Award-winning ITV Soap Emmerdale recently cast a disabled actor in a pivotal role, placing him at the forefront of a major, developing storyline. Newcomer, 25 year-old James Moore from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire has cerebral palsy. His debut as Ryan Stocks, the long-lost son of Charity Dingle, has been met with universal praise and applause.
The scene-stealer instantly endeared viewers with glimpses of a multi-dimensional character and an attitude to match his onscreen mother’s. Some even say there is a convincing physical resemblance between the two.
Engaging opening scenes indicate that Ryan is set to be a strong presence; witty, outspoken and unfiltered. Furthermore, his connection with the prominent Dingle family suggests that he is not destined to become a background, token disabled character. On the contrary, Ryan Stocks will be a regular and crucial feature in future episodes.
Like many avid Emmerdale viewers, I was anxious to see who would be revealed as Charity Dingle’s son. To see a disabled actor playing the role is unexpected but as a disabled person myself, I am more than pleasantly surprised.
The casting of disabled actor James Moore is an exciting, encouraging and essential step forward in the inclusion and representation of disability within the media.
1. Hi James, could you please tell Disability Horizons readers about yourself?
So firstly, I have cerebral palsy, but it’s Ataxic CP which basically means that I struggle with movement and coordination. I struggle to walk long distances and there are certain things I know I can’t do, but I’ve adapted to these challenges in my day to day life.
I got into acting because even from a young age, I’ve always been interested in film and the theatre. I struggled with this for a long time because I didn’t know whether I would be able to make a career and earn a living from acting, considering that when I was growing up, there wasn’t many disabled people being represented on film or television.
2. As an actor with a disability, how does this lack of representation make you feel?
I think, in terms of the here and now, societies attitude to non-disabled actors playing disabled characters is too lenient. I mean, we wouldn’t let the blackface caricature continue to happen – this is deemed unacceptable. So why let able-bodied people take the roles of disabled characters?
In order to ‘normalise’ disability on screen, we first have to find disabled actors and give them opportunities rather than taking roles and opportunities away from them. I think that is the biggest and most important step.
This is why I love being a part of Emmerdale – they are showing disability in a new light and letting viewers know that we (disabled people) can be independent and have full, healthy lives. Together we’re proving that disability isn’t a defining factor.
3. What, if any, challenges have you faced in your career due to your disability?
I have faced some challenges but it comes with the territory. At the end of the day, I would most likely have to play a disabled character and they are not easy to come by.
I guess my challenges a lot of the time stem from self doubt, as well as lack of opportunity. There aren’t really a lot of roles for disabled people and so it can sometimes be hard to foresee a lengthy career in the industry.
4. How did the role at Emmerdale come about? Was it always intended that a disabled actor would play the role?
After I got my agent the role came up almost straight away and I really put my all into it. It was always intended for a disabled actor, but not specifically my disability (cerebral palsy). It was incredible how they wrote that in later and they asked me in great depth about my disability and my experiences with it.
5. Your opening scenes with Emma Atkins, who plays Charity, were incredibly impactful. What feedback have you received so far?
The feedback I’ve had so far has been amazing – everyone is so nice! My Twitter is blowing up and all of the feedback I received has been overwhelmingly positive. In that sense I’ve been really lucky.
Some people who have seen me on TV have asked for my advice. To them and any other aspiring disabled actors out there, I would say don’t give up! Take every opportunity you can; do street plays, student films and whatever else it takes. Also take the time to find the right agent – one who you think will be an asset to your career.
6. What does the future hold for your character, Ryan Stocks?
I can’t go into great detail on the future of Ryan, but there’s great humour, unlikely friendships, and gripping drama yet to come. The script is fantastic and so well written and I’m so glad that I can provide an adequate voice for this brilliant character.
On 30thMay, a determined group of individuals set off on a truly inspirational challenge to become the first amputees to conquer Mount Snowdon. The team, consisting of 18 amputees from around the UK, were led by Paul Clark, who lost his leg as a result of a bone infection following surgery in 2014. Accompanying him was Leigh Joy-Staines, Co-Founder of the voluntary charity STEEL BONES, which works to connect, support and inspire amputee families across the UK to overcome the trauma of amputation.
I was fortunate to interview both Paul and Leigh, prior to their challenge. Here is what they had to say…
1.Leigh, can you please tell Disability Horizons readers a little about yourself and your disability?
