My spina bifida life: ‘Hi, I’m David. I’m a stand-up comedian’

Corkman talks of his journey from mainstream school to university in London

"I was only three when I first started using a wheelchair. Until then, I used to crawl a lot."

"I was only three when I first started using a wheelchair. Until then, I used to crawl a lot."

 

I had a lifesaving operation just after I was born. I was diagnosed with spina bifida before birth. These days, you can treat babies for spina bifida in the womb, but that wasn’t an option for me. My back had to be mended because I had a huge wound for a small person.

My mother is a nurse and I have an uncle who’s a doctor. Because of their medical backgrounds, they were able to make decisions that were necessary for me. They built up their knowledge of spina bifida. I had other health issues associated with spina bifida, but nothing long term. My health is very good, considering.

I was only three when I first started using a wheelchair. Until then, I used to crawl a lot. I don’t remember being told what I had, but from the age of three I developed an awareness of being somewhat different. That really came to light in primary school. When all the boys in the class were playing soccer and I couldn’t, it affected me. But to compensate for that, my parents encouraged me towards doing wheelchair sports. I did swimming and athletics, but I didn’t make it to the Paralympics.

Children can be cruel, but the funny thing was that anyone I had a problem with wouldn’t actually make light of my disability or say anything about my wheelchair. It’s a taboo subject and not something that people generally would use as a weapon. It was always something else; your hair, or your teeth, or your glasses.

When I started going to school in 1996, people with my condition were still going to special schools. My parents didn’t want that in any shape or form.

They were always pushing me to my best potential. They sent me to a mainstream school and I wanted that too, even though I didn’t know the difference at five years of age.

 

Disability rights

In my teenage years, I started to develop a consciousness about the rights of people with disabilities. When I got to the age where I was able to go into town, I started to notice a lot of places that were inaccessible to me.

A lot of nightclubs in Cork are upstairs, some without lifts. My dream would be that Ireland would catch up with some states in the US where every facility has to be fully accessible. In some places in the US, if a pub, club or cafe doesn’t have wheelchair-accessible toilets, they’re closed down and there’s no arguing about it. I’ve always pushed myself to get to places. I’ll get out of my wheelchair and crawl up a stairs if I have to.

I’m ambitious. I’m always thinking one step ahead. I won the UCC Graduate of the Year award for 2013. To win it, I had to get first-class honours every year in my exams as well as taking on extracurricular work.

I was in the students’ union throughout my whole college career and was the welfare officer for a year. There’s a great support network at UCC for people with disabilities.

I’ve recently started a masters in cognitive neuroscience at University College London. I’m hoping to be a clinical psychologist. I always had an interest in mental health, having grown up with difficulties myself.

I can understand that the challenges of daily life can often leave people vulnerable, exhausted and fed up. I just want to help people to help themselves when they can’t live life to the full. I didn’t suffer from depression. I was lucky that I had a very strong support network around me. I feel other people might not have that. I’d like to be their support.

Moving to London was like a trial by fire. Not only was I living independently for the first time, I was also moving to another country, from a small city such as Cork to the most metropolitan city in the world.

It was a big challenge, but I’m really settling in now. I’m staying in private student accommodation with 800 students. I’m 2km from college and I wheel there and back. I used the Tube the other day but it’s not very accessible for me. Only 25 per cent of Tube stations are wheelchair accessible. I have to plan my journeys a lot more than other people. The buses are very accessible.

I have an accessible room with an ensuite bathroom. That’s imperative because I spend longer in the bathroom than other people. I cook for myself in a shared kitchen on a cooker that’s designed for wheelchair level.

I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my mother. She has definitely been the one who has pushed me the most. It’s the reason I want to support those who don’t have much help.

I’m very competitive and I do everything to the max. I have to work doubly hard socially to let people know I’m normal. There’s social awkwardness around people in wheelchairs. But I’ve become good at putting myself out there.

I’ve joined the comedy club at UCL. When I go on stage and say, “Hi, I’m David. I’m a stand-up comedian,” there’s that split second of terrible awkward silence as they look at me in my wheelchair.

By the third joke, everyone is on board with me. Most of my material is about my experience of being disabled. When it’s a reality, you either have to laugh at it or cry at it.