Mary DeCourcy laughs as she recalls a school sports day many years ago in Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. It was 1967 and she was 11. She had put her name down for every event and things weren’t going too well in the winning stakes!
The weakness on her right side and the weight of the caliper she wore to help her to walk caused her to trip and fall down quite a lot. Sr. Bernardine, the Head Nun intervened. The last race of the day was spud and ruler (same as egg and spoon) and Sr Bernardine decided to give Mary a small advantage. She cut the potato in half and glued it to the wide plastic ruler.
“I’ll murder you if you tell anyone,” Sr. Bernardine threatened with a smile. Mary didn’t win that race either because, she tripped on a sod on the field and fell. She was laughing so much she could not wrestle the heavy caliper and herself upright.
As a child, Mary spent long periods of time in hospital, and as a result her education suffered. Her father understood the importance of education and got the books she should have been studying in those early years. He set her work to do every day before he went out to work. She was seven years of age before going to primary school for the first time. Her father had done such a good job she moved up four classes in two days.
She always believed that she had polio, and, it was only following a long search for her medical records, finally released to her under a Freedom of Information request five years ago, that she found out she has Spina Bifida. Tests to rule out Polio were inconclusive so it is possible that she contracted Polio as a child.
“I had been trying to get my medical records for years. In 1977, I had my first hip replacement surgery, and the surgeon, who tried to get my records, was told they were lost or destroyed,” says Mary.
“However, he told me that they were probably not lost or destroyed because it was frowned upon at the at that time to get a second medical opinion.
“To get my medical records under the Freedom of Information was a long process. I cried reading them, not because of the Spina Bifida diagnosis, but because of sets of photos in the records which were taken when I was six and 10 years of age.
“I remember vividly those photos being taken as I was naked and embarrassed. They brought me back to the mind of the lonely vulnerable child I was then,” she recalls.
Mary was hospitalised for the first time at 18 months and remained in hospital until she was three years of age. In Fact, she spent most of the first ten years of her life in hospital. She required a lot of surgery as both her hips were dislocated and circulation and muscle damage had to be repaired. It was different times then. Parents could only visit occasionally and children under 16 were not allowed to visit the hospital.
Despite her many surgeries and diagnosed childhood arthritis, Mary has the ability to live her life without her ‘disability’ being a ruling factor. When she was 10 years of age, her mother, Bridie McKendrick died suddenly and Mary, who had been living in Co. Wicklow with her parents and four brothers and one sister, was sent to Letterkenny, Co. Donegal to live with her mother’s family.
“When I was growing up in Donegal, the only disabled person I knew, apart from myself, was an uncle who was deaf and dumb. But I never thought that he had a disability, I just learned sign language to communicate with him,” she says.
When Mary completed her secondary education, she returned to Wicklow town in 1974 and has lived there ever since. She got a job with Wicklow County Council where she had a very enjoyable career.
“When I finished school and started looking for a job, I found it frustrating and humiliating as many interviewees would not give me a chance because of my disability, even though I had a very good Leaving Certificate and a very good secretarial qualification,” recalls Mary.
“This was before the Equality legislation and I am delighted that things have improved greatly since 1974 when I started looking for a job.
“We now have legislation which prevents discrimination on disability grounds - and all the other grounds of discrimination - which gives people looking for a job an even playing field legally.”
Mary married and had three children: Ray (33); sadly her second son, Shane, was stillborn, and Nicky (29). Mary has two grandchildren, Lisa and Sophie who live with Nicky and his wife Miriam in Austria.
“The proudest moments in my entire life were the births of my children and now my beautiful granddaughters,” she says.
“When my marriage ended I met a wonderful psychotherapist, Jacquie, who with her skill and patience helped me make sense of many challenges in my life. She used crystals and balanced my energy.
“I was fascinated with how I felt, so I studied hard and became a qualified practitioner and I now use Crystals, Colour Therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique and Laughter Yoga to help people.”
She took early retirement from her role as IT Systems Developer Analyst with Wicklow County Council a number of years ago to do this work.
Mary has travelled widely around Europe, Australia and India by herself: by taking the same sensible precautions as any lone tourist and with some careful planning, she says that travelling with a disability is not just possible but enjoyable.
“One of the big threats to my independence for a lot of years was that I drank too much alcohol. I did not realise, because I was having so much fun, that I was putting myself in harm’s way because of my mobility problem,” she says candidly.
“Now I do not drink alcohol while I am travelling as there is no point in putting yourself in harm’s way and I plan my trips to ensure I have assistance at airports etc.
“All the other precautions I take are the same for any woman travelling alone.”
Mary describes herself as a ‘serial volunteer’, working with many groups as a fundraiser. She is proud of having received the Bronze award from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) for her many years as a volunteer fundraiser. So, becoming Chairperson of the Wicklow Branch of Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland (SBHI) recently was a natural progression for this ‘serial volunteer’.
She has also shared her life experiences with SBHI members as a volunteer advocate. Because of her upbeat ‘can do’ attitude to life, Mary was recently contacted by the Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI) to assist in carrying out self-advocacy courses with young people.
So what advice would Mary give to younger people?
“You are a complete person regardless if a part of your body does not work like other people’s. You have gifts that make up for the weaknesses in whatever part of your body - it is only your body that is weak.
“Whatever you want to do, just give it a go and live your life as best you can. Be kind, loyal and compassionate with others.
“If you need help coming to terms with your disability, do not be shy, ask for help from your peers, family, and close friends,” she says.
“Do not be ashamed of your disability - we are all here for a reason, you have many talents and you are loved.”