Back in March I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sinead Kane, PhD, BCL, LLM, Lawyer, International Speaker, Blind Adventurer and Consultant (Phew!) over a delicious cup of Bewley’s Coffee in my old alma mater, Bewley’s Café on Grafton St. in Dublin.
In March we broke it up into three parts and not everyone got to see all three, so I, being constantly inspired by this remarkable woman, have decided to offer it out this morning in a longer-than-usual ‘Coffee with Colm’ episode – perhaps the coffee pot is needed…
Truthfully, the best way to get the most from this lady’s fascinating tale of overcoming and achieving, is to watch the video or listen to the podcast (highly recommended) but in case you prefer the written word I have done my best to capture the spirit of the conversation in written form below.
COB: Dr. Sinead Kane, many of our readers will know of you but some perhaps don’t as of yet, can you offer a potted history?
Sinead: Well, I’m a double-PhD Doctorate, double-Guinness World Record holder, qualified solicitor, certified mediator, writer with the Irish Criminal Law Journal, consultant, and then… I run my own business as well, being self-employed as a speaker mainly, mostly for companies in Ireland and abroad in places like Sweden, Austria and Boston to name but a few.
COB: My goodness, that’s some potted history. I thought I was busy until I heard your resumé. That’s some list of achievements.
Sinead: Yes, well I qualified as Ireland’s first visually impaired solicitor in 2009 which feels like a lifetime ago and to get to it took a lot of hard work and passion. I’m not practicing at present because I’m speaking full-time but I’m not saying never, not saying that I’m not going back to it. My problem is I want to do everything full time! I want to practice law full-time, speak full-time and be an ultra-runner full-time! I will probably go back at some stage; the day of having one job, 9 to 5, are long gone.
I’m very grateful, that I, with a disability, have a lot of options open to me; there are many that don’t. Education, knowledge, is power and I think you can learn a lot by having a variety of different jobs. I’ve learned more from sunning than I would have in a text book. I’ve learned a lot more about life through meeting people – you learned different things through having a varied career.
COB: Sinead, your resumé is already impressive enough and then you throw in the little caveat, “Oh yeah, I’m visually impaired as well. The rest of us are thinking, my goodness, how does this woman do it all? May I ask, was your visual impairment part of your motivation for wanting to become a lawyer, to prove to yourself and others that people with disabiliy can go on to do great things?
Sinead: An ‘aha’ moment in my life was when a careers guidance teacher told me, at age seventeen, that I couldn’t study law – law is a reading based subject – for me that was a turning point and I thought, ‘I’m not going to allow your limitations control my destiny.’ That was when the pendulum swung for me.
Up to that age, I was very introverted, had very low self-esteem, no confidence. Now, I stand up and do many speeches for schools – my largest audience to date has been 7,500 students in the Three Arena for ‘Cycle Against Suicide’. Smallest audience might be ten. People say I’m a very good speaker but I haven’t always been that. My ‘aha’ moment was at seventeen.
COB: Great story. May I ask, is that careers guidance teacher following your progress today?
Sinead: I don’t know whether that person is still alive to be honest. I don’t look that person up. I was very badly bullied in school and often receive friend requests on FaceBook but haven’t accepted them. In my heart, I forgive them, but I don’t feel that I have to be around them.
My PhD was on the area of bullying. It was interdisciplinary education and law, and a secondary school teachers duty of care, inside and outside of school regarding bullying. I think it’s interesting that despite having been very badly bullied, I go on to do a PhD in the area.
COB: But are they not all linked? Your careers guidance teacher saying you can’t, the fact that you were bullied, you thought to yourself, well I can do something about that…?
Sinead: When I did my law degree, followed by my Masters in Law, I thought, ‘that’s me done with education.’ And I got into my solicitor trainee-ship. My dad even asked, would I not go on get a PhD? That was 2005. I said ‘Never, ever!’ And now I have two! Moral of the story, ‘never say never’.
My first PhD was honorary from the National University of Ireland and that was for all my activism, followed by the academic one a few years later.
COB: You and I reconnected at Frankie Sheehan’s Pendulum Summit recently. How was that for you?
Sinead: Really enjoyed it. I think it’s nice to go to an event like that with like-minded people. It’s a great event at the start of the year. We all recharge our phones, but few of us really recharge ourselves. Even the most positive people have to recharge themselves on a daily basis.
I’m very mindful to do things such as read affirmation quotes, listen to TED talks. We physically exercise, but we need to concentrate on nourishing the brain too and not take it for granted.
COB: I agree. What we saw at Pendulum were thousands of leaders. Leadership doesn’t happen by accident; it’s a decision and we must prepare ourselves for it. May I ask, what is your daily routine around that?
