Conor O'Kane from Portglenone has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a severe neurological condition, which affects his mobility.
A Co Antrim man with mobility needs has opened up on the importance of breaking down barriers and not letting his disability stop him from living his best life possible.
Disability blogger and influencer Conor O'Kane was speaking after being shortlisted for a top award at the National Diversity Awards 2022. Conor is in the running for the Positive Role Model Award in Disability Category and among 126 nominees being recognised for their various achievements nationwide.
Conor, 34 and from Portglenone, has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a severe neurological condition, which affects his mobility. He was born with the condition and as a result, he has severe weakness in his muscles and uses a powered wheelchair. SMA also affects Conor’s breathing and potentially his swallow.
Despite this, he plays a big part in his local community, including volunteering with Good Morning Ballymena, a telephone befriending service. He also volunteers with his local enterprise group by maintaining their website and looking after their social media.
"I started this during the first lockdown because it gave me something to focus on. Importantly I was able to give something back to the community," he said.
Conor is also one of the directors of local lived-experience led charity, Mae Murray Foundation. One of the charity's main achievements has been introducing beach mobility equipment to Northern Ireland, an initiative helping hundreds of people to access and enjoy beaches.
Conor says he really thrives on helping others: "I personally understand the importance of breaking down barriers and participating, so I am proud to help others as well. I try not to let my disability stop me from living my best life possible. A positive outlook helps me achieve."
Conor is also a massive sports fan. He has represented Northern Ireland in Powerchair Football and plays and coaches Boccia with his local club Antrim All Stars Boccia Club. He is also heavily involved with his local GAA team Roger Casements GAC and attends their matches regularly. He has even coached the under 16 team with some of his friends.
Reflecting on his life so far, Conor describes the last 34 years as his "greatest adventure".
"With having various complex needs, I feel that I grew up the same way as any other young fella. Growing up into my late teens and early 20s,the adventures of my life got more exciting," he added. "I'm one of the lucky ones that got everything I ever wanted out of my life so far - family, friends, a partner and a love for life and adventure. I never felt as if I was being left out of anything and that is solely down to the people in my life."
Community organisations and role models from across the UK will head to Liverpool in September to witness this year's winners being crowned the best of British diversity.
Amongst those being honoured along with Conor are charities, campaigners and activists, all of whom work tirelessly to combat injustice and discrimination in very different ways.
Conor is the only person from Northern Ireland to be shortlisted in the category of Positive Role Model Award in Disability.
"I have fantastic family and friend support, so if I was to win this award it would be for them. They are the ones that have made me the person I am today and I can’t thank them enough for that," he said.
"From 72,000 entrants down to the final eight in my category really does make me smile; I feel on top of the world and a winner already. I’m proud of how far I’ve come in my own journey as a role model. In November 2018 I started a blog page through my Instagram and Facebook, where I document 'the week that was' in my #7smiles posts. I blog about what makes me tick, my disability and how I live a normal and fulfilled life."
Conor added: "We all have problems in life, so I make a point to find the happy moments in my days. It may be a good cuppa or laughing at a silly joke. The simple things in life really do matter and make all the difference.
"It started as a blog and has now grown into a motivational tool for other people to look forward to each week. I want people to see, no matter how fleeting a laugh may be, it will always overlook the bad and we need to cherish our smiles
"What I have achieved in my life makes me want to drive forward and achieve more. I have passion, desire and a huge love for life, I believe that life is for living - so live it!"
Source - Belfast Live