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Dublin: 8 °C Saturday 18 November, 2017
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'A fire ended my Leaving Cert hopes. I've taken a longer, scenic route to success'

My repeat Leaving Cert was a struggle – and my early attempts to get a job were farcical. 20 years on, now I’m in a position to help others, writes Seònaid Ó Murchadha.

Seònaid Ó Murchadha

SO IT’S RESULTS time again. Almost 60,000 students will receive their first-round offers of college places from the Central Applications Office in the next few hours.

Many of us, around this time of year, have a tendency to cast our minds back to when we first found out about our third level prospects. We might remember feeling that if we didn’t get the precise course we wanted, in our ‘first-choice’ college, then our lives were practically over.

I’m sure tomorrow will be full of tears for students – boundless joy for some and intense disappointment for others. Whatever type of tears you shed, make sure to congratulate yourself on your achievement. You survived the Leaving Cert (not to mention, the summer celebrations).

Not all of us are so lucky to get through unscathed… The Leaving Cert, believe it or not, very nearly killed me.

File Photo Leaving Cert Exams Begin This Wednesday. Source: Laura Hutton

‘I was 18 and feeling invincible’

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was sitting my own Leaving Cert – although it’s actually been 20 years. In June 1997, I was 18 and feeling invincible. I had studied and prepared so much for whatever the State exams could throw at me that when it all kicked off, everything was going exactly as I had planned. Countless opportunities were available to me, the world was at my feet and I was excelling at the student game. I was well on route to my preferred course of study and college – International Business and Languages at Dublin City University.

But after only two days and three exams, everything changed.

A fire broke out in my house and I was trapped upstairs. My biggest concern as the flames leapt and kicked at my bedroom door was for my study notes and exam schedule – I didn’t think about the danger I was in and didn’t realise that the smoke was gradually choking me, shutting down my brain function and ability to escape.

It never occurred to me that I could be badly injured or even die. I thought teenagers were immortal. And most importantly, I had exams to complete – I wasn’t letting any natural disaster get in the way of my personal ambitions.

Weeks later, in mid-July, I woke up in the burns unit of St. James’s Hospital to the news that I’d been seriously injured in the house fire. So devastatingly injured in fact, that the doctors had had to amputate my legs and right arm in order for me to have any chance at survival.

At first, I didn’t believe my mother when she told me – the idea of losing three limbs seemed absurd and impossible. How could someone live with only one hand? Was my personal independence a thing of the past? What would happen to me now? Was my dream of going to college and having a meaningful career over now? I’d gone from having the world at my feet to – if you’ll excuse the blunt phrasing – having no feet and thinking I had zero opportunities.

When my exam results arrived in the post to the burns unit, all the ward nurses gathered in my hospital room for the ‘big reveal’. Hardly surprising that I failed – I had only done 3 exams after all (such an anticlimax for my years of hard work studying!).

Everyone reassured me that it didn’t matter, I was young and had plenty of time to try it again. But it still stung – I’d worked so hard and gotten nowhere. I was back to square one with no prospect of a resolution. And I worried about how I’d ever do a written exam again without my dominant right hand – my writing hand.

However, thanks to the wonderful support of my school and teachers, I repeated my Leaving Cert the next year. It was very tough to start again but luckily, I went back to a familiar place filled with great people to help me get used to the new me. During my repeat exams, I needed a scribe to write for me and really struggled getting used to different ways of doing things such as verbally explaining my maths calculations instead of scribbling away myself. I’ve discovered there’s no shame in taking the longer, scenic route to get the results you want.

isme-32_cropped Seònaid Ó Murchadha at work in the Employer Disability Information service. Source: SIOBHAN TAYLOR

Back then, it was a very difficult process to access college with a disability and my teachers were great advocates for me. It is a much easier process today thanks to the DARE scheme, which was set up to help second-level students whose disabilities have had a negative impact on their education.

But I finally got my precious place in DCU studying International Business, French and Spanish – doing exactly what I wanted to do, and just a year later than planned.

Third-level education was so well-supported that it was only when I graduated from DCU that I realised my significant disability was a huge barrier to employment. I watched while all my peers were offered desirable graduate internships while I was overlooked. My honours degree was not as valuable as my non-disabled peers’ degrees because of my physical disability.

Sharing too much 

My early attempts to get a job were farcical. I shared so much about the accident – the horror and emotion of what had happened – at my first proper interview that the interviewer started crying his eyes out.

At other interviews, we only talked about prosthetics and robotics but we forgot to discuss my skills and qualifications. Obviously I didn’t get any of these jobs – they knew nothing about me, only my medical history and the particulars of my titanium limbs!

Over the years, I’ve learned a huge amount about inclusive employment and managing disability at work from being on both sides of the employment relationship – both as an employee and an employer.

At the start of this summer, I took up my perfect job as Project Manager of the Employer Disability Information service. EDI is a free advice and information service for employers – the go-to place for employers who need support on the recruitment, management and retention of employees with disabilities. It’s funded by the government, but managed by employer bodies. The job means I now can help so many employers to be inclusive to disability, and in turn help others like me.

EDI is a free advice and information service for employers who need support on the recruitment, management and retention of employees with disabilities. You can find more information at their website.

 

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