SHE has spina bifida and has to use a wheelchair, but Rhona Coughlan has never allowed her disability to prevent her from living life to the full.
The 43-year-old, from Sundays Well, defies the stereotype of a person with a disability, having set up two dance companies to fulfil her ambition to dance.
With the second company, Croí Glan, Rhona used to dance from her wheelchair and she would also manoeuvre her way out of it and dance on the floor. She is no longer involved with Croí Glan.
She is now a life coach, both for disabled people and able-bodied people. And she is doing a masters in youth work at UCC.
One of life’s enthusiasts, feisty purple-haired Rhona believes in the art of the possible.
“I don’t believe in obstacles. I believe there is a solution to every problem,” she says.
Recently, Rhona made quite an impact on Transition Year students in a school in Mallow where she was giving a talk.
“They were all shocked when they saw me in the wheelchair and me with my purple hair. I decided to catch them out and shift their perspective. I hopped out of my wheelchair and jumped up on a desk and sat on it. The kids’ jaws were on the ground! I’m not glued to my wheelchair.”
Rhona always had an ambition to do radio broadcasting. She has achieved that, having done some freelance work for RTÉ radio and BBC radio, about 15 years ago.
Two summers ago, Rhona worked in a community radio station in Portland, Oregon. She made a programme there about Ireland called Irish Ways. She now podcasts and will be starting her own YouTube channel in the near future.
Rhona has also worked for Youghal Community Radio on a programmed called Perspectives, which supports marginalised people to have their voices heard.
She attended UCC in 2012, where she completed a higher diploma in coaching and coaching psychology. Her practice is called Life Counts Coaching. In her varied career, she has worked in the disability sector, empowering people.
“As someone who uses a wheelchair, I know first-hand the challenges people face so I worked for the Centre for Independent Living and Spinal Injuries Ireland. I commuted between Cork and Dublin. I was a peer support co-ordinator. I worked with people who had spinal injuries, I worked in rehab and worked directly with patients in hospitals. I did outreach work and organised workshops.”
Are people with a serious disability prone to depression?
“I wouldn’t say people are depressed because they can’t walk or whatever. I’ve never been able to walk and I’m not depressed. What people with disabilities are sometimes frustrated by is lack of awareness and lack of understanding of disability. There can be a lack of accessibility, whether in housing, education or employment. Often, people with a disability are not given the same level of opportunity.”
Now self-employed as a life coach, Rhona’s aim is to “empower people so they can empower themselves. It can involve working around people’s employment, I could be dealing with people getting back into the workforce or it could be building people’s confidence in their personal relationships. It’s about working with people who need support. I do one-on-one sessions, I do online coaching and also coaching by phone. I work from home.”
Giving motivational talks and doing workshops in schools is part of Rhona’s work.
“I was in a school in Kildare the other day, working with kids who have special needs. They were Leaving Cert students, preparing to leave school. That can be challenging and if students have additional needs, it can be more complicated. Not complicated in a bad way, just different. What I was focusing on is questions like ‘what makes you happy and what motivates you?’ They are questions we should all be asking ourselves. It’s all about the fundamentals. What gets people up in the mornings? What excites people? Is it family, friends or nature? Really, it’s about connection and feeling heard and feeling like you have a place in the world.”
We should be kind to ourselves, says Rhona.
“If you want to be healthier or health conscious, look at your lifestyle and what you’re eating. Also, are you looking after your mind? That’s very important. People are so busy running around mindlessly. They need to just stop and prioritise what is important.”
Does Rhona practise what she preaches?
“Yes, 100%. I’m a person who is naturally excited about life. I practice mindfulness and I love to go to the gym. I have some days that are better than others.”
Rhona says she loves being in her forties.
“I think that in your forties, you’re more comfortable in your skin. I’ve always been lucky to be happy in my own skin. As I get older, I’m finessing that more. I have a strong work ethic and a good sense of humour.”
The bottom line for Rhona is integration.
“We should all be integrated, both disabled and able-bodied. It’s about having respect for and understanding of each other.”
Spoken from one who knows.