Many thanks to the inspirational Angela O’Connor for her story below. Angela is a real life good person who is always working hard for others. She is committed to her family and raising disability awareness. I’m very proud to know Angela in a personally capacity and look forward to working with her in the future – Gareth Presch, Founder, World Health innovation Summit
Angela O’Connor, was a primary school teacher for ten years, then moved into third level education, establishing Train Ability in 2013, working with companies on disability awareness! Angela lives in Kildare, has 4 children and loves to kayak!
The area of disability was never a taboo for me, growing up. I was surrounded by people, who didn’t let their disability, stop their goals in life. But I also saw the struggle, to be accepted into society first hand.
I began my primary school teaching career in 1998, in a school for children with autism, teaching children with disabilities was always the area I wanted to specialize in. While most primary teachers want the permanent contract, I was quite happy to gain as much different experience in different teaching environments.
Communication was such a difficulty for the children in my class, they were all ‘non-verbal’ so this was at the forefront of every day. I was fortunate to work alongside two speech therapists and two psychologists in this time and we developed a unique communication tool for the children. Which was written up as a PHD paper and published.
I moved from this school to a mainstream school to be the first resource teacher in an inner city primary school in Dublin City Centre. This was completely different and led to me going back to college in the evenings, to study my Masters in Education in N.U.I., Maynooth.
It was during this time, that I had my first child, who sadly suffered lack of oxygen to the brain at birth and as a result I had to take two years career leave. I used all my own knowledge of early intervention and the importance of intervention at a young age alongside the fantastic staff in the CRC in Clontarf, Dublin.
I graduated with my Masters in Education in 2005.
This resulted in a change of pathway for my own career. I was teaching for two colleges in the evening, on disability and one of the colleges asked me to go full time with them.
I had spent ten years teaching children with disabilities, I knew I never wanted to loose that love of education, but I was also very aware that in every school I had taught in, there were teachers suffering from burnout or waiting to retire, I knew I never wanted to feel that way about education, so I resigned.
A lot of people thought I was crazy to give up on a permanent, teaching job, but I knew that for me, it was the right thing to do!
I started working part-time for two colleges, which I really enjoyed; I was also doing a lot of voluntary work for a charity in the background for people with disabilities. I found it so frustrating how people would treat someone different, just because they have an obvious disability.
In February 2011, I became very ill and I had life saving surgery, which became the moment that I realized, life is incredibly short, we only have one, so how are you going to make a difference?
I spent a year afterwards recovering, but also challenging myself to try things I never had, like run a 5km, cycle a bike, kayak in the sea etc
In 2012, I was back working in a college, when a chance conversation with a colleague was actually about to change my life forever! He asked me to give a talk to group of retailers who wanted to improve customer care for customers with disabilities.
I asked a few friends who have disabilities to come on a shopping trip with me, we looked at all of the different areas that could be improved, but it was the staff attitude that needed most improving!
So I gave the talk and the response was fantastic, they wanted more, they wanted their staff trained.
I had never had any ambition of having my own business until this point in my life, I never really thought about it.
Three months later, Train Ability was established. That first year was incredibly difficult, I knew there was a grant available for companies in the private sector, to encourage them to train their staff in this area, but to be part of the grant scheme, meant a lot of module creating and making sure each workshop was perfect.
I also will say, I had no business experience whatsoever!!! But in Year two, I did actually do a business course!
I love what we do, we work with so many different types of businesses, I initially though my core group or my target market would be hotels, retail, but it isn’t.
It is so varied and every training workshop is completely different. Some companies want the 90% grant for the cost of the training and some companies don’t.
Each one is tailored to the companies’ brief, so for example, recently a five star hotel asked us to do a two night mystery guest experience, where I went along with a friend, who has a disability and then wrote up a report for the hotel afterwards. They then had us in to do all of the staff training in disability awareness and they are constantly looking at improving services for their guests.
We worked with a facilities management company, who wanted their staff who look after maintenance for care homes, to know how they should or shouldn’t interact with clients, while maintaining the properties. It is so innovative of a company to actually look after their staff by training them and it has a knock on effect going forward.
When you see companies you have worked with making changes, like having braille menus as an option, improved access for someone with a mobility problem, that makes such a difference!
One of the things that sticks in my mind, I did a radio interview and the interviewer said to me; “you must be incredibly proud that your business will leave a legacy, after you are gone” I hadn’t really thought about the difference that we make on a daily basis by just bringing around awareness of disability and accessibility for all.
I always say to businesses, if you want to look after your customers, then you need to look after, all of your customer’s!
During this time, I also co-founded Dub Net with two friend’s Donnchadh who runs ‘City Kayaking’ and Ralph who runs ‘Do my Books’ . We now have over 4000 businesses in Ireland with us. We host free networking evenings, this has helped me so much from a business point of view, I have met so many people, that I now work alongside as well. I really believe surrounding yourself with positive likeminded people is one of the most important parts of business.
In September 2014, I was about to start another new contract, when I was given the news, that no parent ever wants to hear, my daughter was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer age just eight years old. She needed major extensive surgery to remove it and then began a grueling course of chemotherapy. Everything stopped with the company. But we have managed to keep things going, I will go back on my last piece about surrounding yourself with positive likeminded people, as these are the people who have helped me get to today!
The business is still growing, our reputation is building momentum and the feedback from companies we have worked with, well that speaks for itself!
There are so many exciting projects in the pipeline for Train Ability, mostly I am so passionate about growing the business and changing and evolving all the time.
I remain as positive, as always about life, I see it as a continuous ever changing journey, one which will challenge us, but also one which will lead to great new things!
“You make a living by what you get, you make a life by what you give”
*The opinions expressed are the bloggers own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Health Innovation Summit.