‘Impossible is just perception’ – Women with disabilities pursuing legal careers

Three women who have taken exceptional paths explain what drives them, and what challenges them, as they go about their work in law

Joanne O’Riordan hopes to keep up sports writing alongside a legal career, perhaps one focused on sports law. “Imagine pausing the Supreme Court because you want to watch Ireland’s women play in the World Cup,” she says with a laugh.

O’Riordan, who is pursuing a solicitor’s course, has always been interested in law and previously completed a sports law diploma with the Law Society.

Her studies, including constitutional and company law, have made her appreciate the importance of the Constitution, and the influence of EU law in accelerating social change here.

“People who took these big constitutional cases, they were fighting for their own rights but the right they won applies to so many different people.”


O’Riordan was born with a rare disability known as Total Amelia, which is characterised by the absence of all four limbs. Her life experience has made her acutely aware of balancing rights. “I’ve been looked after by my mother for 27 years, by carers the last five, it’s funny trying to find the middle ground between my personal liberty and safety for them. I have to meet the HSE legal heads to verify I’m going to Dublin for work and whether that is okay, sometimes they go on like a building is going to explode, even when the carers have no problem.”

“I find it very interesting from a tort perspective to see how protected and insular we are now when it comes to protecting other people just in case anything happens.”

In pursuit of litigation experience, O’Riordan worked in January alongside Cork-based solicitor Frank Buttimer in busy district courts, an experience that was “eye-opening, to say the least”.

In just one day, the court list had more than 150 cases, making it “very hard to give everyone the individual respect they deserve”, she says. “A lot of these people have been failed by the State to a certain extent. One woman was up for stealing nappies, she couldn’t afford them.”

“I’m stuck in the system as well, though for very different reasons as a person with a disability.”

Just knowing you are in a huge position to make proper change ... that has definitely kept me going

—  Joanne O'Riordan

During her studies, she has tackled several obstacles. Having emailed a lecturer’s secretary asking for study materials to be made available online, she was told that could not be done due to publishing rights issues.

“I said, look, I need it, I have no limbs.” After providing personal information and a doctor’s letter, she got the materials.

Her first visit to the Four Courts involved an encounter with a security guard who had to go looking for a wheelchair ramp. “I felt it was such a shame that a building where people might have to venture into, for professional reasons or they might be in a case, you can’t enter it. I found it surprising I don’t have the same access as someone else may have.”

Of several law firm offices located near Cork courthouse, she spotted only one that did not have a step, or steps, to its front door.

She would like to see “little ministers for disability” in every Government department to address the daily obstacles people with disabilities encounter. Law firms and the Law Society can help in advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, she says.

If her earnings exceed a certain limit, she could end up paying the €16,000 cost of her wheelchair. “That might be okay if I’m earning Denis O’Brien money but is it acceptable if I’m just over the limit?”

She is bemused that, in response to her 30 hours weekly care support, her mother lost her carer’s allowance. “Do they think I grow limbs the rest of the time?”

Networking is very important in the legal world, and sport, especially rugby, is a big part of that, but up to a few years ago, women lawyers did not have that network, she says. The enormous growth in the playing, and media coverage, of women’s sport, is welcome “but there is some catching up to do”.

Her advice to people with disabilities thinking of a legal career is: “You just have to go for it.”

“It can be a slog, you’ll cry some of the time, but there is a great sense of camaraderie.” The slog, she believes, will be worth it.

“Just knowing you are in a huge position to make proper change even though people may not feel it at ground level, to have really important cases decided that could impact lives and future legislation, that has definitely kept me going.”

Sofiya Kalinova

“I always wanted to speak for people who cannot speak for themselves,” says Sofiya Kalinova, the first deaf barrister in Ireland.

Speaking through Shannon Clarke, an Irish Sign Language (ISL) interpreter, Kalinova says it “made my blood boil” to be told, from a young age and by different people: ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that, you’re deaf’.

Having become used to advocating for her rights, she decided law was the career for her and came to Ireland from her native Bulgaria to study because she would have entitlements here as a student with disabilities, including interpreters.

She completed a law degree in UCD after which, as preparation for the barrister’s degree at the King’s Inns, she did a course at Griffith College. She took the latter to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) over being asked to pay for interpreters.

The Covid-19 pandemic rendered part of her studies a “terrible” experience. After Covid, she was disappointed that funding for interpreters was confined to mandatory activities such as exams and lectures and did not extend to external student activities. “I felt, I’m a student, I have a life too, I want to enjoy the events being organised by the university.”

There were times during her studies when she felt she could not continue, she admits.

“I would call my family and say, ‘I’m done’, and my Mum would say ‘this is your last lap, don’t give up’. My family are wonderful. They never deprived me from sign language, my right to communicate with my language, I think that was a real advantage for me.”

I absolutely love it but I’m still nervous all the time ... I have to work double or triple as hard just to prove to them that I can be here

—  Sofiya Kalinova

Her perseverance paid off and she was called to the Bar last year. “I still can’t believe it. From when I grew up, from being told you can’t, you can’t, and I did it.”

On the day of the ceremony in the Supreme Court, she was thrilled to see ISL interpreters there for the first time and “there for me”.

