Making ability count

As he nears the end of his three year degree in Social Science, Alan Sheehan is as aware as any other graduate to the challenges facing him. “I’m not ruling anything out, and I’m not ruling anything in,” he states with a mixture of positivity and trepidation. The careers event I meet him at has employers from companies such as Citi, Google and Bank of Ireland in attendance, and Alan is looking forward to seeing what is on offer. More importantly, he is eager to know what will be expected of new graduates such as himself.

Alan knows that these companies will be expecting nothing less than 100% from applicants. A tough jobs market guarantees it. He knows that he can give them what they need, however, for the simple reason that he’s used to giving 100%. Sitting next to Alan is his educational assistant, who rarely leaves his side. Our canteen table allows plenty of room for the wheelchair that Alan has been confined to his entire life.

The career event is organised by the Association for Higher Education Access & Disability (AHEAD). Their Assistant Director, Mary Quirke – a nurse, turned midwife, turned career guidance counsellor – knows the additional challenges facing graduates such as Alan. The first hurdle is the way in which they disclose their disability to the employer.

Tackling this in a positive manner is half the battle, says Mary. “One person can go in and sit in front of an employer and say ‘I have a visual impairment’ and somebody else can go in and say ‘by the way I can do the job but I will need this technology on my computer because I have a visual impairment’, and after that it’s fine.” Once in the door and doing the job, Mary’s experience of employees with disabilities has been overwhelmingly positive. “If things are going fine, nobody sees it anymore,” she says.

Disclosure is one thing, but how can you disclose something that hasn’t been diagnosed. This was the case with Alan’s other disability, dyslexia, which very nearly ruined his chances of reaching third level. In primary school his teachers viewed him as “just being one of those kids that you can’t do anything about.” Things weren’t much better in secondary school, until his English and History teacher spotted his intelligence and ambition, finally seeing him as someone who wasn’t just “hanging about trying to pass his day.”

Completing his Junior Cert at 18, his college plans were dealt a further blow when his school informed him that they had no Leaving Cert programme in place for people with disabilities. “We do now; I’ll be back in September” was Alan’s response to his principle. While acutely aware of his disabilities, Alan knows what he needs to do to succeed. “I’m not a genius but I work very very hard, and that’s the key point of being disabled as I see it. I don’t focus on my disabilities, I focus on my abilities.”

Despite Alan’s perseverance and pending graduation, he now finds himself caught up in a problem that even he himself can’t control – our economy. While Ireland’s public sector ensures that those with disabilities comprise at least 3% of its workforce, the private sector has no such obligation, and competition is fierce. It is in times such as these, however, that Mary believes that companies look to the “big thinkers and creative thinkers.” This, in turn, can provide opportunities for those with disabilities to shine as they are “used to finding solutions to problems for themselves.”

Sometimes the biggest solution is to change your outlook, something which Alan is all too aware of. “One has to ponder the definition of disability,” he says. “I’m disabled, but I don’t wake up every morning going ‘Oh Jesus I’m disabled, I can’t do anything.’ That’s not part of my thinking and never has been.” Always positive, Alan believes that Ireland’s support structures, such as the Disability Support Service in University College Cork, has taken him from “being a disabled person to a person with a disability. That is a big transformation.”

Being a person with a disability, however, can still prove limiting. While the option of last resort for many who can’t find work in Ireland is to emigrate, it’s hard not to imagine that the physical and support needs of those with a disability make this option infinitely more difficult. In this respect Alan feels that he is “very lucky” that his “disabilities are very mild in comparison with others.”

Having fought hard to get to a position that many others take for granted, Alan has no plans on throwing it all away now. “I have responsibilities now not only to myself but to others, and I will do what I need to do,” he says. “If that means emigrating, that’s what I will consider.”

Hearing Alan speak, one can’t help but wonder what the long term effects of the Government cuts will have on those with disabilities. Between the reductions in Special Needs Assistants and the proposed cap on student numbers at third-level, it’s difficult to imagine that the number of graduates with disabilities will increase. Despite these very real fears, Mary still hopes that the opportunities will continue to present themselves. “If you go out and you do something well, it will work out,” she says.

While still believing that “as long as there are people with disabilities, there will be graduates with disabilities,” Alan is worried. “As a country, as a community, and as a people, we cannot stand back and say ‘Ok job done, this is as far as we can take this particular group of people’.”

Role models play an important part in all walks of life, and for people with disabilities, it is no different. To see people who have had to overcome similar challenges and succeed is heartening to all. Looking to famous dyslexics such as Cher and Tom Cruise, Alan is quick to credit their role. “This is why I’m positive, because there are people like that and they achieve what they achieve,” he says.

My conversation with Alan has come to an end. Mentioning that today is his 29th birthday, he ponders as to what his 30th will bring. When I mention that perhaps he will be 30 with a Masters qualification, his response is far more modest. “Or even better, 30 with a job,” he says. Having said my goodbyes, I can’t help but feel that Alan won’t have a problem getting what he wants. After all, he has spent his entire life showing what employers have always looked for – recession or otherwise.

Alan has shown his ability.

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