Thursday 14 December 2017

'Yes, I'm different, but our differences make us unique'

Being a 'little person' in a regular-sized world hasn't got in the way of Sinead Burke achieving her goals

Sinead Burke is a teacher, broadcaster, speaker, music enthusiast and fashion blogger.
Sinead Burke is a teacher, broadcaster, speaker, music enthusiast and fashion blogger.
"My height was not a deterrent, and it did not make me the person I am."

My name is Sinead Burke and I'm a little person. At age 22, I stand at a height of 105cm (3ft 5 in).

I was born with the genetic condition called 'achondroplasia' which I inherited from my dad: my mam is average height and my dad is also a little person. I am the oldest of five children and I am the only one who is a little person. My three sisters and one brother are all of average height.

What does it mean to be a little person, and how does it affect me? Without examining too much of the science behind the condition, achondroplasia is a disproportionate form of restricted growth. The word achondroplasia literally means 'without cartilage formation'.

Cartilage is a tough but flexible tissue that makes up much of the skeleton during early development. However, in achondroplasia the problem is not in forming cartilage but in converting it to bone, particularly in the long bones of the arms and legs.

All people with achondroplasia have short stature. The average height of an adult male with achondroplasia is 131cm (4ft 4in), and the average height for adult females is 124cm (4ft 1in).

Characteristic features of achondroplasia include an average-size trunk, short arms and legs with particularly short upper arms and thighs and a limited range of motion at the elbows.

People often ask me when I realised that I was different. Some people seem surprised that it's a question that I cannot answer.

I was never told that I was different. I was always just Sinéad; I was just like my Dad. My parents always instilled in me a belief that I could do and achieve everything and anything that I wanted.

My height was not a deterrent, and it did not make me the person I am. It was like my long brown hair or my brown eyes – a physical characteristic that differentiated me from quite a percentage of the population.

Looking back, I owe my parents a great deal for their inclusive approach to my development. It was their constant support, encouragement and advice that has led to me achieving all that I have done thus far.

The biggest challenges I face due to being a little person are primarily due to the physical environment, as I live in a world which was not built for me. Light switches and door handles are usually out of my reach as they are designed to be at the optimum height for those who are taller.

There is quite a lot of pre-planning involved before travelling somewhere for the first time, and bathrooms can be difficult. The height of the lock on the door and being able to reach the washbasin, soap dispenser and hand-dryer all pose difficulties.

Imagine if you had to live in a world that was solely constructed for me. How would you manage?

I sat my Leaving Certificate five years ago. I was one of those students that knew exactly what I wanted to do after I finished school. I had one choice on my CAO form, much to the horror of the school's Career Guidance Councillor.

My first and only choice was CM001 – the course code to study a Bachelor of Education in Colaiste Mhuire, Marino. I wanted to be a primary school teacher.

With an A in both Higher Level English and Higher Level Irish, I was thrilled to accept my place on a four-year course that I absolutely adored.

Throughout the course, each student's teaching was assessed with five teaching practice placements. I was really fortunate to be able to experience teaching a wide and varied range of curriculum levels, single-sex schools, mixed schools, public and private schools.

When people learn that I'm a qualified primary school teacher, I'm often met with surprise and a list of questions, including "How do the children react? How do you do it?"

Children are some of the most open and inclusive individuals. It's often us adults who have difficulties in accepting difference.

The children that I have been fortunate enough to teach have of course been inquisitive about my height, but it has never been a negative factor in the quality of my teaching.

On my first day of teaching Junior Infants whilst on placement, a young girl raised her hand and exclaimed "Little Teacher! Little Teacher!"

I walked over to the junior infant and very politely asked if she was looking for me. I proceeded to ask her if she knew my name. She replied simply with "Little Teacher?"

It suddenly dawned on me that this young child was looking for my attention rather than the class teacher's attention, as I had set the activity. She couldn't remember my name and used the most differentiating characteristic between the two teachers in the room to identify which one of us she was looking for.

After I explained that my name was Miss Burke, she continued to tell me that 'Mary' had borrowed all of her crayons and I needed to help – immediately!

I fondly remember teaching fourth class in a local school, when one boy's inquisitiveness got the better of him and he burst out mid-lesson, asking, "Miss Burke, why are you so small?"

I did that 'teacher-y' thing where I answered a question with a question. I asked him, "Why are you a boy? Why are you not a girl?"

His initial reaction was one of horror. As he began to think about it, he responded, "I don't know, I was just born like this."

I replied by agreeing with him and saying that I didn't have all of the answers as to why I was little. Just like him, I was born like this.

Much like the fact that he didn't sit in the womb and choose to be a boy, I didn't lie there and choose to be little. It was something I was gifted with.

Whilst children are innately curious and accepting, they also have an insatiable appetite to help the teacher.

I'm sure you fondly remember how keen you were to 'go on a message' or to deliver the roll book to the office.

While teaching, the various challenges I face due to the physical classroom environment are overcome as the children strive to assist. They help with turning the lights on and off when using the interactive whiteboard and putting up posters on the wall. These jobs transform into group activities or tasks that are rotated around the class.

I loved my time training to be a teacher and was thrilled when I completed my four years, concluding in achieving a First Class Honours degree.

On the day of graduation, for which the college supplied an altered gown, I received the Vere Foster Medal. This is awarded by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation to the one student who receives the highest mark on their final teaching practice placements.

It was a huge surprise to me but one of my proudest achievements to date.

When I completed my degree, I emerged into a domain where there was a drought in terms of employment. Instead of journeying for miles to find 'water', I spent the past 12 months getting the qualification of a Masters in a contrasting field.

Whilst education will always be my first love, the MA in Broadcast Production for Radio and Television that I completed was one of the most rewarding yet challenging experiences I have had.

It was a year in which I grew my voice in print, visual and aural mediums, and developed skills in producing, editing, writing, presenting and directing.

A core element of the course was an industry placement, where I had the good fortune to learn from institutions such as RTE Radio and Tyrone Productions.

The culmination of the course was the production of two major projects: a radio documentary and a television documentary.

Whilst my radio presentation documented the development of computer programming for children, particularly in relation to the CoderDojo movement, my visual documentary was based on my life as a little person.

As the protagonist, director, producer, camera operator, editor and sound engineer, it was incredibly demanding, but I was rewarded with a product that offered a genuine insight into the life of a little person, by a little person.

Last week, I received the results of my Masters and I was ecstatic to see that I achieved a First Class Honours.

It has probably been two decades since I first remember my parents telling me that I could do and achieve everything that I wanted, regardless of my height and being a little person.

They could not have been more correct. Being a little person is a gift but it's also a challenge, and it encourages me to think outside the box in how I approach obstacles.

In 1998, my parents founded a charity organisation for little people. Little People of Ireland (LPI) offers support, education and social opportunities specifically for little people and their families. This year LPI celebrates its 15th anniversary. Please find us at www.lpi.ie.

I had the great fortune to grow up with this charity and to develop friendships with people who were little like me.

You may wonder if my little friends and I are the same in every way. Not at all – our heights are the common thread running in each of us but we differ in almost every other way.

Some are champions in sport, others are incredible musicians, many are sitting State Examinations and a few are learning to walk and talk. It's the differences in each of us that make us unique and make life interesting.

My name is Sinead Burke and I am so much more than just a little person. I am a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, a cousin, and a niece. I am a person, a teacher, a broadcaster, a speaker, a music enthusiast and a fashion blogger.

Pop over and visit me at minniemelange.word press.com and on Twitter @minniemelange

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