On Friday 5th April, I attended an evening performance of Les Miserables at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Over the years, I’ve seen several different shows at this theatre, and have always been impressed with their accessibility.
I am a non-ambulatory wheelchair-user, and so my primary focus is wheelchair access. However, the Birmingham Hippodrome is continually making improvements in order to be more inclusive and cater for all disabilities.
We all know how difficult it can be to book tickets for shows and concerts when you have a disability. But I can honestly say, I’ve never had a problem booking wheelchair-accessible seating at the Birmingham Hippodrome. I’ve never had to dial the booking line the minute tickets go on sale, which is often the case for other venues, and there’s even a choice of where to sit!
The Arcadian is a manned carpark situated just around the corner from the Hippodrome. It offers sufficient disabled bays and cost £7:50 for the duration of our stay (around 4 hours). This is Birmingham – parking aint cheap!
Wheelchair Access ☆☆☆☆
The Birmingham Hippodrome, refurbished in 2000, is easily accessed via the main entrance. There are multiple double doors as well as an automatic door, with security staff always on hand to assist if required.
There is then a wide, gradual ramp to the right of the central stairway. This leads to two large glass lifts/elevators. Again, there’s always multiple members of friendly staff available to assist with doors, directions and the operating of the lifts.
We sat on one of two raised platform areas at the back of the Stalls (lower level), known as the Lounge. Despite being at the very back of the audience, we had a great view of the stage, and since we were elevated, we didn’t have to head-dodge!
There was also plenty of leg room and space for multiple wheelchairs, so it was very comfy.
There are multiple accessible toilets, all of which are clean, spacious and impressively well-maintained. They even smell good! From my point-of-view, the only thing lacking in this department is the addition of a Changing Places facility, which would no doubt be a huge asset. For this reason alone, I had to deduct a star from my rating.
In 2018, the theatre made a conscious effort to be all-inclusive by installing gender neutral toilets.
“The theatre offers a programme of signed, audio described and captioned performances. Touch tours have been introduced, so blind and visually impaired can familiarise themselves with the props and scenery before attending a performance and assistance dogs can be accommodated with care being provided for the dog during each act.” ~ Birmingham Hippodrome website
Let me know if you can relate to any of the following scenarios…
Stranger: There’s only a few steps. Me: I can’t walk, hence the chair. Stranger: They’re only small steps. Me: Nope, still can’t walk I’m afraid. Stranger: Oh, not even with assistance? Me: Not even with assistance. Stranger: Not even a little bit? Me: Not even a little bit. Stranger: Not at all? Me: Not at all.
Awkward, deafening silence…
Stranger: There are steps but we can just lift you (in a powered wheelchair). Me: Thanks but this chair is really heavy. There’s no way you’ll lift it.
Stranger then attempts to lift me in my wheelchair, only to complain of the weight.
Stuck in a long queue of fit, young able-bods who look me up and down (in my wheelchair) but still choose to wait for the one and only lift/elevator rather than take the stairs, which would be much quicker!
A young driver in flashy sports car races into a blue badge bay and gets out without displaying a badge. Me: Excuse me, have you got a blue badge? Driver: No! Have YOU?! Me: YEP! (waving my blue badge at the driver while sat in my Motability WAV).
Being unable to access public disabled toilets because they’re being used for storage!
Entering a public disabled toilet after a mother and baby have just used it. It absolutely stinks and there are used nappies on the floor!
Guy: okay, can I be honest? Me: yes. Guy: let’s be real, you’re no one’s type. Are you! Me: erm, thanks!
Me: I can’t walk. I have something called muscular dystrophy. Guy: oh. Right. Okay… Me: yup… Guy: so is that something you could change if you work on your fitness? Me: no. Afraid not. Guy: not even if you try really hard and actually make an effort?
Me: I’m a wheelchair-user. Guy: oh right, what’s wrong with you? You self-propel, yeah? Me: no I can’t do that, and there’s nothing wrong with me. Guy: but I’ve seen some really fit girls in wheelchairs. They play basketball and all sorts! Me: yeah, that’s never gonna be me. Sorry.
Me: I’m a wheelchair-user. I can’t walk at all. Guy: oh, okay. What happened? Me: nothing happened. I have something called muscular dystrophy. Guy: I just Googled it. Wow that really is a disease isn’t it!! Me: fear not, it isn’t contagious.
