A fire at home saw Seónaid Ó Murchadha lose three limbs. Now, she advises prospective employers how to be more accessible, writes Helen O’Callaghan
The journey to Seónaid Ó Murchadha’s perfect job began with a fire — a fire that cost her both her legs and an arm.
As project manager of EDI (Employer Disability Information service), Seónaid sees herself as a sort of library for employers who want to be inclusive. In her late 30s, she’s perfectly placed to advise and inform employers who want to recruit, manage, and retain employees with disabilities. She’s passionate about this work because her life’s journey, since she was 18, has been about living and working with disability.
Seónaid’s life changed in June 1997, just after she’d done Leaving Cert maths paper one. She was having a nap upstairs in her North Dublin home when a fire broke out, caused by a candle in a nearby room. She was woken by her younger brother’s shouts. “I saw flames coming out of his room, blocking access to the stairs,” says Seónaid.
Her thoughts instantly flew to her painstakingly prepared exam notes. But she quickly realised she had to get out fast. “I tried smashing the window. There was one big frame you couldn’t open and three smaller ones you could — except you couldn’t fit through them. I was trapped by bad design.”
Seónaid owes her life to the fireman who found her lying under her bedroom window — “only because he stood on my head”. He scooped her up and got her out. Her heart and breathing had stopped.
“They revived me on the front lawn.” In a sedated coma at St James’s Hospital burns unit, she started to come to in July, but it took a long time for the grim news to register — she’d lost three limbs in the fire. Her mum, Anne, told her several times that first week but Seónaid didn’t believe her. “I was out of it, saying ‘I’m just glad I’m here’, asking how she was and what about my exams. None of it made sense.
“Even when it sank in, I didn’t believe it possible to live with just one hand. I’d only heard of people losing one limb. I couldn’t feel my body. Was there more of me than they thought? Was there less of me than they said?”
It wasn’t until her first bath in late July that the full horror of her new reality sank in. “It was horrific, seeing all the burns — 80% of my body had got burned. I saw it all and realised how difficult the journey back to independence was going to be. I realised I wasn’t the same — my face looked the same but my body had completely changed.
“I was bawling my eyes out. I couldn’t see a future. I didn’t know many people with a disability. I didn’t know anybody with burns or amputation. I’d never seen a prosthetic limb. I didn’t know how it would attach.” Together with her multi-disciplinary team — “I was probably one of the first in Ireland to have one” — a plan was made to map out all the small steps involved in each stage of getting back to independence. She wanted to go to her debs in late October. This meant organising a dress and a trip to Blanchardstown Shopping Centre, chosen for its wheelchair-accessible toilet.
Accompanied by her mum, physiotherapist, and occupational therapist, Seónaid had to learn “all these skills around transferring from wheelchair to car seat and back into wheelchair”.
She’d expected the physical challenges — but not other shoppers’ stares.
“People were stopping to gawp. I’d have preferred if they took one big long look and then left, but some people followed me around.” There was also the sudden shocking realisation that she was looking for a different type of dress now.
“Not ones for my age group — off-the-shoulder, no sleeves — but dresses that would cover up all the burns, dresses for women older than me.”
The debs was “brilliant, really good fun” — but an eye-opener about how inaccessible the world is for people with disabilities. “It was all on me to get really good at using my wheelchair, at transferring to/from it, at negotiating obstacles. It wasn’t on society or on the planners. I was being told ‘no, you have to do the work’. And I thought, ‘Why? It’s not my fault I lost my legs’, but all of a sudden it was on me to find my way around this inaccessible world.”
This is so short-sighted, says Seónaid. “Making the world accessible for people with disabilities, you make it accessible too for older people, for young mothers with buggies.”
Doctors had warned prostheses mightn’t be an option. But Seónaid will never forget the day a blonde young woman bounced into her hospital ward and in a Scottish accent said she’d get her walking. “Mum and I didn’t believe her.” Seónaid met the prosthetist again in November when she transferred to Cappagh National Orthopaedic Hospital.
“They got me up and standing and, with four people holding me, I took my first steps on prosthetic legs. It was so exhilarating. I was dizzy, standing up tall and straight when I hadn’t done this in so long. I thought how uncomfortable and heavy the prosthetics were. Would I ever be able to wear them full-time? I couldn’t imagine how I’d do it everyday.”
Seónaid exited Cappagh Hospital in time for Christmas at home. She began repeat Leaving Cert studies that January. She got the DCU course she’d always wanted a year after the fire. This grit and determination has seen her through many hurdles.
She felt truly supported at third level but didn’t realise until she graduated how “my significant disability was a huge barrier to employment”. Early job-hunting attempts were “farcical” — she shared so much at her first interview about the horror of the fire that the interviewer cried. At other interviews, “we talked about prosthetics and robotics but forgot to discuss skills and qualifications”.
Now, 20 years on from the fire, Seónaid has an impressive CV. She has worked with the Rehab Group, managing and empowering people with disabilities. She has worked with AHEAD (Association for Higher Education Access & Disability).
Yet the accident “never goes away”. Every two years, for example, her prosthetic legs need revision and she has to start getting used to a new set again.
“It’s not like ‘once I get these legs and this wheelchair, I’ll be sorted’. It’s a continuous process all the time. But there’s a sweet spot — somewhere between getting used to a set of prosthetics and their starting to feel uncomfortable again.”
She’s the first triple amputee in Ireland to get a bionic arm. She got it last Christmas. She wanted it black and ‘Star Wars-looking’ and she’s changing her wardrobe accordingly.
“I’m loving it. It’s really great, all the different arm movements and grips. It makes work easier. But it’s heavier than I’d like.”
What she’s really buzzed about is her EDI job, which came in June. The free, Government-funded service is managed by employer bodies. When it comes to workplace needs of people with disabilities, Seónaid says there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
“Three wheelchair-users might seem to have the same disability but it could be different or — if the same — they might interact with it differently. It’s important the employer asks the person with the disability what their needs might be in the workplace.”
She’s concerned employers may unconsciously harbour attitudinal barriers to inclusiveness. “Employers looking for new recruits will have ideal candidates in mind, who fit into the ‘normal’ mould, who tick boxes the employer thinks are necessary.”
So people with disabilities get “shortlisted out of a batch of CVs” without ever getting called to interview. And yet, says Seónaid: “People with disabilities have to be even more creative, more innovative, than people who fit the ‘normal’ mould.”
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