Amberly Lago is another remarkable, kind and generous woman I was able to interview following the release of her memoir, ‘True Grit and Grace: Turning Tragedy into Triumph’.
Fitness fanatic, Amberly’s life was turned upside down following a debilitating motorcycle accident in 2010, leaving her with significant nerve damage and lifelong chronic pain.
She now devotes her life to helping others.
Acid attack victim, Katie Piper, is now a well-known media personality, activist, documentary maker, charity founder and mother.
She has achieved so much since her brutal assault in 2008, which left her partially blind and with full thickness burns. Katie has endured over 200 operations and invasive treatment to ensure her recovery. She really is a true inspiration!
I read Katie’s first book, ‘Beautiful’, around eight years ago. It’s a real eye opener! Yes, it is shocking and distressing, but also incredibly motivational. I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone.
I was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, affecting my body and physicality. I have a severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine) which, for various reasons, is not surgically corrected. This causes asymmetry and a shortened torso. Joint contractures mean I am unable to stretch out my arms or legs. Furthermore, the muscle wasting nature of my condition results in extremely thin limbs.
Now 31, I look very different from other women my age. My pixie-sized stature is emphasised by the scoliosis. In place of womanly curves, are unwanted and abnormally crooked humps and bumps. This visible contrast negatively impacts my sense of self and makes me feel odd, weird, and self-conscious.
I love fashion but fashion doesn’t love me
Over the years, I have desperately sought to hide my body with shapeless, baggy clothes. Anything resembling a potato sack is a winner. I live in leggings because jeans are a no-go and frankly, they are the next best thing to pyjamas!
Clothing manufacturers don’t cater for my body since it doesn’t meet standard criteria. Shopping is not an enjoyable experience. It is a frustrating and disappointing struggle to find anything at all to fit, let alone look flattering. Most of the clothes I buy have to be returned which makes me wonder why I bother at all – well, simply because I can’t roll about naked!
Accepting my unique body
Do I love, embrace and celebrate my unique body shape? Hell, no! BUT – I have slowly and gradually learnt to accept it. After all, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change it. So why stress myself out over something I cannot control.
Exercise isn’t an option for me. I can’t go to the gym and buff-up. And why should I resort to cosmetic surgery? Why put myself through pain, trauma and financial strain simply to conform to societies high and unrealistic standards of beauty? Okay, it might make me feel more confident to look a little more like the average woman. Then again, it might not…
Societal standards of body beautiful
Our perception of body image and beauty is arguably increasingly influenced by social media, particularly Instagram. Heavily airbrushed, edited and filtered selfies are everywhere to be seen. With a smartphone, we can all look like a celeb from a magazine spread!
But this is misleading, unrealistic and unattainable. I can’t relate to the pouty, posers of Instagram. Honestly, can anyone?!
Diverse bodies are sadly under-represented in the media. This is starting to improve but there is still a long way to go before the presence of disabled bodies on our screens becomes mainstream.
Purple Tuesdayis an International call to action with the aim of improving customer experience for disabled people. It is vital that we, disabled people, are able to access the same services as anyone else.
Purple Tuesday is a year-round initiative that has the power to change lives!
Working together to make businesses and organisations more accessible and inclusive is mutually beneficial.
Facts & Figures
20% of the UK population (around 12 million people) and 15% of the world’s population have some form of disability.
Disabled people make up the world’s largest minority group.
Last year over 750 organisations took part, making a collective 1,500 decisive, practical commitments towards positive change.
The Purple Pound – What is it?
The consumer spending power of disabled people and their families is worth £249 billion and is rising by an average of 14% per annum. Worldwide, the Purple Pound equates to a staggering £2.25 trillion, yet less than 10% of businesses have a targeted plan to access this disability market.
Added Expense of Disability
• Heating ~ disabled people often feel the cold much more than able-bodied people
• Electric ~ charging technology and equipment such as wheelchairs, non-invasive ventilators (BiPAP/CPAP)
• Extra laundry costs
Obstacles Disabled People Face when Shopping
• Lack of disabled toilets (Changing Places)
• No lifts/lifts broken
• Narrow doorways
• Non-automatic doors (meaning we have to wait for someone to open the door for us)
• Narrow aisles
• Unreachable shelves/items
• Cashpoint/checkout too high to reach
• Physical barriers e.g. ‘Wet Floor’ signs, clothes and other items on the floor
• Poor customer service
• Lack of clear, visible signs
• No audio description available
• Inappropriate lighting, music (too loud) – affects those with sensory disabilities such as Autism
• No staff available to assist disabled customers
He attended university, completed a placement year, works full-time, started his own business, and is now on the Great Britain Air Rifle Talent and Development Squad. Josh is able to drive a wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV) and has lived independently since leaving his parental home at 18.
