Surfing!

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.

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Impact Theatre

Work has been busy and sometimes frustrating during the last couple of weeks. Myself and a couple of colleagues had an amazing opportunity last week to attend a workshop which was inspiring and made the hard work worth while.

DCIL received funding to run a workshop which I felt would be very educational for transition year students. I invited a class who I had worked with a couple of months ago. They are undertaking a huge disability project in their school, so they seemed like the perfect choice to attend this disability related workshop with a difference, in the Stationhouse Hotel in Letterkenny. Idan Meir brought a group of five actors with physical or sensory impairments to deliver a workshop and perform a play, but the day was much more than that.

The day began with a quiet group of students and a couple of teachers who didn’t know what to expect, and to be honest, I didn’t really know how to explain it to them either. We ended the day with a more confident, more creative and definitely more inspired and empowered group of people. I can’t really explain what happened in between! Idan talked to us about opression, having power, disability and what it means, and many other things. We didn’t just sit and listen. We learned about the impact of theatre and how we can use it. We learned how to create images with our bodies and how to tell stories. We learned how to lead and trust each other, and we definitely learned how to be out of our comfort zone! The actors performed a play for us after lunch called ‘happy birthday’, which explores the issues facing a 21 year-old girl who is unable to attend her own birthday party due to the inaccessibility of the venue. They performed it a second time, during which the audience were invited to stop the play whenever they felt that there was something unfair happening. This brought about interesting discussion and debate. After this, the students and teachers were split into groups, with myself and the actors joining each group to tell our stories or answer any disability related questions they had. The students and teachers were then asked to make an image of something they learned from that conversation. It’s hard to explain, but it was very interesting for me to hear, because I have no visual idea of how people represent words or feelings in this way. I learned a lot from these exercises, and it wasn’t what I had expected to learn when the day began.

It was nice to learn about disability, a theme I am so familiar with, but not actually be the person teaching it for a change. I wanted the day to be as much about the students as possible, so it was a nice surprise when I realised how much we were all included. I didn’t think to mention to Idan that I was blind beforehand. I didn’t think I’d be involved in the theatre with the students, and to be honest, it didn’t even come into my head. He did tell me that if he’d known he could have adjusted his activities a bit, but I was still very much included and he explained everything as much as he could. Part of the leading and trusting exercise involved people closing their eyes and then talking about the experience afterwards. I don’t know if this is always part of the day, but it worked well, and I was able to give my own feedback too.

O.J came along for the day too. I was very happy with how well he behaved since there was a lot of moving and running around. He just lay watching, and really loved the attention whenever the students came to pet him on their break. Idan sometimes gave him a quick pet to make sure he didn’t feel left out during the day!

‘Happy birthday’ was performed in Donegal a couple of years ago and I missed it, so it was brilliant to have everybody involved back to perform it and do the workshop just for us. It was a different way of exploring the theme of disability, and my only regret was that more of my colleagues didn’t come to see it.
Idan wrote a one man play called
Bassam
which returns to An Grianan Theatre in February next year. It’s based on a different theme entirely, but I like his work, so hopefully I’ll get a chance to see it.

We’ve Moved!

Don’t worry, I haven’t moved house already.
Our office has moved into our new premises in Ballymacool in Letterkenny!
After renting office space for around thirteen years, DCIL finally moved into the purpose-built house they bought and renovated. It’s got lots more space, it’s own separate training room that can be rented out, and lots of lovely ground outside. It’s a bit out of town which means at the minute I have to depend on people to bring me there, but we would have never got a building as good in town, so it’s worth the compromise.

I went to the building twice last week with O.J, just to have a look around and become more familiar with the layout before I had to start working in it. It’s a lot more open-planned and noisy in the main reception area, but somebody (without even realising it) was being very helpful when they put my computer on the desk beside the radio so it’s easy to find straight away.
Today was our first full day working in the office and it was really nice. I put O.J’s bed close to the main door where it’s a bit cooler. He’s not right beside my desk, but not far away, and he has more space. Luckily for him, he can look around him, and gets petted by most people as soon as they come in the door. I got my first school today too, even though I haven’t even contacted schools about this year’s project yet. That was a nice surprise!
The new building has a really nice feeling to it, and we’re hoping that the move will help to raise the profile of our organisation and the work we do.

