Irish people who are visually impaired

According to The National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) “There are an estimated 246,773 people in Ireland who are blind or visually impaired.  The term ‘visual impairment’ covers moderate sight loss, severe sight loss and blindness.” Here are just some of the inspirational people with sight loss who are thriving in their careers:

Bono – Musician, philanthropist, investor and activist

Bono has Glaucoma. Bono explained that the reason he wears sunglasses indoors (which has become a trademark of his), isn’t a Diva-like quality it is because of his condition. On The Graham Norton Show he stated “This is a good place to explain to people that I’ve had glaucoma for the last 20 years. I have good treatments and I am going to be fine.  You’re not going to get this out of your head now and you will be saying, ‘Ah, poor old Visually Impaired Bono’.  [I have] very sensitive eyes to light. If somebody takes my photograph, I will see the flash for the rest of the day. My right eye swells up. I’ve a blockage so that my eyes go red a lot. So it’s part vanity, it’s part privacy and part sensitivity.” BONO says that even though he suffers from Glaucoma it proves that having Glaucoma doesn’t mean you have to go blind. ,Glaucoma treatments work, like most diseases, the earlier you get diagnosed, the better although Glaucoma may have no obvious symptoms in its early stages.

Caroline Casey – CEO of The Valuable 500

Caroline was born with ocular albinism and is Legally Blind. Aged 28, Caroline left her job in Accenture to launch the Aisling Foundation, with an aim to improve how disability is treated. In 2001, she trekked across India, solo, raising €250k for The National Council for the Visually Impaired of Ireland and Sightsavers, becoming the first Western female Mahout in India. The journey was turned into a documentary and a TED Talk. In 2005 Caroline created O2 Ability Awards and set up the ‘Kanchi Foundation’ in 2005 to recognise organisations that promote disability inclusion. In 2008 the foundation was renamed ‘Kanchi’ which was the name in honour of the elephant used on the Indian expedition. In 2017 she launched a campaign called The Valuable 500. The campaign is asking businesses to put people with disabilities on their boardroom agendas. It’s also seeking to identify the next high-profile business leaders who will lead the charge for the one billion people living with disabilities worldwide. 

Senator Martin Conway – Politican and Founder

Born blind, Martin had a pioneering operation on his eye-sight when he was six months old. Saying “I was born with congenital cataracts, as was my father and my grandfather”. Martin realised he was ‘different’ when he was travelling up to Dublin by rail for a medical check-up,  “I told my dad I’d like to be a train driver when I grew up, but he said that wouldn’t be possible because my eyesight was poor.” Up to 2011 Martin had twelve operations on his eye-sight and now has 20% vision. Having gone to UCD and studying for a BA in Politics and Economics. Martin joined the family business, running a shop in Ennistymon, Co Clare. Martin is a founding member of AHEAD. He is particularly proud of the Willing Able Mentoring (WAM) programme which has successfully placed over 250 graduates with disabilities in employment. In 2004, Martin was elected to Clare County Council. In 2011, he was elected to the Seanad Eireann becoming the first visually impaired person in Ireland to be elected to The Houses of the Oireachtas. Martin was then appointed the Fine Gael spokesman in the Senate on Equality and Disability.

Gerry Ellis – Accessibility expert and Speaker

For the last 30 years Gerry has been a software engineer for Bank of Ireland. Gerry is now the head of the bank’s Inclusion and Diversity program. Bank of Ireland is now seen as one of the foremost experts in Ireland for companies employing people with disabilities in the workplace. Being a founding member of AHEAD Gerry and his colleagues and the bank has been at the forefront of many of the bank’s sponsorship of Inclusion and Diversity, such as their sponsorship of the Dublin Pride March. In addition, Gerry is also a Disability consultant, setting up his own consultancy business named Feel The BenefIT. Gerry has travelled to over 25 countries on 5 continents giving speeches about Diversity and Inclusion for people with disabilities. Gerry is the former Chairperson of the Irish Council of People with Disabilities, which was the largest organisation in Ireland representing people with disabilities, their parents and carers. He was also a founder member and first Chairperson of the Visually Impaired Computer Society. Gerry is active on the National Boards and subcommittees of various mainstream organisations in Ireland which relate to ICT and issues with ICT in the disability space.

