Images from ‘New Documents’ photographic exhibition now online

Hi all,

For those of you who weren’t able to make the gallery exhibition in June, a selection of the images I had taken of Dublin’s pawnbrokers are now available as part of an article which I have written for – ‘In pics: Hidden Ireland – Dublin’s pawnbrokers’ is available to read here.


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.

The Opportunity of Obstacles

“I would have had no interest or knowledge of anything associated with disability up until then,” I’m told matter-of-factly over the phone. If Dubliner Stephen Cluskey hadn’t gone to work on that fateful day 10 years ago, he probably still wouldn’t. But he did.

At 18, Stephen had just entered his Leaving Cert year. The set of exams undertaken by those on the cusp of adulthood and independence are often looked back on with overwhelming relief by all who have sat them. While Stephen’s Leaving Cert also signified his transition into adulthood, independence was not to accompany it.

By the time June of 2002 had arrived, he was part-way into a 16-month stay at Dun Laoghaire Rehabilitation Clinic, the result of a farming accident which had left him with a broken neck and a forever altered future. In the decade that has followed, not a lot has changed for him medically. But that’s only half the story.

The hourly, never mind daily obstacles he has faced have made the easy, pre-2002 tasks immeasurably harder. His business mind, sharpened by the distance-learning business degree that he has been taking for the last 3 years, is helping him to view these obstacles as something completely different – business opportunities.

Having travelled to America and Portugal over the years for treatment, what should have been a non-issue soon became an unwelcome distraction. “I really struggled with public transport over there,” he says. Things were very different when Stephen had travelled to London for similar treatment. “In London, every taxi is wheelchair accessible, which I think is something we should be working towards,” he says.

While the latest grant scheme for wheelchair accessible taxis by the National Transport Authority (NTA) may increase the numbers somewhat (see below for more), the numbers are still far too low in Stephen’s eyes. “It’s not going to make a huge impact by any stretch of the imagination,” he says. Far bigger a problem, however, is finding one of these taxis when you need it.

Take Co. Tipperary, for example. As of the 31st of January 2012, figures from the NTA show that only 4 out of 267 taxis and hackneys were wheelchair accessible – less than 2%. To put in another way, someone who is wheelchair-bound and who finds themselves in Tipperary has a less than 1 in 50 chance of getting a public service vehicle that can actually take them where they want to do.

Something needs to be done, and Stephen is managing to do it. “After a lot of research, I realised I wasn’t the only one suffering from this problem,” he says, when recalling the logistical nightmares which have too often taken the fun out of trips or, worse again, prevented them from happening in the first place.

Launched at the beginning of February, is his brainchild. The best ideas are often the simplest ones, with Stephen’s definitely falling into the why didn’t I think of this before category. Offering a way for drivers of wheelchair accessible taxis to register their services through the website has so far led to nearly 70 to date.

Users can then find wheelchair accessible taxis in their locality. Realising that the site is unworkable without suitable taxis, taxi drivers or those looking to use them are not required to pay any fees. Helping to solve a major problem which in turn makes your own life easier in the process doesn’t mean that you can’t turn a profit, however.

Having already spent approximately €1000 on getting the site to where it is today Stephen neither expects charity nor seeks to run one. With a business model in place which he believes will turn a profit, from next month the site will list more types of accessible transport.

Advertisements for wheelchair accessible minibuses, coaches, vans and even boats are planned, with the advertiser paying a fee for access to a niche market. “I plan to make it as much of a one stop shop as possible,” he says. “With the internet nowadays you can search sites for everything, from comparing your insurance to checking out the property market. I suppose it’s just an extension of that for the disabled community.”

Having gotten details from the Taxi Regulator, Stephen has personally sent out text messages via the internet to every taxi driver in the country to alert them of the website. Circumstances may have changed how he interacts with technology, but it has also proved to be the great equaliser for him over the last decade.

Describing our initial contact via email, he tells me how software transformed his words into text, ready to be sent. “A head mouse, which is like a sensor which sits on top of a computer allows me to move my head and the mouse moves with me. To click I hold it in the same position for a second or two,” he tells me, describing the process which has now become second nature to him.

Whether ultimately profitable or not, everything Stephen has done to date has been driven by a very simple premise, which the younger version of himself would never have given a second thought to. “I want to restore that spontaneity back into the lives of people with disabilities so that they don’t have to plan everything.”

They say the best ideas are often the simplest ones. So why didn’t we think of that?

Small Public Service Vehicle (SPSV) licenses as at 31/01/12

Vehicle Category Pie-chart

On the 1st of February 2012, the National Transport Authority (NTA) launched the second Wheelchair accessible Grant Scheme, which made €165,000 available for the upgrading of licensed vehicles to be wheelchair accessible, along with an additional €85,000 for those wishing to enter the profession. For those looking to upgrade, the payout per recipient is capped at €15,000.

If each recipient were to receive the max payout, this would result in the conversion of only 11 taxis nationally, with funds being split 50:50 between Dublin and the rest of the country.

Speaking to Joanne Coffey, whose PR firm represents the Commission for Taxi Regulation, the first Wheelchair accessible Grant Scheme resulted in 16 new vehicles and 5 conversions. Using the earlier example of Tipperary, however, it only increased its number by 1, from 3 to 4.

