Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos

Mary Duffy Innovator par excellence.

July 28, 2020 Season 1
Mary Duffy Innovator par excellence.
Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos
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Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos
Mary Duffy Innovator par excellence.
Jul 28, 2020 Season 1

Resolute, determined, funny, innovative and creative Mary Duffy is all of these things.

As a Thalidomide survivor, she has invented all sorts of ingenious ways of managing her daily life and her artistic career without arms.

Mary lives by the sea in Wicklow in Ireland and is an accomplished and honoured artist.

Aside from her painting, she's tried pottery and photography. She loves gardening and is particularly adept at weeding onions using a spoon gripped between her toes.

Listen to Mary talking about portable grab rails, book page-turners, and gardening footwear.

Suction Grab Rails
Shoe Trowel
Reading Frame

Show Notes Transcript

Resolute, determined, funny, innovative and creative Mary Duffy is all of these things.

As a Thalidomide survivor, she has invented all sorts of ingenious ways of managing her daily life and her artistic career without arms.

Mary lives by the sea in Wicklow in Ireland and is an accomplished and honoured artist.

Aside from her painting, she's tried pottery and photography. She loves gardening and is particularly adept at weeding onions using a spoon gripped between her toes.

Listen to Mary talking about portable grab rails, book page-turners, and gardening footwear.

Suction Grab Rails
Shoe Trowel
Reading Frame

Phil Friend (00:08):

Hello everybody. My name is Phil friend and welcome to this latest Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos podcast. And I'm delighted to welcome to the show today. Mary Duffy. Now I got hold of Mary via a good chum of mine, Geoff Adams-Spink. Um, who said that Mary was a very interesting character and I've had a couple of chats with her and I can certainly vouch for that. And I think you're going to find what she's using to overcome the sort of difficulties her impairment causes her are really, really clever. So, Mary, how are you?

Mary Duffy (00:43):

I'm very good. Thank you. Um, Phil, very nice to be part of this conversation.

Phil Friend (00:48):

Yes well, it's great to have you, so whereabouts are you based? I notice a very strong Irish lilt there, but are you living in Ireland? Is that where you are?

Mary Duffy (00:58):

Yes, I live in Ireland. I live across the sea from Hollyhead basically South of Dublin city. I'm about an hour. I live in a rural area.

Phil Friend (01:08):

And you have your own house and so on.

Mary Duffy (01:10):

Yes. I keep hens grow veg. Yeah.

Phil Friend (01:14):

And the condition you have Mary, your, your impairment. How would you describe that?

Mary Duffy (01:19):

I was born without arms and I use my feet to do most things. I'm nearly 60 years old. Okay. I'll be 60 on my next birthday. Well, happy birthday for then. So it's a challenge. It's very challenging.

Phil Friend (01:31):

So you've obviously developed a whole range of ways of doing things that the rest of us, um, obviously use our hands for. But, um, what's the first thing then Mary, that you're going to sort of share with us that really is very, very useful to you and very important in terms of overcoming your, your disability.

Mary Duffy (01:50):

Well, I guess like, like lots of disabled people I really feel when I'm in my own home, I'm very comfortable. I never think about having no arms and it is when I go away, I'm suddenly very, very disabled. So I can't open doors. I can't make a cup of tea. I hate going on holiday. You know, so I have my travel list. And top of my list is what I call my Rose and my thorn. My Rose is a massage ball. When I get a pain in my neck with my thorn is basically a suction clamp that allows me to attach a disc like knob to a wall. If I want to wear a pair of swimming togs, for example, and go to the pool, I need, I have awful trouble getting my togs off unless I'm going to a naturist place where I don't have to wear any togs. And so I got this device, which is basically designed for disabled people or for anybody really who wants to carry around a grip with them so that they be safer in a shower. And it's like a telephone handset old fashioned, and it's got two glass clamps and a, basically a drawer knob attached to it. So I can stick that to any wall or a mirror in a hotel, if I'm going away.

Phil Friend (03:19):

The thing that looks like a phone, as you describe it, it's a bit like a, uh, a sort of portable grab rail. You sort of stick. Yeah.

Mary Duffy (03:27):

That's exactly what it is, with a hole drilled in it what I need stuck to it. Right. So I have found that I don't know how to say it politely, but you know, the places I end up have small little tiles and this won't work. If the tile is big, there's no problem. If the tile is smaller than the suction, bit it's no good. Yeah. Yeah. So this, this one is the double whammy and it's a portable grab rail and it will work on a mirror. It will often work on a wardrobe door or something smooth. The bathroom may have mosaic type tiles, the very popular, and it won't work with that. Also, it can go on, but not come off. So I have to remember to position it close to the edge of the grout if they're big tiles so that I have some chance of getting it off.