Guy: oh, so you can’t walk at all? Me: yeah that’s right, I have muscular dystrophy so I can’t weight-bear. I use a powered wheelchair. Guy: okay…. Me: it’s fine if you want to ask questions. Guy: so…you don’t have sex then?? Me: why’s that? Guy: well, I’m guessing you can’t feel anything…you know.
Woman: aww, I’m sure you’ll find a nice guy in a wheelchair to date! Me: or just a nice guy!?
Social Worker Review
Assessor: are you able to make your own decisions? Me: yes. Assessor: always? Me: yes. Assessor: (with a sceptical expression) but…if you needed advice when making a decision, who would you ask? Me: myself!?
Stranger, whilst leaning over, “It’s good to see you getting out and about”
At a restaurant with a group of friends, all of whom are able-bodied. Waiter comes to our table, looks at me in my wheelchair, and starts rambling about a friend of his who lives near a Paralympian. None of us know quite how to respond.
At the pub with a friend who goes to the bar to get us drinks. When she returns, she says a guy at the bar who she knows told her he didn’t realise she’s now a carer. She had to stop and think for a moment and then replied, “I’m not her carer. I’m her friend! We’ve known each other almost 20 years!”
The guy looked absolutely dumbfounded.
Driving & Mobility
“Wow, you learned to drive? Is that safe? Did you have a special instructor and a special test?”
“Your wheelchair’s a bit battered. Looks like you could do with a new one! I suppose you just call and get a replacement through the NHS?”
“Do you have to have training and a test to drive that thing? [my powered wheelchair]”
“They [wheelchairs] cost HOW MUCH?! Why are they so expensive? Can’t you just save up?”
“Oh, you went to university? Good for you! It’s something for you to do, isn’t it. How did you manage though?”
To celebrate #InternationalWomensDay, here are some motivational words of wisdom from just a few of the many inspiring women throughout history. These women advocate equality, inclusion and disability awareness.
Above: Deaf-blind American author and political activist, Helen Keller (1880 – 1968).
Above: Rosa May Billinghurst (1875 – 1953), was a women’s rights activist known as the “cripple suffragette”. She suffered polio as a child and as a result was left unable to walk.
What #IWD means to me
Light is often shone on independant career women and high-profile personalities: celebrities, public speakers and so-called ‘world changers’. Of course, these women deserve our respect and applause. But I’d like to also draw attention to the every-woman.
The women we are not aware of. The women behind the scenes who just get on with life. The single mum’s. Those living with debilitating conditions who struggle to get out of bed each morning. Those caring for multiple family members, who don’t have the option to go on holiday or pursue a career. Women who are relied upon by disabled children and elderly relatives, and have no support or recognition.
Many suffer and struggle in silence. They simply get on with their lives without any fuss or complaint. These women deserve to be celebrated too! They play a vital role in society – one that takes endurance, tanacity, strength of character and sheer grit. It takes a special kind of person to achieve this.
So remember, you don’t need to change the world to deserve recognition. Being loved unconditionally, appreciated and making a difference to just one person is EVERYTHING.
The 21 year-old who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2, moved from the Ukraine to England at the age of 6. She currently lives in Bradford, Yorkshire with her Mum and younger sister.
Kat was good enough to talk with me about life with a disability, her experience as a physically disabled model, her growing YouTube channel and the issues she campaigns for.
Spinal Muscular Atrophy
1. Kat, please tell us about your disability and how it affects you.
I was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy type 2 when I was only a year old. This is a genetically inherited, progressive muscle-wasting condition.
I was told that essentially my spinal cord doesn’t communicate with my muscles properly. This means that over time my muscles slowly lose any strength they once had.
SMA2 affects all my muscles. This limits my mobility and my breathing. I’ve never had the ability to walk but I used to be able to crawl until around the age of 10. I’m now non-ambulant and a full-time wheelchair user.
When I was younger, I was often in and out of hospital because I struggled to fight off infections. A common cold would often develop into something much more serious. As a result, I was unable to attend school and was home-tutored instead.
I guess I’ve had quite an unconventional, drama-filled life, but I don’t know any different. This is my normal.
