany the performer when necessary. When I talked to Joe and Nicky about funding, they both emphasised that it wasn’t something people with disabilities should expect or depend on. It’s a bonus if you can get it. Even if assistive technology such as computers and software was less expensive, blind and visually impaired people would benefit greatly.

Regardless of funding, the extra cost incurred by a person’s disability is a huge factor in their decision to work as a full-time professional musician. For financial reasons, Nicky currently works part-time, though working in the music business full-time would be his ideal job.
“Not being able to drive and needing transport is hard. If you don’t have a vehicle, you can’t carry your own stuff. To do a gig, you have to be able to make enough money to pay someone to travel with you. I have been lucky because I have my parents to go with me. I would give them petrol money. Someone else might take a gig because it earns them an extra 20 quid, but that’s no good to me. I have a five day a week job which is secure. If I was going to go full-time, I would need to take some time out of that to give it a good go. I have a mortgage to pay, so that’s not really possible. It’s very difficult for someone with a disability to have a start-up business, and that’s what my playing music would be, because I would be employing somebody to assist me. How do I make a profit? Should I stop myself from doing something because I don’t have someone to bring me? I don’t think I should, so that’s why I’m singing and working at the same time.”

Organisations which assist people with disabilities may not exactly provide direct assistance or funding for musicians, but Nicky believes they could do more to change the attitudes of society.
“As much as organisations want to try and represent everybody, they’re not going to say everything that’s going to make everyone happy. “But in terms of everyday image, there’s definitely more that organisations could do to help people with disabilities. We get asked questions all the time about how we do everyday things, so maybe there should be more public awareness or education, because then people will see you more as a “normal” person. Then when they see you performing, or doing a job that you are able to do, they won’t be as amazed or mesmerised. I think the most important thing for anybody is to just get out there and believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, there’s nothing anybody else can do for you.”

Speaking to Joe and Nicky was very interesting for me on a personal level, and I greatly admire their positive attitude towards blindness. People in the audience see them performing on stage, possibly never even considering the amount of time and energy that they put in beforehand, to ensure that they fit in equally in this sighted world. Being blind is just a part of who they are. When Joe and Nicky are on stage, they forget about it, and the music is the most important thing.
“Maybe it’s a personal thing with me, but I want people to remember Joe Bollard for his musicianship, not because I am blind. Again, it’s not that I’m ashamed of being blind. I’m not. You shouldn’t ride on it as a vehicle all your life.”

Both musicians recognise that there are still some barriers which make it difficult for people who are blind to perform in Ireland. The attitude of society is changing for the better, but it is up to people to get out there as much as possible and show what they can do. By doing this, musicians with disabilities will become less of a novelty, and the attention will be focused on their performance, rather than their impairment.

Why i loved working in schools

Yesterday was my last day working with primary schools as part of my job.For the last three years, myself and a few different personal assistants (Pas) have been delivering disability training to children between the age of nine and twelve, and I’ve loved every minute of it. We’ve visited probably almost 50 schools and met around 2000 kids, (that’s a lot of pets for OJ!) No wonder he’s always so happy. I’ve been to parts of Donegal that I’ve never seen before, my geography is improving all the time. Feedback from the program has been very positive, and the children, teachers and staff have been brilliant.
This was definitely my favourite part of my job, and I wish it could continue. If we had the funds, we could be working full-time around the county, but that’s just not possible. At the minute we’re applying for funding so that I can bring a similar, age-appropriate program to secondary schools, and it would give me a job a couple of days a week for another year. If we get it, the work will be challenging and very different, but I think I’m ready for a change. Younger children ask the most amazing and funny questions, so I thought I’d share some of the ones that I remember being asked this year. Then you will see exactly why I loved my job!!

If O.J sleeps downstairs, how does he know when you want to get up? Does he come and get you and bring you downstairs?

Kid: Where do the puppies come from?
Me: O.J is a boy.
Kid: But where do the puppies come from!

Me: What do you need to allow you to park in an accessible parking space?
Kid: A car!

Me: Why might people choose to use either a guide dog or a cane?
Kid: Because they might be allergic to dogs.
Another kid: Or they might be allergic to the stuff that canes are made from.

We did two classes in the same school one day, and I could hardly keep up with all the children’s questions. They had lots of examples of TV programs and documentaries they’d seen about people with illnesses and disabilities. Fascinating to see children being so sensitive to other people.
One of the boys, who was really gentle and polite came up to me and thanked me for coming to the class before i left. He’d clearly been absorbing a lot of what I was talking about, and wanted to tell me a couple of things before I left. He told me that it was amazing and really cool how you wouldn’t really know that I had a disability. If I want something I just get it. When I take something out of my bag I just get it, and you would hardly notice that I had a disability at all.
He also talked about how difficult it must be when you get a disability and you aren’t born with one. It must be so much harder to adjust.
What an intelligent, mature kid!

And my personal favourite, both from the same school:

Small girl in junior infants:
“Does O.J poo?”

Older boy in the same school:
“If you’ve been blind since you’ve been very young, you don’t remember what its like to be able to see, right?
So how do you know how to smile?”