From my earliest childhood, I was aware there were medical issues which set me apart from my peer group. I suffered from asthma and infantile eczema in childhood, but largely grew out of them as I got older.
They did lead to my missing primary school a lot, and not getting involved in sport, but I became a keen reader instead, which was to help me academically.
However, as time went on it became clear that there were other issues which affected me. My handwriting was illegible, so I had to get permission to type exams. Tying knots or putting on a tie were very difficult, so I needed to get clip-on ties whenever a tie was needed.
Opening tinned food, even with a can opener, presented a massive obstacle. Generally, I sensed there were difficulties in keeping my clothes as presentable as they should be.
However, the cause of these issues was something that wasn’t clear at the time.
My late mother brought me to see Dr John Shanley, the noted Dublin paediatrician.
He ventured the opinion that it might be mild cerebral palsy, but didn’t put anything in writing. I would stress I am not in any way critical of the late doctor in this regard, he acted on the basis of the medical knowledge of the time.
I was 54 when actually diagnosed with that condition, as a result of a referral by a workplace doctor. As I entered the consulting room in Salford Royal Hospital, the neurologist straight away said “Cerebral palsy” and conducted some tests.
I was then sent for a brain scan to confirm this. The consultant said “Medical knowledge hasn’t advanced that much” when I told him of Dr Shanley’s comments, but clearly it has advanced somewhat as the scans are now available.
At 55, I was diagnosed with dyspraxia, a condition I first heard of during a conversation with a stranger on holidays in Spain many years before that.
The NHS describes it as:
Developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD), also known as dyspraxia, is a condition affecting physical co-ordination. It causes a child to perform less well than expected in daily activities for their age, and appear to move clumsily. DCD is thought to be around 3 or 4 times more common in boys than girls, and the condition sometimes runs in families.
Trying to get a diagnosis for the latter condition proved very difficult, as the NHS does not fund adult diagnoses, and my GP knew practically nothing about it. Eventually, a neurological charity did the diagnosis for me.
Finding the reason for some of the physical difficulties I encountered in life has been very helpful but I can’t but regret that it wasn’t feasible to get the diagnoses when I was young, as support systems would then have been in place.
With hindsight, I can see how these conditions were a factor in my not retaining certain jobs, as there was no support available to liaise with employers about my conditions and what adjustments were needed.
In many ways, the impact of the conditions isn’t just their physical consequences but the lack of confidence they breed, worsened by the fact that so many employers are unaware of them.
As medical knowledge advances, it is very important for children to be screened for neurological issues, whose impact may often only become apparent later in life.
Declan McSweeney lives in England but is originally from Offaly. He worked for over 18 years for the now-closed Offaly Express and has also worked as a journalist in the UK.