Life as a disabled Model
2. How did you become a model and what does this mean to you, as a young disabled woman?
I’ve always enjoyed being creative and experimental with my style. Not only did Instagram provide a platform for that creative outlet, it also encouraged me to express my style and share my life and experiences with people who are leading similar lives.
When I was younger, I had never seen anyone with a disability in the fashion world, and so I never imagined that someone like myself, with a physical disability, could be a model.
One day, Instagram suggested that I follow Zebedee Management. After scrolling through to find out more about them, I quickly fell in love with what they’re all about and instantly knew I wanted to be a part of their family.
I applied after attending a fashion show hosted by Zebedee Management, and was then invited to attend a shoot. I never imagined myself as a model but being accepted by Zebedee has given me a massive confident boost!
Joining Zebedee as a disabled model has made me proud to be able to represent young disabled women, like myself, in the media. This opportunity has enabled me to empower and act as a role model for the younger generation.
I feel privileged to have worked on three wonderful campaigns, all of which are very special to me.
I’ve made it my mission to embrace and love my body after years of self-loathing. It was therefore a really special experience for me, especially to have found the confidence to bare all on camera and share my scoliosis story.
I was fortunate to be chosen as one of their ambassadors, and to work alongside seven very talented people. The four LGBTQ+ campaigners, including myself, were partnered with four incredible artists who painted our portraits. The portraits were then displayed throughout the UK during the Birmingham, London and Brighton Pride weekends.
Our portraits went on to be sold at auction and all proceeds went to LGBTQ+ charities.
Visibility, diversity and inclusion is so important, and I’m so proud to be able to share my perspective and represent those with disabilities in the LGBTQ+ community. Unfortunately I do believe that we are underrepresented and I’d love to improve this by talking about my sexuality more.
It is only two years since I came out, so I’m still learning about myself and the community. I’m very fortunate that my Mum accepts me and my sexuality, although my family back home in the Ukraine are not yet aware.
3. Kat, could you please tell us about your Youtube channel?
I started vlogging because I wanted to share the highs and lows of my life, as a young disabled woman living with SMA2. Not only that; I also wanted to raise awareness of the fact that my life is actually pretty ordinary for a 21 year-old woman, despite being a full-time wheelchair user. I live at home with my Mum, younger sister and our dog named Khloe Kardashian. I love to go out shopping, clubbing, meeting friends and traveling.
I was inspired to start my own Youtube channel after I became obsessed with other vloggers whilst in hospital. Back in 2012, I was subscribed to many of the famous ‘Brit crew’ content creators, such as Zoe Sugg and Louise Pentland. I found myself watching their YouTube channels for hours and I always knew it was something I wanted to pursue.
I’m proud to be a disabled creator and put the platform to good use by sharing my experiences. I hope my contribution offers a realisitic and informative insight into what life is like with a disability, and that society learns to understand us (disabled people) better.
I love the YouTube community and feel like it’s a second family. I can definitely see myself working in the media in the future.
I also love that YouTube allows viewer anonymity. Anyone can observe my vidoes without needing to engage with me directly, thereby eliminating any potential awkwardness.
Some people are curious to ask disability-related questions but are often too shy or afraid to do so. They might be scared of saying something that may come across as inappropriate, or they may not know how to address topics appropriately.
I’m open to discussing most topics, however taboo they might seem. For me, it’s about trying to encourage people to interact and engage with me and my videos, as I love to educate, inform, raise awareness and simply chat with curious folk!
4. You describe yourself as a disability activist. What are the issues that are most important to you?
I grew up feeling super self-conscious about my disability, to the extent I would actually try to ignore it in the hope that one day everything would be ‘normal’. But when you think about it, what is ‘normal’, anyway?
I believe that we should embrace our differences, encourage acceptance and celebrate diversity in all its forms!
I think that society in general still interacts with us (disabled people) in a very condescending and neglectful manner. People are either sweeping us under the rug, or using us as tokens of diversity and not really accepting or understanding our lifestyles. It’s 2018 and frankly, it’s tiring!
I’ve been involved with a number of opportunities, such as speaking on ITV national News about my short film, which I released last year with the help of Fixers UK. I also attended an event in London with FixersUK, where I spoke to sponsors about my film and promoting disability awareness.