1. University ~ Can you tell us about the process of putting a care package in place and living independently as a disabled student?
During my last year of college, I expressed an interest in going to university. After research with my social worker and factoring my needs and desires, we identified appropriate universities that fit my criteria. I then had to decide on a live-in carer or a care agency. I opted for the agency route in order to be as independent as possible.
Once accepted by the university, I sorted accommodation and started looking for care agencies. My social worker provided me with a list of care agencies registered with the CQC, but it was down to me to make arrangements. The first care agency turned out to be unpleasant! So, after 4 months, I switched to another agency who I remained with for the duration of my university experience.
2. How was your overall university experience?
My overall uni experience was, let’s say, fruitful! From falling asleep in my wheelchair in front of the mirror to having university staff put me to bed within the first week because I was so drunk. It was clear that I was going to make the most of my 3 years at uni!
I got involved with numerous societies and activities to keep myself active and included with the student culture. I had a fantastic time and never experienced any discrimination or abuse. The staff made me feel at ease, allowed me to be as independent as possible, and provided access to necessary resources.
I graduated with a first class honours in IT Management and Business and, 4 years after graduating, I was invited back to receive an Honorary Masters in Technology.
3. You carried out an internship with Hewlett Packard during your studies, and then worked as a cyber security manager. What, if any, challenges did you encounter in finding employment and how does your disability affect your working life?
The general employment process with assessment days, face-to-face interviews and telephones interviews were fairly seamless. Most employers are extremely accommodating if you give them notice and make them aware of your access needs.
I do remember one assessment day with a popular car manufacturer where the activities impacted my ability to take part due to my physical requirements. This may have affected their decision to not employ me, even though I was just as capable, if not more so, than the other candidates. But apart from that, I have not had any issues finding employment.
Obviously, my disability limits me physically. However, as I work in technology it does not affect my ability to do my job. Yes, working full-time is not easy for me, but it’s also important to remember it’s not easy for able-bodied people either.
I have always been the sort of person who just gets on with it. I also believe that with technology making everything more accessible for disabled people, in most cases, our disability should not affect our ability to work. If you have any employer with an inclusive work culture, who is willing to support, understand and give you flexibility within the work place, then for sure you can work!
4. You returned to university to speak to students about entrepreneurship, and inspire them to start their own businesses. How did this make you feel and why do you think it is so important to encourage other disabled people to pursue any entrepreneurial aspirations they may have?
This gave me a sense of achievement and fulfilment. I believe that sharing experiences, whether positive or negative, helps others to follow their own passions and aspirations.
There is a general consensus that employment for disabled people is difficult to find, and arguably this could be due to the lack of inclusive employers. This is what makes the entrepreneurial world an attractive proposition for disabled people – it is flexible, offers them ability to work around their needs, and also avoids the hardship of being in a culture that is not disability confident.
5. You ventured into self-employment and founded AbleMove. Why was this so important to you?
I have always wanted to start my own business. When I realised I could create a product to make travel more assessible for disabled people, it was a no-brainer decision for me.
When you’re working on something you’ve created and can see the life-changing benefits, there is a real feeling of fulfilment.
Winning the award gave me a sense of personal achievement and recognition. It gave me a fresh perspective on developing my own business and the benefits it can provide versus working for a large company.
The prize money and a business deal with easyGroup Ltd enabled me to give up my full-time job in order to pursue my own business. This allowed me greater flexibility regarding how I manage my disability.
7. Prior to winning the award, you had to move home and rent within the private sector. What challenges did this present?
The challenges with the private rent sector (PRS) are vast, especially given almost 85-90% of PRS homes are inaccessible for wheelchairs.
After applying for the Stelios Awards, I was told I had to move out of a good sized two bed apartment due to the landlords requiring their property back. Having lived there for 3 and a half years, it was time to start the dreaded challenge of finding a needle in a haystack.
It’s purely pot luck if you can find an accessible house to move into straight away that doesn’t need any adapations.
