UrAbility - Where it all started

James here, I’m married to a super lady, Kate, we have a 6-month-old kiddo Oisín who would buy and sell ya and I also have Dyslexia... For many years, dyslexia was the opening line, however, I feel that it is just one part of my life. It has at times caused many the issue, from being called stupid in school to dropping out of college, but without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today. UrAbility was set up with one goal in mind, empower all learners, regardless of ability. This has been my mantra for everything that UrAbility has done over the years. I believe passionately in the proven potential of assistive technology to create inclusive educational environments.

My primary school experience was similar to many kids, I loved playing sports and very much disliked homework. Spelling tests on a Friday morning were the worst for me, that feeling of failure would strike me on a Thursday evening and I'll be sick with panic. Both my reading and writing were very poor, but I just felt I wasn't that bright. When in secondary, the difficulties got worst, however with some great teachers and hard work I got a good leaving certificate.

This one experience in a Leaving Cert Irish class always stays with me. It was a Monday morning double Irish class and the teacher had enough of me. She kicked me out, telling me I'd never pass my leaving cert and her final words to me were:

You’re thick stupid and you’ll be lucky to do foundation Irish, not to mind pass your Leaving Cert!
— Secondary School teacher

This was one of the best motivational sessions of my life, as I walked out her door, I keep telling myself, I will show her how wrong she is! It has stayed with me long after that class and throughout my college experience. I never wanted her to be right. I now often reflect, should I go back and thank her. (Just for reference, I sat ordinary level Irish and got a C2) This motivated me greatly, but for other kids, it may destroy any bit of self-esteem they have. That’s why we have to be so careful with how we engage with students, we must ensure we are always developing their strengths too.

Summer camps were always the most enjoyable part of UrAbility, empowering kiddos to see their strengths.

Summer camps were always the most enjoyable part of UrAbility, empowering kiddos to see their strengths.

UrAbility - How old?

UrAbility has been running for 6 fun-filled years, with many ups and downs along the way. We ran 5 years of super summer camps for kids with learning difficulties, with over 750 kids attending. Gave lots of student iPad training sessions, Parent iPad training days and of course countless numbers of one to one assessments. Other big achievements were, getting selected as the main partner for an EU funded 3-year tablet project (www.incluEdu.com). This opened many doors for me and gave me the opportunity to experience other education systems like the Austrian and future thinking Finnish system.

I have spoken for a number of groups around the country and internationally. Of course, another big part of the journey was pitching on Dragons Den and gaining investment from Barry O' Sullivan. Thanks to all the parents and students who have trusted in us and have now got on to achieve greatness.

Kate & myself enjoying a sunny Spring day in downtown Boston

Kate & myself enjoying a sunny Spring day in downtown Boston

Boston - Research life

In 2016, I was given the great opportunity to travel to Boston as an AssistID Marie Curie research fellow, to carry out assistive technology research. I focused on how we can use technology better for kiddos who may be non-verbal. This was a super opportunity, however, personally a hard call, as I had given blood so much to UrAbility (time and money). I found it very difficult to make the move in the end. That aside, I felt it would strengthen my understanding of technology and would ultimately allow me to support Irish families better in the future. I spend two wonderful years in Boston, I traveled to and presented at a number of great conferences and made some tremendous connections along the way.

I’m now back in UCC and finishing up my research fellowship. Even though I greatly enjoyed my time in the US, I also struggled being outside of my comfort zone so much. I didn’t have the same supports and my challenges with reading and writing raised their ugly heads again big time. My mental health took a bit of dip. It just goes to show that we have to look after ourselves both physically and mentally. This is such an important point for kiddos that struggle in school, we sometimes forget the possible impact it is having mentally. Be mindful and make them know they are doing enough, they are enough and they are talented.

What does the future hold?

Once I finish off my fellowship, I plan to get back on stream with UrAbility and I’m applying to do my Ph.D. in the area of assistive technology and inclusive education. It’s all about pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones, right!

In the coming weeks and months, I plan to develop more meaningful content for parents and teachers to help them empower they students they work with. This will be in the form of my blog, a weekly newsletter, and some social media content. On top of that, I am developing a number of online courses for parents, teachers and SNA’s to develop their assistive technology skills. I am also running a few assistive technology talks; Cork, Kilkenny, and Dublin are definitely on the cards for this April.

I am so grateful for all the support that parents and teachers have given me over the years and look forward to working with you again.