I have also presented talks, and held workshops with students and tutors in schools and colleges. As well as participating in panels at the WoW festival, I recently took part in a discussion for BBC 5 Live about how disability can be better represented in the fashion and beauty industry.
I’d like to thank Kat Pemberton for taking the time to answer my questions.
Following on from Paralympian Jonnie Peacock’s influential appearance on last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, the latest line-up includes Para-triathlete Lauren Steadman and acid attack victim Katie Piper. The former has no lower right arm, and the latter suffered significant facial disfigurement following a violent attack when she was only 24 years of age.
The inclusion of these two young women on such a high-profile BBC One talent show, with viewing figures in excess of 11 million, will no doubt play a big part in the promotion of positive views on disability and diversity, as well as encouraging body confidence.
Katie Piper – Acid attack victim and charity founder
35 year-old TV presenter, author, philanthropist and charity campaigner Katie Piper was left permanently scarred after a vicious acid attack in 2008. The former aspiring model has subsequently undergone over 60 necessary surgical procedures.
The industrial strength sulphuric acid that was thrown in Katie’s face has caused extreme damage and left her with sight, swallowing and breathing issues, requiring ongoing, invasive treatment.
The perpetrator was instructed to carry out the callous attack by an abusive former boyfriend whom Katie had met online.
Over the past decade, Katie has found admirable strength and persevered through the most trying of times. She bravely shared her story in two autobiographies and the 2010 BAFTA winning documentary, ‘Katie: My Beautiful Face’.
Katie has written four more self-help books, fronted several televised shows relating to body disfigurement, and most notably established The Katie Piper Foundation, to support fellow victims of acid attacks. She is also now happily married and has two young daughters.
Katie & Strictly Come Dancing
Prior to being paired with professional Strictly dance partner Gorka Marquez, Katie said, “there was a time not long ago that I wondered if I’d ever be glamorous again and now I know that is going to happen!”.
Katie Piper is all about embracing body confidence and celebrating diversity, whilst raising awareness of the consequences of acid attacks, which is a crime that is sadly on the increase. Her appearance on this hugely popular primetime BBC show will enable her to reach a wider audience and spread that message.
Piper is acknowledged to be the most anxious of this year’s celebrity contestants. Having really struggled to overcome the nerves during her first performance of a Waltz to Adele’s ‘when we were young’, Katie scored 17/40. Her confidence was knocked by negative feedback from the judges, particularly Craig Revel-Horwood who did not hold back.
Katie has since revealed, “it’s funny because like in the first week it did really affect me and it was silly because whenever I would wake up on Sunday at home it was like your 35-years-old and it’s an entertainment show, calm down.”
Katie and Gorka received their lowest score when they returned the following week with a Paso Doble. The choreography was intended to reflect the motto of the song to which they danced; ‘confident’ by Demi Lovato. However, Katie was visibly close to tears upon hearing the judges comments. While Darcy attempted to focus on the positive attitude with which Katie possessed, the others described her as “Stompy”, “plank-ish” and in need of improvement.
Nevertheless, the couple were supported by the viewing public and voted through to week three, and thankfully so, since their Foxtrot earned them 22 points – their highest score.
Katie says, “by week four I was in the groove, laughing and enjoying it and it was okay. You go in the green room afterwards and the [judges] are just normal, nice people.”
Sadly a Jive was to be Katie’s last dance on Strictly. Though disappointed to leave the competition relatively early, Piper admits though she overcame her nerves, insecurities and improved whilst on the show, she is not a natural dancer, and wouldn’t have wanted to be patronised or pitied.
Lauren Steadman – Paralympian
26 year-old Paralympian Lauren Steadman, originally from Peterborough, was born without a lower right arm. However, this has never prevented the determined sporting star from pursuing her dreams.
This Elite Para-triathlete is already a Double World Champion, Paralympic silver medallist (Rio 2016 – Women’s PT4) and six times European Champion.
Encouraged by her uncle who was himself a triathlete, she began competing in her local swimming team from age 11, representing Team GB. Two years later, Steadman took part in her first international competition in Denmark, as well as the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. Intent on pushing the boundaries of possibility even further, she switched sports, from swimming to the triathlon, after the London Paralympic Games in 2012.
