As equal as you

Carey Ann Clarke pictured outside Disability Action premises, Strand Road this week. DER3015MC073
Carey Ann Clarke pictured outside Disability Action premises, Strand Road this week. DER3015MC073

A line from Shakespeare perhaps best sums up local woman Carey Ann Clarke - “though she is but little, she is fierce”.

Diminutive in stance, she is far from diminutive in outlook. In fact she is passionate about making a real difference - and advocating for people both here at home in Northern Ireland and in the poorest corners of Africa.

Carey Ann pictured before her beginning her Slimming World journey and losing seven and a half stone.

Carey Ann pictured before her beginning her Slimming World journey and losing seven and a half stone.

Training Co-ordinator at Disability Action, based on Derry’s Strand Road, Carey Ann has spent the last nine years at the forefront of breaking down social and political barriers for people living with disabilities.

During the course of her work she has also travelled many times to Africa - most recently to Tanzania - to work with the organisation’s charity partner Disability Aid Abroad. While there she worked training disadvantaged groups - from those with mental health difficulties, to those who work with children abandoned because of their disabilities.

And if all this doesn’t keep Carey Ann busy enough, at the start of this year she started a second career as a Slimming World consultant having found the support of the organisation exceptionally empowering to her - supporting her to lose a staggering 7.5 stone.

The drive for all of this comes from a childhood plagued by chronic asthma - which led to numerous hospital days and days away from school.

“There was one school year where I was only well enough to attend school for 32 days in the year,” Carey Ann, originally from the Culmore area, said.

“Although asthma is not seen as a disability as such, to me it was exceptionally disabling when I was a child. Along with the physical symptoms and repercussions, there were the social barriers. Having time off - and then trying to fit back into groups, to catch up.

“But I was determined not to let it hold me back. I used it to drive myself forward, to motivate myself, to prove to people that I could achieve what I wanted to do.”

Carey Ann became an active lobbyist on behalf of the disabled and this led her to seek work with Disability Action.

“I wanted to give some of that back. And the best way to do that is to work from the ground up, adopting a real old school community development approach.”

Her work regularly takes her across Northern Ireland working as she helps design and deliver the ‘Beyond Disability’ training programme.

“Our work is in training and engagement of the political structures, public and private sector organisations in the issues which affect disabled people.

“What we have learned that the real issues for disabled people often relate to social and attitudinal barriers.

“People with disabilities may have rights, but we try to make sure they know their rights and have the confidence to stand up for them.”

Perhaps this is brought more into focus in countries such as Tanzania, where a cultural shift is needed. “When we go there, we are going to help people work from the grass roots up.

“Sometimes you feel what you are doing is just a drop in the ocean of what needs to be done - but if we can chip away at problems one by one that does make a difference.”

It can be a daunting task, however. “The scariest moment of my life was the last time I went out. I was to give training to teachers in an orphanage - only no-one told me that they didn’t speak English very well. I just stood there, not sure how to proceed.”

But proceed she did - and by the end of her trip she had made firm connections with the teachers and pupils alike.

“While there it was said to me that I was more equal than them - as I was white. I replied ‘I’m as equal as you, and you are as equal as me’. By the end of the trip, we were all chanting that together in Swahili. That was powerful.”

Back at home, Carey Ann empowers a group of slimmers every Wednesday at her classes on Chapel Road.

“I had personally made a million excuses as to why I didn’t need to lose weight. I had a big personality which wouldn’t fit a small body. My nose would look too big for my face - you name it, I said it.

“No matter the front I put on, my weight was a constant source of embarrassment for me. I remember being on holiday and eating a burger up a side street because I didn’t want people judging me.

“Then, when I was 35, I needed an operation. My asthma was chronically bad, I was pre-diabetic. I remember thinking I couldn’t cope with diabetes on top of asthma, and it was hard to watch my family and loved ones worry about me.

“So I got a referral on the NHS for 12 weeks of Slimming World - and that changed me.”

Two years later, she was setting up her own group - sharing her own faith in the programme as well as her love of cooking with her members.

“I had been 35 thinking I was on the way out. Now I feel great. I don’t need half as much medication as I did, and my energy levels are through the roof and I have an in-built confidence that was never there before.”