Phil Friend (04:18):

And what about the second thing then? What, what are the devices do you have in your locker

Mary Duffy (04:24):

I love gardening? But I did have a problem in that if I want to spend half an hour gardening, it might take me another half an hour to clean up afterwards, right. That my feet get really, this is a problem. I haven't really solved yet, but I really need gloves for my feet. And there is something called gloves in a bottle, which is barrier cream. Like mechanics use. That's quite good. But what I've got is what I call my shoevel, it's a shovel. No, it's a shoe with a shovel attached to the front of it. Right. So I can put my foot in, do half an hour of gardening and come away without having to spend another half an hour, trying to get the grit from underneath my nails. Eh, it's, it's pretty good.

Phil Friend (05:09):

The shoe itself has the trowel or whatever fitted to the end of it. Yes. Right. And then you use it as a trowel, but then you slip your foot out when you finished.

Mary Duffy (05:21):

Yeah. I learned, I learned early on, you know, when I went to art college 40 years ago now, but I was expected to do the same as everybody else. We're very proud of their equality policy, shall we say? Um, but it didn't take me long to end up in the emergency room, let's say, but that was not before I was using a hammer and, you know, holding the hammer between my big toe, my little toe. It doesn't take long to get a, um, a blister and that's the same problem with any tool. It just doesn't work like that. So having it attached to my this shoe means that it's, um, it gets over the blister problem. That's not something that somebody without arms wouldn't know the problem about holding tools that are designed for hands is something that's difficult for me as somebody using my feet.

Phil Friend (06:24):

Yeah, sure. So I'm still going, I've still got in my head, this image of you using your feet to hammer things, because you know, somebody who's whacked his thumb. I don't know how many times how, and you did mention an emergency room. I mean, yeah,

Mary Duffy (06:41):

I did. Yeah. And I mentioned that because I can tell you now, I mean, I was, I was doing metal work and I cut my toe and they brought me to the emergency room. The guy was kneeling down in front of me and he asked me several times to explain exactly how did I cut my toe? And I kept repeating myself and it's just tell me again, just start at the beginning and that, but anyway, I walked away, but it was only after I walked away that I realized he must never have known that I had no arms. Right. Just cause he left her. He never looked above my, he never looked at me, you know? So he couldn't understand. I was thinking about, it's all very simple. I was there with trying to cut the copper and the knife slipped and I cut my toe. And how did that happen? Just try explaining it again. I mean,

Phil Friend (07:36):

It is, as you set up a few minutes ago, it is a tribute to the place that they let somebody go full tilt at all these dangerous things. Only using their feet. I mean,

Mary Duffy (07:46):

I did a lot of pottery. I became quite expert at throwing pots on a wheel, but I also worked with photography and I had to print my photographs and that involves standing on one leg in a dark room. And that's exceedingly difficult. I mean, balancing on one leg and daylight is no problem, but balancing on one leg in the dark is nearly impossible. And on top of the chair,

Phil Friend (08:16):

So we've done the, the stick on a telephone and we've done the tools for the garden. Um, you also shared with me before we went on air that you use a spoon in an interesting way in the garden too. Don't you put that?

Mary Duffy (08:30):

Like my onions. So I use a spoon as, um, to do the delicate, weeding around the onion. It's very, you know, right. Yeah. I'm going to go and do that now when we're finished. So,

Phil Friend (08:44):

So the spoon and the, and the trowel attached to the shoe, what's number three. What, what other, um, interesting gadgets.

Mary Duffy (08:52):

It's my, these are my essential travel items, because like I said, when I'm at home, having no ams doesn't seem to be such a big deal. I just have to go anywhere at all. And I suddenly realize I'm like a fish out of water. This is about the length of my foot. It's a device for reading right now. I have to put it in context that I came up with this idea when I was being presented with what the health authority thought was an appropriate device, which it looked like something that belonged in a dental office or an operating theater. It was about five foot in diameter, which is a big machine and supposedly to help me read books, but it needed a room of its own. And it was so big and it couldn't easily be moved around. And it didn't last very long because they told me with a straight face that if I wanted to read, I'd have to photocopy everything first. Yeah. Can you imagine?