Sean Gallagher – CEO, Investor and Politican

Sean was blind from birth as a result of congenital cataracts. He later had corrective surgery which improved his sight but he has been blind for the majority of his life. Having qualified from college, he later worked with young people from the travelling community, young offenders and young people with disabilities. He was the author of the Country’s first National Alcohol Education Programme for the Irish Youth service. In 2002, Gallagher founded Smarthomes, a home technology business. With the success of the company he went on to be a self-made millionaire. Later in 2008, Sean was announced as an investor on the RTÉ One version of Dragon’s Den. He continued as an investor for three series. In 2011, he announced his candidacy for the president of Ireland, eventually finishing  second to the winner Michael D Higgins. Since then he has worked as an advocate for those with sight loss and as a columnist in The Sunday Business Post profiling an Irish start-up each week. In August of 2018 Sean announced his candidacy for the presidency of Ireland again eventually finishing in third place.

Eliona Gjecaj – statutory advisory committee of UNCRPD

Born in Albania, Eliona moved to Ireland as a child with her family. Eliona went on to obtain a First-Class Honours Degree in International and Comparative Disability Law and Policy, and a First-Class Honours BA International Studies Degree, from NUI Galway.  Eliona has been recognised as 1 out of 10 Outstanding Young People of Ireland 2018 by JCI Ireland, for her disability activism, achievements, and volunteering with disability NGOs. Eliona has been Chairperson of Galway Visually Impaired Activity Club since 2016, and auditor of the IMPACTE Society, which she founded and co-set up in 2017. After starting the society Eliona ensured that a new position of Disability Officer in the Students Union of NUI Galway was achieved. Eliona has since gone on to be involved with the Students Union of Ireland demanding issues such as mental health, advocacy and activism be addressed within the Irish education system. Eliona was recently one of eleven people to serve on the first ever statutory advisory committee in Ireland to support monitoring of Ireland’s implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Elaine Howley – Head of Services at The National Council of The Visually Impaired Ireland

As Head of Services at NCBI, Elaine is often the spokesperson for Visually Impaired people in Ireland. For example, at the launch of the NCBI paper on the extra costs blind people have in Ireland, Elaine said  Visual Impairment can be a hidden disability so that people with impaired vision often live in poverty in Ireland,  cannot fully participate in society or access the items and services they need. Upon her appointment to the board of Dublin Bus, Elaine said the new position will give her an opportunity to influence decisions at the highest level of the organisation of how transport strategy is developed in Ireland. “For many years I have advocated for accessible and available transport for people with disabilities,”.

Sinéad Kane – Ultra Marathon runner, world record holder and speaker

With 5% vision since birth, Sinéad Kane is now a qualified solicitor, with two PHD’s  in law, an ultra Marathon runner, world record holder and keynote speaker. Sinead along with her guide John O’Regan completed the 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days challenge, being the first visually impaired person to do so in the world. Sinead also has two world records in distance running for running 130KM in 12 hours on a treadmill and for her PHD’s she attended The National University of Ireland and DCU, as well as speaking at conferences throughout the world.

Kevin Kelly – member of the advisorary commitee of the National Transport Authority. 

When Kevin was twelve, he lost sight in his right eye because of a retinal detachment. Kevin said “Nearly two years later I was suddenly unable to complete simple tasks like writing or reading. It was as if I was a baby again having to learn from scratch;  in June 2008, my Guide Dog Miles entered my life and totally transformed how I got around. Having a dog is the best aid I have acquired in my 12 years of Visual Impairment and has allowed me to achieve everything I want.” Kevin has gone on to study Journalism at DCU and obtained a Master’s degree from DIT in Public Affairs and Political Communications. He currently works as a political assistant at Leinster House and is a member of the Irish National Blind Football Development squad. In August 2018 Kevin became ‘The Head of Policy Advocacy and campaigned for the NCBI. As well as this, Kevin was also one of five people with disabilities appointed by then minister Shane Ross to the National Transport Authority.

Claire Kennelly – CEO

Having worked for more than 30 years in all levels of the Irish education sector. Now CEO of her start-up Inclusive World, Claire Kennelly noticed one of the most common problems is that although there are supports in place for students with disabilities to get into the workforce, there is an issue when these students try to get employment, due to the lack of inclusivity in the private sector particularly. Claire then set up Inclusive Cork to bridge the employment gap between the education and private sector by showing the private sector the inclusive tools they can implement that will make their workforce more diverse.

