Living a full life with a learning disability
In this episode, Our Voices focuses on Ciara, a woman who has refused to accept the limitations that society has outlined for her. She talks about how advice from a supportive and successful cousin, The Edge from U2, helped her to unleash her own potential.
A supportive voice
When Ciara was young, she had a famous cousin to look up to: The Edge, lead guitarist in the band U2. He would often give her advice. When Ciara was just 12 years old, he said to her
“Just because you have a learning disability, it doesn’t make you any different. It just means you might need some extra support in your life. And everybody has some kind of difficulty in their life. Everybody has barriers.”
This advice has proved to be invaluable for Ciara throughout her life.
Being at school with a learning disability
But she didn’t always have adequate support and had a particularly difficult time at school. It wasn’t until she was aged 10 that she learned she had a learning disability. Until then, stress and learning were commonly associated.
The challenges she faced at school were put down to a desire to be disruptive and an unwillingness to learn. Teachers’ general approach to Ciara rested on isolating her from the class when she was struggling to keep up with her peers. Describing her feelings at school, Ciara says “I was very upset. I felt isolated. It was really difficult. And people didn’t understand.”
An uncomfortable assessment
Finally, Ciara had an assessment to determine whether she had special needs. The process was particularly difficult.The process was particularly difficult.
“I saw language therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, educational psychologists, I think I saw every therapist there is in this world at the age of 10, when all you’re trying to do is grow up and be a child. It was heartbreaking. I thought: why am I having to go through this? Why nobody else in my family? Why me?”
Starting a new school
As a result of the assessment, Ciara discovered that she had learning disability and she was transferred to a new school focused on helping her with her special needs. She was naturally nervous about making the transition to a new environment.
This was made even more difficult by the fact that the school was 90 minutes away from her home. In order to spare Ciara the commute, her parents made the decision that she would board there throughout the week. “I was away from my family. I was away from everything I ever knew. And I had to get used to this new school and the people around me.”
One of the benefits of her new environment was that she discovered Sally. Sally was the person Ciara shared a dorm with, and, when they first met, one could say that neither individual made a wholly positive impression. “She hated me. She thought I was a snobby what’s it. I didn’t like her, because she was a gobby what’s it. And we didn’t like each other at all.”
A lifelong friendship
Despite these initial impressions, Ciara found Sally to be particularly supportive one night after a classmate had insulted her. Ciara was sobbing and Sally put her arm around her. This kind action proved to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
“She actually then became my best friend. And she stuck up for me. And we used to then go to the same evening clubs together. We would hang out together, we would have fun together, we would laugh together.”
Overcoming the barriers of her learning disability
Ciara’s dreams for the future saw her wanting to have a career and a family like other people. She drew inspiration from people such as her cousin, The Edge, and she has now worked for Mencap for the last 21 years. In this way, she has been overcoming the barriers of her learning disability.
She is currently working as Big Plan Engagement Lead, which involves providing learning disability support and helping those with special needs by talking to them to ensure that they are included in the charity’s strategy. “I love my job so much because it means to me that I’m respected. I’m listened to. I have value. And it means that I can live the life that I want to like anyone else.”
What normal life looks like
As part of her role, Ciara has been exposed to prejudicial attitudes towards those with disabilities, particularly those who tell her what normal life looks like and how those with learning disabilities can never fully participate.
At a conference with Mencap colleagues, a support worker who was sitting next to her turned to her and said “ ‘People with learning disabilities don’t have relationships… They can’t love. They don’t have boyfriends, girlfriends, they don’t get married.’ And I was in a relationship. And it really rocked me. And I went home that night going, but we do! Why can’t we?”
Ciara decided that the best way to change this narrative was to show the world how successful her own relationship was. When she got married to her partner, Mark, she made sure that the news was communicated all over social media.
This led to a young woman contacting Ciara. She said that she had heard about Ciara’s career and marriage via Mencap, and that she had been inspired by her and was about to go on her own first date. “My heart just felt so wonderful. That just was amazing. Because, you know, she wanted to be like me.”
Ciara’s Pink Sparkle Podcast
This experience gave Ciara the desire to set up her own platform so that she could help even more people like her cross barriers and reach their full potential. During lockdown, she found a way to do this by starting her own podcast called “Ciara’s Pink Sparkle Podcast”. Describing the podcast, Ciara says
“What I hope when people listen to this is that they change their perception of people with a learning disability.”
The first episode of the podcast featured none other than her famous cousin. “For years now I’ve grown up watching him on his stage. And now, he sees me on my stage of what I do. We’ve got that mutual respect for each other and love for each other. And I think that’s always something that can never be taken away.”