She has a PhD, a Masters, a degree in law as well as a basic degree. Yet despite her phenomenal academic achievements, Sinead O’Donnell is struggling to find work.
Because – so far – employers have been unable to look beyond her severe physical disabilities.
“If they only focus on what I can’t do, I’ll never get a break. But if they see past it, the skies are the limit,” she reflects.
Sinead has Cerebral Palsy which is complicated by thoracic scoliosis, profound spasticity and constant pain due to multiple surgeries over the past decade.
She requires assistance to do everything – from getting out of bed in the morning to eating, dressing and getting into her wheelchair. Which makes her educational feats even more remarkable.
She is likely to be the most decorated student with high dependency needs in the country.
But that fact has only served to whet her appetite to achieve more in life.
“I’m not where I want to be,” she confides.
“I feel a burden to my parents – I always feel that way. That’s why I work. I want to be completely self-sufficient.”
Her mother Patricia O’Donnell – a retired special needs assistant who lives in Gort – is quick to interject, insisting that she has been far from a burden.
“Sinead wanted to leave home at 18 – she wanted to be gone, she wanted to be away. She had to come home very weekend for a long time but would be away for the week.
“She didn’t like that because at home you have to go to be when your parents go to bed because she wouldn’t be able to go to bed on her own. And it’s not that we were strict or anything, she just liked the freedom of being independent.”
From the age of two, Sinead demonstrated a particularly intense interest in life and people, recalls her proud mom.
“She was always listening to what was going on, listening to people having a conversation. I was quite busy when she was in school but she could always tell me what was going on in the world.”
Born in the Netherlands eleven weeks premature in 1984, Sinead was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy Quadriplegia (CPQ) when she was nine months old.
Cerebral Palsy is caused by brain injury before, during, or shortly after birth. It is a complex neurological condition that affects a person’s posture, co-ordination and ability to move arms and legs.
As she recalls in her thesis, which is an examination of independent living for people with disabilities and high dependency needs:
“The outlook for me given to my parents about my future was bleak but from the outset they saw potential in me that others missed.
“They enrolled me in a course of Conductive Education run by the Peto Institute, renowned for its positive approach to children with CPQ, wishing to give me every chance to live as normal and independent a life as possible.
“They quickly passed on this determination to me – a wish to strive in every respect to live a full and fulfilling life.”
As a young child, she was placed with other disabled children in schools in Rotterdam and Southampton in the UK where there was no academic focus.
“After a long struggle, my parents were successful in their quest to enroll me in a mainstream school and so I woke up, started to learn, had numerous friends and went from strength to strength in my new environment.
“These early experiences of both segregation and integration tell us that unless a human being is accepted for who they are through complete integration, they will not develop and grow to their full potential.”
One she found a suitable place to live and secured personal assistance hours and social housing supports, she embarked on her third level education.
For the last decade she has lived in a supported housing estate managed by the Irish Wheelchair Association on the Headford Road.
Patricia says that, at NUI Galway, her daughter has also proved to be a ground-breaker.
“When she started in 2003, NUIG was very inaccessible. She had to go to the back of the university to the delivery area to get into the lecture hall and then have to sit on the podium away from all the other students. She was very unhappy with that situation and she was instrumental in changing the access for all students – she couldn’t even get into the library”
Sinead remembers it as a form of segregation.
“They were surprised I was speaking up.”
The challenges she faced in completing her studies were formidable. Sinead gets tired quickly particularly if she speaks or sits for too long, which can set off the severe pain.
During her six years of doctorate study, she has undergone three major operations, nearly dying from infections on a number of occasions.
Crucial to her independent living and studying regime is ‘simultaneous and consistent’ access to a personal assistant to help with day-to-day living as well as an education support worker to assist with college work. This has not always been so, she laments.
It has also proved difficult conducting research outside of the allocated support worker hours.
“Starting from the very basic task of setting up IT equipment through to locating, browsing and finding relevant reading to extracting chosen appropriate material has been a mammoth task and at times almost impossible,” she writes in her thesis.
“The disruptions by my physical support and basic needs to the day-to-day research process were constant, very time-consuming, and curtailed momentum.
“Using the bathroom, which entails hoisting, can take up to 30 minutes or more and feeding, hydration and repositioning because of pain at pressure points and postural problems all impeded the smooth flow of the necessary academic research, causing me huge frustration and loss of focus.”
In her thesis, she argues the Government should go a step further by taking the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – adopted in Ireland in 2006 – and make them legally binding in the form of a Personal Assistance Act, which would make access to personal assistance services a basic human right enshrined in law.
