Claire was featured in the media as Ireland’s ‘first blind teacher’ when she graduated, but she has faced ‘brick walls’ when trying to find a job.
A DUBLIN-BASED teacher who lost her vision due to a brain tumour while in college said that our system for supporting disabled people in the workplace is failing, as she has only got one interview after nearly 50 applications over four years.
Claire Shorten is 33-years-old, and lives in Ballinteer with her husband David. She graduated from an undergrad in geography and history, and then an MA in education after losing her sight.
At the time of her graduation, Claire was featured in the media as Ireland’s ‘inspirational first blind teacher’. She didn’t think she’d face any barriers in gaining employment.
“We are always hearing about how badly we need teachers. I had completed two placements in schools during my MA, and I got on fantastically with the girls in my classes. I was eager to get back in the classroom and do what I was meant to do,” Claire said.
In the first year, Claire got no invitations for interview. The following year, again, nothing. In the third year after she left college, she got one interview for a Dublin school.
“I was nervous at that stage, I feel like I messed up on a couple of questions, I didn’t get it,” she said.
Claire said that though she never assumes that the barriers she faces are due to “being blind”, after submitting applications for nearly 50 different teaching positions, she started to think that discrimination may be playing a part in the constant rejection.
“I was speaking to someone in the access office in Maynooth University where I studied, and he said ‘Claire, do you think that maybe they it’s because they are seeing non-blind applicants?’, I hadn’t wanted to think of it that way, but I realised yeah, that’s probably what’s going on here,”she said.
Claire said that part of the problem is the system for personal assistant services in Ireland, and the way it puts the onus on the employer.
“If I get a job in a school, they then have to get on to local services and see about arranging a personal assistant for me. While it’s good to have that provision there, if I could have the personal assistant arranged myself, I feel like it would increase the likelihood of getting an interview,”she said.
Last year an ESRI study found that personal assistant (PA) services in Ireland – which are typically user-led, can include support in the workplace, and are different to home help – are disorganised, under-funded, and not fully fulfilling the state’s obligation to ensure that disabled people have equal choice and opportunity in society.
It also said that PA services are often “enshrined” within a medical model of disability, which has led to some people who apply for a personal assistant for reasons like work are offered home help instead, even if they have stated that they do not need home help.
The ESRI conducted a survey of PA service users in the summer of 2021, and interviewees repeatedly cited that a lack of workplace support hours has prevented them from pursuing work.
Claire did not find that being blind was in any way a limiting factor on her teaching ability.
“When I went into the two schools for my placements, I thought here we go, they will give me an awful time. It was the complete opposite, they actually thought being blind was cool. They were forever asking me questions about it. The younger generations aren’t the problem when it comes to treating people with disabilities equally, sadly it’s older people who fall short,” she said.
Claire lost her vision when she was a young student. She had a series of migraines, and then experienced blurry vision. A specialist in SpecSavers did some basic tests with her, and then advised her to drive straight to hospital.
“She had this white light, and I just couldn’t see it at all. She kept asking, ‘Are you sure you can’t see the light? Try again,’ and I thought she was getting angry at me. In hindsight I realised that she was just worried for me,” Claire said.
Claire had a CAT scan in St Vincent’s hospital the next day, and doctors told her that she had some kind of tissue present in her brain when the results came in.
She was told that she would have to go for emergency brain surgery the next day.
“I was hyper the whole time, joking with the ambulance crew on the way over to Beaumont. None of it felt real,” Claire said.
The surgeon was able to remove the part of the benign tumour that was pressing on Claire’s optic nerve, but not all of it. A programme of chemotherapy followed in the months ahead.
After some time recovering in the hospital, once Claire had been discharged home, she realised that her vision was fading again.
“I went straight back in for more scans. They told me that they weren’t sure what happened, as the surgery had been a success, and that it was possible that the damage had already been done. I was going to lose my vision completely,” she said.
Reflecting, Claire said that at the time, she was glad that it happened to her, and not her sister, or one of her friends.
“I knew that I could handle it. I was OK with being different.
With the help of Vision Ireland (formerly known as the National Council for the Blind of Ireland), and the “excellent” access services at Maynooth University, after a few years Claire was able to return to college.
She also met her now-husband David, a former childhood sweetheart who she crossed paths with again.
Claire and her husband David.
Once they got married, despite her struggle to find work, her social welfare payments stopped.
“My husband earns an average wage, and Dublin is an expensive city to live in,” Claire said.
Now, she feels determined not to give up her passion for geography and teaching, and has set up her own online tutoring business for pupils who want to study the subject for Leaving Cert outside of school.
“I will be offering junior cert classes, and a two year online course for students who want to take geography independently as a backup subject, or because they couldn’t based on their school’s timetable,” she said.
Though the Balinteer woman would love to one day make it into a classroom, she is hoping that this year she can take her career into her own hands again, and start teaching. You can find her website here.
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