You’re the voice

Regular attendees of Sacred Heart Cathedral, particularly those at weekend masses, would be familiar with a unique singing voice. It belongs to Catherine Mahony, and when she advocates on behalf of those with a disability that voice goes beyond hymns to become an expression of her commitment to social justice.

Ms Mahony was born blind and she laughed when told of the proposed headline “You’re the voice”.

“Those who know me well will say it fits,” she said, “because if I’m not singing I’m constantly talking.”

With her parents’ encouragement she has enjoyed singing for as long as she can remember.  As the youngest of five, harmonies were often shared with her siblings.

“Then in the mid ’70s I went to a primary school in Sydney, St Lucy’s, run by the Dominican Sisters for children who were blind or vision impaired,” she said. “Today, we strive for children with a disability to be included in their local school. That wasn’t the case in the ’70s, so I attended boarding school from a young age, which had its challenges. 

“But one of the blessings was music, and for me it has always been associated with faith and church. I was often asked to lead the music at school masses and other liturgies. So that was where it all began.”

Singing as part of liturgy and other rituals remains an important parish role. Her other tasks for the Diocese have included work in the communications department from 2001 to 2009, during which she wrote regularly for Aurora. Ms Mahony then found a new expression for her voice when she identified a desire to advocate on behalf of people with disability.

“In 2011, I became friends with a number of people with a disability and became aware of the many ways in which people with a disability are marginalised,” she said. “For a long time I didn’t want to work in disability because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. But that all changed and then I felt it was time to add my voice to the many people with and without disabilities who I aspired to be like in their roles as powerful advocates.

“As we recognise Mental Health month, I think of the many Australians who have a lived experience of mental illness or distress. There is still much to do to eliminate the stigma experienced by people living with mental illness. Advocacy for improvement in the areas of health, housing, education, employment and the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) has on-going importance as does the need for all of us to ask our neighbour 'RUOK?’ ”

Ms Mahony is a peer worker at Community Disability Alliance Hunter — — an organisation supporting people with disabilities and their families. She is also currently working at the ABC after winning the Regional Storyteller Scholarship (see and is producing a series on the relationship between people with a disability and their support workers. It will be broadcast in early December to coincide with the International Day for People With a Disability. The ABC is aware that people with a disability face additional barriers finding work in the media. “That was certainly my experience when I graduated from the University of Newcastle with a communications degree in 1995,” she said.

Ms Mahony began formal singing lessons in her mid-20s, which at that stage of her life were a confidence booster. And then she joined the Cathedral choir wanting to become involved in church music. “I acknowledge with gratitude the encouragement of the late sister Clare Tobin RSJ,” she said. “I still get formal coaching from Dr Anne Millard, who is a friend as well as director of music at the cathedral.”

Apart from weekend masses, Ms Mahony also sings for weddings and funerals. “I struggle with people using words such as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘angelic’ to describe my voice, just the same as I do when people with a disability are seen as ‘inspirational’, she said. “Just because I’m a blind person who is singing doesn’t make my singing more special than anyone else’s.”

Ms Mahony is presenting this month at the Australian Pastoral Musicians’ Network, where her love of church music and disability advocacy come together in her presentation on hymns that contain text referring to a disability.

“When I’m advocating, it is with the voice of my own experience — as someone with a disability,” Ms Mahony said. “My disability is central to this work. There is an important phrase in the disability movement — ‘nothing about us without us’. It is a fundamental belief of mine and many others that we must always hear the voices of people with a disability.”

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