IRELAND’S only deaf-blind music teacher has told how she is living proof that all disabilities can be overcome.
Determined mum-of-one Orla O’Sullivan, from Cork, contracted double pneumonia as a baby, leaving both her sight and hearing damaged.
Despite this, she went on to become an accomplished pianist and now teaches music to children, including other deaf-blind students.
Inspirational Orla insists: “Disability is an obstacle, not a barrier.”
She was yesterday honoured at the Hidden Hearing Heroes Awards, where she told how she hopes her story proves nothing is impossible.
Speaking about how she became involved in music, Orla said: “My mother noticed (as a young baby) that I reacted to certain kinds of music (percussion). She placed my fingers on the piano keys and realised that I could feel the vibrations.
“At six years old I received my first formal music lessons from Jean Downey, a music teacher who lived near us. I loved it.
“I spent most of my childhood playtime with my piano, practising all day long. I did not often play in the park with children my own age because I did not understand the games.
“For example, one time I joined in a game where children were kicking a football up and down the park, then chasing after it.
“I joined in, but I felt foolish after a while because I was chasing a ball I could not see. And I was absolutely useless at hide and seek!”
For the last 20 years, Orla has taught scores of students — including deaf Alain Newstead who ‘hears’ music through vibrations using his feet — from beginners up to diploma level.
And she told how she has developed her own unique way of communicating music, explaining: “I teach music in a standard, normal way.
“The difference is in how I prepare. I memorise everything, even the questions that are normally asked by students at the various levels.
“With my hearing aids on and with close lip reading I can usually make out what is being said. As regards the music, again, with my hearing aids on, I can ‘hear/feel’ some of the notes. The notes I cannot hear, I hear in my imagination.
“What I hear is unique to me, that is, normal to me. What everyone else hears is normal to them. You can hear birds singing, I cannot.
“You hear high notes from stringed instruments, I cannot. But I can imagine the sound.
“As regards sight, what I see is normal for me. I can only imagine what a person with perfect vision can see.” Orla, who is mum to baby boy John Amadeus, was one of nine people honoured at the Hidden Hearing reception hosted by RTE’s Brenda Donohue.
And she told how she hopes her story shows others that they can overcome their disabilities if they put their mind to it.
She said: “I don’t know of any other deaf-blind music teachers. I did not set out to be the number one deaf-blind teacher in the world.
“All I wanted to prove was that I was able to teach, despite my disability.”