Life Health & Wellbeing

Monday 10 December 2018

WATCH: 'A medical doctor said I wasn't going to get anywhere in life' – How inspirational Irish man (32) living with cerebral palsy is breaking the mould

Colm Burke works at the European Central Bank.
Colm Burke works at the European Central Bank.

Geraldine Gittens and Johnny Brew

"A medical doctor many, many years ago said to my parents that I wasn't going to get anywhere in life, and I was told, 'yeah you might go through first level education. Yeah you might get through half a second level education. You won't go to college'."

"But that's where I came in. That's when I said I've had enough of this crap. I'm breaking the mould, I'm smashing the mould to pieces."

Colm Burke (32) from Glasnevin is living with cerebral palsy, and he uses a wheelchair. He's had a few challenges in life, he admits, but he quickly qualifies this by saying that life can be challenging for everyone.

Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilties, and Colm sat down with Independent.ie to tell his own story - how he broke the mould and now works at the European Central Bank under a traineeship programme in Frankfurt.

He studied Business Information Systems at the National College of Ireland (NCI) and got a job at the Office of the Revenue Commissioners in Dublin Castle last year after a lengthy job search.

“I couldn’t find a job for ages and ages (after graduation). I was nearly 10 months looking for a job, and I applied for the WAM (Willing Able Mentoring) programme and I got in,” says the Dubliner.

Then earlier this year before he was due to finish his contract with Revenue, Colm went to the International Careers Fair and met executives from the European Central Bank. They got chatting, he told them what his skills were and they told him what candidates they needed. After five video call interviews over the next few weeks, he got a game changing phone call.

“I’ll never forget the phone call… They said 'would you be willing to come over to Germany, we’d love to offer you a position'.”

“I literally said ‘yes, yes , yes’. I screamed and my Mam came rushing into the room, and I said ‘Mam I’m after getting the job’.”

Within a few months, Colm had uprooted to Frankfurt to begin his new life, bade goodbye to family and friends and met his new international colleagues. For the first time, he'd independently secured a professional role. A new life that suits him, he says.

“I love the place. I love the ECB. If someone said to me ‘I want to work for ECB or the world bank’, I would say ‘traineeship, a traineeship is the way to go’.”

“I have relatives working in finance, and they’re like ‘you qualified in 2016 and then you go and land the Revenue, and then you go and land the ECB, how did you do that?’”

“For the first couple of weeks I did pinch myself. I live ten minutes from the office, not all the pathways are accessible so that’s why the job said I’m to use the transport that’s provided.”

“I’m the only trainee they’ve ever had that’s a wheelchair user… I went to a meeting last week and I was told whatever needs to be done will be done [to facilitate accessibility].”

Colm's dream is to eventually secure a permanent role in Ireland. He refuses to give him until he gets this. Afterall, he's overcome challenges before.

He's had tough times, like in second year in NCI when the workload seemed insurmountable and he decided he'd quit. But he credits Karen from NCI for supporting him through the tough times when he didn’t think he could finish his degree. Ever since then, he’s never looked back.

“I was going to quit in second year, I said ‘good luck that’s it, goodbye’."

"She literally sat me down and she said ‘what’s on your mind, and everything came out. She gave me three hours [of listening and coaching] that day.”

“I don’t know what happened, I got through second year and third year and everything changed, that woman is a miracle worker. She’s there as a support to the students; she supports us when we need it.”

"Life for me hasn't been easy. Life for anybody isn't easy, but for me there's been extra little challenges, but I've always found a way to get over them."

He explains: "A lot of the meetings I go to, you stand at the table and you have your lunch and you talk, and all this. I can't do that. That bugs me, really bugs me."

Karen beams with pride when she talks about Colm.

“He’s a real people person. Colm is all about making relationships and getting on with people.”

“He’s also very good at expressing his needs, of saying I’ll need accessible accommodation for example.”

Despite all the challenges he’s experienced through his life, Colm has a zest for life and an unstoppable drive to succeed. He’s happy in Frankfurt while he finishes his traineeship.

“I look at it as a stepping stone. I’ve had a lot of challenges in my life through education, through everything. I started at the National College of Ireland in 2011, finished in 2016, took an extra year to do that.”

Colm has limited dexterity in his hands and he uses assistive technology which enables him to type over 100 words per minute. Aside from that, the ECB helped secure accessible accommodation for him close to the office, and transport.

“They’ve pulled out all of the stops. They’ve done everything for me… They help you to pay for relocation, and I didn’t need to do anything to look for accommodation.

“If I want to go home to Ireland, I work the weekend to make the time up.”

He added: “If I’m kept on, I’m kept on, it will only be for an extra six months. I’d love to go back to Ireland and get straight back to the Central Bank of Ireland, but if it that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”

“Having the European Central Bank in Germany on your CV is unbelievable.”

“I’ve applied for Irish positions and I haven’t got them. My CV must have lacked on one or two things for Irish employers. However, out of all the trainees taken in on my batch and the batch after me, none of them are German.

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