Alongside her demanding athletics career, Lauren has pursued academics and achieved a first-class Psychology degree in 2014, followed by a Master’s in Business and Management.
Lauren recalls, “In one year I had taken all three titles – British, European and World Champion – for the first time, and graduated from university with first class honours. It really couldn’t get much better than that!”.
Lauren & Strictly Come Dancing
Lauren signed up to appear on the latest series of Strictly Come Dancing as she wanted to set herself a new challenge, learn another skill and test her “own levels of uncomfortableness”. When asked what she was most excited about she replied, “pushing myself and any boundaries I may encounter with having one arm. I like to succeed even if the odds are against me”.
With no experience whatsoever, Steadman claims her friends and family would describe her amateur dancing style as that of a baby elephant!
The glitz and glamour of Strictly is indeed a stark contrast to her sporting life. Not only that, dance itself is a very different discipline to what she is used to as an athlete. Dancing requires fluidity, expression, emotion and creativity, rather than the rigidity and stern focus necessary for triathlon events.
Despite all the odds, Lauren and partner AJ Pritchard stepped out with an impressive Waltz in the opening week of the show, scoring 25/40 from the four judges. The couple dropped 3 points with their second dance; a Charleston, and were awarded 20/40 for their slightly awkward Cha Cha Cha in week three. However, they returned on top form the following Saturday with an elegant Quickstep, earning them 25 points.
Their latest performance marks a first in Strictly history – a Contemporary dance, newly categorized as the ‘couple’s choice’. It was a highly personal interpretation with choreography designed to represent Lauren’s personal journey, her defiance and disability. The emotional dance was awarded with a standing ovation from the studio audience and 24 points from the judges.
Lauren has chosen not to wear a prosthesis during her time on Strictly. Preferring that her disability remain visible, she is keen to break down barriers, challenge convention and encourage other disabled people by demonstrating how dance can be adapted to suit different bodies and abilities.
For Lauren, the rollercoaster Strictly journey continues…
I am 30 years old, and I have the progressive condition, Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy. As a result, I am completely non-ambulant. I use a powered wheelchair and am unable to transfer without the use of a hoist and support from carers.
Imagine being denied the basic human need to go to the loo; being unable to access a toilet whenever you need to. Imagine having to hold in the urge all day, every day. Having no choice but to strictly limit your fluid intake to the point where you cannot risk drinking from morning until evening. Living with dehydration, impaired mental function and recurrent infections, simply because adequate toileting facilities are not made available to you.
This was my life until 2011, when I underwent medically unnecessary surgery to insert a suprapubic catheter. Of course, I didn’t want an operation, a General Anaesthetic (in itself a huge risk due to my poor lung function) or an indwelling catheter. By no means is this an easy fix, believe me! But I just couldn’t do it anymore; I was making myself ill and relied on assistance from others in order to carry out the seemingly simple task of toileting. No longer could I inflict undue stress on my body and mind.
So, I resigned myself to the only option available to me at that time; a suprapubic catheter. With this, I no longer need to transfer from my wheelchair or depend on other people. I don’t have to struggle and suffer the indignity of using small, dirty and ill-equipped public disabled toilets. But, 250,000 disabled people in the UK still do.
Often, there is not enough room to fit a wheelchair in a disabled toilet, let alone space to transfer, adjust clothing and accommodate a carer too. Baby changing facilities get in the way, grab rails are too few and carelessly installed, the toilets themselves are too low, and hoists…what hoists?!
The majority of disabled toilets I have used throughout my life have been vastly inadequate, filthy, often neglected or used for storage!
I think it’s important that there are Changing Places facilities everywhere, including smaller towns, villages and rurally as there are many disabled people (like me) resident in these locations too.
The lack of such essential facilities locally makes me feel restricted, excluded from society and considered less important.
The 19th July 2017 marked the second Changing Places Awareness Day and eleven years since the campaign began.
Each registered Changes Places toilet includes:
1. – a height adjustable adult-sized changing bench
2. – a tracking hoist system, or mobile hoist where not possible
3. – adequate space for the disabled person and up to two carers
4. – a centrally placed toilet with room either side
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 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.
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.
While some progress is being made to accommodate disabled employees, there is still much more that could be done to help us to feel comfortable, confident and able to perform most effectively, at work.
