Tricia Downing | Paraplegic, Sports Woman & Novelist

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

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

Tricia Downing

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

Visit Tricia: www.triciadowning.com


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chance of Rain

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

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

Interview | Amberly Lago

True Grit and Grace: Turning Tragedy intoTriumph

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

I count my blessings and practice gratitude.

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

I eat an anti-inflammatory diet.

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

I am still learning to meditate.

I breathe deep breaths.

I pray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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My Top 10 Disabled Celebs | The Girls

The Girls:

My latest article for Disability Horizons showcases my pick of the top 10 disabled FEMALE celebrities. Because, in the wise words of Beyonce, girls run the world!

*Last year, Disability Horizons compiled their top 10 disabled celeb’s, including both men and women. To avoid repetition, I have not included any of the women from that previous article.


There is a great deal of ongoing discussion and debate around the inclusion and representation of disabled people within the media. Put simply, there is not enough diversity. Still, in 2017, the vast majority of British ‘celebrities’ are able-bodied.

However, we are seeing the emergence of more and more disabled people on our television screens and in the public eye. But, how many can you name? When contemplating this very question, I realised that most of those who immediately came to mind were male – Stephen Hawking, Warwick Davies, Alex Brooker, Adam Hills, Ade Adepitan and Jonnie Peacock, to name a few.

So what about the ladies?…


Hannah Cockroft MBE

Hannah, who has cerebral palsy, suffered two cardiac arrests within 48 hours of birth, which affected two parts of her brain. She was left with balance, mobility and fine motor impairment.

But this has most certainly not held her back. She is a gold medal-winning Paralympic wheelchair racer and 10 times world champion. In 2012 she became the first Paralympian to break a world record in the London Olympic Stadium for the 100 metres T34.

In 2014 she won the Sport Relief edition of Strictly Come Dancing with professional dancer Pasha Kovalev. That same year she launched 17 Sports Management Limited, a company representing disabled athletes.

Hannah continued her reign of success at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio where she won three gold medals.

Katie Piper

The victim of a vicious acid attack in March 2008, Katie has endured more than 250 surgical procedures to date. She suffered full-thickness burns (where both layers of the skin are destroyed) and had to wear a face mask for 23 hours every day. She also swallowed some of the sulphuric acid, damaging her throat, and was blinded in her left eye.

In 2009, the former model shared her horrific ordeal in the Channel 4 documentary Katie: My Beautiful Face. She also established the Katie Piper Charitable Foundation, which supports those with severe burns and disfigurement injuries.

In addition, she is now a successful author, television presenter, magazine columnist and philanthropist. An inspiration to many, Katie married in 2015 and is currently expecting her second child.

Cerrie Burnell

Cerrie was born with no right forearm and is severely dyslexic. Since childhood, she has always refused to wear a prosthesis or hide her disability.

An all-round entertainer, Cerrie is an accomplished actress, singer, playwright, children’s author and TV presenter. Between 2002-2008, she appeared in Holby City, Eastenders, Grange Hill, The Bill and Comedy Lab. She then transitioned to presenting, working on The One Show, The Wright Stuff and CBeebies (Jan 2009 – April 2017).

But her first appearance on children’s television was met with controversy. Some claimed that the presence of someone with a physical disability like hers could scare young viewers. In response, Cerrie spoke candidly about her disability and how it’s important that children are exposed to differences, for which she was widely applauded.

She now regularly speaks out in favour of diversity and the inclusion of disabled people in the media. In fact, she recently took part in the Channel 4 documentary Diverse NationShe’s since reached an even wider audience by presenting all the swimming events for the Channel 4 and the 2012 Paralympics.

Named by The Observer as one of the top 10 children’s presenters of all time, Cerrie has also been declared, by The Guardian, as one of Britain’s 100 most inspirational women.

A supporter of many charities including body-confidence organisation Body Gossip, Cerrie now wants to focus on writing more children’s books and acting.

Francesca Martinez

Critically-acclaimed stand-up comedian Francesca Martinez first became prominent playing Rachel Burns in Grange Hill (1994-8). Since, she has starred in BBC shows Holby City, Doctors and Extras.

