John Tynan. Photo: Ann Hennessy

Disability services advocate: An interview with John Tynan


There is a famous moment in 'The Shawshank Redemption' when it's revealed that Andy Dufresne had spent 19 years digging a hidden tunnel out of his jail cell with a tiny rock hammer.

This scene is one Athlone man John Tynan alludes to when he speaks about helping people who are experiencing struggles in life.

Facing his own mental health difficulties in the past has given John a great sense of empathy with others and that's something he draws upon when he meets people who have hit a roadblock on their personal journey.

"You sometimes meet people who are struggling and might not even know what’s wrong," he says. "They're asking themselves, why am I feeling this way? Why have I no motivation? Why do I feel that there’s a brick wall in front of me and I’ll never get over it or around it or under it?

"And I’ll say to them, you know what, I have a hammer here. Let’s chip away at it. Just like in the film."

John works with the Irish Wheelchair Association in Clonbrusk, Athlone, and is chairperson of the recently-established Athlone Access Awareness group.

He is originally from Assumption Road, one of a family of six girls and four boys born to John Tynan Sr and his late wife Winifred.

John has fond memories of his first job which was in a hardware store - Casey's Suppy Stores - at 'the bottleneck' in Athlone, where The Office Centre trades today.

"They had great old characters working there. I was a young character who’s now an older character!" he smiles.

"It was amazing the amount of people that you got to know (while working there). A lot of people came in from the country at that time to do their shopping in town."

John went on from there to join the Army, where he served for nine years. After this, he had spells working as a tutor with the Dr Stevens Centre and the VEC.

In the latter stage of her life his mother was in a wheelchair and John said this helped give him a practical insight into disability issues.

"I was always drawn towards this whole aspect of care and working with people. I always had that desire in my heart," he says.

But it was approximately eleven or twelve years ago that a difficult period in his own life ultimately led him to his current role with the wheelchair association.

"It was a period of my life that wasn't good. You could say I was in a place of depression. I had lost my focus in a lot of ways, and ended up in the National Learning Network (in Belhavel) by the Grace of God. It was brilliant for me."

He said the support and counselling that was put in place at the time helped him to get back on his feet again.

"The National Learning Network got me re-focused again. They got me back into employment again. I had lacked confidence. I had lacked hope. My own self-worth had collapsed, really, when I think about it. It’s so many years ago and it’s like it never happened now."

A work placement was arranged for him in the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) and in the years since then he has progressed to become a core member of its staff.

His duties are varied, and include teaching computers, driving the wheelchair association buses from time to time, personal assistant work, and serving as an induction trainer for new service users.

He has also travelled with service users on holidays such as an annual trip to Wales which takes place each July and is organised with funding raised by the Athlone branch of the IWA.

There are around 35 users of the two-day service provided at the centre in Athlone on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

John explains that conversations he had with one of those service users, Pat Feeney, led to the formal establishment of Athlone Access Awareness in September of last year. John chairs the eight-person committee of the group, which aims to raise awareness of the challenges faced by people who are in wheelchairs or have impaired mobility.

The group recently worked with the Golden Island Shopping Centre to help arrange for the opening of eight new accessible parking bays at the centre. There have been other successes to date, such as installation of a handrail and new lighting for elderly residents on Harry's Lane, off Connaught Street.

Early next year the group is planning to open an Athlone Access Awareness office in the IWA centre in Clonbrusk. This will be open on Monday mornings, from 10am to 1pm, and there will be a phone line where people can raise issues of concern or ask for advice on best practice when seeking to build new homes or extensions that are accessible to all.

John acknowledges that there are many access problems that still need to be tackled in the town.

"There are issues with footpaths especially, and people still parking on footpaths. People using the disabled access bays when they shouldn't be using them.

"There's not enough public seating - for example between Golden Island and the town centre. There's no seating there for someone else who might need to sit and rest a while, maybe someone who has a breathing problem or a problem with their legs. It would make such a difference to them, and it’s a simple thing.

"Our Garda station is not accessible. Ok, they’re planning to make changes to it, but right now it’s not accessible. We had (a wheelchair user) who had to go to the Garda station recently and when they arrived they had to phone them from outside. It was raining, and the Garda had to come out to that person. That’s not right, in this day and age."

"Our goal is to make Athlone a blue flag town – an accessible environment for all. We know that’s not going to happen overnight but we know it won’t happen unless we, as a group of volunteers advocate on behalf of others."

In addition to his work with the IWA, John is involved with Irish Rural Link in teaching internet literacy classes in St Kieran's Community Centre each week.

A resident of Manor Valley, Monksland, he is married to Ann and has two grown-up children, Sean and Rebecca.

His genuine enthusiasm for his work is evident throughout our conversation. "I have a great sense of satisfaction from working with people with disabilities," he says.

"It encourages me to see others being encouraged."