Sinead: I try not to go for the phone straight away when I wake, which signals to me I’m not held captive to it. My main focus then is nutrition, getting some protein in such as eggs. I’m vegetarian so it’s important in terms of the running for me to maintain my muscle whilst not eating meat of fish. The last thing you want is for your muscle to be wasting away because then the exercise you are doing isn’t worth it.
Instead of watching upsetting news I sometimes ring a family member, or read an affirmation quote,
I’ve tried meditation, and some days it works and some days it doesn’t, so on the days it doesn’t, I ask myself ‘what am I grateful for today?’ I think people think about me in terms of my visual impairment, “Oh, that only affects her, she’s like that since birth.” but anyone could become visually impaired through accident or illness.
Some days I don’t want to go running; I have the treadmill record for the furthest distance for a female in twelve hours but even so, some days I struggle to go out and do 5k or 10k. It’s then that I say “Snap out of it, Sinead. There are people out there who would love to go for a run, but they can’t and here you are complaining, yet you have the opportunity. So, I try rephrase things in my head when I feel I’m becoming a bit negative. If, perhaps, I’m feeling a bit angry about something, I listen to a happy song. I also think getting out into nature is important.
I’m a ‘habits’ person, so when I get up, I cannot leave the house unless I know my bed is made. The day only starts when the bed is made. But I also like to air it, so that requires a process of making sure the bed is aired and then going back to make it. If you leave your duvet to the side there’s always that temptation to get back in and snooze for the day if you’re feeling in any way sorry for yourself! Being self-employed, means I am not speaking every day so it does’t matter to people if I get back into bed, but it matters to me.
COB: Powerful stuff. Can I ask, what’s been a highlight for you to date? Have you one stand-out moment that was particularly special?
Sinead: There have been many.
- One that comes to mind is when I did a TEDx talk around the importance of not being a bystander when it comes to bullying – we have to stand up to bullies.
- Another one was having the opportunity to talk to 7,500 students and for them to hear my story.
- Going to Antarctica. Completing the World Marathon Challenge – seven marathons on seven continents within seven days (actually six days, nine hours!)
- Running in the driest desert on the planet, the Atacama Desert
And, I suppose simply qualifying as a Solicitor – that was both a happy and a sad day for me; happy because I was always told I wouldn’t make it, sad because while most people could see me on the TV news, some people in my life who are also visually impaired, couldn’t see me. I didn’t really care about being on the news, I just wanted them to be able to see me.
Yes, there have been lots!
Another again was in 2nd Year UCC, when I was finding it extremely tough, my parents brought me on a ‘sopping trip’ to London. At least, that’s what I thought we were doing, however, the real reason they brought me to London was to meet a Judge who is completely blind! He became a role model for me. We all need role models in our life. We need to realize that every time you meet someone you can be a role model for them, through your actions and through your words.
When I came back from the World Marathon Challenge, Allianz Ireland had a TV ad featuring me and so I was being recognized a lot. One particular night, it was about 9.30pm and I was coming back from the supermarket when these two little girls, 7 or 9 years of age, said to their mother, “Mammy, mammy, there’s the girl from the Allianz ad.” They wanted to come over and have a full-blown conversation with me. It was late, cold, dark, raining, I was tired, I was hungry and I was not ion form for talking to people about goal setting, mindset, or being a role model… but at the back of my mind I said to myself, “Did that Judge say that to you, Sinead, when he became your role model in 2nd Year UCC?” So I stood there and I did the gracious thing and talked to them even though I wasn’t on form and I think that when you’ve been afforded an opportunity to be inspired, then you should try and inspire.
COB: That’s a wonderful story. I think it’s great. You identified in that moment you really didn’t want this to happen, but it has and you’re back to your being grateful, rather than being put out, you decided to be grateful for the opportunity; somebody had done it for you, you then did it for somebody else; well done. Now, can you tell us your most embarrassing moment?
Sinead: Again, many!
In running, one of my most embarrassing moments was when I did my first marathon. I met my run coach, John, in October 2014. I had a sore knee and he somebody recommended I go to John who, in turn, might connect me with the right person. John has done a lot of work with Mark Pollock, Mark and I both being visually impaired, so I was going to John to ask advice as well for my first marathon with a guide runner. After our meeting, he asked had I any questions? I said, “well, do you know now, if it’s raining on the day of the Dublin Marathon, will they cancel it?”
He looked at me as if to say, “Is this girl serious?” I was being serious – until I realized he thought that was a stupid question! So I tried to pretend I was only joking but I still wanted the answer. He kinda firmly told me, when he realized I was being serious, “Sinead, three things in relation to the Dublin City Marathon,. Firstly, this event happens every single year and the minute one finishes, they start organizing it again. It’s not an event that just happens, it’s a year-long preparation. Secondly, over 15,000 people compete in this event and third; you’re living in a country where it always rains.”
