‘Learning differences haven’t held me back as a scientist,’ says Galwaywoman

We tend to take it for granted that Irish Water staff and local authority water services staff, contractors and members of the public who drive or walk past Irish Water facilities or our construction and repair works will make it home safely without incident or injury. Just think about that for a moment. Given the size and scale of Irish Water’s infrastructure, that is a big undertaking.

Meet Jacinta Byrne, one of Irish Water’s Environmental Health and Safety (EHS ) advisors. Jacinta is a member of the team that promotes the health, safety and wellbeing of Irish Water workers, contractors and third parties to ensure all involved work safe and get home safely.

Jacinta joined Irish Water in 2014 and is part of the Irish Water Regional Environmental Health and Safety (EHS ) team which is responsible for the management of health and safety compliance within the North West region. The team provide specialist technical health and safety advice and direction to all areas of Irish Water.

They are responsible for Irish Water’s health and safety standards and policies in the North West, ensuring that statutory corporate and operational health and safety requirements are met. The North West EHS team is also involved in developing and supporting national health and safety strategies and processes to continuously improve the management of EHS within Irish water.

So why is health and safety so important for a company like Irish Water?

“I suppose most people when asked what they think health and safety is all about, think of hard hats and high viz vests,” said Ms Byrne. “But it is so much more than that. It’s about driving safely for work, working in a safe environment, the physical and mental health of staff and having the correct facilities, equipment, and support to ensure everyone is treated equally with care and respect.”

Learning difficulties

Jacinta’s road to the post was not always straightforward and she overcame learning difficulties to achieve her goal — She completed a BSc from NUIG in 2007, coming first in her class and receiving the 2007 ELY Lily award. She also received the Medical Merit Award, shared with a fellow student, for best final year project in the same year. Jacinta went on to complete two post graduate diplomas (Environmental Management and also Business ) and a further specialist diploma (Lean and Quality Systems ).

“Careers in EHS can begin with a basic diploma. I went on to complete further post graduate qualifications because I had to prove a lot to myself. From the age of about three, my mother noticed that I was struggling with my speech.

“When I started primary school it became more apparent and my mother organised speech therapy for me up to age seven. I am a passionate Galway girl born and bred in the City of Tribes. The speech therapy was very successful but to my eternal sorrow, I lost my beautiful Galway accent. My husband Damien tells me that it comes back when I nag him,” she added.

“Towards the end of primary school it also became apparent that I had a real problem with spelling. However I have high intelligence and a great memory and I was able to hide a lot of my learning differences by memorising words and sentences. Also I was in a classroom with over 30 pupils and it is easy to slip through the net in those circumstances.”

By the time Jacinta got to secondary school her mother had the feeling she might be dyslexic, but again Jacinta’s intelligence masked this in the classroom. Through the support of her family she managed to get a dispensation for the Junior Cert and was allowed extra time to finish papers. Because she did so well in her junior cert she was not allowed any such dispensation for her Leaving Cert.

“NUI Galway was my saviour,” Jacinta says. “The Disability Officer – as it was called back then was fantastic. I got specialist learning assessments, all paid for by the university and I was finally diagnosed with dyslexia. The assessment showed that I had the reading capacity for words I didn’t know of a seven-year-old but that didn’t stop me. I got an extra time dispensation for my degree and to come first in my class was such a confidence boost for me.”

This was the turning point for Jacinta. When she sat her exams for her further three diplomas she did not flag her learning differences and did not ask for any dispensations or specialist treatment and still managed to get two firsts and a distinction. “The awards and high marks don’t mean as much to me as the confidence, abilities, and learning tools it gave me,” she added.

Getting back to Irish Water she explains why she enjoys working for the public utility:

“Making our sites safe relies on everyone putting safety first and I love that all staff here in Irish Water are fully on board with this. A lot of great work is being done to drive safety performance and to develop a proactive safety culture in all that we do. For Construction Industry Safety Week Irish Water (and GNI ) partnered up with the Construction Industry Federation to highlight why safety must come first on site and how we can make that happen.

“During Construction Safety Week we also encouraged all staff to have safety conversations to look at how we all can each influence safety on our sites, with our colleagues and contractors and for our customers and communities.”

Jacinta has a very demanding job, but do her learning differences get in the way of doing these intricate tasks?

“Irish Water has a Diversity and Inclusion team which ensures that she is fully supported in her day-to-day work. When asked what the most difficult part of her job is she says: “The dreaded white board. Having to stand up in front of my colleagues and write [and spell] townland names I have never heard of is so difficult for me. My learning difference whispers in my ear telling me that everyone can see I can’t spell. But when I look around at my colleagues, I see that they are more interested in listening to what I have to say than judging me.”

What advice she would give to her 10 year old self — “Firstly, I would tell her how, if she keeps working hard she will have a happy and fulfilled life, like I have with a wonderful husband Damien and a beautiful healthy son Cayden and of course a very satisfying but challenging career with Irish Water.

“Things have improved greatly for children and adults with learning differences since I was a 10 year old. I would tell her not to worry, that in the future there will be plenty of encouragement there and her family friends and colleagues will support her always.”

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