How the web could save your life

While ideas such as have the ability to improve lives, another initiative is hoping to use technology to potentially save them. Currently being trialled until the end of June, those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech-impaired can register their mobile phone number along with other personal information, including any medical conditions, using the website

In the event of an emergency, a simple text from the registered mobile phone to 112 (the Europe-wide emergency number) will automatically be passed on to An Garda Síochána, the Ambulance service, the Fire service, or the Irish Coastguard. For more information, check out

Standing up

“Hi, my name is Paul and I’ll be your comedian for the seven longest minutes of your life”. It was with this opening salvo that my first, and thus far, only foray into the world of stand-up got underway. I even managed to squeeze a joke in there, I think.

Whereas a crowning achievement for the Irish familial unit was once to produce either a doctor or priest, our sense of humour ensures that the mere act of getting your umbilical cord cut on Irish soil gives you at least a fighting chance of another occupation – comedian! On Tuesday the 25th of January 2011 at 9:30pm I sampled this lesser considered occupation. At 9:37pm that same evening I handed in my notice, thankful of the fact that I had not given up my day job. That said, those seven minutes provided me with a feeling of exhilaration, joy, and downright fear which I have yet to recreate all these months later.

It all started in December 2010 when, in my ever more erratic attempts to find my niche in life and to try something new, the thought of an open mic comedy stint came to mind. Once the seed had been planted, it began to grow and develop like the badly formed jokes I would find myself writing. The more I thought of doing it, the more it scared me. Never one to take the easy way out, the resultant fear all but sealed the deal.

Having scoured the internet for places offering me the chance to humiliate myself, I stumbled across the Ha’Penny Bridge Inn, an old style pub on Dublin’s Wellington Quay. It listed Tuesdays and Thursdays as open mic nights. Having read every line of text and studied every picture on their website for some insight as to what I was letting myself in for, contact was made.

I was responded to almost immediately, and was faced was two further challenges straight out of the gates. I would need to learn my seven minutes off by heart and keep the content relatively clean throughout. With very little material already prepared, the thoughts of having to filter what came to mind put me under even more pressure. Despite the trepidation I was excited! Once accepted, I knew putting myself in front of a public who expected to be entertained would generate a fight or flight response unlike any other I had ever experienced. I wasn’t to be disappointed.

As the date neared, self reassurance became a daily necessity. After all, I thought to myself, I have spoken in front of crowds before. Failing to realise that I was in no way comparing like with like, this kept the wheels turning. Looking back now, I wished I could put this self confidence down to youthful exuberance, but I’m not sure whether, at 30, I am too tall for that particular ride.

With an entire three weeks to play with between sign up and stand up, you would be forgiven for thinking that seven minutes doesn’t sound like much, until you realise that, well, it is! Seven times as much material as I had when I confirmed the date and time of my gig, in fact. Pinching my arm to confirm that I wasn’t, in fact, dreaming, I sought a second opinion by pinching the other one. The only way to get the material together was to find the funny in everyday, which unfortunately had the effect of making every day thereafter appear decidedly unfunny. My past would have to suffice. Never one to fear self-embarrassment, tales from puberty were built upon, and dragged kicking and screaming into my routine. All bets were off!

Seven minutes of material scraped together, the night came for me to face my own personal Everest. With just my worried wife in tow, I arrived at the pub for 8:00pm, cue card in back pocket and backup in front pocket. The open mic was to take place upstairs, and it was here that I got an additional shock. It cost €5 to get in! At this point, the audience I would be facing took on a new dimension. While the majority would still be there to support their act on the night and would be good natured, they were paying for the privilege. How forgiving would they be?

As the other acts went on before me, I found myself gauging the reaction they received. Some jokes were laughed at, some weren’t. At least I knew I wouldn’t be the only one to go down in flames. Far too nervous to take alcohol on board, Diet Coke was the order of the night until, at 9:30, my name was called. The rest, as they say, is history!

Things got off to a good start, with my first joke getting a bigger laugh than I had imagined it would. This, however, delayed my routine, and before I knew it, I had drawn a blank. Other acts before me had already resorted to notes so I didn’t feel quite so deflated when I had to take my cue card out. Back on track, the rest of the seven minutes passed off without major incident. Signing off with “My name was Paul and you’ve been very understanding”, I was straight to the bar. A Diet Coke was not ordered!

Looking back now it still feels surreal. A comedian who took to the stage before me spent the first 30 seconds of his routine jumping around the stage screaming “look at me, look at me”, garnering laughter from all, especially those who were soon to occupy the same stage. Months later his humorous observation has stayed with me. What makes people want to become comedians? While there are those who believe the world needs their comedy and use it to effect social change, for others, the laughter is the motivation. There are also, of course, those who love the attention above all else, and the adulation that comes with success.

It takes a certain kind of person to stand up on stage and say “look at me, look at me”. Egotistical, I hope not. Confident, probably. Adventurous, I reckon. Having done it, I still can’t fully explain my reasons, or what kind of person I believe I am. What I can tell you, though, is that I’ve never felt more alive than when I was on that stage. Most of my friends still don’t know I did it. Will I ever so it again? Probably not.

What will never change, however, is that I, on the 25th of January 2011 was a stand up comedian in the Ha’Penny Bridge Inn and I made strangers laugh. Does my mantelpiece contain the “Rubber Duck” award (go there to find out what it is)? No it does not. Do I care? Absolutely not. The next time you feel that your week is looking a little too similar to last week for your liking, or that you are starting to take yourself a bit too seriously, do something new.

As your heart beats out of your chest, you’ll question why you broke your weeknight routine but, believe me, you’ll know you’re alive. After all, isn’t that what we all want to feel before our time on the really big stage runs out?