I was just, “Oh right, okay.” So that will just show you how clueless I was about running. Literally four weeks later, when I started training for my first ultra-marathon, my first 50k, I was out on the track for four hours running around in the rain, and this was the girl who was frightened to do a marathon in the rain.
I suppose that just goes to show that even though that situation was embarrassing, you learn different things by going through different experiences.
Another one was when I was going to the Atacama Desert I felt very fearful, so much so that I actually wasn’t going to go. Fear stops us. So I had to talk to myself and tell myself, “Calm down Sinead, you’ll be fine. Go do something to relax.” I was flying out the following day.
So, to calm my nerves I went to the swimming pool. Swimming around anyway and this guy started talking to me. Because of my bad sight, I more see colours and shapes. Bright natural light is very difficult for me; I much prefer artificial lighting – I’ll can describe my eye conditions in a minute – so anyway, I’m in the pool and this guy comes over and starts swimming beside me and he sounded very much like Bertie Ahern (our former Taoiseach, – Prime Minister). I’m thinking would this be a compliment or an insult, to tell him that he sounded like Bertie Ahern? So I decided to just say it, I said – “I hope you don’t mind me saying but you sound very much like Bertie Ahern”. And he says, “That’s because I am Bertie Ahern.” And I’m thinking, “What do I say now? What do you talk about now? So I just blurted out, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m going to the Atacama Desert, this is why I’m in the swimming pool, blah, blah… ‘ I can’t even fully remember what I said but just to get over that awkward silence, I just started talking.
It just shows the power of networking, that you can meet absolutely anyone, anywhere.
COB: That’s a great story. I agree, you can meet anyone anywhere, so long as you are out there. Sinead, there are two last questions I want to ask, but before I do, you mentioned you’d like to tell us about your visual impairment, can you tell us more?
Sinead: I was born visually impaired. I have aniridia, coloboma, nystagmus and glaucoma.
Aniridia is where you take in too much light. I don’t have the coloured part of my eye so it’s like all of my eye is exposed. You take light in through your pupil, but if you were to take off the coloured part of your eye, whether green, blue or brown, then it is all black and you take in light through it all like an open camera lens. That’s why I squint a lot; I take in a lot more light than you. A lot of people think of blindness as darkness, but for me, I suffer from too much light. Imagine a car coming at you with it’s full floodlights on, that kind of dazzling sensation is what I get all the time. Even these lights in the room, if I look at the lights there’s all rays coming out of them and when I tell people, they think I am hallucinating!
Coloboma is the part missing from my eyes, the iris.
Nystagmus is a shaking of the eye; there might be one step, and I’ll see two, or vice versa. With that too, I don’t see depth, so a lot of things look flat whereas there might be depth there, like a step.
Glaucoma is too much pressure in the eye.
That’s all since birth and everybody in my family is visually impaired as well.
Being visually impaired has it’s limitations and people often ask how do I find being visually impaired, but I’ve never lived in a fully sighted world so I can’t really compare it.
A lot of people also ask me about the World Marathon Challenge…”Ooh, that must’ve been really, really difficult.” But for me, the World Marathon Challenge, doing seven marathons, seven continents, in seven days wasn’t even that difficult! And I don’t say that arrogantly, but for me, my life has all been about being comfortable with being uncomfortable because I experience so adversity on a daily basis in terms of my disability, bullying, ignorant people, fighting for my rights, navigating the streets… if there’s building works going on… simple things like being in the supermarket, when they change the prices, making price tags smaller, or if they change the layout…so basically with the World Marathon Challenge, there was a finish line; with my disability, there is no finish line.
I was told by age twenty-one I’d go totally blind, that hasn’t happened. I use a white cane, I don’t use a guide dog. Sometimes if there’s a stretch of road, I’ll try have a small bit of independence and go out and run it from A to B but I can’t go into races by myself and I can’t drive. I could sit here and list to you all the things I can’t do not I try not to focus on the things I can’t do because I’d get too depressed.
With the World Marathon Challenge, whether you are visually impaired or not; I was expecting to feel sad when it was over because I had been preparing for that for a year. It’s kind of like what they call, pro athlete depression and I was expecting it sometime later, a week, a month, three months, but it actually came as soon as I went over the finish line. As soon as I did, I put my head in my hands and started crying. Everyone thought I was crying with relief that it was all over, or glad that I just got a Guinness World Record, but I was actually crying because, to me, that was the end.
John, my run coach said, “Sinead, it’s not the end, it’s the end of this chapter.” In that moment, I didn’t really want to hear that, you just want to feel sad. If there had been an eighth continent and an eighth marathon, I would have done that because for me, I had just gotten into that routine every day. I believe thought that with our goals in life, fear stops us.