This post highlights three crucial changes that need to take place to promote inclusivity within the workplace.
1. Better help for those with hidden disabilities:
It is evident that wheelchair-users, like myself, need physical modifications such as accessible desks, ramps at entrances and exits, and lifts. But, due to a lack of information and awareness, those with hidden disabilities are still being denied access to the minor adaptations required to enable their working day.
For example, some people with debilitating anxiety conditions can find it incredibly difficult to work in an open-plan environment. Providing a private space or even desk screening can resolve this issue, thereby enabling optimum productivity. However, some businesses would rather maintain their open plan aesthetic than implement these simple adaptations in order to assist disabled employees.
2. Inclusive bonding activity and rewards:
There is currently a lot of focus on workforce team bonding activities, since this has been found to be a successful method of encouraging inclusion. However, many of these activities are physically demanding ie. assault courses and river rafting – totally unsuitable for wheelchair-users and those with physical disabilities.
Of course, there are many more inclusive bonding activities, accessible to everyone regardless of ability. For instance, hosting a Weekly Quiz would unite team members whilst also providing a stimulating, competetive challenge. Then there are shared, adrenaline-fuelled experiences like skydiving, indoor skydiving and sailing. All of these sports cater for people with a diverse range of disabilities.
Believe it or not, bonding activities can be tailored to the needs of the individual, and made more inclusive through various adaptations.
So-called ‘escape rooms’ are increasing in popularity. Players are locked in and must work together as a team, solving puzzles and riddles in order to escape before their allotted time is up! These ‘escape rooms’ are fun, exciting and can be easily adapted for those with disabilities.
If you are feeling particularly creative, you can following the guidance here and devise your own unique, inclusive bonding experience. This way, you can ensure it will be perfect for all involved.
3. The opportunity to prove ourselves, just like everyone else:
Though it should really go without saying; as disabled people, we want the opportunity to prove ourselves, just like everyone else.
We don’t want token gestures from employers. Disabled people are skilled, talented, capable and willing to work hard. We can offer a unique perspective and want to prove our value as employees. We want to be there because we have a genuine contribution to make, and we want to be taken seriously in what we say and do professionally.
The important issue of workplace inclusion is something that requires immediate attention. Both employers and employees need clear access to information and education. Knowledge will promote confidence, which is essential for disabled people to access employment and for career progression.
My good friend Lucy recently graduated from Canterbury Christ Church University with a First class honours degree. Like me, 24 year-old Lucy who lives with her family in Kent, has a progressive form of muscular dystrophy.
Now that she’s free from study, I thought I’d grab her for a chat and ask a few questions about her university experience from the perspective of being a physically disabled student.
Perhaps the insight, information and advice offered here might be helpful to anyone out there with a disability who is applying to university or considering higher education.
1. Hi Lucy, can you please describe your disability and how it affects you.
Hey! So, I have Congenital Muscular Dystrophy – Merosin Deficient, meaning I lack the merosin needed to knit the layers of my muscles together. Because of this, I get progressively weaker over time due to my muscles being unable to properly repair themselves.
This weakness means I can’t really do anything for myself without support from other people. It also makes daily habits difficult as I lack the strength to hold things and do things. A few examples might be that I find it difficult to feed myself as I find certain cutlery too heavy to lift, I can no longer read books unless they’re digital as I cannot hold them or turn pages, and I need regular hoisting for transfers and the bathroom.
Being a muscle defect, my organs and my lungs in particular are affected, meaning I have regular medication and ventilator intervention to aid my breathing. Lying down helps with this, as well as only being able to write/type lying down, which means I lie down most of the time.
2. Did your disability put off going to university? And what, if any, concerns did you have prior to applying for university?
I knew it would be difficult to apply to university but I wouldn’t say my disability ever “put me off” of applying. I’ve been very lucky with my education in that my parents have always pushed for inclusion and for me to receive education befitting my abilities. I went to a mainstream primary school, a grammar school for my secondary education, and college after that. So applying for university, whilst scary, was the logical next step for me.
That’s not to say I didn’t have any concerns regarding how I would be able to access higher education with my disability. One of my main worries was that Uni is a very different environment from school in that the campus is a lot bigger! Having hoists and a portable bed so I can lie down is all well and good when it’s accessible but, what if I was timetabled for lectures in a different building to my equipment? It wouldn’t be possible to transfer every 5 minutes, so it took a while to negotiate a timetable solely in one place – it was tough but doable.
