Joanne O’Riordan is a journalist, sports commentator and activist speaking around the world on disability rights. Joanne was born in 1996 in Millstreet, Co Cork with Tetra-Amelia syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by the absence of all four limbs. In 2011, she became a prominent campaigner for disability rights, when, at the age of 15, she had openly challenged the Irish government on a cut they were going to make in their budget to disability payments. The intended cut was reversed. Joanne has since gone on to speak at the Girls in ICT Unit at the United Nations in New York, just days after her 16th birthday, in 2012. She was honoured with a Young Person of the Year Award in 2012 and with an Outstanding Young Person of the World Award. Her brother’s award-winning documentary No Limbs, No Limits has been seen by over 15 million people worldwide. Joanne writes for the Irish Times and other publications on sport and social justice.
This is Joanne’s story.
For me, all the small things that come with living my life with no limbs are a challenge. All the things people might take for granted – for example, I have to get someone in to help me get up in the morning, to wash me, change my clothes. It can definitely be frustrating because I like routine but I also like spontaneity at the same time and I have to plan ahead all the time. For example, I’ll have to book train access ahead of time because the ramp might not be there if I’m going on a trip. I do embrace the challenges but we have to move towards meeting halfway – like, make sure the access is there in the first place.
I lived in York for a year as part of an Erasmus. One of my flatmates was a very organised person, but it was nothing in comparison to me who had to book and plan absolutely everything in advance. I remember going on a trip with her one time and she was panicking about missing the bus that came by our door every few minutes and I was thinking this is nothing to me! She didn’t understand that missing the bus was the very least that could happen to me. She found it all incredibly stressful and I was so accustomed to it. Don’t get me wrong, it can be really frustrating but I realised that none of it was my fault so I had to let go of it all.
Every country in the world has a different culture around disability, it really depends where you go. I remember getting incredibly excited in Japan once because I saw a kid in a wheelchair and he pushed a button and an umbrella came out. I thought, I don’t even have that and I live in Ireland! On the flipside, during the next week in Japan, I didn’t see anyone else with a disability.
There is one common denominator in all countries as far as I’ve seen, that the people making the decisions about disability haven’t always had interaction or experience with disability themselves. That’s quite telling.
It’s funny, I’m doing a piece at the moment about how men with daughters are more interested in women in sport than the ones without daughters. While this is positive, it’s also annoying because women existed before their daughters came along!
As a person with a disability, I’d say there’s stuff you just have to experience to have an understanding of it. When you don’t have a disability, you’re doing things all the time automatically because society is so fine tuned to respond to how you function and exist. With someone like me, I have to think ahead for each step before I take it.
I always say, I think ignorance is fine the first time but if you carry on being ignorant after your eyes have been opened, there’s no excuse.
I noticed during lockdown that there were a lot of companies reaching out for diversity and inclusion programmes, and I think we should carry on this work now we’re getting back to the office because these are some of the hurdles we’re all going to face. If we don’t jump these hurdles, how are we going to know how to remove them in the future?
My family was always pushing me to be determined and held me to the same standards as my siblings. They taught me that I could reach out and ask for help and it would be there, but also that I needed to put in the work to get to where I wanted to be. I remember someone telling me one thing that you can make the bread but you can’t bring people to the table. If you’re not willing to do the work, you won’t achieve what you want to.
My parents always encouraged me to write and I was always interested in this. I remember my dad was watching a match on the TV once and I was annoying him. He told me to go away and write a 200-word essay on the game just to get some peace. I loved it! He might still have that essay; I must ask him!
There’s a really interesting article that says if you’re the second child born, you’ve a higher chance of succeeding because you’ve been dragged around by the older siblings and exposed to different things. I’m the last of five and I was dragged around to every event under the sun and this is why I’m interested in such a wide variety of things.
You can’t be afraid to fail or try things over and over again. I remember reading an article about the tennis player Andy Murray’s family. His mum would take him to tennis camp, and would see other mothers doing everything for their sons, like rewiring their tennis rackets every time. She would think, we’re not going to be around forever to do this for our children so they need to learn themselves. The kids playing against Andy may have been better, but mentally they couldn’t understand or accept defeat. My parents were the same – they let me figure things out myself.
When people see someone with no limbs, they’re probably thinking what the hell is going on here? I would probably think the same if I had limbs! There’s certain assumptions I face every day. That’s an unconscious bias that we have to fix – starting with how people with disabilities are portrayed in the media, in the public eye, what the word disability means to certain people, more and accurate representation. All of these things are rooted in culture and society. I’d love to try and battle this with activism but it needs to come from integration of different circles from education to employment, healthcare and sport – that people experience and understand this from a young age.
Going back to women in sport, there seems to be an obsession with bringing in a new crowd but no attempts to working with the old crowd and by this I mean original founders and players in sport. There’s some people who will never change but there’s still 90% of people who will and why not work with them.
All disabilities are unique. I can’t speak on behalf of the blind community or the deaf community for example, and I’m learning myself every day. It was only recently that I was doing a talk and hadn’t prepared anything for the sign language interrupter and she would have had a hard time following my Cork accent! I learnt from that.
That’s why the Paralympics were so special for me this year. I was so honoured to be part of the team and was able to see a range of disabilities that I would never have seen before. I could see people who looked like me. What I learnt from this experience was that everyone is different, everyone copes differently, and it’s important that we don’t have a one size fits all standard.