I did my bit for awareness of disability related issues last Friday. I went to the Highland Radio studio and had a chat with Greg Hughes, who was filling in on the Shaun Doherty show. The interview was organised in response to a lengthy discussion about dogs not being kept on leads, which took place the day before. I began talking about that, and ended up talking about lots of different things, including getting in a quick plug about my work and our big move. O.J lay quietly in the studio, and enjoyed all the attention he got at the station.
I enjoyed meeting Greg, and I’m very glad I went to Letterkenny rather than just being interviewed over the phone. It also made me realise that I miss radio work a lot, and if I could get into the area of radio that I like, I’d definitely like to do more of it in the future.

My brother has been here and gone since I blogged last. As usual we spent lots of family time together. I went to Dublin for the day with him and my sister. O.J was left at home but he was probably glad. He’s been going for more walks now that he’s practically fully recovered. We visited a friend in Portsalon, and that weekend, we went for a drive around Donegal, had a picnic and watched our local football team win a final.

So all in all, we’ve been busy. Not blogging busy, but busy in other ways.

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?”

Disability Studies

Today I handed in my final assignment, completing the disability studies course I started in October. It was something I’d considered doing for a while, but the course was always only run in Dublin, so this was the first time it was taught locally. It is a higher certificate run through NUI Maynooth, taught by a tutur who I have known for a while and have great respect for. It was a very enjoyable course, completely different to anything I’ve studied before.

You might think an 8 month course would be easy, but there was a lot of work involved in this one. We did a group project in which we did an access review of a building, wrote a theory essay, wrote a 4000 word research essay and submitted a learning journal. Just encase anyone wonders why I haven’t been blogging, you could say after working on assignments, I’m never really in the mood to write anything else. We had the freedom to choose our own essay topics, so I chose autism for my theory essay, and I looked at the experiences of professional blind musicians in Ireland for my research. I might write about this in more detail if anyone’s actually interested. I put as much work into these essays as I would have in my college course, so its just a matter of waiting for results now.

The course was taught in such a relaxed informal style, that I felt that I was learning so much without even realising it. The eleven other students were great fun, and I enjoyed talking to them. We all learned from each other, and there was no higherarchy between students and lecturer, unlike a lot of other courses, especially in university.

I’m really glad I’ve had the opportunity to do this course, and to learn from so many interesting people. While the course content was useful, it was other people sharing their experiences that taught me the most. I learned so much on a personal level, and I wasn’t expecting that to happen at all when I signed up for this. I’ve also been asked to assist a trainer to deliver philosophy of independent living training to colleagues during the summer when the school awareness program finishes. This sounds terrifying, because I’ve only ever taught children, but I’m ready for a change. If I hadn’t done this course, I wouldn’t even consider doing this.
I know that whatever I do in the future, whether it involves working with people with disabilities or not, things that I learned on the course will always stay with me.

Keeping an open mind

I practically have something on every weekend between now and Christmas. Week days are busy with work, a course I’ve started, and other bits and pieces. At the end of January this will all change slightly, when my work contract runs out and I’ll have no job. In some ways I feel like I’m in the exact same situation I was when this happened three years ago; I still have no idea what I want to do and nothing has really changed. In other ways I know I’ve changed a lot, and I’m slowly starting to accept that maybe I’m going to be one of those indecisive people who never really know what they want to do as a career. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing if I am always working, but not having some sort of a job isn’t an option for me.

 

In February 2010, during my first week of being unemployed after my last job in an arts centre, I was offered a receptionist job for two months in the Centre for Independent Living, where I currently work. I had no experience of this type of work, and no interest in ever becoming a receptionist. Taking that job and becoming involved with people with disabilities led on to lots of great things. My colleagues have been brilliant, and I was offered work opportunities and courses that I am very grateful for. It’s a great feeling to work with people who acknowledge your disability only when they need to. They treat you like everyone else and encourage you to do new things. An example of this is the level 7 disabilities studies course I’ve recently started that they funded part of. It runs until April and will be a lot of work, but will keep me busy after Christmas. The more I learn about different types of disabilities, the more I want to know. I am studying this course with a couple of work colleagues, people with disabilities and people who work in the disability sector so it’s a nice mixture. We’ve only just finished the second week, but already it’s making me think differently about many aspects of the lives of disabled people in our society. I know that my enthusiasm might die slightly when the assignments start piling up!