Phil Friend (09:51):

Yeah. Yeah. Yes. War and Peace photocopied

Mary Duffy (09:56):

While they were doing that. I came up with this. So it was shaped like a crucifix. It's about 20 centimetres in length and about the same across yep. In the middle of, at the back of the crucifix, it's got a little, well, sorry, it's for reading a book and I strap the book into it. And I suppose the biggest problem for me, like with the hammer and the trowel it's holding it. So at the back of the crucifix, I have a little strap and my big toe fits underneath the strap. So without any effort, I can relax my foot and the book is held in place and I have a little thin bit of elastic. Is it called thread elastic or something? The downside is that it has to be adjusted every time. Yeah. So the first thing I do is I open the book and I put a vertical piece of elastic down the middle pages. Right. And I try not to read, to get an advance on what I'd try and figure out the middle. And then I attach a adjust, the horizontal elastic, which is very thin. And I sometimes often actually need help for that because books come in different sizes and it has to be just the right amount of tension that holds the book when I turn it upside down and won't fall out. But allows me to turn the page with ease.

Phil Friend (11:27):

Yes. You're using your foot to slide the page from under the elastic. I'm turning the page and that effectively turns it. Yeah, yeah.

Mary Duffy (11:38):

Yeah. But I mean, for somebody, like my dream is to be able to read in bed, you know or read on an aeroplane. So it has two little stands on it. So that it'll act like a book rest, I suppose. Um, and it also can be turned sideways, so I can lie in bed with the pillow behind it and you know, it's quite nice.

Phil Friend (11:59):

What is it? Um, I mean the obvious question that I'm sure our listeners will be asking is why not audiobooks? Why, why are you, what is it about the actual physical art of actual reading that you find?

Mary Duffy (12:11):

Audiobooks don't do it for me. I don't get trans, I want to be transported. So I'm solving problems that don't exist or I'm thinking about something else when I'm listening to an audiobook. So it doesn't give me that absorption that I'm looking for and a Kindle is the nearest thing. Yes. Um, yeah. I like the smell of books. Yeah. Olfactory sense. But as well as that, um, if anybody's solved this problem, I'd be really excited. Um, I'm very long-sighted so I can hold a book in my feet, actually the precursor to this, I'll send you a picture of it is me lying and lying down in a chaise long with a table over me. The table is transparent and I'm looking up at the book. That's really cute to sign. I didn't come up with that idea, but another woman without arms did rather like it. Um, it's like simple. But the problem is that as my eyesight changes and deteriorates and the book needs to be farther and farther away. So I have to choose a book according to the size of the print and the weight of it. I'm not pleasant. So I may become a Kindle soon but.

Phil Friend (13:29):

Yeah. So Kindle would help wouldn't it because at least you can absorb yourself, but it doesn't have the smell or the texture or the feel of a book, but it might be in the longer term, an alternative

Mary Duffy (13:41):

It's better than choosing a book by the size of the print or the, you know, just, it has to have the right amount of print size so that I can hold it in my feet.

Phil Friend (13:53):

So if anybody listening has got a brilliant idea for how Mary could read books of any size, any print size without having to resort, to hanging from ceilings or whatever, then please let us know. I think,

Mary Duffy (14:07):

Well, top, top of my list actually for problem-solving dire need is I work as an artist and I use a lot of heavy chemicals and I need, I really need nitrile gloves, something, not medical. Gloves, but something made of, because they just disintegrate, but I need a covering for my feet so that I can like gardening. I can paint for half an hour. I don't want to spend longer cleaning up than I do painting

Phil Friend (14:41):

No. And, and, and, and obviously anything that goes over your feet has got to be thin enough and sensitive enough to enable you to use your toes in an effective way. Hasn't it? Yeah. So again, if there's someone listening, who's got a bright idea. Please let us know because Mary will be thrilled to bits, well, Mary, we need to draw this to a close. Um, but let me say before we, we finally say goodbye to each other. Um, I'll make sure I post on the website the things you've talked about. Okay. Any listener is actually, um, giving some thought to what you've been saying, the problems you've got and how they might be overcome. That would be fantastic. And Mary, it's been a joy. I love, I love the way you go about sorting things out. It's just, you don't buy stuff. You make stuff

Mary Duffy (15:31):

It can't be bought. But I remember when you first asked me, what's my favourite gadgets. And I said, my brain. Yeah. You know, it's the most plastic, most malleable, most adjustable, most adaptable gadgets.

Phil Friend (15:44):

I think that's a brilliant way. Yeah.

Mary Duffy (15:47):

Know, it's a full-time job doing this, correct?

Phil Friend (15:49):

Yes. But you've done it remarkably. Well, I have to say. And yes. Well, Mary, thank you so much for giving us your time. It's been an absolute joy and, um, take very good care of yourself and we'll speak soon. Thank you. So there you have it.

Phil Friend (16:02):

I hope you enjoyed the show. If you'd like to be part of the programme, please email me at or you can email the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers direct at Thank you once again.