Ian McKinley – Rugby Player

Ian played six times for Leinster Rugby. In 2010, Ian was playing for UCD RFC. During a game a straight stud caught Ian’s eye in an accident. He regained 70% vision and returned to play for Leinster six times. Later that year, when he stopped at a traffic light, he said “One minute I could see the traffic light in my left eye, then it was completely gone. Unfortunately, my retina detached 18 months after the initial accident and that ended my career at the age of 21.” Having moved to Italy to coach, Ian began to play rugby again and went to the Irish National College of Art and Design and found Johnny Merrigan a  researcher and lecturer in the college. Johnny told Ian he wanted to develop a set of protective rugby goggles to get him back playing. Having adjusted his game, Ian returned to the pitch, playing with his modified glasses in 2014. In 2017 Ian was called into the Italian Rugby squad qualifying under residence rules. Ian made his debut for Italy against Fiji in 2017 getting eight caps. Now the backs coach at Rainey RCF, Ian has not officially retired but now wants to move into coaching.

Orla O’Sullivan – Musican and music teacher

Orla was only six-weeks-old when she became profoundly deaf as a result of receiving life-saving medication given to her for pneumonia. According to Orla “my love of music began when I was 3-years-old, on the day my mother put my fingertips on the piano keys…I could not make sense of all those everyday sounds. As I got older I became more and more interested in music. Being deaf and visually impaired was an obstacle, but not a barrier. I was determined in my study of music to make the exam standard. It took about 8 years of study for me to achieve my dream of becoming a music teacher.”  Orla was the first deaf and visually impaired person to choose music as a subject for the Leaving Cert. Since then Orla has gone on to be a music teacher for the deaf in Cork City. Orla has her own website and is also a co-founder of Soundsense (a Foundation for Deaf students) and Frankfield a music studio in Cork’. In 2017 Orla was the subject of an RTE Documentary called ‘Good Vibrations’

Mark Pollock – CEO, athlete, adventurer and speaker

Mark lost the sight in his right eye when he was five years old. Mark was about to qualify from college and take up a position in a bank in London, when, without warning Mark suddenly went totally blind in both eyes. Mark continued to push himself to the limit of his physical disability. He raised thousands for the charity Sightsavers by crossing the Gobi Desert, running six marathons in seven days. In 2010, Mark fell from a window of his friend’s house. He broke his back and was left paralysed. Continuing his sporting challenges, Mark was awarded an honorary degree awarded by Trinity College Dublin, and has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Queen’s University Belfast and The Royal College of Surgeons. In 2012, Mark was honoured with a Rehab People of the Year Award and has been invited to speak at the prestigious Ted Talk and has set up his own trust

Jason Smyth – Paralympian

Born in Derry, Northern Ireland, Jason was born with Stargardt’s Disease, which meant that he has only had 10 percent vision since birth. A Paralympian sprinter, Jason has competed in the three paralympics winning six gold medals and competing for Northern Ireland in the fully-abled Commonwealth Games. Jason holds the world record in all of the Paralympics events he has competed in. In total, Jason has won 17 para-sports gold medals in sprinting and is known as the Usain Bolt of para-sprinting. Jason is also a motivational speaker stating  “there are no limits to what can be achieved. Success comes when those willing to push themselves to places others aren’t willing to go. We all have talents. It is only when we act and do everything we can to improve that talent that we reach our full potential… On the track it has been my mission to push the boundaries of what is possible by bridging the gap between Para sport and mainstream sport. My experiences off the track that my experience has the greatest impact as I assist others  bridge their own gaps. Jason is also a brand ambassador for Sport Ireland, NI Sport, Ocucu and Allianz Insurance. 

Derek Walker – CEO

Derek has a degenerative eye condition that has led to loss of eyesight. He was registered blind and this also affected his education. Having found it difficult to keep a job, Derek had periods of unemployment. He started drinking wheatgrass and found the process of making the drink difficult.  He heard the same from others. Having availed of the back to work scheme, he started his own company, Natnoo that makes certified organic wheatgrass and produces a range of cold pressed juice products that are totally natural, chemical and additive free, with no artificial flavours or sweeteners but still bursting with flavour and nutrients. Now part of the SuperValu Food Academy and having co-founded the Off The Street Food Festival in Letterkenny,  Derek is now making enough to support himself and his wife Anna.

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