Belfast Telegraph

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'In a restaurant I couldn't read the menu, so I would say I would have whatever my friend was having, whether I really liked it or not'

Yvonne McCoy has spent years caring full-time for her brother, Stephen, who was injured in the Kegworth air crash. Now, the Co Antrim woman tells Stephanie Bell how she concealed her illiteracy for most of her life - and finally learned to read and write at the age of 40

Yvonne McCoy will never take for granted the simple pleasure of being able to pick up her favourite book at bedtime and lose herself in the adventure of a good story.

It is only a few years ago, at the age of 40, that she learned to read and write, having left school illiterate because of dyslexia.

Before that, she often found herself sitting on a bus from her home in Toomebridge to Belfast, watching other passengers pass the time by reading, yearning to be one of them.

Today she is an avid reader who loves Irish authors and autobiographies.

"I was 43 when I read my first book, PS I Love You by Cecilia Ahern, and I remember thinking, 'I'm a big girl now - I can read'. I love reading and I always bring a book to bed. I love Marian Keyes - she is hilarious - and Roddy Doyle's books are great too," Yvonne says.

While most of us take reading and writing for granted, shocking statistics reveal that 20% of adults in the UK are believed to be illiterate.

Yvonne (49) has spoken about her experience in the hope of encouraging others to go back to the classroom.

It is typical of the Co Antrim woman's selflessness that she wants to break the taboo and persuade others it can be done.

No one who watched the recent BBC NI True North documentary on Yvonne's brother Stephen's struggle to learn to walk could fail to have been moved by her devotion to him.

Stephen was just 16 and Yvonne was 20 when he was critically injured in the Kegworth air crash 30 years ago.

He was left quadriplegic after the disaster, spending six months in a coma and two and a half years in hospital.

When he was eventually allowed home, Yvonne gave up her job as a nursing auxiliary in an old people's home to look after her brother full-time.

She spends 12 hours a day with Stephen, washing and dressing him, preparing his meals, giving him his medication and overseeing his physiotherapy in a purpose-built exercise room.

Her elderly parents, Rose (79) and Idris (77), care for their son throughout the night, and Yvonne is preparing for the day when their changing health will mean she will have to move back to the family home to look after Stephen 24/7.

Although it has meant giving up own career, she has never regarded what she does as a sacrifice, and says: "As long as there's a breath in our bodies, we will look after him (Stephen). We count our blessings that he's still with us."

But behind the brave face, life has been hard - school was a nightmare because no one picked up on her dyslexia.

"I think back then the teachers didn't know what dyslexia was, so I was treated like there was something wrong with me - that I had special needs - and that's how I felt," she says.

"When I went to secondary school, I couldn't read a primary-four reading book. The teachers, God bless them, didn't know what to do with me.

"I enjoyed the classes without books. I loved history because the teacher read everything out to us and I loved cookery, although I hated having to write down the recipes.

"With so many children in our house, we all had chores to do because we couldn't leave it all to my mummy.

"I would do my sister Maura's chores and she would do my homework."

Unsurprisingly, Yvonne couldn't wait to leave school at 16, and she didn't sit any exams.

She vividly remembers the relief of her last day, throwing her tie and schoolbag from the bus window with glee.

The world of work, however, proved to be another minefield, with even filling in job applications a stumbling block.

Her salvation came when she joined a youth training scheme that allowed her practical skills to shine, and she trained on the job as an auxiliary nurse in a retirement home.

"I was counting down the days to leaving school because I knew I wasn't fit for it," Yvonne says.

"Then I discovered no one wanted to employ me because I couldn't read or write. I got onto a back-to-work scheme and was able to prove myself."

She worked for four years until her brother's tragic accident.

It was while Stephen was in a rehabilitation hospital in London for a year that flying back and forward to visit him took its toll on her parents.

Yvonne stepped into their place, and they asked her if she would consider caring for Stephen full-time. Without a moment's hesitation, she gave up her job and has devoted her time to Stephen ever since.

"I knew I could look after him and care for him, and it is the best thing that I have ever done. To me, Stephen comes first," she says.

"He didn't ask to be in this position. We just have to make life the best we can for him.

"He is great company and good to be with. I am so lucky to have someone so lovely to look after. I am not just saying that because he is my brother.

"He does brighten up a room with his smile, his wit and the wee antics he gets up to."

Yvonne arrives at her family home to get Stephen up and dressed at around 10.30am, and stays with him until she puts him to bed at 9.30pm, seven days a week.

During the summer months, she tries to get her brother out of the house as often as she can, and every Sunday she takes him out for dinner.

It's clear to anyone who sees Yvonne with Stephen that they enjoy a very close bond.

She is happy to be able to care for him, and says she has a good network of friends who she enjoys going out with to the cinema or for a meal.

However, her happiness was shattered for some months when, out of the blue, she was diagnosed with depression at the age of 40.

It was this illness which inadvertently led her to enrol in a class to learn to read and write.

"I was depressed and it was bad, but our GP was fantastic," she says.

"He tried to persuade me to take up a course or a hobby to get me out of the house and do something good for me.

"I thought, 'Well, I would like to learn to read and write'. A friend of mine did all the paperwork and arranged for me to go to a class in Magherafelt.

"I was surprised to see so many people in a similar boat to me. We all got on very well. There must have been 25 in the class, all of them adults.

"I went twice a week for three years at night, and it is the best thing ever - it opened up a new world to me.

"It was easier to pick up because it was a different way of teaching from when I was at school. I'm not the best writer, but I can now put a few sentences together."

Yvonne spent most of her life hiding her inability to read and write, making excuses and finding ways to cover it up.

However, she later shared her struggles on Facebook in the hope of encouraging others that they too can learn to read and write, no matter their age.

"I was embarrassed about it," Yvonne says. "I felt stupid and I hid it. I always made excuses, and usually it was, 'Sorry, I have forgotten my glasses and can't read without them'. The glasses excuse was great.

"In a restaurant I couldn't read the menu, so I would just say I would have whatever my friend was having, whether I liked it or not.

"But I love reading now and I always bring a book to bed with me. I put it on Facebook because I wanted people in the same position to know that they should not be ashamed and to encourage them to go and do something about it.

"It's never too late to go and learn. It will transform the quality of your life."

Yvonne and her family were inundated with messages of support after the BBC NI True North documentary about her brother's attempts to walk again using a robotic exoskeleton.

"Stephen has a long road ahead, but we will keep going with the skeleton suit - he is very determined," she says.

"The programme was lovely and the response has been amazing.

"Stephen has had a lot of letters from people wishing him well and saying they are praying for his recovery.

"One lady came to our door once with a box of chocolates for Stephen and a bouquet of flowers for me.

"People really are fantastic."

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