Interview | Janine Shepherd

Here is my latest interview, with Janine Shepherd, for Disability Horizons.


Janine Shepherd: a broken body is not a broken person

Former elite athlete and celebrated author, Janine Shepherd shares her inspirational story in the best-selling memoir, Defiant: A Broken Body is not a Broken Person. It chronicles her journey following a tragic accident that cut short her bid to compete in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. Partially paralysed and suffering life-changing injuries, Janine made the courageous decision to let go of her former life and face adversity head-on, creating a new dream for herself.

Here I speak to Janine about her journey, the challenges she has faced and how she’s reinvented herself and her outlook.

Hit by a truck in 1986 during a bicycle ride in Australia’s Blue Mountains, Janine was not expected to survive. Told by doctors that she would never walk again, nor have children, she spent the next few years rehabilitating her permanent disabilities and defying all the odds.

A mother of three, best-selling author, public speaker, aerobatics pilot and the first female director of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, Janine speaks candidly and with humility about how and why she reinvented herself and changed her self-perspective.


Janine, please tell Disability Horizons readers about your disability and how it continues to affect you.

The accident gave me severe spinal cord injury – I broke my neck and back in six places. After extensive surgery and rehabilitation, there was just about enough nerve connectivity to be able to learn to walk again, albeit with a significant limp.

Now, in addition to significantly wasted lower leg muscles, I have limited feeling from the waist down and chronic bladder and bowel dysfunction. I also have to self-catheter a lot, which results in regular urinary tract infections. Your readers might agree that these issues are possibly the worst part of living with spinal cord injury.

‘Janine the machine’ is how you referred to your old self – the elite cross-country ski racer. Do you feel this remains a true representation of your character? If not, how would you now define yourself?

Even though I felt that my body was ‘broken’ after my accident, I realised that my spiritual essence and mental toughness remained unchanged. I soon learned that being ‘Janine the machine’ had less to do with athletic prowess than unshakeable determination and persistence. Recognising that gave me the strength to reinvent my life in a most remarkable way.

Following the accident and being unable to walk, you focused on learning to fly. In your book, you state: “I had to find something to replace what I had lost in my accident”. Why was it so important to set yourself such an ambitious goal?

We often define ourselves by things outside of us – our jobs, our relationships, the roles we play in life. When we lose those things, who we are and everything we believed in is challenged. When we experience such immense loss in life, whatever form it may take, it is very easy to slip into despair, which is what happened when I got home from the hospital. Flying filled me with so much joy and gave me the inspiration and hope that I really could rebuild my life in an unlikely and extraordinary way.

The feeling of despair was almost inevitable. You state that you suffered depression on returning home after a six-month stay in hospital. How did overcome this?

I overcame the despair by throwing myself into flying as well as my physical therapy. At first, this was more discipline than it was a spiritual or emotional triumph. I simply interrupted the pattern of depression by charting progress on all fronts, no matter how incremental it may have been from one day to the next. This helped to refocus my life and channel my depression elsewhere. Hope and application proved to be powerful antidotes to depression.

You discuss your choice to keep fighting versus letting go and accepting not only your body but also the circumstances. This led you to stop asking “why me?” but rather, “why not me?” Why was it so essential to change your perspective?

Before my accident, I had led a very narrow life in that all of my friends were athletes of some sort. In hospital, I met so many other people, whom I would normally not have met. This opened my eyes to the fact that I wasn’t alone on this journey.

Even though we came from very different walks of life, we experienced similar struggles with acceptance and recalibrating how to live life post-recovery. Equally important, we had in common the typical hopes and dreams of anyone for a ‘normal’ life once we left the spinal ward.

You have faced great adversity on a number of occasions. Having rebuilt your life following your accident, you then later experienced the upheaval of divorce and financial ruin. What gave you the strength to once again thrive and persevere despite these challenges?

I developed a philosophy very early on in my days as an athlete called ‘loving the hills.’ One of my racing advantages was that I took on the climbs my competitors dreaded with a passion. That not only made me physically stronger but mentally tougher as well.

This proved to be more than just a training philosophy; it became my choice as a way seeing and living life. Ski races and life experiences are both full of hills; loving them not only gave me a competitive edge but also developed my resilience. So when faced with a life challenge that, metaphorically, looks insurmountable, I take that on as just another ‘hill’. Loving it, not fighting it, teaches me the lessons I need in order to grow into a wiser and more compassionate person.

