Disabled musician with courage


Donal Coghlan cannot carry his baby son, Zak, in his arms. The 37-year-old musician has multiple sclerosis, a progressive neurological disease which causes loss of co-ordination and fatigue.

He can walk with the aid of a stick, but for the past two years has relied on an electric wheelchair when he leaves his Dublin flat.

Donal was the lead singer and song-writer with the band Hinterland, which was prominent in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yet even at the height of the band's success the disease was present in his system, although in remission.

Within more than a decade he went from having an international recording deal and travelling the world with Hinterland, to helping organise a variety show in Dublin to mark International Day for the Disabled.

"I have crossed the line from able-bodied society to disabled, and it's been an amazing experience," he says.

"It was very upsetting for a couple of years that I was going to be in a wheelchair but I have made the most of it."

Even today, Donal has to remind himself that he has crossed this line. At one point when recounting a story about last month's variety show, he says: "I'm disabled at the moment." With a shrug he quickly corrects himself: "I'm disabled."

The reaction of others to his disability still surprises and angers Donal. "I've had people ask my mother when she's pushing my chair, `How is he?'. They see you in a wheelchair and they think you have no brain."

Recently while going for a train at Heuston Station his wife, Marina, inquired from a CIE worker about wheelchair access. "The man, who was in his 60s, looked at Marina and said `Put him in the dining car', he recalls. I thought, hello, I'm right beside you."

A spirited and resourceful man with a wicked sense of humour, Donal has in recent years devoted his considerable artistic energies to projects involving disability groups. He still composes music in his home studio, although helping look after eight-month-old Zak has meant less time for this work.

Donal directed a film shown at the Galway Film Fleadh last year which was written by Stephen Olwill, who has cerebral palsy. Stephen's only way to communicate is to spell out words by blinking in response to prompts by someone moving their finger along the alphabet. The five-minute film, by the group Disability Lights Action, is currently being considered for viewing by a British television channel.

Donal attended a Christmas lunch yesterday organised by a taxi service for disabled people, called Vantastic, in which he is involved. He is also a member of the Forum of People with Disabilities, which is both a consumer and a civil rights group.

It was natural for him to "embrace and be embraced by the disabled community", he said. "I have been a song-writer all my life, and a song-writer talks about things that go to your heart.

"In the last two years I've been in a wheelchair and I've come up against things like the fact that I can't get up a kerb on to the footpath and things like this, where we do not meet EU standards."

Donal says last month's variety show marking International Day for the Disabled "rocked with alternativeness and attitude". "What I have learned is that disabled people have such an irreverent attitude to able-bodied people, but in a nice way. The humour is intensely brilliant."

Donal says he would like to keep the issue of disability "in people's faces". "I have been through the spin-dryer of life. It's still brilliant. It's still wacky and I have to take the good with the bad."