Cork teenager Joanne O’Riordan, who has no limbs, gave a speech to global leaders at a United Nations conference for Girls in ICT Day on how technology has changed her life. She also challenged these leaders to build her a robot.
O’Riordan, who turns 16 this week, flew to New York to give a speech to global leaders on how accessible technology helped her in her everyday life. She is one of only seven people in the world with total amelia, a congenital birth condition which causes the absence of all four limbs.
The event was hosted by the International Telecommunication Union, the UN agency for ICT at New York’s Institute of International Education as part of Girls in ICT Day. It identified misguided school career counselling, the media’s ‘geek’ image of technology and the lack of female role models and support as factors which dissuaded women from entering the field of technology.
O’Riordan spoke to an audience of 200 global leaders and gender, technology and education experts. These included Melanne Verveer, US ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission and Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, and Hasna Matic, State Secretary for the Digital Agenda in Serbia.
No Limbs, No Limits
O’Riordan said her motto in life is ‘No Limbs, No Limits’ and her family never allowed her condition to hold her back. She said technology was key to help her grow and learn.
“From an early age, I have always relied on the use of technology to help advance my abilities. Be this in moving or communicating I developed an understanding of what I could achieve with technology from a young age," she said.
"I use technology in all aspects of my life, be it at home, in school or through the wider medium of interacting with others. My parents have told me that when I was one I first began to explore the use of technology with our old computer, I figured out how to use this software by simply moving my ‘hand’ and chin at a faster speed.
“Today I can type 36 words a minute and for someone with no limbs, I think that’s an incredible achievement in itself,” she said.
She said technology made her more determined to achieve a better standard and quality of life. When she started school, she learned how to write by placing her pen between her shoulder and chin. However, she started to develop a spinal condition called scoliosis at the age of seven, which meant that she could not use this method to write anymore.
Learning with technology
To help her continue working, all of her schoolbooks were put onto a CD, which lets her do all her work on a PC.
“Nobody in Ireland has availed of this technology and I was extremely lucky to have a woman by the name of Christine O’Mahony helping me to make the process much easier,” said O’Riordan.
“It took months to get the format right but when she did my life ultimately changed. I now discovered that with one flick of my hand I was able to do all the things my other friends were doing with their fingers.
“I was able to be as good as them, if not better. My quality of life has changed dramatically since I started using technology and only the other day I told my mother that technology is the limb I never had,” she said.
O’Riordan now uses her phone to text, tweet and update Facebook. She plays games on her Nintendo DS, iPad, iPod and laptop and uses software from Microsoft and Adobe. She uses her upper and bottom lip, chin, nose and hands to utilise all of these technologies.
“Technology has opened up a world of possibilities, through which I have excelled in both my education and social environment around me,” she said.
The robot challenge
O’Riordan challenged the people at this event to build her a robot to help her pick up objects she dropped, such as pens, forks or phones.
“This robot would become my hands and legs. So for example, if I was in the sitting room and I needed something from the kitchen, I would love for that robot to get me what I needed,” she said.
“I mean, to be fair, when you’re lazy and sitting down most of you use a remote control because you’re too lazy to get up and manually switch the TV over – and trust me, that is lazy. So why can’t I have a robot?
“Call it crazy, call it insane, call it what you like – but the challenges I face everyday get bigger and far greater to overcome. I know I can overcome these challenges but I need your help. I can’t rely on my parents, my brothers, sister and others all my life. Can I? Certainly not and I don’t want to,” she said.
Take a look at this video for more information on the conference, the challenges of getting women into the ICT industry and for O’Riordan’s thoughts on this event.