Since we’re all still stuck at home, twiddling our thumbs, I thought I’d suggest some reading material for you.
The six books I have chosen focus on the themes of disability, mentalhealth, positivethinking, overcomingadversity, trauma, and recovery.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing this former Olympic hopeful who beat the odds and transformed her life after suffering a horrific accident.
Janine Shepherd radiates energy, enthusiasm and an endearing wit. Her memoir is a must-read!
Some of you may know that Lucy is a good friend of mine. Like me, she is a non-ambulatory wheelchair-user with a form of muscular dystrophy.
‘Wheels of Motion’ is a poetry anthology unlike any other. If you live with a disability yourself, I highly recommend you check this out! (Available on Amazon).
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.
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.
1. What is your disability and how does it affect you?
Lauren West:I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I’ve never walked independently and got my first powered wheelchair at the age of two and a half.
Despite the severity of my SMA, I passed my driving test, went to university three hours from home, and moved to London to start my working life. I now still live in London with my partner and with support from live-in PAs who do all my personal care and domestic tasks.
Michaela Hollywood: I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I commonly say that I can do pretty much nothing without assistance except speak! Although, I have recently learned to drive using hand controls.
Possibly the biggest impact of my SMA is my breathing and the impact of chest infections, which can make me sick quite often. I’m also deaf, and have pancreatic insufficiency which affects my ability to digest food, and that can cause a lot of pain and fatigue. My motto is; I can drive a van, and boil a kettle but I can’t make a cup of tea!
Emma Vogelmann: I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I’m a full-time electric wheelchair-user and since contracting Swine flu in 2009, I also use a portable ventilator via a tracheotomy.
2. How and why did you become involved with MDUK Trailblazers, and what is your role?
Lauren West: I became involved at the very start of Trailblazers, after I left the Whizz-kidz Kids Board. I felt I had a campaigning void in my life after leaving the board, so I was really excited when I heard about Trailblazers. For a long time, I was the only Welsh Trailblazer and so I formed a great bond with the original team, Bobby and Tanvi.
I stayed involved throughout university through participating in work experience and attending events like APPGs. I was delighted after a few years in different jobs to be offered the role as Campaigns Officer, as I’d always wanted to work for Trailblazers. It was then super exciting to take up the role of Trailblazers Manager at the beginning of 2016.
Michaela Hollywood: I was involved with Trailblazers from the very beginning, before it even started!
I was at a MDUK Family Weekend when I was 16, and, because of my disability and access requirements, I couldn’t book tickets to see the band McFLY perform in my local arena. Consequently, I spoke to the then Chief Executive of the charity Phil Butcher, and said we need a “young people’s forum”. My idea at the time was that those of us with a muscle wasting condition have powerful voices that weren’t being heard, and too many non-disabled adults were making decisions that affected our lives without even thinking of consulting us. And out of that Trailblazers was born!
I volunteered for the first number of years, and directed the organisation from Northern Ireland for a year before it became official. I went to university and did my undergraduate degree in Public Relations, followed by a Masters in PR and Communications, specialising in political lobbying. I then joined the team from home in Northern Ireland a little over 3 years ago.
Emma Vogelmann: I was invited by MDUK to a Parliamentary roundtable meeting about disability employment. I really liked that a prominent charity was directly engaging with young disabled people and their lived experiences. After that, I asked if there were any opportunities to get involved with the organisation which led to a 4 month internship with the Campaigns team. I absolutely loved it, so when the role of Employability Officer was advertised I knew I had to apply. The rest, as they say, is history!
3. How do you feel about being an influential career woman with a disability? Has your disability made you more determined to pursue your career goals?
Lauren West: I don’t think I would describe myself as an influential career woman but if I am seen that way, then that’s a real honour.
I think my disability has made me much more determined in all parts of my life, not just my career. I have always been quite driven and even when I wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to follow, I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference.
But I genuinely think there’s been one driving force behind my ambition and that was a social worker who was sorting out my university care package. She made an off-the-cuff comment about how when I was done having fun at university, I’d come home and she’d help set me up on benefits in a little flat. Whilst this is needed for some, this is not how I wanted my life to go, but I knew I’d face similar beliefs and attitudes throughout my whole life. So I was determined to fight against that societal expectation.
Michaela Hollywood: For me, I think it made my education very important. And it’s made me steely and determined. It’s a good advantage to be able to use my voice as communication is so important when your impairment is so physical. I’m proud to be in the position I am, and try to keep my focus on what I can do for others.
Emma Vogelmann: I never really thought of myself as an influential career woman in all honesty. I suppose you just crack on with your day-to-day work, so you never stop to think about it.
Now I am starting to see the impact my work has on other people, such as my employment work. I’ve seen the people involved in my project access jobs, find a careers mentor and so many other meaningful changes. That’s incredibly rewarding for me.
My disability makes me more determined to do a lot of things, but definitely in my career. Someone in a meeting I ran summed it up perfectly, “disabled people feel the pressure to be exceptional just to be considered equal to their able-bodied co-workers”. While this is not the culture at MDUK, I do feel that internal pressure to prove myself constantly. I’ve learned first-hand and from others that it is unfortunately really hard to enter the working world as a disabled person, so once you’re there you feel like you need to show your employer why they made the right decision.
4. In relation to employment, what challenges have you faced due to your disability, and how have you overcome these obstacles?
Lauren West: Throughout school and university, getting a typical student job just wasn’t on the cards for me. For one thing, I just didn’t have the stamina to study and work. But also the usual student jobs just weren’t physically accessible to me. I was worried that this lack of work experience would put me at a severe disadvantage for getting a job once I’d graduated.
I was lucky that Trailblazers found me an internship at my local MP’s office, so I did one day a week there for three months in my final year of study. I also did work experience at MDUK which gave me a great taste of living and working in London.
I was incredibly fortunate to secure a job in London prior to graduating from my Master’s degree. However, when this job turned out to not be what I expected and complete with a very abusive boss, I had real trouble finding a new job. I mainly applied to charities and many claimed to be part of the ‘two ticks scheme’ which offered guaranteed interviews for disabled applicants.
However, it was rare I’d even get called for an interview and it took many unhappy months before I was offered a role as a mental health advocate. The same year, I started working for MDUK and I love being part of a charity that values diversity and inclusivity.
I think the only way I’ve overcome challenges within employment is just through stubbornness and determination. I really think there are organisations out there for everyone but it can just take a long time to find the right fit.
Michaela Hollywood: The biggest one is my health. Self-care is important to keep me ticking over. I’ve been really lucky to work for a group I wholeheartedly believe in, and where we see real help and progress happening. I try to make sure others are afforded the same opportunities I have been lucky to have.
Emma Vogelmann: I struggled to find an employer willing to give me a chance after university. Of course, this is true for most graduates. But I do feel that being a disabled graduate made it harder. I remember asking Lauren West for advice before I started working at MDUK about when, where and how to disclose my disability, because I didn’t want to be counted out too soon for jobs, but I also didn’t want to hide something I consider a strength. I decided to always disclose my disability, though this is a very personal choice that isn’t necessarily right for everyone. I work within a disability charity, so it is extremely relevant to say I’m disabled, but I know a lot of people who aren’t comfortable with this and that’s completely okay too.
As someone who was part of Trailblazers from the start, being able to bring those 10 years together through an incredible event in Parliament was just the best experience. Seeing over 100 people all in one room celebrating their successes of the past 10 years will be forever one of my best moments.
Michaela Hollywood: This is a tough one! My dad, Michael, likes to tell anyone and everyone he meets to “Google” me because he is so proud of what I’ve achieved.
Emma Vogelmann: What a tough question! I suppose it would be winning my case against a taxi driver who discriminated against me due to being a wheelchair-user. It happened on my second day of work at MDUK and it was a difficult experience to go through. But to have two courts agree that wheelchair-users cannot be overcharged was a great feeling. I really hope it will empower other wheelchair-users to not accept discriminatory treatment from taxi drivers.
Many thanks to the brilliant Emma, Lauren and Michaela for answering my questions.
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 us 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 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.
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.