At 17, Jean was paralysed in a fall from a horse. The last thing she wants is your pity
Jean Daly (26), from Antrim, says it was awful to be told she was paraplegic, but she refused to give up. By Donal Lynch
Jean Daly characterises the radical swing in the public perception of disabled people, which has taken place across the world in the past few years, in simple terms. The Antrim woman says: "They've gone from charity cases to superheroes with nothing in between".
While once we saw people in wheelchairs as objects of pity, vulnerable individuals in need of special dispensations, now they've been repackaged as heroic actors in a narrative of adversity overcome – think of the latest Guinness ads, for instance.
Both views are unrealistic, Jean tells me over tea in a Belfast hotel. "It's as though everyone in a wheelchair is supposed to be in training for the Paralympics," she explains. "And, don't get me wrong: it's really great that the mainstream, the media, no longer automatically sees us as victims. But what's lost in there somewhere is the idea of the 'normal' disabled person, who doesn't deserve pity or hero-worship, who's just getting on with things."
It's this hallowed middle ground that the 26-year-old woman has spent almost 10 years forging for herself and her perspectives, while not heroic perhaps, were certainly hard won. A decade ago, Jean, then living in her native Co Cork, was a transition-year student and an avid horse rider with aspirations of making a professional career in eventing. Two years previously she had been part of a team which won the prestigious Pony Club Championships in Offaly.
In order to move closer to her goal of representing the country at international level, she went to live and train with family friends, an English couple named Sue Smallman and Doug Dobson, who are based in Tipperary. They allowed her to use their horses and gave her room and board as a working student.
In the spring of 2004, as part of a qualification process for an eventing competition, Jean was required to take part in an event in Downpatrick. "The horse was not really right that day, but we didn't really twig it because we were focused on getting me qualified," she remembers. "She (the horse) left a leg (as she was jumping over a fence) and her shoulder twisted and I came off her and landed on my back. I had been thrown off a horse before – there is actually a picture of me flying through the air – but I knew this was different. Some parts of it are hazy, although I was fully lucid.
"My mum, who is a doctor herself, tells me I was crying and I told her that I couldn't feel my legs. But it's as though I can remember in a quite detached way looking at myself on the ground but not actually being there. I've blocked out a lot. The strangest little details have stayed with me. I remember that when I got to intensive care, someone at the hospital offered me a Muller yoghurt. I still can't eat them to this day."
Her spinal chord was entirely severed by the fall. In her memory, it took three days before anyone broke the news to her that she would be paraplegic and never walk again.
She would later learn that she had been told this several times in hospital, but had somehow blocked the information out.
"I remember on the third day the consultant was there again and he told me again and I had a few tears," she recalls. "And mum and dad were there too. They left the room for a few minutes and I turned to Sue (Smallman) and started talking to her about dressage. In my head this wasn't going to affect my goals at all. I thought, 'You don't need to walk for horse-riding.' I really didn't know what I was in for. I wouldn't want to minimise how awful a situation it was – for anyone going through it now, I would only say it does get easier."
The most important element of her recovery was that she never lay on her bed and thought 'my life as I know it is over'. "I always had a goal," she tells me. The first of these was simply to sit up. Within three months of the accident she had learned to drive and was travelling from her then home in Carrigaline, Co Cork, back up to Tipperary to help muck out at the stables. "They were all individual projects," she tells me. "My chair was just part of that. It helped that people around me were very upbeat. Privately, of course, they were very upset – there was some anger there that this had happened to me – but they were careful not to show that to me."
She skipped fifth year in school entirely, and went straight into sixth year to do her Leaving Cert. As luck would have it, an extension had been built which made the school building wheelchair-accessible and she would study by herself in her car at the beach. A major adjustment was letting go of horse-riding. "It dawned on me, 'Actually you're in a chair now you've got to change your behaviours a bit'," Jean tells me. "I wasn't 'Jean Daly the horse rider' any more. I needed three people to get me on to my horse. Whereas I can put my chair in the back of my car and go to play tennis or basketball."
Unsure of her new goals, she was thinking of taking a year out after school when John Bennett, a disability officer in UCD whom she knew faintly through the horse-riding community, contacted her and told her: "Come here, I'll find you somewhere accessible to live and you won't regret it."
She took him at his word and tells me it was the best decision of her life. She gained a degree in psychology and a masters in Disability and Rehabilitation Studies.
"UCD was really a life-changing experience. By the time I came out of there I knew what I wanted from life. The odd time there would be people who made patronising but well-meaning comments, but I let that go. It took me a long time to understand my disability so it's only natural that they wouldn't understand it."
Finding a job after college was a challenge, and not just because of the recession. "Many application forms had a section where they would ask if you needed (special) access to the interview venue. At first I checked that box and never heard back from anyone. But I noticed that when I didn't check it I started getting responses. I should also say I have no proof of anything, it's an assumption on my part. Anyway, there's no nice way to say that, but that's what happened."
After completing her second masters – in counselling and therapeutic studies at the University of Ulster – Jean went on to find work with the Cedar Foundation on a project funded by the European Commission called BackHome.
The project is aimed at moving brain neural computer interfaces (systems that enable you to interact with computers through your brain waves) from the laboratory toward practical devices, which can be used at home with minimal support. She also began giving lectures in UCD and the University of Ulster on the topics of disability, lifespan and electronic assistive technology.
She always swore that she could never go out with a man in a wheelchair, "because in my head it wouldn't work. I didn't want people to think I was going out with someone because they're in a wheelchair".
But then she met Stafford, an Antrim-based car dealer, through her local tennis club, and they hit it off. He was her first boyfriend who used a wheelchair. She moved to Antrim to be with him and they have just celebrated their fourth anniversary of living together. She says she doesn't know about having children. "Other disabled people have done it and it would certainly be possible, but I don't know. Never say never, but it would be tough running around after a child, never mind holding them."
This year has been a whirlwind for Jean. First she became a spokesperson for RGK, a wheelchair manufacturer, and was also appointed to the board of Kanchi, a company that promotes the business case of disability. Then in the spring she was selected to be the Antrim Rose in the annual Rose of Tralee event.
She didn't win, but established a great rapport with host Daithi O Se and describes the experience of representing her adopted county as a "massive honour".
"The main thing about it all for me was that I wasn't sitting up there on that stage because I'm in a chair. It was about my personality and achievements," she tell me in an accent which lurches between a southern lilt and a northern brogue. When the competition was over, she and Stafford took a trip around Ireland in a PT convertible, assessed various properties for accessibility and blogged about the experience for Kanchi.
"People were sometimes terrified that they were being 'evaluated', but the main thing I tried to emphasise to people is that it makes sound business sense to make a premises accessible. For a small outlay you're opening up a new customer base. It's not about charity or people needing help."
It's hard to imagine anyone thinking this young dynamo needs charity. She might spurn the superhero label, but with her presence and relentless positivity she may represent a more accessible – pardon the pun – kind of role model for people, both able-bodied and disabled.
"I wouldn't wish this injury on anyone," she tells me as the evening draws in. "But it's been a part of my journey here. It's made me who I am. I wouldn't want anything to be different."