Friday 16 November 2018

Ambitious, highly educated and loves rowing, but this 30-year-old still can't find a job

Sarah McLoughlin tells Joy Orpen that, despite her tenacity, the fact she has a disability has resulted in closed doors on the job front

Sarah McLoughlin and her father Damien
Sarah McLoughlin and her father Damien
Sarah McLoughlin and her father Damien

Sarah McLoughlin (30), like so many people from the beautiful kingdom of Kerry, loves sport. Over the years, she has participated in Gaelic football, athletics and rowing. Her latest passion is tandem cycling. And soon you may come across her playing tennis - with a ball that chimes.

There's a very good reason why Sarah engages in an activity that employs a noisy ball - she's gradually losing her eyesight. It's something that became apparent when she was just a child. "She was struggling to read the blackboard at school," says Damien, her father. "She was about nine at the time. Her grandfather, an ophthalmic surgeon in Tralee, discovered she was short-sighted and prescribed glasses. After that, she seemed to manage well."

Things ticked along nicely until Christmas Eve 2004, when Damien parked his car outside the local church waiting for 16-year-old Sarah to finish serving midnight Mass. However, when she emerged, she didn't notice him, even though he was quite obvious. "So I called to her, and that's when I realised she was trying to work out where my voice was coming from, because she couldn't actually see me," he says.

Soon after, an optician tested Sarah for retinitis pigmentosa (RP). He then referred her to the Bon Secours Hospital in Tralee, where the diagnosis was confirmed. "The doctor examining me said it was genetic, and that it was progressive," says Sarah.

According to John Delany, senior counselling manager at Fighting Blindness, RP refers to a group of inherited diseases that affect the photoreceptor (light-sensing) cells responsible for capturing images from the visual field. "These cells line the back of the eye, in the region known as the retina. People with RP experience a gradual decline in their vision, because the two types of photoreceptor cells - rods and cones - degenerate. Common symptoms include difficulty seeing at night, and a loss of side [peripheral] vision."

Sarah volunteers that while it was a shock to get the diagnosis, it wasn't one she took too seriously. Damien says that, when given the news, Sarah quipped, "I can see just as well now as I could before I got the diagnosis". In other words, she took the news well, deciding there and then to remain positive and to tackle her challenges head-on.

That attitude allowed this plucky teenager to continue working for her Leaving Certificate. "During the exams, I was assigned a room with extra-bright light, and given exam papers with large print," she says. "After that, I studied nutritional science, for a BSc at University College Cork [UCC]."

Proud dad Damien says Sarah coped well during her years in Cork, in spite of her failing eyesight. She even managed, in her final year, to live off-campus, in a shared house, and she had a ball.

She then spread her wings even further, and headed to Queen Margaret University, in Edinburgh, to do an MSc in public health nutrition. "The master's required Sarah to make a number of PowerPoint presentations," explains her dad, "and they proved problematic for her, so she didn't make the deadline. But she did get a postgraduate award anyway." And deservedly so, given all the hard graft she put in over the years.

When Sarah returned to Ireland, she began looking for work. "The area I wanted to be involved in was falls under the HSE," she explains. "But it turned out there was an embargo on recruiting new staff, so that was very disappointing. I then tried to get work through different agencies, but nothing came of those either," she says.

It was a disappointing experience for her, and Damien volunteers that it was upsetting for him and his wife, Adrienne, to see their much-loved daughter having to deal with this, on top of her visual challenges. "We are immensely disappointed," says Damien. "Sarah has put in a huge amount of effort and hard work over the years to get this far. It's no mean feat for anyone to get a BSc, and she was so close to the master's. She hands out CVs and keeps looking around, but all she seems to come up against are closed doors. She'd love to be working, but no one seems willing to take her on."

John Delany concurs. "Of the 600,000 people in Ireland living with a disability, 71pc of those of working age are unemployed. Sarah's story clearly demonstrates great tenacity and huge commitment," he says. "So her case clearly illustrates the need for additional proactive measures by the Government to allow people with disabilities to take their rightful place in the workforce."

Even though Sarah has every right to feel despondent, she doesn't wallow in self-pity. On the contrary, she immerses herself in activities that are accessible to her, and, in her case, that means sport, and rowing in particular.

"I really enjoy it," she says. "I like the physical exercise, but the social side is important, too." Damien agrees. "I think rowing was a lifesaver. It presented a great opportunity for Sarah to get out of the house and to be active."

About five years ago, she became a member of the para-rowing team, which falls under the auspices of Rowing Ireland. This allows athletes with disabilities to compete in rowing competitions on a national and international level. Currently, Sarah is a member of the University of Limerick Rowing Club, and she trains with them at weekends. She also goes to gym regularly, and has taken up riding tandem bikes with the Chain Gang Cycling Club in Tralee. "I ride with a pilot in front," she explains. As things stand, Sarah has less than 30pc vision. But she's done cane training with the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) and a course in independent living, and feels confident she can, and will, move on. In the meantime, she has produced a booklet on good nutrition for the Tralee Rowing Club, which has enjoyed excellent feedback.

As for the musical tennis balls? She says she first came across them while volunteering at CampAbilities - an organisation run by Cara to promote sport among people with disabilities. "They use the ringing sound to follow the ball," she explains. "They had footballs, too."

Sarah, in spite of her sight loss, remains upbeat. She concludes with this message. "Thanks to the support I get from Fighting Blindness, the NCBI and my family and friends, I am learning to take each day as it comes. It's important to stay positive and do what I can to the best of my ability," she says.

To mark World Sight Day (October 11), Fighting Blindness invites people with sight loss to meet experts at Retina 2018, a public engagement day supported by Novartis. It takes place at the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, D8, Saturday, October 6. See retina.ie

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