Joanne O’Riordan: ‘Don’t clap me for jumping the hurdle. Help me remove it’

The sports journalist/podcaster spoke to Róisín Ingle at The Irish Times Big Night In

When Joanne O’Riordan was born 26 years ago in Millstreet, the sports journalist/podcaster/activist was one of seven people born with the condition Tetra-Amelia syndrome.

“The doctor basically was like, ‘oh, you know what you do when a doll loses a head . . . you know, we put it in the press and we don’t interact with it’,” O’Riordan recalled. “The idea was a metaphor for, ‘put Joanne in a home and don’t deal with it and don’t think about it because she’s a lost cause,’ basically. We had some public health nurses that were adamant, along with my parents, that this [wasn’t] right, ‘she can live a long, normal and healthy life’.”

O’Riordan spoke on a range of subjects to Róisín Ingle at an online event, The Irish Times Women’s Podcast Big Night In, on Saturday night.

Growing up as the youngest of six children, O’Riordan explained that her siblings “toughened” her up quickly, involving her in the rough and tumble of everyday life.

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“Anything they were doing I wanted [them] to hang out with me,” she noted. “They put me into a Batista Bond [wrestling move] because we were into WWE [wrestling] back in the day. One afternoon I rolled under the cot and they were too busy playing with their Nintendos so they ignored me for a few hours.”

In her teens, O’Riordan had become involved in activism, in tandem with her college studies in criminology, most notably challenging Enda Kenny on the issue of disability cuts.

On which, O’Riordan said: “A lot of people were like, ‘how dare he cross you?’ It’s great to acknowledge someone they’re wrong, and had then had the ability to fix [it], and in the situation we are in at the minute, it would be great if someone would acknowledge they were wrong and had the ability to fix it. I’d give anything for someone like Enda Kenny; someone who had as my father said, ‘the liathróidí’ to come back and acknowledge, ‘we made a mistake’.”

O’Riordan also laughingly described current Taoiseach Micheál Martin as her “second dad”. “Anytime we are at an event, my dad kind of disappears, and if someone is taking picture, Micheál takes pictures of me on his phone and he’ll text them to me,” she noted. “At one [dinner], a waiter put a steak in front of me and I was about to turn to the waiter and say, ‘oh, would you mind . . .’, but Micheál was like, ‘I’ve got this’ and he started cutting up my steak for me.”

Offering a timely message to Martin, O’Riordan added: “I just want you to know . . . I’m sorry that those around you aren’t doing the job they’re being asked to do, that they and if you need anyone to just come in and boss people around, just call me. You have my number.”

Referring to her activism, O’Riordan noted that she would like to be “one of those weird activists that wants to put myself out of work”. “I want to be unemployed as an activist in 10 years’ time. I don’t want to be talking about how to get into the f***ing bank with a ramp in five years’ time.”

Elsewhere in the conversation, O’Riordan admitted she hates the connotations often associated with the word “disability”.

“For me when people hear the world disability, they think ‘charity case’. I see it all the time. There’s a niceness towards it but if I’m in a supermarket, someone will always come over and offer me their prayers, and I’m kind of like, ‘look, there’s nothing wrong, unless you are praying for me to be wealthy and have my €6 million house in Kinsale,’” she noted. “No-one needs to guide me, I’m totally fine. The idea that people can’t do anything, it’s very, ‘you need help’. I’m not saying things are rosy in the garden all the time, I live in a society that isn’t catered to my needs.

“I hate that [conversations around disability] are all ‘woe is me’ and we need to change that,” O’Riordan adds.  “(Swimmer) Ellen Keane and I were talking about that – sometimes when we see a person with a disability in the paper, it’s angry. It’s very ‘I don’t have what I need’. And that’s obviously a problem as well, but it just looks like constantly we’re either like bitching and moaning, or there’s a tragic story around us, or something dramatic has happened. If you hear about Ellen Keane in the media, it’s ‘Ellen Keane who is a Paralympic athlete, who has had to overcome so many hurdles’. It’s not, ‘Ellen Keane and her Olympic medals’.

“I’m not anyone’s inspiration porn,” she added. “If you really want to be an ally, don’t clap me for jumping the hurdle – help me remove it.”

The Women's Podcast Big Night In, featuring Róisín Ingle in conversation with one of six influential women in front of a live audience, takes place online every fortnight until May 15th. Future interviewees include Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, Tolü Makay and Maeve Higgins. A €50 ticket (€25 for Irish Times digital subscribers) gives access to all six events. Details and tickets here.