After fighting with the council and various estate agents, we eventually managed to find a property on rightmove. Now, when moving home I need to consider carers since I rely on them throughout the day. My main PA (personal assistant) was unable to continue working for me, and so I had to re-jig and was then only able to maintain one PA.
Finding an accessible property and then having to manage your care situation around it is extremely stressful, tiring and irritating. On top of this, I was working full-time, getting the business of the ground, doing weekly exercises and training for the Great Britain Shooting Talent and Development Squad.
8. Can you tell us about your invention, the easyTravelseat. What is it and how does it benefit disabled people?
My travelling experiences involve being manhandled from wheelchair to aisle chair and then manhandled again onto the aircraft, which is highly undignified and uncomfortable. I therefore sought to create something that would help me travel in a more comfortable and dignified manner.
The easyTravelseat is a sling/seat combination that is designed to work as an in-situ piece of equipment. It is placed in your wheelchair, and you then remain seated in the easyTravelseat until you reach your destination.
For instance, when flying, you would remain comfortably and securely seated within the easyTravelseat for your entire journey through the airport, onto and during your time on the aircraft and off again.
Once I created it, I realised the many benefits it offers disabled people. It allows users to travel in a more safe, dignified and comfortable way, on all modes of transport. Furthermore, it opens up leisure opportunities such as canoeing, kayaking, skiing and so on. The easyTravelseat enables users to be transferred quickly and easily without having to be manhandled. The user is comfortably seated with their own cushion, a gel pad or foam.
9. Where did the idea for the easyTravelseat stem from, and what did the development process involve?
The development process involved researching the types of equipment already available, and the demand for such a product. I conducted market research to determine whether wheelchair-users would find the product useful. Then we identified a concept and progressed to prototyping in order to test how the seat would work. We then moved on to the point of manufacturing the seat and getting the required medical marking and approvals in place. During this process we had been working initially with airports around the lifting side of the device, including our sling manufacturer and then an airline. We started production in February 2019.
10. Does the easyTravelseat cater for disabled people of all shapes and sizes?
The easyTravelseat will cater for the majority of disabled users with the exception of very young children, bariatric passengers or people with extreme contoured seating.
11. How does the easyTravelseat compare with similar products on the market, such as the ProMove sling or the NEPPT Transfer Evacuation Sling Seat?
The difference with the easyTravelseat is the specific design and application of use for aircraft, whilst ensuring passenger comfort. It allows users to be moved around the aircraft, including during an emergency, and to then disembark the aircraft in a much safer, dignified and comfortable manner. All other slings are designed to be removed and offer no protection or comfort when in-situ.
12. What other assistance do you think airlines could and should be offering to disabled passengers?
I think the most important area airlines should be focusing on in the immediate is the loading of wheelchairs, both electric and manual, to prevent damage. It also concerns me the people on the ground lifting these wheelchairs are at risk of causing serious damage to themselves. There is industry equipment to load wheelchairs onto an aircraft without having to manually lift a wheelchair. This would help the loaders and reduce the amount of damage to both the chairs and the airport staff. Also, a secure area in the hold may also be advantageous to prevent luggage damaging wheelchairs during turbulence.
I also think the UK should be pushing (as Canada has done successfully) the airlines to provide free tickets for a carer when flying with a disabled person. After all, the airlines make it a necessary requirement for WCHC passengers who cannot move without any support to fly with a personal assistant/carer.
Airlines should also be addressing the toileting situation inside the cabin too. It is currently impossible for the majority of disabled passengers to access the toilet whilst flying.
Regarding hidden disabilities, there are those who are much more calm when they are surrounded by objects which are all different colours.
Long term, all airlines should be looking to allow wheelchair-users to remain seated in their wheelchair, inside the cabin, during the flight.
13. What does the future hold for you and your business?
The future is bright for easyTravelseat! We are off to a steady start with interest across the globe. We believe in an accessible aviation world and are able to provide an immediate solution to help reduce some of the significant problems with maintaining safety, dignity and comfort when flying with a wheelchair.
We will now look to ensure easyTravelseat is easily accessible in as many countries across the globe as possible in the coming years.
