Michael Pattwell: Inspirational people who make a nonsense of their ‘disability’

Michael Pattwell recalls an encounter with an old lady getting off the 208 bus this week and has resolved not to complain again...
Michael Pattwell: Inspirational people who make a nonsense of their ‘disability’

AMBITION: Joanne O’Riordan has said she wants to run for President, “I have no doubt she is likely to succeed,” says Michael Pattwell.

DID you ever notice how sometimes, out of the blue, we hear or see something that has a profound effect on us?

Sometimes it can be something quite ordinary that we have come across regularly, but on an occasion, whatever frame of mind we might be in raises something quite ordinary into something quite extraordinary that takes on a new significance for us.

I was standing at a bus stop in the city last week waiting for the 208 to take me to Wilton — isn’t the free travel just wonderful? — when the bus arrived. I was in a small queue and we stood back as the people alighted onto Patrick Street. When the crowd coming off thinned out, those of us getting on board moved forward.

Then we saw her, a little old lady, bent over such that the upper part of her body was almost parallel with the ground, and carrying a short walking stick. Her height may have been average — or near average — at one time but now she was certainly no taller than 4ft. I don’t know how old she was but she must have been at least 80. Nor do I know what her medical condition was. Perhaps it was congenital or perhaps it was something that developed in later life.

She could have done with a ramp, but the driver did not deploy one; in fairness, it is possible there was none available for that particular bus.

As she grabbed a handle near the door of the bus to get herself down to the street, a couple of women came forward to help her and in no time she was on the footpath. Off up the street she went in the direction of Debenhams (I still call it Roches’ Stores), still bent over but striding along like a 4ft colossus. I know is a contradiction in terms, but I hope it conveys what I am trying to say.

For some reason, I was fascinated by the scene I had witnessed and my admiration for the old lady almost brimmed over in tears from my eyes. I was deeply touched and in awe of her fortitude and bravery. Despite her obvious difficulties, she had gotten herself out in the morning to attend to her business. I just loved the whole idea of it.

I have some difficulty with my motor function myself as a result of a back problem and from time to time I carry a walking stick to help me on an incline or going up steps — and yes, I have been heard, occasionally, to grumble or complain. After seeing that anonymous old lady getting off the 208 bus I resolved not to complain again.

I read recently on the website for the Disability Federation of Ireland that 56,000 people will be diagnosed with a disability this year alone. That surely means there can be scarcely anyone in Ireland who is not affected in some way by disability. Either we have some form of disability ourselves or a friend or relative has.

At one time in society, having a disability seemed to carry with it a sense of shame or embarrassment. Thankfully that is no longer the case and people with a disability have found a voice and regularly speak up for themselves, as well as that, there are many support groups within which the families and friends of disabled people work in their support.

The person who instantly comes to mind when we consider the issue of disability is probably Joanne O’Riordan. Now aged 23, she is one of only seven people currently living people born with the condition Tetra-amelia syndromean. She is an activist for disabled people but also a sports journalist who contributes to the news media.

Joanne is from Millstreet and has addressed the United Nations, speaking on the use of technology and challenging those present to build a robot for her to use. She received a standing ovation.

She has also discussed technology with Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Apple, has received a Cork Person of the Month award, and in September, 2012, was named Young Person of the Year at the People of the Year Awards. In 2014, she was awarded the Outstanding Young Person of the Year by Junior Chamber International. She was the youngest ever Grand Marshall at Dublin’s St Patrick’s Festival parade in 2016.

Joanne has been quoted as saying that she intends to run for President of Ireland and I have no doubt but if she does she is likely to succeed.

A film of her life, No Limbs No Limits, has been made by her brother, Steven.

Though Joanne is, for me anyway, the person who first comes to mind there are many others. I was watching a television programme the other night about the destruction of the documents in the Public Records Office when the Four Courts was shelled in 1922 during the Civil War. One of the expert archivists who featured on that programme was a person of small stature. I’m not sure if it is PC to use ‘dwarf’ or ‘dwarfism’ now. She was most impressive and, to tell the truth, it was difficult to consider her as suffering from a disability.

In fact, she was the second person of small stature who last week featured in a documentary. Earlier in the week the actor Warwick Davies, also a person of small stature, narrated a documentary about the Harry Potter movies.

When I think of it, I’m not sure that people of small stature (I believe people who are less than 4ft 10in are considered to be of small stature) should be considered ‘disabled’ at all. It may be ‘inconvenient’, given that much of what we encounter in life presumes that people will be at least of average height. Furniture, motor vehicles, even clothes.

If it is to be regarded as a ‘disability’ then shouldn’t people who are above average height be also regarded as ‘disabled’. I’m over 6ft 4in and it can be difficult to get clothes to fit me comfortably. I just can’t use some motor vehicles because when I do, I have to adopt a most uncomfortable sitting position with my knees almost touching my ears.

Getting on a plane can be a nightmare and unless I’m lucky to get a seat with extra legroom, I could spend several very uncomfortable hours. Airlines now charge extra for seats with extra legroom and to my mind that is disgracefully discriminatory.

Usually, I can manage until the passenger in front decides to recline his seat and that creates the most uncomfortable journey of all. The funny thing is that if I don’t shift the position of my legs to the side, my knees are likely to dig into the back of the seat in front of me, to the discomfort of the passenger who reclined his seat in the first place and such people are not slow to complain.

There are so many different ‘disabilities’ that it would be very difficult to try to deal with them all individually. At least the days of hiding those affected have passed and when it comes to paraplegic and other sports for disabled persons, those partaking do so with both pride and ambition.

Just like the ladies who came to assist the lady on the 208 bus, there are many people who, though not disabled themselves, are more than willing to come to the assistance of those who may need a little help.

There are many organisations too that have able-bodied people as active members that are dedicated to that cause. I mentioned already the Disability Federation of Ireland. Their mission is simply to ensure that changes are made that would mean equality for people with disabilities.

The Federation is, as the word implies, an organisation of which more than 120 other organisations are members. According to their website they work to make sure that they:

Understand disability and the challenges people with disabilities face;

Consider how the actions they take are likely to affect people with disabilities;

Create equal opportunities for people with disabilities to be involved.

They also work with People with Disabilities to:

Build their confidence.

Help them gain the skills they need to speak up for themselves.

Identify opportunities for them to speak-up.

Create spaces for them to work together on making positive change happen.

There is, therefore, no need for a person with a disability or for their families to feel alone or abandoned or to be despondent. Help is available from any of the 126 organisations that are affiliated to the Federation.

Contact Michael at pattwellsverdict@eircom.net

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