3. Could you please explain the application process and any challenges you faced?
After applying and being accepted, I began having regular meetings with the disability officer who would be supporting me during my time at Uni. The disability department at my university in particular was split into different fields: physical disabilities, learning disabilities, and mental health.
We discussed suitable timetabling, storage for my hoists and bed, even suitable places for my carers to chill out whilst I was in lectures. It was all sorted over the summer months before term was due to start.
I chose to live at home with my family throughout the duration of my course (2015-18) rather than on campus, so that was one less thing to organise.
4. What support did you receive and was it difficult to get this support in place?
I have my own team of personal carers, provided by an agency, who supported me whilst a student. In my case, this wasn’t something the university or disability officer organised or supported with.
The DSA I used mainly to pay for transport. I paid for a wheelchair-accessible taxi to take me to Uni or the library each day. The finance was also used to supply me with a MacBook and accompanying software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking and Claroread, as well as a printer and allowances for things like ink cartridges and paper.
I personally found the process of co-ordinating with my disability officer really straightforward at the beginning. She really listened to what my needs were and to the best of her abilities made sure everything was in place before I started my course. However, it was once I had enrolled that her involvement became less proactive. I think a major learning experience for me would be that I should have been more proactive myself in maintaining regular contact with her.
There are undoubtedly going to be a number of disabled students on the system at whichever university you attend. Therefore, I would say if you feel you need help or advice, don’t hesitate to ask! Because, when I did ask, she generally followed through. I only wish I’d asked for her help a lot more than I did.
5. How would you rate your university experience from a disability/inclusivity perspective?
Looking back on my experience as a disabled student, I’d rate my experience quite highly to be honest. There were certain things I found more difficult but generally I was included really well. I was able to lie down in lectures and participate fully, timetabling was set so I remained in one classroom for the entire day (something which my peers were VERY appreciative of, and made it known to me regularly). My equipment both on campus and at the library was easily accessible and staff were very helpful in its safe storage. All members of staff – from lecturers to security and housekeeping were continuously supportive and understanding of my needs.
6. In your opinion, what improvements need to be made to make higher education more accessible to disabled people?
As previously mentioned, I’ve been lucky in having the family support and confidence to access university, but I know how difficult it can be to have that confidence. I think one of the main reasons for this is because the process isn’t made clear or obvious. I mean, I had to work out my own process moving forward after my application. Whilst every process for establishing individual needs at Uni is going to be different, I think it’s important that the availability of such a step is highlighted.
I think UCAS and all university websites should, as a minimum, have a clear disability section outlining key contacts of enquiry. It’s far easier to make confident decisions if you’re fully informed and know that there’s going to be the support you need behind you.
I won’t rose tint – accessing higher education as a disabled student can be like having to find your own way in the dark! By no means is it a clear, easy-to-follow process.
7. What advice would you offer other disabled people considering university?
Having now completed university, I guess I’d advise others to try their best not to get anxious about the process. Yes, it’s daunting. Yes, it’s tough. But ultimately it is worth it.
As long as you’re clear and assertive about your needs, there will always be people around to support you. If you need support with campus or timetabling issues, ask the Uni. If you need help in class, ask your lecturers. If you need a pen, ask one of your peers! It all sounds really obvious and stupid but I can’t stress enough how important it is to just ask for help. But most importantly, be confident in yourself and just be yourself!
8. As a physically disabled individual, what do you consider to be the potential challenges around the social aspect of university life?
I think the social aspects of life in any context can be difficult for disabled people but at Uni it can be especially hard for some. I think one of the most important things to remember is that, actually, it’s not just you and it’s definitely not just disabled people that have this issue.
Many students relocate for university, sometimes half way across the country, sometimes half way across the world. So you’re all going to be in the same boat in that respect.
However, I’m not dismissing the fact that disabled people have it tougher than most. I think the most important thing is, once again, confidence. Many people lack the confidence to introduce themselves to disabled people for a multitude of different reasons – they don’t know what to say, they don’t know if you can respond, they don’t know if you want to be spoken to. All of these things can seriously put people off because they don’t want to embarrass themselves, or you for that matter, so it’s up to us to have the confidence that they lack.