We are sitting in Sinead’s cosy sitting room beside a picture of her donning a cap and gown during the graduation ceremony last month.
“Half of the people who do PhDs drop out, so considering all that and my level of disability on top, I’m glad I finished it. Now it’s about finding a new purpose.”
She would like to work in an organisation like the Irish Wheelchair Association or the HSE.
“Somewhere I could use my experiences to help young people with disabilities reach their full potential and give then the courage to pursue their aspirations.”
Tristan’s Ciúnas nominated for award at Dublin Film Festival
Connemara filmmaker Tristan Heanue has been nominated for the Discovery Award at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival for his short Irish-language film Ciúnas (Silence) which was shot around Connemara. The winner of the award will be announced at the closing ceremony of the festival on Sunday, March 8.
Previous recipients include Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar and John Connors.
Ciúnas won the Físín Script Award at the 2018 Dingle Film Festival and that festival came on board as co-executive producer on the finished short, which Tristan wrote, directed and produced,
The plot centres on a couple embarking on a journey in the midst of a family crisis and it stars Gary Lydon (The Guard, Calvary, Pure Mule, The Clinic) Ally Ní Chiaráin (The Drummer and the Keeper, Michael Inside) and rising star Hazel Doupe (Float Like a Butterfly, Michael Inside, Calm with Horses).
“I’m hugely honoured to be nominated for this award among such an incredible list of Irish talent,” says the Letterfrack man. “I am so happy with how people seem to have connected with the film since we screened at the Galway Film Fleadh last July.”
Ciúnas has already won the Grand Prix at the 64th Cork Film Festival in November, which means it’s now on the Academy Awards longlist for 2021.
For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.
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Eclectics aim for a musical smorgasbord for all tastes
Groove Tube with Cian O’Connell
There’s a hint in the name as to what you might expect from the night – and it’s that diversity of styles that helps explain how, right through the second half of 2019, Eclectics emerged as one of Galway’s premier nights for original music.
Curated by David Boland, the showcase gained huge support by prioritising quality and putting artists first. In the Black Gate, Eclectics has a venue that matches its own ethos – it is the city’s most intimate venue not just because of its size but because, invariably, its patrons are intent on listening to the act on stage.
The 2019 programme began and ended with Cavan songstress Lisa O’Neill but it featured a long list of talented Irish musicians in between.
On a Galway scale, local artists including Jack Lee, Maija Sofia and Dead Horse Jive all played headline shows in the latter stages of the year. There were performances too from experienced Irish musicians like John Spillane and Hothouse Flowers’ Liam O Maonlaoi.
Eclectics is a place for artists at the start of their careers as well as those that have long established themselves in the industry. There are no set criteria for the acts David books.
While the venue may lend itself to a quieter sound, the Black Gate hosts musicians from all styles and genres.
Invariably, the shared trait among Eclectics performers is originality. As the name suggests, the showcase champions diversity and authenticity.
Galway’s arts community is one of the best and most vibrant in the country. There is something of a disparity, however, between the number of quality artists we have in the city and the number of venues that encourage their work.
For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.
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Corofin’s history makers return to a heroes’ welcome
Bonfires blazed and hundreds lined the route as the classy Corofin champions made their way home to a rapturous reception on Monday evening following their historic All-Ireland success the previous day.
The stage was set in Dr Duggan Park, as supporters of all ages dressed in their saffron and green colours waited patiently for the team bus to arrive in the village – and when they eventually did, they were greeted by one of the most energetic homecomings ever witnessed.
This was their fifth All-Ireland club success and by far the most special – not just because the side achieved three-in-a-row, but because of the manner in which they pulled away in the first period of extra time.
Many of those loyal Corofin supporters were convinced that the reception might not have been as ecstatic, had they snatched victory in normal time.
Indeed, the huge Corofin support witnessed their side doing what they do best in that opening period as sub Conor Cunningham sneaked a goal from a rebound and heroes Ronan Steede, Dylan Canney, Liam Silke and Gary Sice put daylight between the sides.
Monday’s homecoming began as the team bus crossed the Shannon in Athlone around mid-afternoon and were even treated to a warm welcome in Ballinasloe along the route.
But it was when they arrived at around 6pm in Abbeyknockmoy that the celebrations began in earnest, as players disembarked from the bus with the Andy Merrigan Cup to the delight of the local GAA club and well-wishers.
See full coverage of the homecoming and that historic win in Croke Park – all in this week’s Connacht Tribune.
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