THE DETERMINATION, drive and spirit of a disabled former Cardonald student has been recognised with a nomination for the Evening Times’ Scotswoman of the Year awards.
By Stuart Findlay
JULIE McElroy, who was born with cerebral palsy, has never been the sort of person to shirk a challenge and her efforts to raise money and awareness for charity have seen her honoured among the five-woman shortlist.
The 26-year-old’s condition means that she has difficulties walking, a profound hearing impairment and manual dexterity problems. Despite this she has undertaken a number of difficult challenges and continually defied the odds.
Last October she spent a fortnight in India scaling the Himalayas and working with disabled children in some of India’s poorest areas. That adventure was just the latest in a long line of remarkable achievements which includes trekking across the Andes, paddling the length of Loch Sheil in a canoe, abseiling off Murrayfield Stadium and joining the Lomond mountain rescue team out on manoeuvres.
Julie said: “I was absolutely speechless when I found out. I think I’ve got a good chance but it’s just nice to be nominated.
“My big concern now is what am I going to wear? The organisers have told me that it’s a smart event but what does that mean exactly?
“I’m a bit younger than the other nominees so there’s some added pressure about picking the right dress,” she laughed.
The awards ceremony will take place in the Glasgow City Chambers on February 9, where Julie will be competing for the top prize with four other women, including Dame Elish Angiolini, who stepped down from her role as the Lord Advocate last year.
Winning the award would be a thrill for Julie, one that would perhaps only be matched by a surprise appearance by former Deacon Blue drummer turned sports presenter Dougie Vipond.
She met the former drummer last November when she was receiving an award from the John Muir Trust, after she asked specially if he could present it to her. Dougie answered the call and made Julie’s day.
She said: “I admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for Dougie. The BBC know I’ll be up for this award and will have kept him informed, so maybe I’ll get to see him again.”
Against the odds
Julie and her twin sister Amy were both born prematurely, and shortly after the birth Julie was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Her parents worried that she might not ever be able to walk or talk, but despite their fears she defied the odds to not only go on to graduate from university but also complete numerous gruelling physical challenges.
She went to a special needs school for her primary and secondary education, meaning that she was kept apart from her twin sister and older brother.
Julie said: “Being separated from my sister at school was difficult, and when high school started that was around the time that I started wondering if I was going to be able to have the same kind of life that she does.
“They’re both in high powered jobs now and here I am struggling day-to-day with a disability. But I want to be in the same kind of jobs as them. Having them around has driven me on, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for my family.”
Julie arrived at Cardonald College in 2003 and stayed for three years, and the college still holds a special place in her heart.
She said: “I picked Cardonald because it was the best of all the colleges I visited. When I first arrived I had no mainstream experience of schools, so I was worried about feeling segregated and cut off from people.
“I was worried about what people’s attitudes would be towards me, but I was really impressed by the support of the team here and I ended up bonding with a lot of the staff.
“Cardonald gave me the confidence and the support I needed.”
After leaving college Julie completed an honours degree at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) and is currently doing a PhD in assistive technology at the university.
She is due to finish her PhD in 2014, but is not ruling out the possibility of any more adventures that might postpone that date.
“I tend to grab every opportunity that opens a new door, I should be finished in about two years but the way things happen in my life who knows what will happen,” she said.
“It has been painfully difficult [the PhD], and even last year I felt like I wanted to drop out. But I want to transform my life for the better and create the best career for myself that I can.”
With a continuously growing track record for overcoming every obstacle that life has thrown at her, few would bet against Julie making that a reality.