COB: That’s why I find your story so fascinating and I think our readers will too, because we all struggle with fear; you struggle with fear but you just get up every day and you overcome it, in big ways and small.
Sinead: I think fear contracts us and makes us smaller. I thin you should embrace fear because when you do, it makes you bigger. The three stages I try to go through with fear are:
- Feel it. Feel and acknowledge it
- Face it.
- Embrace it.
It’s about having courage. Courage has a ripple effect. Once you show courage it ripples out and you inspire others.
COB: That’s why I feel you are in exactly the right profession being a professional speaker because your story will empower others.
Sinead: I suppose so. There was a time I did a speech; you could say it was an embarrassing moment. There were a lot of summer interns there and I knew they had been handed the opportunity by their parents, through connections, through networking, whatever. I was doing audience participation and this guy didn’t really want to get up and participate. Having learned about him, I found out he had been given everything all through life and I was thinking to myself, “Okay, you’re fully sighted, you’re sitting there, you’re in a fantastic company, I’m asking you to get up on stage for two minutes to do a task. I am visually impaired, I ran on a treadmill for twelve solid hours; I’m asking you for two minutes!”
It annoys me when fully sighted people don’t participate but when you are talking about being a professional speaker, you can’t let that anger come across. That was one speech where I got very angry and I had to really have a poker face.
COB: Don’t beat up your clients, probably not a good idea! Sinead, you know my career changed the moment I met The Man on the Train, do you have a moment like that? One moment when everything pivoted, one moment that everything hinged on?
Sinead: Different moments have struck me throughout my life, but no ‘one moment’ that everything centres on. For example some years ago, a very, very close friend died. It comes back to gratitude; don’t sweat the small stuff. Then there was the incident with my careers guidance teacher when I was seventeen (see Part 1).
Another pivotal moment for me happened in 2009. I had just qualified as a solicitor, and the crash happened in Ireland. I had spent seven years to get to that moment and one month later I was out of a job because of cutbacks in the public sector. I was on a temporary contract on the legal aid board and anyone on a temporary contract couldn’t be renewed because of the embargo.
Interlinked with that, a pivotal moment was when I couldn’t get that job I tried other ways to get a job as solicitor because I really badly want to be a solicitor, so I went to the Law Reform Commission, got a voluntary internship with them, traveling up and down every day to Dublin, up every morning 4am, back home 11pm Monday to Friday for six months in 2010.
In 2011 I was in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in Dublin and in 2012, as well as doing a lot of voluntary work, I got a job as a solicitor. I always thought if I ever got a job as a solicitor on South Mall in Cork, I’d have made it. So I have this so built up in my head… it was kind of like, oh, if I win the lotto, then I’ll be happy… and then I got this job as a solicitor on the South Mall in Cork and I thought, “Is this it?” I had built it up to be so much in my head, but I was bored by it. That was another pivotal moment for me in that you can build something up to be happiness and then when we get there we are disappointed, so why not just be happy for today, because you don’t know if you’ll have happiness tomorrow.
COB: Well said. I also think the Universe had different plans for you though. I think having Dr. Sinead Kane hidden in the back of an office somewhere, rooting through files wouldn’t serve the world very well. Anyway, what’s next? What’s the 2020 Vision? What’s the big plan?
Sinead: I think I’m the type of individual, I don’t know will I be a speaker this time next year – not because I’m a bad speaker – but because I get bored very easily and I like being challenged and I like to challenge myself in different ways, you know, maybe politics? We’ll see how the speaking goes, you’d never know, I might go back to being a solicitor again. I’m not quite sure. You’d never know, there might be a book in me.
COB: You heard it here first folks.
Sinead; I might start spending time on a book. I suppose for me, if I am to do a book, I want to make sure the proper knowledge is there for people; watch this space.
If any of your readers have an opening, they can send their queries to me and I can consider it.
COB: We’ll give out the contact details at the bottom of the blog
Sinead: I think I want to do more travelling as well, learn about different cultures and I want to do that through racing.
COB: Fantastic! I have no doubt there’s a book in you, in fact I’d say there are many books in Sinead Kane; you’ve lived so many lives already and many more to come I’m sure. Dr Sinead Kane, it’s been an absolute pleasure, thank you for joining us here today.
Sinead: Thank you.
COB: Folks, there you have it. See a link to Sinead’s website below. If I may thank you all for joining me for this series of, for me at least, thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating “Coffee with Colm” interviews with Dr. Sinead Kane in Bewley’s of Grafton St.
My very best, on your behalf to Dr. Sinead Kane in her future endeavors.
Come back next week for another “Coffee with Colm”
Check out Sinead here.
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Thanks for thinking with me.
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