“I am so grateful to the Courts Service, to the judges as well. When my name was called, they were specifically looking at me and were talking to me, I felt respect, and I felt included, an equal. My family were there to witness it, they flew over, it was amazing, so emotional, a great day.”

Kalinova is now devilling with (apprenticed to) barristers David Leonard and Sharon Dillon-Lyons and says both are very supportive.

Appearing in court can be unnerving. “Sometimes there is not an interpreter if something comes up last minute and I feel really nervous but they completely understand. I get time standing on my feet, every time the courtroom goes quiet, and everyone is staring, it’s awkward for the interpreters too, but I’m so used to that by now.”

The Courts Service funds interpreters but Kalinova is responsible for booking them, which adds to the pressure on her. “Sometimes they are not available and things have been struck out. Sometimes I wish someone in the Courts Service would organise that for me, I want to be like everybody else and just focus on my profession.”

Remote court hearings pose challenges in trying to ensure she and the interpreter can see each other in “tiny” boxes on screen. Because ISL interpreters do not have legal training, that causes difficulties in interpreting legal language and its Latin terms, she adds.

“There are some accessibility issues that need to be fixed but I am positive that will happen down the line.”

The Bar of Ireland has been very supportive of her and almost 200 barristers have completed deaf awareness training, she says. “That means a lot for me, it means I am part of the Bar, I’m involved, I’m an equal.”

There are “no regrets” about her career choice. “I absolutely love it but I’m still nervous all the time. I feel I’m not allowed to make mistakes because all eyes are really on me. I have to work double or triple as hard just to prove to them that I can be here.”

For Kalinova, the word “impossible” is “just perception, a choice of people who want to relate to the status quo”.

“I have gone through the ‘you can’t do this or that, it’s impossible’, I’m sure people feel the same for their own different reasons, some have a family, they might feel they are stuck. If you feel the challenge, it means you’re out of your comfort zone and in the right place so just go on, learn from it and take the challenge.”

Nicola Saarsteiner

From Dublin, Saarsteiner was halfway through a degree in European studies at Trinity College when her interest in debating, involving interaction with law students, caused her to change course. “I began to realise there was a career, that someone would pay you to talk out loud, and I decided that was the route for me.”

When aged 16, Saarsteiner was diagnosed with epilepsy. In the two years before that, she had experienced what are now known as visual seizures but the closest diagnosis then was that they were pre-migraine auras without headache.

On the day she experienced generalised, unrelenting seizures, she was, luckily, at home. An ambulance was called, she fell into a type of coma and was in hospital for a week.

The epilepsy diagnosis was “quite unnerving”. The medication initially prescribed “wiped me cognitively” and she went from a straight A student to being unable “to write a sentence in English”.

A change in medication about six months later “made all the difference” and, apart from “a blip” when she was about 30, Saarsteiner says her epilepsy has remained extremely well controlled.

Through Epilepsy Ireland, she was a spokesperson for young people with epilepsy for a time and is now on the board of the organisation.

Epilepsy, she explains, is a condition with a tendency to involve seizures with various presentations, and treatment requires different medications.

“Seventy per cent of those with epilepsy could have their seizures fully controlled but the reality is it is far less. It is because we have not reached a point where GPs know what meds to put you on. There is a lot of trial and error with medication, I was very lucky to get put on the correct one early on.”

The triggers for seizures vary but include stress, not eating well, staying up late, all of which go with a Bar career. “It is a stress I enjoy but it is stressful, I’m always conscious of it [epilepsy] but not in a way that impacts upon me negatively.”

Apart from one experience in school involving a teacher, she has not experienced discrimination based on her epilepsy. “Quite the opposite, people would ask what they could do if she had a seizure, that is the number one question. That said, there is still stigma sometimes attached to it. Anything neurological, I feel, can be misinterpreted.”

“Visibility is key,” she believes. “It breaks down any miscommunication or misunderstanding as to what to do.”

Her advice to those with epilepsy/neurological conditions is that supports are there and to seek them out. It is for the individual to decide if they want to talk about it but the chances are, if they do, someone else will, she says.

As a self-employed woman barrister, Saarsteiner was more concerned about telling people she was pregnant than about her epilepsy.

Women probably start at the Bar in their mid-20s “so by the time you’re hitting a run you could well be considering starting a family and that is definitely difficult timing”.

“The bar to the Bar is more economic than in terms of gender,” she says. A female colleague who suggested it would take nine years to make an adequate living “was not wrong”.

On the positive side, the “huge flexibility” to the job, including deciding whether to take on work at particular times, works well with having children and managing a health condition, she says.

She has found Bar colleagues very supportive, especially when she was pregnant and had her son. “It wasn’t superficial help, there was a real genuine willingness from other women to help out, that comes from males as well.”

Her advice to women generally, “and I am still learning to do this myself”, is “not quite fake it until you make it, but I find men are a lot more willing to say ‘yes, I will absolutely do that piece of work without any experience in it’ than women are”.

“Everyone is making it up as they go along so take the opportunities and don’t let anyone else’s confidence put you off.”

Uncertainty, even after a great year, about where the next cheque is coming from, is “probably the biggest stressor” for most members of the Bar, she says. “But I would not have a different career.”

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