I was born with clubfoot (talipes) and had about 30 operations before the age of 5 to try to rectify them. The Doctors did the best they could at the time. I managed to get through school with just a few more operations, and lived a relatively ‘normal’ life. I was always in quite a lot of pain but this didn’t stop me, as I just loved playing sports and so I didn’t care about the pain.
I was bullied a lot but luckily had fantastic, grandparents, parents, cousins and friends who stuck by me and gave me the strength I needed inside to keep going. It impacted massively on my anxiety but I hung onto those people around me. Looking back, I was actually quite a popular kid. I just let the nasty name calling go over my head.
I left school early and started working immediately. I always worked hard and partied hard at weekends. But at the age of 23, after working a job with a long commute which involved a lot of walking, I couldn’t take the pain any longer. I then went to see my GP who referred me to an orthopaedic surgeon at Guys Hospital (London).
The surgeon seemed to think it would be a simple operation to put things right. Unfortunately, he hadn’t completed the proper pre-operative checks and didn’t have my notes in the operation. [As a result] he severed my last remaining artery and the nurses didn’t realise the foot’s blood supply was cut off until it was too late. All I remember is my girlfriend (now wife) turning up with my mates to take me home, and I was rushed into an ambulance.
The team at St Thomas’ Hospital were amazing. It became a second home for me since I was there for 5 months whilst they tried to save the leg, and then whilst I learnt to walk again. Since the amputation, I’ve had lots of problems with my stump (which I call JOYBOY) such as neuromas, spurs and infections. My other leg is also now disintegrating as it has taken a lot of pressure since the amputation. I’m now working with some excellent surgeons and physiotherapists to hopefully rebuild it, otherwise I will have to lose that leg too.
2. You are one of the founders of STEEL BONES. Why did you decide to establish the charity?
We had no proactive support at the time of amputation. My girlfriend (now wife) and I just tried to pretend everything was fine and ‘normal’. We didn’t take stock of what had actually happened. I’m still dealing with the trauma and am only just really accepting what happened – It was such a huge shock. When you still want to be the lad about town but your body fails, it breaks you. But, I’ve held on tightly to my family.
We phoned several amputee charities asking for support, but none came through. We felt so lonely and isolated, particularly once our children arrived. Our son Teddy was being asked lots of questions: ‘Why isn’t your daddy strong?’ and, ‘Why does he wear a boot?’
This really hit us hard as we didn’t know how to deal with the outside world, only our little unit. So, we decided to start meeting other amputee families.
It all started with a Facebook group and it’s gone from strength-to-strength.
We have met so many amazing people and it gives us great motivation to know that we are not alone. The charity focuses on the entire family, and not solely the amputee, because an amputation affects the entire family unit including friends too.
We provide support packs and create friendships with families to ensure they have the tools and advice they need to achieve their goals. We also run a weekly fitness club and an amputee football club with Cambridge United Trust and Cambridge FA. Furthermore, we are launching a series of children’s books based on amputee family stories. We also run a schools workshop programme with ‘If Not Me Inclusion Coaching’, which focuses on inclusive sports and raising awareness of amputees.
These projects are very close to our hearts as we know the impact they make. We hope to avoid what our son endured in his first couple years at school, and to ensure no amputee family feels isolated. We also have an events programme that all amputee families are welcome to join.
Our biggest event of the year takes place on 29th July 2018 in Cambridgeshire. To find out more join our Facebook group: STEEL BONES or sign up to our mailing list http://steelbone.co.uk
3. Can you tell us exactly what this particular challenge involves?
The challenge involves a group of amazing amputee families climbing
Mount Snowdon. We have been training for the past 6 months and have endured falls, knocks, sores, blisters, aches and pains. Despite this, the hugely inspirational group has kept on going. It is just so exciting to see them achieve this incredible goal.
STEEL BONES is entirely voluntary so the funds raised by this go directly to amputee families in the UK. It provides a lifeline by putting on more clubs, events and proactively supporting the amputee community.
4. Paul Clark, you’re heading the challenge to climb Mount Snowdon in May. How and why did you first become involved with STEEL BONES?
After my amputation on 30th May 2016, it was a very hard and lonely time for myself and my family. We didn’t know who to turn to for help and support and we felt very isolated. We didn’t know what support we could get or where to even start looking. We found there to be a big lack of understanding in the public and government as to what amputation means for an individual and their family.
We came across the STEEL BONES Facebook group and realised they were local, and had been in a very similar situation to us when Leigh lost his leg. They were offering free help and support to amputees and their families, so we contacted them for some advice.
