Youghal-born solicitor on confronting challenges faced as visually-impaired athlete

Visually impaired category winner Sinead Kane and running partner John O'Regan during the 2019 Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile.

Record-breaking runs by Youghal-born solicitor Sinead Kane are confronting many people’s perceptions of what can be achieved by a visually-impaired athlete, writes Rebecca Stiffe.

Growing up in Youghal, Co Cork, with her blind mother and visually impaired sister and father, Sinead Kane was told always be a self-advocate.

It was aged four, when she was leaning so close towards the television that she got a static shock and fell backwards, that she discovered what that meant.

Sinead has four visual impairments: aniridia, coloboma, nystagmus and glaucoma. With just 5%vision, she is legally blind.

A lot of people think blindness means darkness, but it doesn’t. With me, I take in too much too light, so if you can imagine, it’s like your eyes being dazzled by a car with full headlights.

While Sinead doesn’t use a guide dog, she uses a cane and magnifying glass, and keeps three pairs of sunglasses on her in case she loses one.

“I think a perception people have is people with blindness and disabilities can’t do things. Throughout my life, I’ve always strived to achieve things a fully sighted person hasn’t.”

In 2009, Sinead became Ireland’s first visually impaired solicitor. She holds two PhDs from NUIG and DCU. She broke two Guinness WorldRecords. She ran the furthest distance on a treadmill for a female in12 hours.

When asked by Child Vision in2012 to run a 10K, she accepted theinvitation without knowing what a 10K was. It took her two weeks to find a guide runner.

But because she wasn’t used to running, she came home with blisters and decided to quit. Her guide runner wasn’t having any of it and told her to get in the pool and start aqua jogging.

“A life lesson to be learned,” says Sinead.

“When you come across a difficulty, we can all just easily give up, but a solution can always be found by being adaptable.”

She accomplished both goals she had set out for herself — raising €2,000 for charity and finishing the race in under an hour.

“Charity work has always been a part of my life from growing up in a house where helping people was instilled into me from a young age. I just thought I would do the run and that would be it, but from there my confidence grew and I joined a running club.”

In 2014, Sinead ran her first marathon.

At the end, I didn’t feel I had run a marathon. I was talking to someone at the finish line, who is now my guide runner, John O’Regan. He thought I was being slightly arrogant until he observed me walking around.

John suggested ultra-running and in February 2015, Sinead ran her first 50K, before completing a 12-hour track race that July.

“It sounds really boring, running around a 400m track for 12 hours but actually, when you get there, the competitive person comes out and it becomes a game of strategy.

“During that race, I thought people were looking at me thinking ‘oh, look at that poor blind girl, running around.’ Then I ended up becoming the second female and broke the track record. I was the only person there with a disability and I ran 109km in that race.”

Sinead and John completed the World Marathon Challenge in 2017, running seven marathons in seven days, across seven continents.

Sinead Kane, winner of the 2019 Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon, Visually Impaired Category. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile.
Sinead Kane, winner of the 2019 Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon, Visually Impaired Category. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile.

The 295km feat involved 43,509km flight distance and spanned 15 time zones with temperatures ranging from -30 in Antarctica to 34 in Dubai. Sinead was nominated by the 33 other participants for a sportsmanship prize which she donated to the Irish Guide Dog charity.

“Sometimes I feel like I need to make up that it was hard,” she says. “For me, in running, there’s a finish line, whereas, with my disability, there’s none. I find dealing with my disability on a daily basis much harder than running a marathon.

“There’s a lot of discrimination with people with disabilities and some may say in 2019 it doesn’t exist, but it does.”

She recalls being told by a 24-hour race director last December in Barcelona she couldn’t participate because she would mess up the race. At first, she thought she was reading the email wrong, or she was too emotionally involved, but as the race went ahead, she got a solicitor to represent her and the race was reprimanded by the city council.

“The world is very much geared on visualisation so for me, living in that world that’s not very inclusive in terms of work and sport, and on valuing the skills and abilities of people with disabilities is what I find hard.”

Earlier this year, Sinead achieved the international B standard in ultra-running during a 24-hour race with a distance of 204.6km, meaning she’s eligible to represent Ireland in the World Championships in France this October if she’s chosen.

“I have one or two more running achievements I’d like to do and records I’d like to break. I just want to see what options are open to me and keep advocating for people,” she says, on her plans for the future.

I just want people to be grateful. Just because I’m born visually impaired doesn’t mean you or any other person won’t get it. Anyone can become visually impaired. A lot of my friends acquired their disability later in life.

“People strive to be happy ‘when I do this’ or ‘when I get this’ but we just need to be happy for something today, because none of us knows if we have tomorrow.”

Sinead Kane is an ambassador for the Bright for Sight campaign taking place on June 21. www.sightsavers.org

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