Picking a university can be a daunting task at the best of times – you need to try to chose one that matches your desired subject with predicted grades, and be in a location that you’ll be happy to live for the next three to four years. But for those who require a wheelchair trying to make the right choice can be a much greater challenge. Let’s run through some of the things you need to consider, as wheel as some universities that really stand out as being the most wheelchair, power chair and mobility scooter friendly.
City or Campus?
There are two types of universities in the UK, city and campus universities. Many of the best rated unis in the UK are town based – Cambridge, Oxford, and Durham for example, are town based. This can be a challenge as accommodation, lecture rooms and tutorials may all be in different locations and require navigating old city streets. However, some of the older universities are totally self-contained, and you may hardly need to leave the confines of the college walls during your stay. So be sure to check exactly where you will be housed and where your lectures and tutorials will be if you apply to a city university.
Campus universities are generally more wheelchair friendly because everything is on one site and most buildings are modern and accessible, and there will often be shops and other amenities on site too. This can make your day-to-day activities much easier, but if most of the socialising takes place in a nearby town, you may feel isolated if there are not good transport links in place, although a good mobility scooter or powerchair may be the solution.
As mentioned, few students look at the accommodation before going to uni, but this is probably the most important consideration. Many newer city universities have accommodation in mid-rise buildings (4 to 11 storeys) which although are usually modernised with lifts, are not always the most suitable option for wheelchair users.
Ideally, you should be able to get a room or apartment that has full wheelchair access with accessible bathrooms and kitchens. Kitchens should have low sinks and worktops, and ideally, there should be a wet room that you can roll your wheelchair into.
Disability Support Service
Contact the Disability support service at the earliest opportunity to discuss your needs and the facilities on offer. Pay them a visit on the open day too and have questions ready to ask – make sure they are geared up to support you fully.
Attend Open Days
Before applying to any university you should attend an open day. At the open day be sure to ask about accommodation too (many people forget this part) and take time to visit the halls of residences or area with student houses. Ask to see lecture rooms and tutorial rooms to check wheelchair access yourself.
Look Beyond the Campus
It is important to look beyond the university grounds as with both city and campus universities you will need to have easy transport to and from them. Some newer universities are often located in parts of town far from national railway and bus stations which can make it very difficult if you need to leave and arrive by public transport.
The terrain is also important. Cities such as Edinburgh and Exeter may provide modern university facilities, but many of the roads are very steep and wheelchair users will struggle to navigate all streets. It might be sensible to look up the most wheelchair friendly towns in the UK and then see which ones have universities offers courses you’re interested in. If you do head to a hilly university town, you might need to buy a new wheelchair that is lightweight and more suitable for the terrain.
Which Is Best?
There really is no “best” university for wheelchair users – every university works hard to accommodate all students equally, but one that does stand out is Loughborough University.
Loughborough is rated as one of the best campus universities (named Times University of the Year 2019) in the UK thanks to its top class facilities, access to green spaces and a good community feel in the student village. Loughborough’s Disability Office says that they support a range of long-term conditions as well as wheelchair users.
For a city campus university, here’s an interesting account of study at Canterbury Christ Church University. As you can see, some universities are extremely accommodating and will provide an excellent learning environment no matter what your abilities.
Are you, or have you recently attended, university as a wheelchair user? Please share your experiences below.
This guest post is provided by CareCo who provide mobility advice and support through their website and UK network of showrooms.
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 us 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 thank the wonderful Janine Shepherd for speaking with me.
I was out shopping yesterday in my Quantum 600 powered wheelchair. While the many other shoppers bustled past without a second thought, one considerate old lady stopped to ask if I needed her help to reach anything.
As fellow wheelchair-users will know, shopping can be frustrating for various reasons. Not only are we grappling with the general public (the pushing, shoving and impatience), and trying to navigate narrow aisles without running over any toes; we are also bum height! 😣
Not only that – reaching anything above or below torso level is a challenge, particularly with elbow contractures and poor grip (as in my case).
With that in mind, those few kind words from one generous old lady truly made my day. It really is the little things in life – the small gestures – that make a big difference. If only everyone was so thoughtful!
I am aware that some disabled individuals may take offence at such an offer, presumably seeing it as a sign of pity – the implication being we (disabled people) cannot manage by ourselves. However, I personally cannot construe it as anything other than sincere concern and consideration for a fellow human being.
We all need help and support every once in a while, regardless of ability or circumstance. Even if you don’t require assistance from others, at least show some gratitude and have the courtesy to decline their offer politely.