Their support from day one was fantastic. Not only did they give us advice on who to contact regarding different matters, they also helped from with forms, letters and so on until we were sorted. Their support didn’t stop after this – they continue to support myself and my family with information and advice. They have also introduced us to many new friends in the same situation. It has become one big happy amputee family!
5. Where did the idea come from?
My wife and I have always wanted to climb Mount Snowdon, so we said let’s still do it and raise money for STEEL BONES to thank them. The money raised will allow them to continue supporting other amputees and their families throughout the UK.
6. What are you hoping to achieve as a result of the challenge you have set for yourselves?
Not only is this a personal goal of ours, and a massive challenge, we also hope to promote amputee awareness throughout the UK. We want people to be aware that just because I have lost a limb, it doesn’t make me any different, and I can still overcome challenges like anyone else.
I have managed to get a great team to join me on this amazing adventure, and it’s great that I have managed to pull together a group of amputees from around the UK. Not only will this bond us as a group, it will challenge us all and show that amputees can do anything, whilst also raising a fantastic amount of money for STEEL BONES.
Show your support for the team and make a donation by clicking here.
Are you a Britain’s Got Talent viewer? If like me, you have tuned in this year, you too may have noticed that the semi-final line-up features a number of diversely disabled acts – more so than previous years.
As a wheelchair-user myself, I am thrilled to see disability increasingly represented and celebrated on such a high-profile primetime TV talent show.
Lee Ridley AKA Lost Voice Guy
Lee Ridley, also known as Lost Voice Guy, is the first act through to the live final, having won the audience vote on Monday night. Hotly tipped to win the competition, Lee 37 from Newcastle, has Cerebral Palsy and is unable to speak. This uniquely speechless comedian uses a Lightwriter – a voice synthesiser, and as he says, “walks with a limp”. He is a BBC New Comedy Award Winner who wears slogan T-shirts depicting his self-deprecating and inclusive sense of humour – his audition shirt read, ‘I’m only in it for the parking’.
Lost Voice Guy wowed audiences and judges alike with his witty routines that draw attention to and highlight the humour in disability, thereby breaking down barriers and removing social stigma. The “struggling comedian who also struggles to stand up” joked that he “really is disabled. It’s not just really good acting”.
Fellow comedian Robert White who has dyslexia, autism and Asperger syndrome, also made it through to Sunday night’s final with his hilariously quirky musical comedy act. The 41 year-old music teacher from West Sussex describes himself as “the only gay, Aspergic, quarter-Welsh comic on the British comedy circuit”.
Though his audition proved impressive, White really upped his game for Wednesday’s live semi-final, in which he employed natural comedy timing to mock the four judges. Accompanied by a keyboard, Robert White flirted with his “next boyfriend” David Walliams and quipped that Amanda Holden dresses far too young for her age, while Alesha Dixon dresses like a hooker! This was met with unanimous rapturous applause and laughter.
Most notably, Robert directly referenced the sensitivity surrounding his condition during his live act: “I am aware that if you mention autism on stage sometimes audiences can go awkward and silent”. This effectively challenges viewers to consider how they receive and react to those of us with a disability, thus initiating the conversation.
This year’s youngest finalist is 10 year-old singer Calum Courtney who has a mild form of autism. Calum sailed through to the final after melting hearts with his reworked rendition of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’, in tribute to his Mum. He didn’t win the overall public vote, but having made it into the top three, was put through by the judges.
Calum was part of the line-up at the NSPCC Winter Charity Ball in aid of the National Autistic Society. His endearing and confident audition performance of Michael Jackson’s ‘Who’s Loving You’ caught the crowd’s attention and earned a standing ovation. It just goes to show that even at such a tender age, autism need not be a barrier to success.
Semi-finalists RISE, a group of young dancers from Manchester, presented two moving performances, though they did not make it through to the grand final. Group member 13 year-old Hollie Booth was caught up in the Manchester Arena bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in May 2017. Hollie’s aunt Kellie was one of 22 people who died as a result of the terror attack.
Hollie broke her knee, left foot and was left with nerve damage. She has so far had 11 operations and now has to wear an orthotic and use a wheelchair. She was keen to return to the group and continue dancing despite her trauma and the injuries she suffered. As a mark of solidarity and inclusivity in the face of adversity, all RISE dancers incorporate wheelchairs into their routines. The tearful judges hailed the girls as “inspirational”. In this case, I think the term is justified!