But it’s not her acting that she’s most well known for, it’s her comedy. With a self-deprecating sense of humour, Francesca, who has cerebral palsy, describes herself as “wobbly”. In 2000 she became the first female to win the prestigious Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award at the Edinburgh Festival. She was also named one of the 50 funniest acts in British comedy by The Observer.

Also a campaigner and activist, Francesca has organised many charity shows and is a patron of several charities, including Evenbreak, which helps pair disabled people with inclusive employers. She’s also an outspoken opponent of government welfare reform, in 2012 launching the campaign War on Welfare (WOW), which called for an end to disability benefit cuts. She later secured the first parliamentary debate for disabled people by disabled people.

In 2013 she won the Public Affairs Achiever of the Year Award and the following year was named one of Britain’s most influential women.

Her recent sell-out comedy tour was followed by a best-selling book, both titled WHAT THE **** IS NORMAL?! She is currently working on a feature documentary of the same name.

Cherylee Houston

Screen and theatre actress Cherylee was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome type III (EDS) at the age 23. She has appeared in Doctors, The Bill, Holby City, Emmerdale and Little Britain.

Her most recent role is that of Izzy in Coronation Street, which she has played since 2010, and is the soap’s first disabled character to be played by a disabled actor.

Aside from acting, Cherylee established the Manchester-based youth project TripleC, which aims to make drama accessible to all. She has spoken out about a number of political issues too, including the Conservative cuts to disability benefits and the representation of disability in the media. She also continues to raise awareness of EDS.

Anne Hegerty

Better known as The Governess in the award-winning ITV quiz show The ChaseAnne has a form of autism. In 2005, after watching a documentary about Asperger’s Syndrome and identifying with the symptoms, Anne told her doctors she believes she has the disability. It took two years for her to be officially diagnosed, during which time she lost her job as a proof-reader, due to her inability to multi-task.

Unable to pay her bills, Anne was confronted by bailiffs on New Year’s Day in 2008. She later sought advice and assistance and is to this day in receipt of Disability Living Allowance. Around the same time, her social worker encouraged her to audition for The Chase and even paid her travel costs to get there.

She is now a highly successful television personality and professional quizzer, have participated in Mastermind, Fifteen to One and Brain of Britain. Anne also talks candidly about her life with Asperger’s Syndrome and how it affects her.

Jess Thom

Jess, a comedian and public speaker, was diagnosed with the neurological condition Tourette Syndrome in her early twenties, and also uses a wheelchair. She’s most widely recognised for her memorable appearance on Russell Howard’s Good News in October 2015. The interview garnered much attention and has subsequently been viewed more than 600,000 times on Youtube – you can check it out in our article on 10 awesome disability-related videos.

In 2010 she co-founded Touretteshero, a blog that documents what it’s like living with Tourettes, featuring articles and videos. Its first production, Backstage in Biscuit Land (2014), met with critical acclaim. It has since toured nationally and internationally.

She has appeared on various television and radio programs including The Late Late Show, This Morning and Fry’s Planet Word. In 2013 she also delivered a TED talk about the misconceptions of Tourette’s and the creative potential of tics. While admitting her Tourette’s presents challenges and has been met with discrimination, she prefers to “celebrate [its] creativity and humour.”

Jess is an outspoken advocate and campaigner for disabled people’s rights. Her work often draws attention to the environmental and social barriers that prevent inclusion. An opponent of the medical model of disability, Jess insists her Tourette’s is a source of creativity, her wheelchair allows her freedom, and she is disabled not by her body but by the inaccessible environment.

Libby Clegg

Libby is a Scottish Paralympic champion sprinter, having won gold and broken records. She has a deteriorating condition Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, leaving her with only slight peripheral vision in her left eye. She is registered blind and is an ambassador for the Royal Blind Charity.

She has represented Great Britain in the T12 100m and 200m races at the 2008 Summer Paralympics, and the T11 100m and 200m in 2016 at the Paralympic Games in Rio. She is also the 2012 IPC European Champion and 2013 IPC World Champion.

As if she isn’t busy enough, Libby is also a course tutor and ambassador for Ability Training (ability-training.com), offering accredited disability specific awareness courses for sports coaches and fitness professionals.

