It is International Day of People with a Disability, and I would like to share some things with you about the impact that a few people with disabilities have had on my life so far.
12 years ago, while working for a professional football club in Adelaide, South Australia, I got the call that everyone who has ever lived abroad for an extended period dreads; "Something has happened to your Da. You need to come home". My da had had a massive stroke at the age of 48, and was being kept going by some machine until I got back, but he wasn’t going to make it. The club I was working for pulled a few strings to get me on the next flight out of Oz, and so began the trip home to face into the chaos of a parent dying at a young age. While at London and in the company of my aunt Clair who was there to meet me so we could make the last leg of the journey together, the news came through on the phone: 'He's gone'. By some miracle twist of fate, my Da, Gearóid, was pronounced dead at 1pm, and pronounced un-dead at 5pm. Some have said that the recovery time that the time he spent in an induced coma while I was making the round the world trip had somehow allowed for the bare faculties of life to recover somewhat, and when he responded to the nurses request of 'Squeeze my hand if you can hear me', the nurse nearly had a stroke himself, and Gearóid was re-sedated to begin a lengthy period of recovery at the Intensive care unit at the Royal in Belfast, to eventually make it to Musgrave Hospital's Acquired Brain Injury Unit, and then eventually back into the land of the Gaeligeoirs, revolutionaries, and living human beings, albeit with a decommissioned left side and a motorized accomplice in his wheelchair 'Michael Collins' (which affords him a measure of independence with full independence to come at a later date)
He has since married his long term partner Brid O Gallchoir, travelled all around Ireland with his one man show, The Wheelchair Monologues, contributed positively to his community as he always has, and forged deep familial connections that may never have materialised had the worst possible situation unfolded back in 2006. Somewhere along the line, we all become more aware of how much the system is rigged against making life easy for people with disabilities. Wheelchair accessible taxi's, no ramp at the edge of footpaths, toilets that are too small to get into with a wheelchair, and people leaving their cars in wheelchair spaces to 'just nip in for a minute' to name but a few regular headaches. In the early days of his rehabilitation process, Gearóid, or G as we affectionately call him, set me the challenge of opening a training facility that would cater to people of all abilities equally, and so began the ACLAÍ journey. Coincidentally, we received a national inclusion award from CARA last week for our work in this area just last week. Its funny how one conversation back in 2013 with big G turned into 5 years of work, and led directly to meeting the next person in this story.
I was approached back in 2016 by the Rebel Wheelers Multi Sports Clubabout setting up a strength and movement program for their members that would improve their day to day independence as well as provide an engaging and long term training program that the participants would enjoy. It came at the perfect time, as it was during a period where I was considering my next move. In preparation for the program, I met Alan Dineen (Ailín Leggy), who was studying strength and conditioning in Setanta College at the time. He has suffered 99 fractures in his life on account of his brittle bone condition, which also means he is a full time wheelchair user. I remember the first time he explained the condition to me and then casually dropped in that he played Wheelchair Rugby for Ireland. If you haven't seen wheelchair rugby, its actually more violent than the rugby you are used to seeing on your TV screen. To the extent that it used to be caller 'Murder Ball' , before they came up with a more PC name for it to help the spread of the sport. A bit like how the UFC have tried to make the sport more fit for public consumption in recent years. So to get that straight, a guy how breaks bones much more easily than the rest of us, plays a sport that involves actively ramming wheelchairs with metal frames into each other at high speed. Why? My guess from talking to Alan and from trying it out earlier this year is that wheelchair rugby is a leveller for anyone who participates. Anyone who sits into the chair and wheels onto the court is the same as the next person. No disability. Just working with team mates to get the ball over the line. Feeling like your making a positive contribution, when you often feel like you are relying on other people. Feeling like part of a bigger team, when you can often feel alone. Getting out there when a lot of things in society point to 'stay at home and be disabled'. Isn't that what we all want? To feel useful, productive, and alive? What inspires me so much about Alan is that he does so at the expense of breaking a bone….again. I don’t think I would have ever graced the hurling field as many times as I did if I had Alan's odds of breaking bones. Today, Alan is a coach at ACLAÍ. He flips peoples preconceived notions of him in the flash of an eye. So fast that the people may not even have the chance to realise that they had any stereotypes about wheelchair users in the first place. He works his ass off and is coaching at a level way above what you could expect for a mid-20's coach. He has an attitude that we all need some of, and a life experience that comes through in his coaching as the merging of empathy, determination, and grit. Like Alchemy. Not only has he turned his 'disability' on its head, his vibe rubs off on the rest of us and he is making each of us better every day.
When I first moved to Cork, I didn’t have that many friends. I started going to the pub Sin É on Friday nights to take part in the weekly trad session, and on the first night I met Eddie Hennessy. We have been friends ever since. Eddie had a stroke in 2008 at the age of 33. The same age I am now as it happens. When he first spoke to me, I wasn’t sure where he was from. A mixture of the roaring trad session that was happening around us, and Eddie's aphasia (when the words are there in your head, but they take a bit longer to come out of your mouth), but after at the end of the night he told me he was going to cycle 100 miles to commemorate his 2 year stroke survival anniversary, and did I want to come with him. It was one of those moments that forged a friendship has grown ever since. Since then, Eddie started to take photographs, and become a phenomenal photographer. Check him out on Instagram or Facebook to see his breath-taking work. You can look up Eddie's story online as it has been picked up by world famous photography site Creative Live. He went from not being able to walk OR talk, to capturing moments that are now represented in beautiful photos at peoples weddings, special occasions, or in nature that will last for many years after we have all moved on from here, and a father to Gráinne, and kept in line by his wife Mags!. What is it that makes a person climb out of the abyss to create something that did not exist before? Why not accept the path of least resistance and give up?
In the words of Maya Angelou "Take up the battle. Take it up. This is your life. This is your world. You make your own choices. You can decide that life isn't worth living, and that would be the worst thing you can do. How do you know, so far? Try it. See. So pick it up. Pick up the battle, and make it a better world"
Resilience is something that we all need, and revolutions are built on the vision to know that you can overcome adversity. The examples to learn from don’t come from the big suits up in the high offices, or the sports starts who drive Ferraris. They come from people like Eddie. As he posted on his own Facebook earlier today: "Forget the things you can’t do and concentrate on the things u can do! Fuck um!" Ainle X