Final mention goes to B-Positive – the official NHS Blood and Transplant choir. The choir consists of 60 singers all of whom suffer from, or are directly affected by, sickle cell disease. Their aim is to raise awareness of the urgent need for blood donation. They sang the “powerful” anthemic hit ‘This is Me’ (a true statement of the importance of diversity). They are hoping for a wild card pass through to Sunday night’s final.
The inclusion of so many disabled acts in this year’s line-up will, I believe, have a positive impact on the disabled community. It suggests and promotes forward-thinking, equality and disability in the mainstream. Furthermore, it inspires open discussion of diversity in all its forms whilst also encouraging society to focus on ability as opposed to inability.
Widespread visibility of disabled talent within the media will naturally be met with questions and curiosity. But that’s okay because it signifies progressive inclusivity.
Many people are talking about the acts they have seen on Britain’s Got Talent. Audiences are realising that it’s acceptable to celebrate disability and to laugh about it! It is okay to ask questions since this educates and informs, thereby resulting in familiarity, recognition and ‘normalisation’.
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 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.
Award winning poet and performer Jackie Hagan’s latest show, ‘This is Not a Safe Space’, explores the impact of benefit cuts on disabled peopled and those living on the margins of society. The creative mix of poetry, puppetry, stand-up comedy and audience participation draws on first-person interviews with 80 working-class people. With an emphasis on class, mental health and disability, Hagan celebrates the weird and wonky lives of those excluded from the mainstream.
Jackie Hagan is herself a queer, bipolar amputee, raised on a council estate. Her work seeks to challenge the ways in which current society relentlessly stereotypes working-class, disabled individuals.
Following on from her previous success with the solo show ‘Some People Have Too Many Legs’ and her play ‘Cosmic Scallies’, this theatre maker once again intertwines spiky humour and quirky expression, resulting in a passionate, provocative and affecting production.
1. Jackie, could you please tell Disability Horizons readers about your disability and how it has affected you and your career?
In summer 2013 I suddenly had my leg amputated [following a series of blood clots and infections]. When I left the hospital they gave me a list of things to avoid, one of them was falling over. I toured a show that year called ‘Some People Have Too Many Legs’, which won some awards.
I had been writing and performing for some time and I had always been a disabled performer – I am partially sighted, have bipolar disorder and a life limiting autoimmune disease. But, having one leg is something people can get their heads around a lot better, people like something they can see. And so it attracted a lot of attention.
As such, when people invite me to diversity events to talk about the leg I often open with a leg gag and then go on to talk about invisible disabilities or class.
2. How and why did you become a poet and performer?
When my Mum was 16 she moved from the thrill and glitter of Liverpool to an isolated new town to have me and my brother. As such, she herself became a disco, she became thrill and glitter. How else are you meant to cope? It meant I grew up to be unafraid to speak my mind in the odd way i found natural. I wasn’t ever encouraged to toe the line or be normal.
3. How does your class, background and disability influence your work?
It means I’ve always got a cob on and I’ve got loads to say that doesn’t often get said. I’ve got council estate bones and they rattle when someone slags off a young lad for dealing or looting or having a big massive telly. I understand why this stuff happens. I’m not saying we’re saints: I’m not an idiot, but I’m closer to the action, I can talk in a measured way about the real reasons. I can give you stories and images that aren’t exaggerated or underplayed. I know what I’m on about.
Obviously it also means I come up against a tonne of prejudice and moments where people tilt their head to one side and use that sing song lilt to the voice “aw, are you in a wheelchair?” etc. It’s all total bollocks and the most satisfying way to show people is by being awesome.
4. Why did you decide to write this show, and why now?
Disabled people and those on benefits are represented in the media one dimensionally. Benefits claimants are shown as sinners: [the TV show] Benefits Street depicts us as if we’re stupid and should just try harder. Disabled people on the other hand are represented as saints, super-humans and paralympians. Real people just aren’t like that.
5. What is the meaning of the title of your new show?
I asked one of the lads I interviewed, “where do you feel the safest?” He thought for ages and eventually he said, “in my imagination”.
The government has messed up, massively. People are committing suicide and losing their homes. We’re obviously not safe. The new generation of kids have no security in their future, never mind jobs and homes. They’ve got climate change to worry about! Of course they are obsessed with safety, of course they need to create safe spaces.
