“I would encourage everyone like me who is living with spina bifida and/or hydrocephalus to get out and meet people and lead a full social life.”
This is the advice from Jennifer Barrett, a 31-year-old woman from Passage West in Co. Cork, who does not let the conditions of spina bifida and hydrocephalus hold her back from leading a busy and fulfilling life.
“Leading a busy social life is not just about socialising and having fun, but from a career point of view, you never know the contacts you will meet when you leave your home and get out.
“Networking is what it is all about. It is not just all social but about the work-life balance as well – that is very important.”
Jennifer, who lives at home with her parents Joe and Liz and her brother Robbie, admits that she really enjoys her social life.
“I have a good circle of friends and I would be lost without them as they are there for me in the good times as well as the bad. I can talk to them at any time and it means a lot to have their support.
“I enjoy going out with my friends for meals and drinks – just getting out, socialising and meeting people is what I am interested in,” she says.
For anyone who may feel intimidated about getting out and socialising, Jennifer says that a great way to start socialising is by joining a club in your local community group that you are interested in.
“For instance, how I started out was by getting involved in my local choir. That really helped to get me out and about.
“I am no longer involved in the choir, but I continue to be involved in the Cork Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Association, I also link in with Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland (SBHI), and I am currently Secretary of our residents’ association.
“The Cork Association is a great way of meeting likeminded people and hearing stories and experiences of other people with spina bifida and hydrocephalus.
“I have been away on trips with SBHI on their SHINE away breaks and I have really enjoyed them, and I would encourage other people to do the same.
“I also go to the Crann Centre in Ballincollig, Co. Cork which is for people with all spinal injuries. It is a great meeting point and they also ran a very interesting summer programme of classes.
“I have also undertaken some leisure courses that were provided to the spina bifida and hydrocephalus association and its members such as mindfulness – which I think everyone can benefit from – beauty courses, and reflexology to mention a few.
“It is very important for your wellbeing to be with other people.”
Jennifer is also interested in going to the gym as it is good for her physically and mentally.
“The gym I attend twice weekly is called BeFitness with Leone. It is a very inclusive gym and luckily it is only across the road from my house, so I can go there independently,” she says.
“I like being independent, however, being as independent as I am wouldn’t be possible without the love and support of my family – my parents, sister Karen, brothers Johnny and Robbie, and my boyfriend Michael.”
Jennifer says that part of the reason why she relies so heavily on her social life now is because she does not have a job. By getting out and meeting people, she is constantly networking to improve her employment opportunities as well as ensuring that she remains focused.
“I am plugging away at trying to find employment or voluntary work. Like anyone else, I want to work to make my life worthwhile, to give me a focus to get up and out each day, and to play a valuable role in society and contribute,” explains Jennifer.
She says that she was very fortunate to attend mainstream primary and secondary education and while there were some challenges along the way, such as changes in Special Needs Assistants looking after her, she overcame them all and passed her Junior and Leaving Certificate exams.
After school, Jennifer completed a two-year Travel & Tourism Course in St John’s Central College in Cork which she really enjoyed. While attending this course, she secured work experience in a Travel Agency.
“They said that there would be an opportunity for me to secure a job with them when I completed my course, but unfortunately the travel agents went wallop so the job did not happen.
“I then did an office-based work placement with the ESB in Cork and after that I went on to do a one-year course in Reception and Customer Sales in the College of Commerce in Cork. I really enjoyed this course also and I achieved a City & Guilds Certificate from it.”
Since then Jennifer has been trying to see if she can put all her educational experience into use by securing employment.
“Unfortunately, nothing has come up yet, however, I am hopeful and determined.
“I don’t think it is intentional, however, I do feel that the fact I am a wheelchair user is a barrier to employment,” says Jennifer.
“I do not think employers realise that people in wheelchairs are as capable as people who are able-bodied.
“It is not out of malice or badness, it is just the way society is, but it is wrong. I just continue to work through it and do the best I can with job applications – I will never give up!”