Saoirse Connolly is a first-year Arts and Human Rights student at NUI Galway. I first met Saoirse at a time when I had exceptionally few friends who truly understand how difficult it can be to manoeuvre campus with a disability. Upon our first cup of coffee, I realised that she was the kind of person with the ability to make people listen. On behalf of the 700 members of the Disability Support Services (DSS), I ask you to take a moment of reprieve from your own life to learn about those around you. I can assure you, you won’t regret it and people like Saoirse and I, who are hidden in plain sight, will thank you.
Can you tell me a little bit about your specific disability?
It’s called optical nerve hypoplasia and I have the bilateral form, which means that I have it in both of my eyes. I’m completely blind in one eye and I have about 12% vision in the other eye. I also suffer from nystagmus, which means my eyes shape. I also have a light sensitivity. But, in short, my eyes and my nervous system are affected.
Generally, what would you say are the biggest manifestations of this regarding symptoms?
Well I have nerve pain, which causes migraines. Naturally, you have all the eye difficulties which certainly has its moments! Actually, one time I mistook an Aberdeen Angus cow, for my grandad in the field! I got closer and then I realised why he wasn’t answering me! Really, I’m so glad no one saw.
Do you think you’re good at laughing at those moments?
Oh God, yeah! You must have a sense of humour, or else you wouldn’t go outside your door. The other day, for example, I walked into the door in the library as you pass the barriers. Lots of people saw, but you’ve got to keep walking!
Do those kinds of accidents happen on campus on nearly an everyday basis?
Yes, definitely. I’m very accident-prone, that is entirely down to my eyesight problems. I mean, I always have a bruise somewhere! I always look like I just came out the other end of a fight.
Do people always expect you to have your cane with you?
Yes – and sometimes I do have it with me. But if you’re in a hurry, you don’t. If you’re at home, you don’t so I try to manage. Like anything else, sometimes you forget it! I’d definitely bring it if I was meeting someone who didn’t know I was visually impaired, or going into a place that I know is going to be extremely busy and crowded where I need people to know to move out of my way, so an accident doesn’t happen.
Crowded or busy seems to describe NUI Galway in a nutshell, as there’s always so many people. How much does being familiar with the college help you?
It means everything, really. The college is, overall, very accessible. Sometimes there can be problems with doors, as they can have a bump that I might not always see to step over. In the beginning, when I first moved here, the DSS were helpful for getting to know the campus. They still are incredibly good for everything, and so are my lecturers. I never really have any issues with the staff.
Is it with students that you find you have difficulties?
Yes, but I think that comes from a lack of awareness. People don’t always respect that there’s a cane. A lot of times people can stare too. On occasion, people can kick my cane. These are all things you learn to cope with as it stems from a lack of awareness, so I don’t get upset.
As someone who has struggled with this aspect of college, I’d love your opinion on how much disabilities can affect the social aspect of college, if you don’t mind?
Basically, there’s no part of your life left unaffected! I don’t really engage in the social life that first years usually have. In a way, though, I have other social outlets, but they’re not connected to college. I think a big problem can arise when a person doesn’t have someone to bring them into those other outlets and you can end up isolated. Most of my friends, I made through my work in a charity called Special Heroes Ireland that helps different families with any kind of disability and any help they might need.
Do you find the DSS useful for accommodations you might need for classes or exams?
They’re incredibly good. For me, it’s more dependent on my lecturers, but I’ve never had a problem. They’re always willing to print handouts with a larger font and different things like that. I also have an alternative exam venue, which is helpful.
Finally, can I ask you one thing you wish all people knew about disabilities?
Simply – that we’re human. The worst feeling is when people forget that you’re human. People can assume that I don’t have feelings, or desires and I wish people would change and remember that I, and all people with disabilities exist. People can think that I don’t want a nice job, a family, a house of my own, when everyone wants the same thing and we all want to follow the same life patterns.
-By Jennifer O’Connor