Along with her beloved guide dog Hattie, she is helping to educate dog owners on the importance of nutrition and health. Libby raises awareness of the essential part guide dogs play in the lives of those with visual impairment.

She was recently honoured in the 2017 New Year’s honours service when she was appointed MBE for her contribution to sport.

Sarah Gordy

Award winner Sarah, who has Down’s Syndrome, is best known for her role as Lady Pamela Holland in the 2010 BBC TV series Upstairs Downstairs. She has also appeared in Holby City, Call the Midwife and Doctors, as well as various short films, radio dramas, commercials and many theatre productions.

She most recently portrayed Orlando Quine in the BBC series Strike: The Silkworm, based on the books by J.K. Rowling.

She is an ambassador for Mencap and patron of Circus Starr, a performance group that does shows for disabled children. When not acting, she volunteers at her local British Heart Foundation charity shop.

Genevieve Barr

Star of the latest Maltesers advert, Genevieve was born deaf. Having never learned sign language, she lip reads, and is, in fact, a professional lip-reader for different organisations.

She had a major role in the 2010 BBC drama The Silence, and the previous year played a deaf nurse in the Channel 4 comedy, The Amazing Dermot. Following her Bafta and International Emmy Award nominations for The Silence, she went on to act in the BBC3 drama series The Fades, and Shameless on Channel 4.

A freelance disability consultant and public speaker, Genevieve works with the charities Hear the WorldAction on Hearing Loss and AFASIC – a charity for children with speech, language and communication difficulties. She also runs courses and workshops for disabled actors.


What do you think of my choices? Who would be in your top 10?

Please leave a comment and share this blog post if you enjoyed it.

Jonnie Peacock and Strictly Come Dancing

Here is my latest article for Disability Horizons!


A move forward for disability representation within the media!

As a die-hard Strictly Come Dancing fan, and being disabled myself, admittedly I was pretty excited to hear that Paralympian Jonnie Peacock MBE would be competing in the 15th series.

In a landmark move forward for disability representation in the media, the 24 year-old sprinter is the first physically disabled contestant to appear on the main, primetime show.

Jonnie has taken on the ‘glitterball’ challenge in the hope that it will break down peoples’ views and “change some of the stigmas” around disability.

He added, “some people have preconceived notions of what people can and cannot do based on looking at them, but I think sometimes it’s just a case of not judging a book by its cover.”

Jonnie’s right leg was amputated below the knee after contracting meningitis, aged five. Clearly though, this has not held him back. He competed at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Paralympics, winning gold medals in both games, and breaking a record for the fastest 100m T44 time in the process.

Partnered with professional dancer and last year’s runner-up Oti Mabuse, he quipped that if voted through to week three, he will ‘glitter up’ his prosthetic leg.

Having made a smooth debut with a charming and technically adept waltz, Jonnie opted to dance with a brand new blade in week two. A decision that paid off!

An energetic jive to Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode caught the attention of the judges and public alike. Earning 29 points put him fourth on Saturday night’s leader-board. His combined score placed him sixth overall. It’s only after celebrities have danced twice: one ballroom and one Latin routine, that they face the public vote.

Since the jive is such a fast-paced dance that requires a lot of bounce action, the blade was a wise move. Despite being highly praised by all four judges for his “outstanding kicks and flicks”, Jonnie later commented that it was “tough” dancing with a blade which is much longer than his usual prosthetic limb.

In fact, the only criticism he received was for his upper body, particularly the lack of focus and refinement in his arms. Both Jonnie and his partner Oti agreed, this is something he has found particularly challenging.

The improvement from the previous week was evident, with greater enthusiasm and commitment to the complex choreography, characterisation and story-telling.

Jonnie revealed his disappointment with the waltz which he felt could have gone better. In contrast, the action-packed jive suits his fun-loving personality much more. He gave it his all, shedding the nerves and demonstrating increased confidence and showmanship.

His memorable jive rivals those of former Strictly winners Ore Oduba, Jay McGuiness and Jill Halfpenny. What makes it all the more impressive is the fact that the jive is notoriously difficult to master, and this was only his second performance. Furthermore, unlike several fellow competitors, Jonnie has no dance experience whatsoever.

The couple’s latest dance, a Paso Doble to the Indiana Jones theme tune achieved a respectable 26 points, placing them eighth for movie week. The slight down-score can be attributed to Jonnie’s dislike of the Paso which demands a stern, serious expression. It also marked a return to his usual prosthesis.

The sportsman says of his choice of prosthetic, “when [the dance] is controlled, slow and not so much jumping around it will probably be my standard leg”. So, it seems the blade will make a reappearance for at least some future Latin routines.

Having captivated the nation with such an endearing and “inspiring” start, could Jonnie be headed for Strictly glory? He has the skill, stamina, drive and discipline, with the potential to go far in the competition. So, why not!

This however, is not the first time we’ve seen an amputee dance with a blade on Strictly. Lance Corporal Cassidy Little, a Royal Marine medic, performed a winning Paso Doble with pro-dancer Natalie Lowe on a one-off edition of The People’s Strictly for Comic Relief in March 2015.

Cassidy, a former comedian and avid tap-dancer, lost his right leg below the knee in 2011, when hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) while on tour in Afghanistan.

Following the loss of his lower leg, Cassidy who in fact studied ballet at University in Canada many years prior, thought his dancing days were over. But a perfect score of 40 for the dramatic and expertly executed Paso Doble proved that his disability need not impede on his natural ability for dance.

Producers invited the war veteran to return for a Christmas special that same year, since the impression he made on the viewing public was so evident. Partnered once again with Natalie Lowe, this time the couple danced an equally impressive, festive-themed jive and competed against able-bodied celebrities.

Earlier this year, Gold medal winning Paralympic sprinter Heinrich Popow dropped out of the German version of the show, Lets Dance, because of swelling to his stump – a concern for prosthesis wearers due to fit and friction. Heinrich, who incurred an injury in week two, pushed through to the semi-final. But, in the end he was unfortunately forced to concede defeat to prevent further damage.

British amputee and former model Heather Mills wowed audiences with her daring moves on the American version, Dancing with the Stars, in 2007. She approached the experience with determination and humour, joking candidly that her prosthetic limb could well fall off mid-dance! The undefeated disability advocate later appeared on the popular ITV show, Dancing on Ice.

Back here in the UK, a Sport Relief edition in 2014 featured four Paralympians: wheelchair racer Hannah Cockroft, blind footballer David Clarke, former World Champion javelin thrower Nathan Stephens and sitting volleyball player Maxine Wright. 10-time Paralympic Gold medalist Lee Pearson took the seat of regular judge Craig Revel Horwood to help select a winner.

Strictly Come Dancing, established in 2004, is now a mainstream television programme in British popular culture. Reaching viewing figures of over 11 million, it is a perfect platform for contestants to raise their profile.

The inclusion of Jonnie Peacock in this year’s lineup has already made a huge impact on the disabled community. It represents forward-thinking, equality and disability in the mainstream. Furthermore, we are encouraged and yes, inspired to focus on ability as opposed to disability and limitation.

Widespread visibility of disabled individuals, such as Jonnie, in the media, will naturally be met with curiosity and questions. But that’s okay, that is progress. Questions result in answers which in turn leads to familiarity, recognition and ‘normalisation’.


Have you been watching Jonnie perform each week on Strictly?

Are you pleased to see a Paralympian included on the show?

Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

If you liked this article, please share so that others can join the discussion.

Thanks!

Interview | Janine Shepherd

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


Janine Shepherd: a broken body is not a broken person

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Interview | Matt “Hambo” Hampson

Parallel London 2017

Here is my interview with Matt Hampson for Disability Horizons


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

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

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

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

Sport, Injury & Disability

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

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

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

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

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

Charity

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

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

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

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

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

Disabled People & Sport

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

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

Parallel London Ambassador

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

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

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

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

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


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

Many thanks to Matt Hampson

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Interview | Samantha Renke

Actress, TV Presenter & Disability Campaigner

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

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


Parallel London

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

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

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

Life & Disability

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maltesers TV Advert

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

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

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

Celebrity Status

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

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

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

Parallel London Ambassador

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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