One of the themes of your book is the concept of disability. You emphasise the importance of believing in the power of potential and adopting a defiant mindset, so that one may not be defined by their physical limitations. Can you share your outlook on disability?

I went from being a gifted, multi-sport athlete to having to relearn how to walk. So, it took me years to finally and fully accept that I am a woman with a disability. At first I felt embarrassed by many aspects of my spinal cord injury, bladder and bowel dysfunction.

However, as I look back and see how much I have achieved, despite my challenges, and how much I have overcome, I feel like the aspect of loss in my life is no longer something to try to hide. Instead, I’m proud of being able to acknowledge my disability and put my energy into making the best use of my gifts.

Despite your many life-altering setbacks, you write with great humour, humility and encouragement. How have you managed to maintain such a positive and empathetic attitude? And do you feel that humour is important in maintaining a healthy outlook?

I absolutely feel that being able to laugh at life is an essential part of the healing process. I tell others not to take life too seriously or you’ll cloud the experience. There are so many documented mental and physical health benefits of laughter. Humour helps me to deal with chronic pain, something that remains a part of my life on a day-to-day basis.

You state that the loss of your athletic career and your physical limitations ultimately allowed you the freedom to embrace life’s potential and infinite possibilities. This is a remarkably refreshing and open-minded viewpoint. How have you ensured that you are defined by your accomplishments rather than your broken body?

I believe that life is about loosening our grip on the things that we feel entitled to. Many of the ancient teachings state that this only leads to suffering. When we let go of the life that we feel we should have, we gain the freedom to see the world through new eyes, and create a more ideal life we can only then envision. This is the gift that comes from realising that life is not about having it all, but loving it all, even the painful parts.

Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from your memoir?

I believe that each of us serves both as companion and as mirror to those we meet along the way. When we accept that we are not alone on our journey, and just how precious and short it is, we become open to seeing the world from a perspective of love and hope.

We then understand that, despite the inevitable life challenges, we always have the choice to reinvent our lives and embrace the new with a sense of wonder and joy. My sincere wish is that my story helps each reader better connect with his or her defiant human spirit. And, that doing so serves to foster the pursuit of the uniquely rich, extraordinary life that awaits every one of us.


I would like to sincerely thank the wonderful Janine Shepherd for speaking with me.

Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook

Interview | Matt “Hambo” Hampson

Parallel London 2017

Here is my interview with Matt Hampson for Disability Horizons


With less than a month to go before the return of Parallel London (an all inclusive fun run and festival), I spoke to ambassador Matt Hampson about his involvement, and why the event is so important to him.

Matt “Hambo” Hampson is a former England Rugby Union prop who, at the age of 20, was paralysed in a near-fatal routine scrum session. Despite having severed his spinal cord in the accident (which took place twelve years ago in Northampton) Matt is now busier than ever and living life to the full as a C4/5 tetraplegic.

In 2011, Matt decided to establish a charitable foundation in his name, to inspire and support others who have suffered similar catastrophic sports injuries.

A mentor, fund-raiser, columnist, award-winning author, rugby coach, patron and ambassador; Matt truly epitomises the foundation’s ethos – ‘Get Busy Living’.

Sport, Injury & Disability

1. Hi Matt, would you please tell Disability Horizons readers a little about your sporting background and your subsequent disability?

I had my accident back in 2005 playing for the England Under 21s. I suffered a dislocated neck in a scrummaging accident, and had to be resuscitated on the pitch by the referee (and former paramedic) that day Tony Spreadbury.

My life obviously changed forever. One minute I was a young, fit sportsman and the next I was paralysed from the neck down. It was pretty tough to deal with. But it’s made me the person I am today and I think it happened for a reason. And that was to set up the Matt Hampson Foundation, which aims to inspire and support young people seriously injured through sport.

2. How did you adapt to no longer being able to participate in sport as you had previously?

It was quite difficult but I think I tried to channel my energy into something productive, which was to try and focus on something that I could do rather than what I can’t. So now I do my motivational speeches, I see beneficiaries and I try to use my profile to influence and help other people in similar situations to the one I found myself in twelve years ago.

Charity

3. Can you tell us about the Matt Hampson Foundation – how and why did you set it up?

I set the foundation up because when I was in hospital I felt there wasn’t enough support out there for people in the same situation as myself. I felt quite isolated. I think the Matt Hampson Foundation aims to get individuals and families together and show them that there is life after serious injury through sport. It also tries to motivate them to ultimately ‘get busy living’ (an ethos inspired by Matt’s favourite film, The Shawshank Redemption).

4. ‘Get busy living’ is the ethos of the Matt Hampson Foundation, which aims to inspire and support young people seriously injured through sport. How do you achieve this?

We try to show people there is a life beyond their injury and that you can live a great and fulfilled life even with a catastrophic injury. Everyone has X amount of time on this planet, so why not enjoy it.

So yeah, we try and use ‘Get busy living’ as the sort of ethos around the foundation.

Disabled People & Sport

5. What are your thoughts on involving disabled people in sport?

I think after the Paralympics in 2012, it changed the world of disabled sport forever. I think people started looking at disabled sports people as proper sports men and women rather than feeling sorry for them, and almost letting them participate as a sort of afterthought and a token gesture. I think the Paralympics in London really showed that and put them on a level playing field with able-bodied athletes.

Parallel London Ambassador

6. How and why did you become an ambassador for Parallel London?

It’s to put people on a level playing field, whatever their disability – whether you’re able-bodied, in a wheelchair, young or old – anyone can participate in Parallel London.

I think it’s so, so important to know that you can do things and be alongside disabled people, able-bodied people and all be on a level playing field.

7. What does Parallel London mean to you personally, and how does it promote disability and diversity within sport?

Parallel London to me means inclusivity. So basically, trying to get everybody involved whatever their background, ethnicity or disability – all can be involved with, and contribute to Parallel London. It just shows that everybody is equal, and for a day it makes people realise that.


You can find out more about Matt’s involvement with Parallel London and the Matt Hampson Foundation. ‘Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson’, by Paul Kimmage, is available to purchase online.

Many thanks to Matt Hampson

Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook

Interview | Samantha Renke

Actress, TV Presenter & Disability Campaigner

Here I interview actress, presenter and disability campaigner Samantha Renke. She reveals all about growing up with a disability and her dreams of becoming an actress despite brittle bone disease. She also discusses her involvement with Parallel London 2017.

Here is the link to the interview, originally posted by Disability Horizons.


Parallel London

The 3rd September sees the return of Parallel London, a mass-participation race for people of all abilities. Feature writer Carrie Aimes speaks to disabled actress Sam Renke, ambassador for Parallel London, about why the event is so important and why you should get involved.

Despite her disability, 31 year-old Samantha Renke moved to London five years ago to pursue her long-held dream of becoming an actress. Now a familiar face to many, she has since starred in an award-winning film, music videos, webisodes as well as the popular Maltesers television advert. The former teacher is also a columnist, disability campaigner and charity worker.

As if all this is not enough to keep her busy, Samantha was recently appointed ambassador for Parallel London. Here, we learn more about the rising star and her involvement with Parallel London, the world’s first fully-inclusive, fully accessible mass-participation event.

Life & Disability

1. Would you please tell us a little about yourself, your disability and how it affects you?

I was born in Germany to a German mother and British father. We moved to the UK when I was a baby. I studied French, German, Sociology and European Studies at the University of Lancaster before completing my PGCE in Secondary Education at the University of Cumbria.

Following this, I worked as a high school teacher for a number of years. I was also a trustee for the Brittle Bone Society for 6 years, supporting people with my condition, Osteogenesis Imperfecta (brittle bones).

I am a full time wheelchair user and my bones break very easily. I’ve had around 200 fractures starting in my mother’s womb! I get fatigue and have some breathing difficulties. I do have a PA to help me with day-to-day tasks, which is my saving grace and allows me to live my life to the fullest.

After moving to London in 2012, my debut role was playing Alice Gardiner, a mischievous disabled girl who absconds to London in the film Little Devil. I won best actress and the film won Best Film in the Diversity of Arts category at the LA Diversity Film Festival. From there, I got an agent at Visable People and have appeared in a number of projects since.

I still love my charity work and I am patron of Head2Head, a multi-sensory theatre group. I am also affiliated with some other well-known charities, such as SCOPE. I love writing and have a regular column in Posability magazine and write regular blogs for the Huffington Post.

Maltesers TV Advert

2. People may know you best from the popular Maltesers TV adverts, which aired during the Paralympics. Why did you want to be part of that, and what response did you receive?

I think it’s any actor’s dream to be part of a national commercial as it’s certainly great exposure. More than that, I knew the concept was revolutionary and I felt so excited about the positive impact the advert would have.

Apart from some online trolling, the response has been phenomenal. Every day, without fail, when I leave my flat in East London I am recognised. People want my autograph and selfies. The lovely thing is that my disability is not the reason people stare at me now.

Celebrity Status

3. You’re a celebrity who happens to have a disability. What does this mean to you, and what challenges have you faced?

I always loved drama at school and attended a number of after-school drama clubs. However, one of my teachers took me to one side and told me not to get my hopes up of being cast in an acting role. I suppose at that time, 15 years ago, she had a point – the representation of disability within the media was non-existent. Nevertheless, this was heart-breaking to hear and I dropped all of my classes.

But after being a teacher for a couple of years, I knew I wanted to pursue my passion again. I hope my story encourages more people who have disabilities to get involved in TV, film and presenting. I’d like to think that when I have my own family, my children will follow their dreams, no matter what anyone else says.

Parallel London Ambassador

4. You were recently made an Ambassador for Parallel London. How did you come to be involved with this event?

My amazing friend Daniel White and his daughter Emily, who run the awesome blog the Department of Ability, introduced me to the Parallel team and the rest is history. It is a total love affair!

5. Can you tell us more about what Parallel London is and what it means for disabled people?

Parallel London is a fully-inclusive and accessible fun run and free family festival held at the iconic Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Open to all ages and abilities, there are no cut-off times and no barriers to involvement.

Parallel’s inaugural event took place on 4 September 2016. We hosted over 3,000 participants, of which, 41% declared themselves as having a disability. 5,500 people attended our family festival showcasing all different types of inclusive and accessible attractions. This year it is being held on the 3rd September.

6. Why is it so important to you to be involved with such an event?

Being part of a team and having people around you who love and support you for you is so important. As a child I did not get involved in anything as much as I would have liked, and this left me feeling isolated a lot. Parallel is all-inclusive, no matter what your ability. I think this is just amazing.

7. Is there any insider information you, as ambassador, can exclusively reveal to Disability Horizons readers?

Expect some surprises! I’m going to be getting my burlesque on with the amazing Folly Mixtures and their all-inclusive Burlexercise master class. So get your feather bowers ready.

My good friend Stephen Dixon from Sky News will also be at the event presenting for Sky and hosting with yours truly. He has told me that, regardless of the weather, he will be wearing his short shorts!

8. How can we all get involved with Parallel London?

Parallel London is taking place at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on the 3rd September. There’s a 10km, 5km, 1km, 100m and the Super Sensory 1km walk, cycle, push or run – whatever you want to do. It’s for all ages and abilities and everybody can be running side-by-side. You can get sponsorship for any charity or cause that matters to you – so why not give it a go?!


For more information on Parallel London visit www.parallellondon.com. You can also find out all the latest information about the event by following Parallel London on Twitter.

Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook

20 Questions Tag!

We Brits have endured turbulent times of late. So, in an attempt to inject a little light relief into proceedings, I’ve devised my own 20 questions tag.

I’ll kick things off and tag a few fellow bloggers who will then (hopefully) answer the same 20 questions. Not the height of excitement folks, I know. But it’s a brief respite from the continual political talk going on right now.

Ok, here goes…

1. Morning or evening person?
Evening. Always have been, even as a kid. I just don’t function in the morning.

2. Night in or night out?
These days (because I’m so old) I prefer a cosy night in with a good film and good food. The weather here in England is generally crap so I really have to force myself to leave the house when invited out on a cold, rainy evening.

3. Lots of friends or a few close friends?
A few friends. My closest circle of friends are those I have known for almost 20 years. It’s best to keep them sweet, they know too much!

4. Time to yourself or time spent with others?
As sad as it may seem, I actually love my own company, especially as I still live with my parents. It’s not as though I have a home of my own. So, I appreciate time to myself all the more. I’ve always been able to occupy myself. My folks often say I would happily play alone as a tot. Take that as you will…

5. Holiday at home or abroad?
Abroad, definitely. I rarely have the opportunity to travel so when I can, I prefer to go abroad, mainly to escape the British weather.

6. Countryside, seaside or city?
Seaside. I live in central England so I’m several hours drive from the nearest coast. It’s a rarely seen sight for me. I always wanted a house overlooking the sea. I just love everything about it.

7. Hot climate or cold climate?
Hot! I have muscular dystrophy and poor circulation. Thus I really feel the cold. I always feel so much better in every sense when in a warmer climate.

8. Books or films?
I’m a big film buff. Admittedly I watch a lot of films. Box sets seem to be the ‘in thing’ at the moment. I’ve been told I should get stuck into Game of Thrones and Stranger Things, among others. I may do at some point. I did watch Fargo season 2. That was decent. But I just don’t have the patience for TV shows. I like to settle down at night and watch a good film. 2-hours and you’re done.

9. Rice or pasta?
Rice. I like pasta but it’s much stodgier. Due to my MD, scoliosis and respiratory decline, I have limited space for food as it is. Plus I find rice more versatile.

10. Tea or coffee or..?
I like the smell of coffee but hate the taste. I’ll drink tea but I’m not a huge fan. I live on Lucozade. Bad I know. But it literally got me through Uni. Can’t believe they’ve changed the recipe! Bloody sugar tax. It really doesn’t taste the same anymore.

11. Cook, takeaway or eat out?
Ooh, I enjoy all three. Depends how I’m feeling I guess. I rarely have a takeaway so when I do it’s a treat. It’s nice to eat out with family or friends. And I do like to cook because it means I’m involved and can eat whatever I want. I’m a bit of a bish, bash, bosh type. I don’t like to be restricted by a recipe.

12. Formal or casual?
Casual, all the way. I don’t do formal!

13. Dogs or cats?
I love both and have always had cats and dogs. I’ve never known life without a pet. If I had to choose I would probably say I prefer dogs. Generally more loyal I think.

14. Play it safe or be daring?
I wish I could say I’m a spontaneous type, but unfortunately MD doesn’t lend itself to such a lifestyle. I hate routine and monotony. I’m as daring as I can be.

15. Idealist or realist?
Realist. I have to be. My whole existence requires consideration, planning and organisation. It’s nice to dream every now and then but dreaming tends to lead to disappointment.

16. Lead or follow?
I guess I’m a bit of both, depending on the context. I prefer to follow as I don’t like responsibility or being held accountable. I’d rather go with the flow. But I am an employer -reluctantly – since I hire my own PA’s. Therefore, this calls for a degree of leadership.

17. Work or play?
Play. Life’s far too short!

18. Lennon or McCartney?
Lennon. Sorry Paul.

19. Love or money?
Love, no doubt. Cliché maybe. Money helps, of course. I wouldn’t turn it down. But at the end of the day, when the shit hits the fan, all you want is your loved ones around you. All the money in the world won’t cure my MD. But love makes life worth living.

20. Share your problems or keep them to yourself?
I’m often accused of being secretive, guarded and evasive. I do bottle things up. I know “it’s good to talk”, and all that. But I just don’t find talking about my problems helps. I don’t like people to know when I’m unhappy or ill or struggling.
I’ll be honest, I find it difficult sharing so much about myself on my blog. I hold a lot back. I’m not a fan of social media and it took me months and months to finally submit. Months and months of friends pushing me to give it a go. I still require the odd kick up the ass to persist.


I hope you enjoyed this post. Let me know what you think.

I tag:

Uncanny Vivek
SimplyEmma

 

 

Guest Posts | All Articles

Since creating this blog in October 2016, I have been incredibly fortunate to write for various websites and organisations.

I am a Feature Writer for Disability Horizons, Co-Researcher with Living Life to the Fullest, and a long-time campaigner for Muscular Dystrophy Trailblazers.

Here is my entire catalogue of articles:


The first article I wrote for Disability Horizons lists my choice of ‘The Top Ten Apps for Disabled People’.

No matter what your disability, there’s an app out there that can assist you in some way. With the help of such technology, we the disabled community can make our lives that little bit easier.

New apps are being developed everyday. But for the time being, here are my recommendations.


For the past decade, I have been involved with Muscular Dystrophy Trailblazers. I wrote a piece about my life with Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy, which you can read here.

The Channel 4 show The Undateables has proved highly controversial and divisive, particularly within the disabled community. Read my take on the debate here, which also features on the MD Trailblazers website.


 

  • For all my Muscular Dystrophy Trailblazers articles: click here

2009: My first involvement with Muscular Dystrophy Trailblazers.

 

  • For all my Disability Horizons articles: click here

  • For all my Disability Talk articles: click here

 

 

 

 

My interview with Disabled Living.

 


Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook