Freedom road: 'I wished I could walk, and used to envy the other kids when they were running around. I really felt left out'
Niamh Ryan, a wheelchair user, is learning to drive. She tells our reporter about the ins and outs of her journey to reach the point where she will soon be behind the wheel of her very own motor
When Niamh Ryan spots a particular shiny blue vehicle, parked in Limerick's city centre, she smiles. Soon the back door opens, allowing a ramp to unfold. Niamh rolls her wheelchair up the ramp and into the front, before carefully putting on the chair's brakes. She transfers herself into the driver's seat, and then she whoops with delight. She has just taken the very first step in a process that is likely to transform her life.
Niamh (20) lives in Curragh, Castlemahon, Co Limerick, with her parents and her brothers, James Patrick (14) and Kevin (11). Before Niamh's birth, her mother, Lily, who is a nurse, learned that the baby had a defect of the spinal column. She was also told that the infant wouldn't live long. So she and her husband, James, got a second opinion, and were given a very different prognosis. "That doctor said I would lead a fairly normal life, but in a wheelchair," says Niamh. She explains that she was born with spina bifida (which causes an incomplete closure in the spinal column) and hydrocephalus (the two may go hand-in-hand).
In Niamh's case, her legs are most affected. Although her mobility was better when she was younger, these days she can only manage a few steps. Nonetheless, she is grateful for her current mobility, which allows her to move from her wheelchair into bed, to sit behind a desk, or behind the steering wheel of a motor car. Niamh says she didn't really find acceptance at primary school, and was conscious that some children, not understanding her situation, sniggered behind her back. Naturally, she found this very upsetting, and says she "dreaded" going to school. But she made friends with one particular girl in primary school and another in secondary, and those girls have remained loyal to her to this day. Niamh also stresses that every single one of her teachers at that time were immensely supportive of her. Not surprisingly, Niamh becomes tearful when she recalls what it was like to be a child living with a disability. "I felt people were judging me because I was in a wheelchair," she recalls. "I wished I could walk, and used to envy the other kids when they were running around. I really felt left out. And that didn't seem fair."
Unfortunately, things didn't get better when she became a teenager. Her situation was only heightened by the angst that often accompanies young people in their teens. But Niamh handled it all well; she discovered that it helped enormously to talk about her "sad" feelings to the good friends she knew she could trust, and to her very supportive family. "In the end, I managed to come to terms with it all," she volunteers cheerily.
Niamh attended mainstream schools, and did her Leaving Certificate in 2014. "The day I finished was the happiest day of my life," she says. "I felt I was starting on a whole new chapter." Soon after, she gained work experience in a hospital and remained there until 2015. In the meantime, she did a course in retail skills. The National Learning Network then placed her with Permanent TSB in Newcastle West. Niamh loves the work, helping customers in whatever way she can. She says there are about eight staff members at this branch and volunteers that "they're lovely and very helpful". Since she really likes working with people, she is well placed right now. As far as the future is concerned, Niamh, like most young people, wants to be happy in her work, to fall in love, marry and have children.
Just a few days after she started at PTSB, Niamh passed her theory test, the first step in getting her driver's licence. But because of her disability, she then faced additional hurdles. "I can only drive an automatic vehicle and I can't use foot pedals," she explains. So borrowing the family car wasn't an option. "My situation isn't as straightforward as it might be for others," she explains. "So my mum and I got in touch with the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA)." Consequently, Niamh was assessed, and soon after that, she began driving lessons with an IWA approved instructor.
Not so long ago, Niamh, who was now looking to buy a car for herself, went to a mobility show to investigate what options were available. "I wanted a small, compact car," she explains. "But because I don't have enough strength - I cannot lift a wheelchair on to the roof - I realised I needed a car I can drive [my wheelchair] into." At the show, Niamh met Eoin Kelly, an aftersales manager at Motability Ireland. Their motto is, "innovation, accessibility and confidence." Consequently, in the middle of this interview, which was held in Limerick recently, Eoin arrived with an accessible 2012 Peugeot Bipper, which he thought might be right for Niamh.
Once she had rolled herself into the vehicle and transferred herself onto the driver's seat, Eoin was then able to assess this plucky and articulate young woman's very specific needs. "We'll raise the seat to give her better visibility," he explains. "We'll put in hand controls for accelerating, braking and indicating, and we'll put a ball on the steering wheel - as Niamh can steer with one hand only, she needs the other one at all times for controlling her speed and braking." It would seem that Niamh and the vehicle are well matched, as the modifications for her are about to begin. Eoin's company will be just one of many others participating in the Disabled Drivers Motor Show and Conference at the RDS in Dublin. A spokesman says: "They will showcase everything you need to know about driving with limited mobility."
Lily believes her daughter can only blossom once she learns to drive and has her own motor. "People don't realise that they are blessed to have children who do not have a disability, whatever their challenges. I've always been sad that Niamh felt 'different' to other children; that she was forced to live on the sidelines. So it makes me happy that in learning to drive, she is also doing something that most other young people do. I am sure that the extra independence she gains from being able to drive will increase her self-esteem and self-confidence, and widen her employment opportunities."
We can but wish Niamh a safe journey and happy driving.
The Disabled Drivers Motor Show and Conference takes place at the RDS on Friday and Saturday, September 16 and 17. Entry is free. To contact the Disabled Drivers Association of Ireland, tel: (094) 936-4054/4266, or see ddai.ie, or ddmotorshow.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine