Interview | Shane Burcaw

Shane Burcaw is a high-profile, 26 year-old American writer, public speaker and charity founder. He has documented all aspects of his life with spinal muscular atrophy with candid humour, thereby informing and inspiring others whilst also influencing the public perception of disability.

Burcaw has been commended for his ongoing determination, sincerity and ability to raise awareness of often uncomfortable issues, in a sensitive manner.

Shane kindly took time out of his busy schedule to speak with me about life with SMA, what motivates his work, and why personal care doesn’t affect his relationship with able-bodied girlfriend, Hannah.


1. Shane, please could you tell us about your disability and how it affects you and your lifestyle?

I have Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2, but I’m on the weaker end of the Type 2 spectrum. SMA is a neuromuscular disease that causes my muscles to weaken and waste away over time. I’ve been using an electric wheelchair since the age of two. In a nutshell, my disease affects every single function of the body that involves muscles. I can barely move my legs, arms, and hands. I have difficulty swallowing, speaking, and breathing (especially when sick). Because of this weakness, I rely on other people for pretty much every aspect of daily life, from getting out of bed, to eating, to going to the bathroom. Luckily, I’ve been surrounded by incredible people who have always been there to help me, and because of that, I’m able to live a fairly “normal” life, with a career, a variety of hobbies, and frequent traveling for both leisure and work. I live with my girlfriend, Hannah, in Minneapolis, and she is my primary caregiver.

2. What motivates you to do the work you do (writing, public speaking, raising awareness through social media and your charity LAMN) and how do you find the energy?

My disease is progressive, so my condition and abilities deteriorate over time. I learned at a young age that many people with SMA pass away at a younger age than the average, and that realisation instilled in me some sort of existential determination to leave a mark on the world. Some might call it vain, but I was terrified by the prospect of dying without having done anything to be remembered for. I began sharing my story through funny blogs and later books, and working hard to grow a non-profit organisation that provides free equipment to others with my disease. Coffee is really the only way I’m able to balance writing, the non-profit, blogging, vlogging, and public speaking!

It should be noted that two years ago, the first-ever treatment (Spinraza) for my disease was discovered and approved. I began receiving it at the age of 25, and it’s supposed to stop the progression of my muscle-wasting. This has been a huge development in my life, both physically and mentally, and I’m still coming to terms with the fact that my future might be much different than I originally imagined.

3. Could you please tell us about Laughing At My Nightmare (charitable organisation) – how it all began, aims and objectives?

Our non-profit grew out of my blog that I began writing in 2011. People from all around the world felt an authentic connection with the idea that humour can help us cope with adversity. My cousin Sarah and I co-founded LAMN as a way to spread that idea to more people, and along the way we began raising funds to provide equipment to the muscular dystrophy community. In the past three years we have provided over $150,000 in medical and adaptive equipment to people living with muscular dystrophy.

4. In 2014, you wrote your first book. A memoir also entitled, Laughing At My Nightmare. Two further books followed. Who are your books aimed at and can readers expect?

Both of my memoirs (Laughing at My Nightmare, 2014; Strangers Assume My Girlfriend Is My Nurse, 2019) are about funny experiences I’ve had, from my early school years into adulthood. Strangers is more about society’s flawed perceptions of disability. My children’s book (Not So Different, 2017) answers the most common questions that kids ask about my disability and my wheelchair.

5. In the past, you have faced criticism from some in the disabled community. The terms ‘inspiration/pity porn’ have been used. Can you explain why this is and how you feel about the backlash?

Living with SMA can, at times, be extremely difficult from an emotional/mental standpoint. Experiencing the slow decline of ability through my adolescence and coming to terms with my future and my place in society was not always a bright, cheery process. My writing has always been an authentic reflection on my thoughts and experiences, so I wrote honestly about my fears and challenges. When my story began to receive attention on a larger scale, there were some people in the disabled community who didn’t agree with my sharing of these intimate worries. People accused me of playing up the negative aspects of my disability for attention, while others thought I was exploiting my life in an attempt to be “inspiring.”

I’m glad that people spoke up with their criticism. Although my writing has always been overwhelmingly positive, their feedback helped me reflect on some of my fears about getting worse and dying. Getting involved in the muscular dystrophy community has been such a positive thing for me, and they’ve helped me reframe my outlook on a personal level, which, in turn, has changed how I write about my disease. We are all learning and growing together!

6. Has your attitude to disability, your own in particular, changed over time?

Earlier in life, my biggest concern was minimising my disability for the sake of appearing “normal.” As I’ve gotten older, I’m less concerned with fitting in, and becoming more passionate about embracing my disability and changing the way society sees disability.

7. You have been with your able-bodied girlfriend, Hannah, for over two years. If you are comfortable doing so, would you please share with us how you met and a little about your relationship.

Hannah and I live together in Minneapolis, and she has been my primary caregiver for the past seven months. After doing two years of long distance, we are both happier than we’ve ever been now that we are permanently together. Like all couples, we have the occasional disagreement, but by and large we don’t feel like the caregiving aspects of our relationship create a strain. In fact, we both agree that these caregiving activities help strengthen our emotional connection.


I would like to thank Shane for taking the time answer my questions.

I hope you enjoyed reading this interview.


Twitter: @LAMNightmare

Website: Laughing At My Nightmare

YouTube: Squirmy and Grubs

Instagram: @shaneburcaw

Tricia Downing | Paraplegic, Sports Woman & Novelist

Fiction novel ‘Chance for Rain’ shows disability experience for what it is: another version of the human experience

Tricia Downing is recognized as a pioneer in the sport of women’s paratriathlon, and as the first female paraplegic to finish an Iron distance triathlon. She has competed both nationally and internationally and represented the United States in international competition in five different sport disciplines: cycling (as a tandem pilot prior to her 2000 accident), triathlon, duathlon, rowing and Olympic style shooting. She was also a member of Team USA at the 2016 Paralympic Games.

Tricia Downing

Tricia featured in the Warren Miller documentary, ‘Superior Beings’ and on the lifestyle TV magazine show, ‘Life Moments’.
Additionally, she is founder of The Cycle of Hope, a non-profit organization designed for female wheelchair-users to promote health and healing on all levels – mind, body and spirit.
Tricia studied Journalism as an undergraduate and holds Masters degrees in both Sports Management and Disability Studies.
She currently lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband Steve and two cats, Jack and Charlie.

Visit Tricia: www.triciadowning.com


Love and disability: Do the two actually go together? In the eyes of 32 year-old Rainey May Abbott, the uncertainty runs high. But with a little arm twisting, this paralympic skier embarks on an adventure that takes her completely out of her comfort zone…

Tricia Downing: “Rainey May Abbott came to me one night as I was drifting off to sleep and wouldn’t leave me alone – until I got up and started to write.”

“I never intended to write a fiction novel. My first book, the memoir, ‘Cycle of Hope’, was a feat in itself for me. I never had enough confidence in myself that I could write and publish a book. Fortunately, my expectations were reasonable and I really had only one goal with that book; to share the complete story of my accident with those who attended my motivational speeches and were intrigued enough to want to know more after hearing me speak on stage for an hour.”

“On September 17, 2000 I sustained a spinal cord injury. At the time, I was a competitive cyclist and was out on a training ride with one of my friends when a car turned into our path. My training partner barely missed the car, as I hit it square on. I was launched off my bicycle, landed on my back on the windshield, and fell to the ground. I was paralyzed on impact.”

“I was 31 at the time, and just beginning to get my stride both professionally and personally. The accident turned my life upside down. I had to learn to live life from a wheelchair, use my arms instead of my legs, create a new body image and not only accept myself despite my disability, but to believe others would accept me too.”

“Will anyone actually love me if I have a disability?”

“Fortunately my question was answered only four years after my accident when I met the man who would become my husband. However, I have found through talking to many other women in my position, that this concern is not only real, but seems to be pervasive in the disability community. Is it possible to find love when you don’t fit the mold of the typical woman regarded as beautiful in our society?”

“When I imagined Rainey in my dreams that night, I knew her plight and I could empathize with her fear when it came to relationships. And with that, the story of ‘Chance for Rain’ was born. So too was my desire to see more disabled characters in literature.”

“I think,  so often many people with disabilities feel invisible. We aren’t seen on the cover of magazines, in the movies or books. Unless, of course, we’re the tragic character or overly inspirational and defying all odds.”

“My goal with Rainey was to show that she could have a normal existence while embodying a fear that is not unique to women with disabilities. I think at one time or another, every woman has grappled with her body image or desirability. Rainey just happens to have another layer of complexity to her: her life is not as common as the popular culture ideal.”

“I hope my novel will give readers a new perspective on disability, love and relationships as I continue what I hope to be a series of stories featuring characters with different disabilities, navigating the ordinary, complex, and the unknowns of life and love.”


Chance of Rain

Elite athlete Rainey Abbott is an intense competitor, but inside she feels a daunting apprehension about her chances of finding true love. Her life as a downhill skier and race car driver keeps her on the edge, but her love life is stuck in neutral. A tragedy from her past has left her feeling insecure and unlovable.
Now that she’s in her thirties, Rainey’s best friend Natalie insists she take a leap and try online dating. Rainey connects with ‘brian85’ and becomes cautiously hopeful as a natural attraction grows between them. Fearful a face-to-face meeting could ruin the magic, Rainey enlists Natalie to scheme up an encounter between the two whereby Brian is unaware he is meeting his online mystery woman. Rainey is left feeling both guilty about the deception and disappointed by something Brian says.
When they finally meet in earnest, Rainey’s insecurities threaten to derail the blossoming romance. As she struggles with self-acceptance, she reveals the risks we all must take to have a chance for love.

‘Chance of Rain’ by Tricia Downing is now available to buy from Amazon

Interview | Amberly Lago

True Grit and Grace: Turning Tragedy intoTriumph

Former athlete and professional dancer Amberly Lago suffered a horrific motorcycle accident in 2010 which severed her femoral artery and shattered her right leg almost beyond repair. Despite her debilitating, life changing injuries, Amberly has transformed her life and is now a fitness trainer and motivational speaker, inspiring thousands with her resilience and ability to thrive.  

In her remarkable memoir, ‘True Grit and Grace’, this Texas girl instills hope to keep moving forward by sharing the tools and strategies that have worked for her. The determination, defiance and gratitude she demonstrates encourages readers to find resilience in their own difficulties. By refusing to give up, Amberly has admirably commited herself to regaining her active lifestyle, thereby proving it is possible to hit rock bottom and still find the strength to get back up.


1. Amberly, could you please tell Disability Horizons readers how your disability affects you and how you continue to cope with ongoing, chronic pain?

Following my motorcycle accident in 2010, I was diagnosed with Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome. CRPS is known as “the suicide disease” because it causes constant chronic pain. It’s ranked highest on the pain scale and has no known cure. When I was first diagnosed, I was told I’d be permanently disabled and wheelchair-bound.

At first I lived in denial and pretended nothing was wrong. Behind my smile, I was dying inside from physical and emotional pain. Everything I read about CRPS left me feeling hopeless. Still, I continued moving forward, despite the feeling of a vice grip on my foot and battery acid through my veins. I tried every kind of treatment for my pain, including a spinal stimulator, nerve blocks, ketamine infusions, Eastern and Western medicine, and anything that claimed it could bring me relief.

It wasn’t until I accepted the fact that I had CRPS and what I call my “new normal” that I began to show myself the self-love and self-compassion I needed to start to feel better. I wish I could tell you I found some magic pill or movement that relieves my pain, but the truth is, every day is different, and so are my pain levels. What works some days doesn’t always work the next, so I just keep trying, and doing, and praying.

When I am in pain, I go through my list of helpful tools. There is no particular order.

I practice mindfulness, meaning I do whatever I can to stop thinking about and focusing on my pain. I surround myself with positive people. No more doggy downers, only puppy uppers!

I count my blessings and practice gratitude.

I give myself permission to rest on a flare day and remember that I am doing exactly what I need to do. I am recovering.

I eat an anti-inflammatory diet.

I am on a sleep schedule (and yes, this means that I have an alert on my phone that tells me when it’s bedtime).

I am still learning to meditate.

I breathe deep breaths.

I pray.

I do everything I can to be of service to others. When you focus on the well-being of others, your self-pity disappears as you improve the quality of someone else’s life.

Then I repeat. Instead of allowing my pain to make me bitter, I do my best to appreciate everything I have, no matter how big or small. I will focus on the good in my life and let that be my medicine.

2. You endured incredibly trying times prior to your motorcycle accident, including parental divorce and sexual abuse. How has maturity and resilience helped you since your accident?

I learned from a young age to “cowgirl up” because at the time, there was no alternative. Dwelling on why reality wasn’t prettier wouldn’t have done a thing for me. It would have crippled me then, preventing me from achieving everything I wanted to and crippled me years later when I was actually crippled, preventing me from choosing nothing less than recovery. As weird as it may be to say this, I believe the pain and isolation I felt in those difficult times as a child were an ironic blessing of sorts. When you know from an early age that you’re on your own and can rely only and entirely on yourself, it’s as liberating as it is sad. But if you can take the sadness and self-pity out of it, then what you’re left with is a liberating sense of freedom—and, when trauma strikes, you don’t waste any time looking for someone to bail you out.

3. How and why did you choose to ignore and defy the doctor who abruptly told you that you would never function normally within society, not walk again?

Call it my stubbornness or my love of a good challenge or being in complete denial, but I wanted, more than anything, to chase after my daughter like a mother should and be free to do the things that make my heart sing, like hiking and exercise. Just because my body was “broken” on the outside, I was still the determined athlete on the inside. I learned to truly listen to my body and to be the healthiest I could be, despite my circumstances. We may not get to control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. So, getting on with my life was a series of three steps up (to the degree that I could take steps) and six steps back, both physically and emotionally. Every one of my surgeries, that totaled 34, I viewed as bumps in the road. I couldn’t think of them as anything but that. If I had, I would have given up. And nothing, not even a doctor’s advice, could get me to do that. Although I love my doctors, I had to think for myself when it came to my own health and happiness.

4. Understandably, you experienced severe depression following your accident. What was the turning point for you?  And how do you find strength and energy to turn such despair into positivity?

Somewhere in between surgeries number 28 and 34, I mentally spiraled into a deep, dark depression. I could feel myself giving up and giving in to the pain, and in that moment, I thought about my beautiful children, my family, my friends, and my clients, and realized I had better make a decision. I could go down the road of despair or down the road of peace and happiness. I immediately threw myself into a place of gratitude for all I did have in my life. Every time a negative thought crept into my mind, I replaced it with something I was grateful for. I threw myself into physical therapy and stayed active with my fitness clientele. Even though I couldn’t physically train them at first, I could still create their exercise plans and coach them over the phone. Being of service really took me out of my despair and gave me a sense of purpose and a strong feeling of connection.

5. Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) is also often referred to as “the suicide disease” due to the fact so many sufferers take their own lives. How did you overcome the odds and move forward in order to achieve your goals and live life to the fullest?

My heart sank the first time I learned I had what is known as the suicide disease. When I found out I had an incurable disease that would leave me in constant chronic pain, I defaulted to denial; it took me years to accept that I am a woman with a disability. It wasn’t until I completely accepted my disability that I could begin to heal—not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. I focus on what I can do and don’t get caught up in past accomplishments. I celebrate small victories along the way, whether being able to walk up the stairs on my own or walk on the beach with my family. I only look back to see how far I have come. I connect to my higher power every day and pray. Instead of letting my chronic pain detour me from my endeavors, I use it as a tool to connect me with others going through challenges and am reminded that I am not alone on this journey.

6. Throughout the book, you discuss the need for hope, acceptance and gratitude — to be thankful for all you have rather than looking to the past and what you have lost. Do you feel this is the key to getting the most out of life?

At first I was so caught up in my past accomplishments that I couldn’t live fully in the present moment. I went from being a dancer, athlete, and fitness trainer to fighting just to stand upright for a few seconds at a time. I was so embarrassed of my scars and tried to pretend that nothing was wrong with me. Allowing others to see my scars crushed me. Slowly, however, my perspective changed and I took ownership of my story. I then viewed my scars as battles I had won. Instead of looking down at my leg in anguish, I looked at it as a blessing. I still had my legs. Once I embraced my imperfections and learned self-acceptance, I truly began to heal and be comfortable in my own skin.

Without the traumas and heartbreaks of life I wouldn’t be able to serve the way I do now. It’s not about circumstances but about what you decide to do with them. I focus on what I am grateful for and don’t leave any room for self-pity. I make my purpose bigger than my problems.

As Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is though nothing is a miracle. The other is though everything is a miracle”. I believe in miracles.

7. Your role as a wellness coach and motivational speaker involves supporting, inspiring and advising others. Why is this so important and how does helping other people through their difficulties benefit you personally?

I wanted more than ever to get back to my passion, which is working with people, but I did wonder who would want to train with me. I felt broken. I trained fitness competitors, boxers, and CHP officers for years—and then I found myself on crutches. I now needed my clients more than they needed me. I needed to get back to work. I needed to give my life purpose above and beyond trying to walk again. Purpose was what would save me mentally, psychologically, spiritually—and, for that matter, physically. Purpose was what would get me on my feet and, someday—as I prayed—running again. I did whatever I could to get myself stronger—and then came the miracle. Business began booming, and did so quickly because people saw me in the gym, in my wheelchair or on crutches, even pushing myself from station to station in a wheelchair. I became the trainer of encouragement who told people, Yes you can! and that was how I trained them. Speaking to groups of people, whether a gathering of youth or  business professionals, about overcoming obstacles is a way of connecting, and when people connect, magic happens. I believe we need to lift others up to be better ourselves.

8. What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?

What I have learned in life is a series of choices we make regardless of our circumstances. I could either make the choice to give up and let my life be determined by my circumstances, or fight to create something positive out of my situation. My choice is to notice the gifts life offers, which are particularly plentiful when you look for them. I believe in seeing the good in every situation and learning something from it.

I believe we can have the life we have always imagined, even if our circumstances have narrowed our possibilities. My sincere wish is that my story will help each reader claim their own power and belief in themselves and their dreams, and find their own resilience to move forward and choose a life filled with laughter and love, even when things don’t go as planned. We can’t choose what life throws our way, but we can choose to be happy and live a full life, despite our circumstances. Through our trials, we can embrace our challenges, connect to our innermost resilience, and change our perspective on life. We are all strong, but together we are unstoppable!


I’d like to thank Amberly Lago for taking the time to answer my questions so considerately.

Please visit her website to learn more about her life and work as a motivational speaker.

TRUE GRIT AND GRACE: Turning Tragedy Into Triumph by Amberly Lago (Morgan James Publishing; April 17, 2018) – Available to buy now from Amazon.

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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

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