At the age of 18 months Danielle Farrel’s parents Marjory and Daniel noticed something was wrong with their daughter.
“I wasn’t reaching the usual milestones, like getting up and taking first steps,” she says. Cerebral palsy was diagnosed, heralding a lifetime of challenges, and a future filled with highs and lows.
Throughout her childhood and early years she faced many obstacles, but with the support of her parents she fought for equal treatment.
Today she has a doctorate and is running her own business, Your Options Understood (YOU), providing an inspiration for others with disabilities.
YOU promotes self-directed support, encouraging disabled people to make their own decisions in matters of care, budgeting and general life choices.
Seeing their daughter set up her own business seemed an unlikely outcome when Marjory and Daniel were advised against putting her into mainstream education. They insisted she was offered the same opportunities afforded to other children – and it paid off.
She says: “My parents were told my disability would be disruptive to the class. By the time I got to Primary 7 the education department had realised they had got it totally wrong.”
However, another challenge arose when there was no disabled access at the Ayrshire secondary school she and her parents had chosen, and her parents placed her in Ashcraig near Stepps in Glasgow.
“In a way my experience at Ashcraig set me up for the future and prepared me for a lot of challenges. Without Ashcraig I don’t think I could have achieved everything I have done,” says Danielle.
Sadly, her mother died in 2002 when Danielle was just 16. “She still motivates me. In a lot of ways what I do now is a tribute to her as she would be here kicking me in the backside to keep going.”
A year after she lost her mum she enrolled in an NC Media Studies course at James Watt College, now Ayrshire College, and continued to HNC and then HND, which led to her gaining a third year entry place at the University of the West of Scotland.
She also spent some time as a research assistant after her first degree. A Masters degree and a Doctorate followed.
“I have always loved education and I just wanted to take it as far as I could,” she says.
Now 32, she is insistent on being as independent as possible. “I don’t let my CP stop me from achieving things. In fact, if anything, it spurs me on.”
Recently she gave a talk to In Control Scotland who were hosting delegates from Finland. Part of her presentation focused on her own story of growing up with CP.
“In 2015 I approached the Princes Trust who helped me set up Your Options Understood. Walter Smith, (not to be confused with the former Rangers football club manager), the chairman of the trust in Ayrshire, was very supportive as my proposal was new to them. They are used to working with more mainstream projects like shops and traditional small businesses.
“When he got his head around what I was trying to do he helped me to get things moving. I always say we might not go the conventional way but we get there in the end. This is all about the individuals, not about the services that are provided.”
Her advice is now sought by wider groups and she has recently received additional funding from Tesco’s Bags of Help. “This allows me to provide training to in-school staff in support needs,” she says, adding that she does not profess to have all the answers, though she does fight for her rights.
“In no way do I claim to know everything there is to know about living with a disability as everyone’s experience is different.
“Having had social workers over the years, I do know it has not always been positive. I think from my own experience it is just the feeling that instead of working with you, they are working against you.”
This was apparent when in the middle of setting up YOU she had to seek rehousing.
“When my dad’s house had flooded in 2008 I had gone to Red Cross House in Irvine temporarily and was still there in 2015 when the decision was made to close it down. The ethos in this unit was that they supported people from 16 to 64.”
Throughout that period she had been actively engaged in mentoring and recruiting support staff.
“When the decision was made to close it the social workers said I should go back and live with my dad. As much as I love my dad I didn’t want to stay with him. He was getting elderly and has his own health issues.
“Had I gone back there I would have lost my independence and the social work department would have left me there. So, I had no alternative but to go into an elderly care home and wait. There was nothing else available. I won’t lie, that six months was soul destroying.”
At this stage of her life she says she encountered ignorance and discrimination.
“Perceptions of disability have definitely changed, but there is still also room for improvement. When I was in the old folk’s home one day I booked a Dial A Bus, as it was the only way I could get out. I booked it under my full title Dr Danielle Farrel and waited outside. When the driver came he said ‘Is it you I’m picking up today? You are definitely not a doctor.'”
She says that she learns to live with the regular knock backs and is determined to show others living with disability that they can still be achievers.
“I give talks. I spoke at Learning Together to a Finnish delegation. I also go into schools and help young disabled people manage the transition into further education. I’ve just helped one girl gain a college place.
“I have a team of five volunteers who I am currently training. We provide staff awareness, consultancy, advocacy. It’s all about changing perceptions.”