The ‘Inspirational’ Chairperson of Stage Beyond Theatre Company, Bernie Shiels, was among the influential guest speakers at the Arts & Business NI Cultural Governance Conference which took place at The MAC in Belfast on December 6th, 2022.

Bernie, who was announced winner of the ‘Inspirational Trustee’ category at the Arts & Business NI Awards in September, was invited to give the closing address at the Conference where she urged attendees to actively encourage the recruitment of people with learning disabilities to sit on charity Boards.

Speaking afterwards, our Board chair said: “I enjoyed every minute of it and the feedback I got was really appreciated. Thank you Stage Beyond for everything you do for myself and all the great members.”

For Bernie’s full speech, see text below:


Hello everyone,

Yes. I’m Bernie Shiels, the Chair and a proud member of Stage Beyond Theatre Company for adults with learning disabilities based in Derry. I never dreamt that I’d be standing in front of a room full of people addressing a conference in Belfast – or anywhere for that matter – but then again, I never dreamt that one day I’d be an ‘Inspirational Trustee’.

It all still feels a bit surreal holding that award, but I am truly honoured to be here as the final speaker of the day – sure there’s nothing like saving the best for last!

We have a saying in Stage Beyond that “we don’t say no to anything we are asked to do” – so while this is a bit outside my usual comfort zone, I’m here now and all I can do is my best!

I am going to talk about my story so far:

  • The challenges
  • The struggles 
  • The rewards


Most people will have photo albums of themselves performing in a school play or show of some description, especially if they go on to become actors.

I have been a member of Stage Beyond since the company was formed just over 20 years ago and there are umpteen photos of me taking part in our productions over the years.

When I was asked by our team last week if I had any such photos from my school days to include in this presentation, sadly there are none to show because the reality back then is a far cry from the journey I am on today – participating fully in a cultural context

As a young person with a learning disability, I was bullied during the five years I attended my local mainstream secondary school, but I never spoke up and there were simply no opportunities for someone like me to participate, let alone shine.

I didn’t tell my parents any of the bad stuff. They would have been straight up there on my behalf, and I was afraid it would just make matters worse. When my mother found out about the bullying long after my school days were over, she told me that she would have moved me to another school, and I wouldn’t have had to put up with the bullying all those years.

My mum and dad have been my biggest supporters. My daddy was always so proud of me getting into drama, but he has dementia now and thinks I am still at school…. (God forbid)

I have included photos of my parents here to acknowledge the importance of the family’s encouragement and support which has led to me being here today.

Yes, it was a struggle.

I was so happy running out those school gates for the final time with my record of achievement in my hand.

I have never held any grudges because there was a severe lack of knowledge and understanding back then about learning disabilities and inclusion. We are getting there in terms of awareness but there is still quite a long way to go. I’ll talk about this a bit more before we finish up because every person in this room can help make a real difference for people like me to live their best lives.

I was in a transition class at the local Tech (now called North West Regional College) when I first joined Stage Beyond – and the rewards have been immense. The artistic director Dee Conaghan – who is also here with me today – co-founded Stage Beyond to address the lack of arts provision for young people with learning disabilities.

Everybody deserves the opportunity to access professional arts training. When people like me are given that opportunity they grasp it. I got that opportunity, and I am running with it!

Being a member, Trustee and Chair of the Board of Stage Beyond since last year, has been a huge opportunity to show that this girl can do anything!

When a person with a learning disability is given the correct tools and support to build their confidence – which was non-existent for me before Stage Beyond – they can achieve these same desired outcomes too.

We are who we are…

We are breaking new ground…

We are talented…

We are winning awards and recognition not just locally, but also internationally…

We are challenging stereotypes..

We are challenging perceptions of people having low expectations of the work we do in a cultural context…

We don’t just do ‘wee plays’ or settle for anything but the highest quality productions. working with some of the top theatre directors in the country – we are a company fighting our way through and winning. We do Shakespeare, Heaney; we confront difficult and sensitive topics such as the persecution of people with learning disabilities as seen in our recent production, ‘The Great Dictator’ – watch out for tour dates in the new year.

I am also delighted to have a Stage Beyond Board mentor, Caitriona Hinds, for ongoing one-to-one support in my role as Chair, helping to set the future direction of the company on behalf of all members of Stage Beyond.

Finally, and crucially, I now reach out to each and every person in this room and urge you:

Please use your influence both as individuals and within your own organisations, so that the learning-disabled community can rightfully avail of the opportunities open to them in all aspects of society. This includes cultural governance roles, championing and challenging best practice for charities, improving the lives of people like me and my peers every day.

Thank you to Arts & Business NI for helping me fulfil my participant-led hopes and dreams and continue to be an Inspirational Trustee.