Comment & Analysis
Dec 4, 2020

‘Disability’ Is Not a Dirty Word. Society Ought Not Treat it Like One

Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird discusses accepting her disability and the dire need for a change in how society sees disability.

Niamh Ní HoireabhairdContributing Writer
Sinéad Baker for The University Times

I’m a completely different person to who I was five years ago before I started college. I’m sure a lot of people view themselves like that too. Now, I’m a wheelchair user and TCDSU’s Officer for Students with Disabilities – something I never would have considered as a fresher.

Coming to college is difficult for everyone. The transition from going to secondary school and being spoon-fed information every day for several years to being a college student conducting self-directed learning is tough on the best of us. Coming to college, I was very unsure of myself and the direction in which my life would take me. I was disabled but I wasn’t ready to accept that yet.

It took me years to come to terms with the realities of my diagnosis of a progressive, neuromuscular condition called Friedreich’s Ataxia. Symptoms of my disability began to show just as I turned 13 and entered secondary school. I became progressively more unsteady on my feet and I developed a heart condition as the years went by. Fastforwarding to my first year in college, my condition had been slowly progressing to the point where I was unable to continue walking. I refused to use a wheelchair even though I knew I needed one as my body was becoming weaker. I had been brainwashed by society’s narratives that being in a wheelchair was really tragic and I would have no independence.


I remember the tears after being fitted for my first wheelchair at the age of 20 when I had finally realised I was fighting a losing battle and that I couldn’t walk anymore. I had reluctantly accepted my disability and I thought that also meant accepting that my independence was over before it ever really started.

Coming to college, I was very unsure of myself and the direction in which my life would take me. I was disabled but I wasn’t ready to accept that yet

How wrong I was! Using my wheelchair these past four years has only increased my independence. I’ve travelled, lived on my own, had incredible experiences I never would have thought possible for me. My wheelchair has granted me the ability to live a life that 13-year-old Niamh would have been proud of.

It took me a long time to get to where I am now. I couldn’t have gotten to this point without meeting the amazing people I’ve met in college and having the amazing opportunities that I’ve had. I can genuinely say that being a student – especially in Trinity – has helped me to accept my disability.

I have no qualms about identifying as a disabled person, or as some prefer to say, a person with a disability. Disability is not a dirty word – but many people treat it like it is. The patronising terms “differently abled” or “special needs” make me roll my eyes. I’ve noticed that it is not people with disabilities using these terms but able-bodied people who need to feel more comfortable discussing the topic of disability.

There is no need to be uncomfortable. According to the Central Statistics Office in 2016, 13.5 per cent of the Irish population had a disability. That’s roughly an average of one in every 10 people. Chances are that somebody you know, somebody you care about, somebody you love is affected by a disability.

With this in mind, the most important thing anyone can do is to educate themselves about disability issues. Society is in dire need of education, understanding and a complete attitude change when it comes to disability. I don’t think I would have had such a hard time accepting my disability had society not conditioned me to see disability a bad, dirty thing, never to be spoken about openly.

My wheelchair has granted me the ability to live a life that 13-year-old Niamh would have been proud of

In Trinity we are lucky to have a great disability community and many supportive allies. Just this week, I’ve seen some of the student community that I know and love come together for Disability Awareness Week to share their stories and experiences of having a disability. Thank you to Sarah McGowan, Niall Prior, Cormac Watson and Mick Finnegan for contributing to this week’s purpose of awareness-raising by writing pieces for The University Times.

I can only wish that I knew these people during my first year as a college student, when I was struggling with my identity as a disabled person. I hate to think of current first years, sitting at home, feeling isolated because of their disability and not knowing that there is a whole disability community on campus that will welcome them with open arms whenever we’re allowed to do so.

No two people with disabilities have the same journey to acceptance. Choosing to be open about my disability was a personal choice than I made after years of coming to terms with my situation. It was also made a lot easier for me by having a very visible disability. Being silent about my disability or not engaging with discourse or advocacy wasn’t an option for me, nor would I want it to be.

Yesterday, nearly four years on from being fitted for my first wheelchair, I was fitted for my second. Instead of looking at the situation with sadness or hopelessness, I felt excited. I’m excited for the new adventures I’ll have and the fun things I’ll do, enabled by my new wheelchair.

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