Introduce yourself to people at Freshers’ Fayre, be an active member of your class and, if possible, join a society or two. Be the best version of yourself and people will be drawn to you.
*All images courtesy of Lucy Hudson.
I’d like to thank the lovely Lucy for putting up with my interrogation!
She is in fact a brilliant poet, having co-authored the poetry anthology ‘Wheels of Motion’ which can be purchased here!
Award-winning ITV Soap Emmerdale recently cast a disabled actor in a pivotal role, placing him at the forefront of a major, developing storyline. Newcomer, 25 year-old James Moore from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire has cerebral palsy. His debut as Ryan Stocks, the long-lost son of Charity Dingle, has been met with universal praise and applause.
The scene-stealer instantly endeared viewers with glimpses of a multi-dimensional character and an attitude to match his onscreen mother’s. Some even say there is a convincing physical resemblance between the two.
Engaging opening scenes indicate that Ryan is set to be a strong presence; witty, outspoken and unfiltered. Furthermore, his connection with the prominent Dingle family suggests that he is not destined to become a background, token disabled character. On the contrary, Ryan Stocks will be a regular and crucial feature in future episodes.
Like many avid Emmerdale viewers, I was anxious to see who would be revealed as Charity Dingle’s son. To see a disabled actor playing the role is unexpected but as a disabled person myself, I am more than pleasantly surprised.
The casting of disabled actor James Moore is an exciting, encouraging and essential step forward in the inclusion and representation of disability within the media.
1. Hi James, could you please tell Disability Horizons readers about yourself?
So firstly, I have cerebral palsy, but it’s Ataxic CP which basically means that I struggle with movement and coordination. I struggle to walk long distances and there are certain things I know I can’t do, but I’ve adapted to these challenges in my day to day life.
I got into acting because even from a young age, I’ve always been interested in film and the theatre. I struggled with this for a long time because I didn’t know whether I would be able to make a career and earn a living from acting, considering that when I was growing up, there wasn’t many disabled people being represented on film or television.
2. As an actor with a disability, how does this lack of representation make you feel?
I think, in terms of the here and now, societies attitude to non-disabled actors playing disabled characters is too lenient. I mean, we wouldn’t let the blackface caricature continue to happen – this is deemed unacceptable. So why let able-bodied people take the roles of disabled characters?
In order to ‘normalise’ disability on screen, we first have to find disabled actors and give them opportunities rather than taking roles and opportunities away from them. I think that is the biggest and most important step.
This is why I love being a part of Emmerdale – they are showing disability in a new light and letting viewers know that we (disabled people) can be independent and have full, healthy lives. Together we’re proving that disability isn’t a defining factor.
3. What, if any, challenges have you faced in your career due to your disability?
I have faced some challenges but it comes with the territory. At the end of the day, I would most likely have to play a disabled character and they are not easy to come by.
I guess my challenges a lot of the time stem from self doubt, as well as lack of opportunity. There aren’t really a lot of roles for disabled people and so it can sometimes be hard to foresee a lengthy career in the industry.
4. How did the role at Emmerdale come about? Was it always intended that a disabled actor would play the role?
After I got my agent the role came up almost straight away and I really put my all into it. It was always intended for a disabled actor, but not specifically my disability (cerebral palsy). It was incredible how they wrote that in later and they asked me in great depth about my disability and my experiences with it.
5. Your opening scenes with Emma Atkins, who plays Charity, were incredibly impactful. What feedback have you received so far?
The feedback I’ve had so far has been amazing – everyone is so nice! My Twitter is blowing up and all of the feedback I received has been overwhelmingly positive. In that sense I’ve been really lucky.
Some people who have seen me on TV have asked for my advice. To them and any other aspiring disabled actors out there, I would say don’t give up! Take every opportunity you can; do street plays, student films and whatever else it takes. Also take the time to find the right agent – one who you think will be an asset to your career.
6. What does the future hold for your character, Ryan Stocks?
I can’t go into great detail on the future of Ryan, but there’s great humour, unlikely friendships, and gripping drama yet to come. The script is fantastic and so well written and I’m so glad that I can provide an adequate voice for this brilliant character.