 

The disability field is an area I avoided as much as possible until recently, partly because I didn’t think about it much when I was younger. I wanted the fact that I am blind to be as far away from my work life as possible, but delivering school awareness programs has taught me that maybe I can use it to my advantage to help others. I understand living with a disability better than some people who don’t have one. I regularly come into contact with people who provide services and think they are experts, but with no personal experience of disability, how can they completely understand? if that keeps me interested and helps me to find work then maybe I shouldn’t dismiss it like I did when I was younger.

 

I can’t say that my current job or this new course has provided me with a definite career option, but they have helped me to broaden my areas when looking for jobs. I still enjoy editing sound, interviewing people and hearing their stories. I hate computers, but the idea of having my own business/service that I could provide online could be another option. Don’t ask me what kind of business, because I haven’t thought that far ahead yet! Although I don’t think working with dogs is a realistic money-earner for me, its still something I’d love. I won’t be limiting my options though, and if something comes up that mightn’t seem too appealing at first, I’ll think about it carefully. I have learned to take opportunities when they come up, and to make the most of them, because by dismissing something quickly, we might be missing out on other great things.

 

Expect a few of these random blog posts in the next while, especially as I try to get used to the idea of having no job. When I’m thinking about stuff, sometimes I just need to write! I’d love to hear people’s thoughts and experiences of finding work, trying to decide what to do etc. Other people can sometimes be a great help.

When disability really doesn’t matter

I worked in a brilliant school today, and delivered disability awareness training to two classes of children, who probably taught me a lot more than I taught them. Often when I begin the first of the two week sessions, the kids don’t know what to expect and are very quiet and shy. They become more involved during the class, and the more we discuss different types of disabilities, the more they realise how many people they know who have one. Petting O J towards the end of the class is the icebreaker, and by the time I return the following week, they are usually talkative and full of questions. Its a lovely transformation to watch.

Today’s classes were different. The children were on the same level as me right from the beginning, eager to learn but just as eager to tell me about their own experiences. I’d much prefer them to talk more than me, and they always have lots to say.
The first group of children talked about different types of disabilities. Their teacher asked them if they knew people who had any, and they listed family members, friends, friends of families, neighbours, friends of neighbours, the neighbour’s dog, etc. He then reminded them that they forgot to look closer. Their own school has a few children with obvious disabilities. Clearly they see these people as friends first and its possible that they sometimes even forget that they have a disability. Of course people shouldn’t be encouraged to ignore their disability or act like it doesn’t exist, but the fact that it isn’t the most important part of a child’s personality is great. That’s proper integration if you ask me!

The second class I visited had first-hand experience of people with disabilities. The two special needs assistants sat at one side of the room while their students sat at the opposite side, working independently just like their classmates. One of the children had developed a physical disability through illness, and spoke openly about how it affected him. He is a great sportsman and seems to have a very positive attitude. The other child had a hearing impairment and used a cochlear implant. Hearing loss is something I always talk about but its something I don’t have much hands-on experience of, so it was fantastic to be able to learn more directly from a child. I wore a headset connected to the loop system so that he could hear me speaking. He described how it works, how himself and his parents, (who are both deaf) communicate, and even asked if I wanted to touch the piece connected to his ear.

Both children were able to confidently talk about their experience of disability. It was an important part of their lives but not the most important part of their class, and they weren’t treated any differently. This positive confident attitude doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from their parents/guardians, families, teachers, classmates, friends and people in the community around them. These nine and ten year-old children make me feel more confident that the future for people with disabilities might be a great one. I left the school feeling like I had learned a lot just by being there. I’m really looking forward to returning next week. The positive feeling of integration in the classroom is brilliant to watch, and the teachers were just as enthusiastic as the children.

My good mood for the day continued when I got a phone call from a friend to say that A local restaurant had found “lost property” belonging to me. It turns out that it was a handbag with the harddrive that I lost last August and was sure I would never see again.
What a brilliant day 🙂