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Brian Quigg and Paula McNamara
People with disabilities are still exploited


Brian Quigg, who’s 38, and his sister Paula McNamara, who’s six years older, both suffer from congenital eye-problems and attended special schools in Dublin. Both are legally blind, though Brian has a little more eye-power and is a “great guide dog” around the mazy Derry streets, according Paula.

Brian also has a learning disability and is epileptic. But Paula entered mainstream education, under a groundbreaking new programme in the late 1970s, and sat her Junior Cert and Leaving Cert. She went on to university in England and worked as a computer programmer with the Eastern Health Board in Dublin, before becoming an advocate for people with mental health problems and physical disabilities.

Paula initially attended Nazareth House School in Derry. “My parents were very progressive,” she recalls. “They wanted to educate me in a ‘normal’ school – but the support structure wasn’t there. Because I couldn’t see the blackboard, I quickly fell behind the others, so the teachers suggested I should go toPaula Jordanstown.

“It was a bit traumatic, as I was expected to board. And I was a bit disruptive for a while, but it was a great school.”

At the height of the Troubles, the family moved south to open a fruit-and-veg business. And Paula transferred to a boarding school for the visually impaired in Dublin, where she was joined by Brian, who later transferred to a secondary school for boys in Drumcondra.

Both had a very positive experience of the education system. Brian, despite his shyness, took part in the school plays and musicals. And he also enjoyed pottery, arts and crafts.

“People at school were all very good to me,” says Brian. “I was never bullied. Sister Kevin, I remember, was very kind. And Mary Leonard was a great help as well. I was very well-behaved at school though.”
Paula rolls her eyes at this suggesting her path mightn’t have been quite so smooth. “He was always the pet,” she sniffs.

After school, Paula attended the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, grant-aided by the South’s Rehab Board.

“There were very few career options for blind people in Ireland at the time,” she explains. “You had telephony, social work, physiotherapy, music and maybe one or two other paths. But I wanted to try my hand at computers.

“The college experience was a bit mad for all of us, given that everyone had spent the past fifteen years in a very sheltered environment. There was a lot of partying!”

After working in computing, Paula subsequently qualified in Rehabilitation, the re-homing of people with learning and physical disabilities. Through her employment, first as a case manager with the Health Board and now as a Rehab Officer with St John of Gods, she became an activist in the fields of human rights and disability.

Paula’s skill in rehabilitation has proved invaluable in assisting her brother in the North. Brian currently lives at home with his parents, who are in their seventies. But he recently completed the Access to Citizenship programme, which aims to empower adults with disabilities, and hopes to get his own place within the next couple of years.

“The main problem getting a suitable place is that the system is so scattered,” explains Paula. “There are some places that would be ideal for him, but he has to negotiate three different waiting lists through three different agencies. It’s mad.”

Brian has completed money management courses and is able to handle his own budget. He can also read, assisted by a magnifying glass, and can dose out his own medication.

He is largely very positive about the idea of independent living. “I would prefer to have somebody nearby in case I had a problem – within in the same house. But I wouldn’t have any bother with the likes of tablets or anything like that.”

Brian is also very appreciative of Paula’s help, laughing that he doesn’t mind when she bosses him about the odd time. “I love the banter,” he says.


Paula would love to see Brian in a salaried job and is unhappy at the “tokenistic” payments he has received from previous employers.

He currently works at a health centre on a voluntary basis, doing a job his sister believes should be salaried. He spent four years after school in the Maybrook Training Centre – “wasn’t too bad, but it could be boring” – and he had a work placement at a power station. He has also been a charity collector, scratch-card salesman, and worked at a local supermarket, where, again, he wasn’t paid.

“He had to stop collecting for charities because he was bullied,” says his sister.

Paula often feels obliged to speak up on behalf of her brother, who is good-natured to a fault and never complains. On the one occasion Brian was bullied at work – a co-worker at the power station punched him in the stomach – somebody else registered the complaint with the Foyle Trust.

“The guy told me ‘don’t touch the radio unless it belongs to you’,” says Brian, attempting to rationalise the attack.

Paula was angry when she heard. “No-one in the family knew about it, Brian hadn’t told them,” she recalls. “The offender was spoken to, though he wasn’t sacked. I think it would have been very different if Brian hadn’t had a learning disability.”   


Paula enjoyed an active social life through college, before marrying Paul – whom she had first met many years previously when he attended a dance at her all-girls secondary school as an “approved” escort.

“The nuns would bring in ‘vetted’ boys to dance with us, but Paul got in by accident,” she quips. “I then met him years later at a housewarming party and we hit it off.”

It didn’t take Paul long to prove himself to Paula’s parents. On the first night he arrived to meet them, he was taken with the rest of the family to the back shed, where he got to spend the next three hours bagging potatoes.

Paula had to overcome some concerns her future in-laws had about her disability. It wasn’t an easy process, but she got there. She and Paul now have a number of long-term foster children.

Brian’s social life, meanwhile, developed significantly after he joined Destined. “It really took him out of himself,” says Paula. “It’s been huge. Prior to Destined, his social life consisted largely of his family – and his music.”

Brian agrees. “Destined gets me out a lot. I go there a few of times a week – more even. I have the Irish class on a Monday, and would usually call in on a Tuesday and Wednesday – and we would sometimes go to the pictures on Friday night with Dermot or Catherine. Then there’s meetings here on Thursday. I’ve also done the Access to Citizenship programme recently, which was very interesting. And we’d go to Derry City matches now and again with Terry McDevitt [Destined leader].”

Brian has taken part in several courses through Destined, his favourite being reflexology with Alexis. “It really helps you to relax,” he comments. “It’s very calming.” He also unwinds by listening to Irish music – everything from Paddy Reilly to the Pogues, and he has got a ticket to the Horslips reunion concert.

As yet he has no girlfriend or partner. “I’m happy to be single,” he says, “but I wouldn’t rule out meeting a girl in the future.”


Paula believes the situation for people with learning disabilities has improved significantly since she and Brian were children, but she’s concerned that there are still major gaps in the system.

“It’s so much better now,” she says, “but I still don’t think it’s right at those crucial times – school entry level, age 18 and when parents die.

“The positives are that we’re no longer putting people in institutions – and people go through the mainstream school system. Education is so much better. For example, if you’ve a disability you’re guaranteed a third level place in the South.

“Things start to fall apart after school or college. You still can’t get a job – Brian has been exploited regularly, never receiving a proper salary, despite his skills. The services aren’t joined up and are underfunded. And because of this, young people are left stuck at home.

“In the Republic, the Programme for Lifelong Learning, which would help people after 18, has stalled because of cutbacks. And there are blockages throughout the rehabilitation system – people can’t be released from acute hospitals because there’s no space for them in a rehab hospital, and people can’t be released from rehab hospitals as the HSE can fund their care packages in the community.”