People might be used to my old work where I would make hard topics fluffy and palatable. But in this show I need to give it to people straight. That doesn’t mean it’s unrelenting bleakness – no one can take that in, and audiences don’t deserve to have to put up with that. I know how to keep an audience with me. There’s lots of comedy and tenderness in the show, but i also know how to give an audience realities that need to be passed on. We desperately need people to empathise.
We are not safe. It is not fair. The world is not a safe space. The show is not a fairytale.
6. It celebrates and puts forth the lives and experiences of a section of society often misrepresented or ignored entirely by the mainstream. Why do you think that is?
If you [society] ‘other’ us, then you can feel less empathy and understanding. If you lack empathy, it gives people a free ride, it makes the problem go away, because it means we don’t matter.
7. Based on 80 interviews, your show intertwines poetry, DIY puppetry and stand-up comedy. That’s quite an eclectic mix! How do you begin to plan and produce such an original and engaging piece?
Humans don’t think in linear stories, we think in snippets and recurring images. It makes absolute sense to me to collect voices and stories and for me to keep on writing and writing. I then siphon it all down into central questions that I want the audience to think about, and eventually get right down into the essence which is the hour of the show.
In real talk that means A1 flipchart paper, post it notes, about a thousand gallons of tea and one amazing sound producer (Dave James who sat in a room and listened to 16 hours of interviews with me several times). I eat when I make stuff and put on about two stone. But I’d rather be a fat writer than frustrated and at my ideal weight!
8. What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
One person’s trying doesn’t look like your own.
You don’t have to feel guilty for what you have. It’ll get in the way of you wanting to help.
Classism is constant and as abhorrent as racism, sexism and homophobia! Learn to recognise it.
I’d like to thank Jackie Hagan for taking the time to speak with me.
My interview with Jackie was originally published by Disability Horizons, for whom I am a frequent contributor.
36-year-old Scott Watkin, an eye care and vision development officer with the charity SeeAbility, is one of this years deserving recipients of the British Empire Medal.
Scott, who has learning disabilities and the eye condition keratoconus, is recognised for his tireless work in the learning disability community.
A dedicated ambassador, Scott began his career co-chairing the learning disability partnership board on the Isle of Wight. This led onto an influential role as co-national director for learning disabilities within the Department of Health. He also lectures at the University of Hertfordshire, focusing on eye care, vision and equal rights. However, he notes his work with SeeAbility as a major milestone.
1. Scott, could you please tell Disability Horizons readers a little about yourself and your disability?
I was born with Williams syndrome which is a learning disability. Apparently I am one in ten thousand! Some of my muscles can be quite weak and my coordination can be not great at times.
I went to a special school and teachers never really paid attention to me, and it meant I didn’t really get the grades I wanted to get. I was bullied too which made learning very hard.
It also means I am more likely to have vision problems and actually I was diagnosed with keratoconus which I’ve had two corneal graftoperations on. I have quite a difficult daily routine involving eye drops and contact lenses.
2. How does your learning disability and eye condition affect you, and how have you found working with a disability?
My learning disability only shows when I’m nervous or worried about something, otherwise I’m a very confident person. I just need a bit of support to do my job and I’ve been really lucky to be supported well at SeeAbility.
My vision varies, some days it’s ok some days really poor. But I’m always ready to work!
3. What adjustments have you and/or your employer had to make in order for you to do your job effectively?
If I don’t know a journey, my manager will meet me in London and we will continue the journey together. I know my way from the IOW to London very well having made the trip many times.
If my vision is really poor, we put all my information on yellow paper in Arial 16pt font. This helps me to read it better.
When I first started working, I had lots of support to make steps in my job. But for me it’s just being able to talk to someone when I need to, and that’s the case at SeeAbility. If I don’t need that then I just get on with my job and carry on!
4. How and why did you get involved with the charity SeeAbility?
I first met Paula Spinks-Chamberlain (Director of External Affairs) at the Department of Health. SeeAbility supported me through my keratoconus and then I did some work as an ambassador. After that I was offered a job!
5. Could you please explain the role you play within SeeAbility?
I’m an eye care and vision development officer and I make sure people with learning disabilities get good eye care. I travel around the country giving training sessions to people with learning disabilities and carers. I need to make sure we lobby government to make sure they understand that eye care for people with learning disabilities is really important.
People with learning disabilities are much more likely to have sight problems than other people. Not only that, but they are the least likely to get the eye care they need. We are working so that eye care professionals make reasonable adjustments but what we really need is a national eye care pathway so that everyone with a disability can access a sight test.
6. You are also on the board of Learning Disability England. What are your aims and objectives in this capacity?
I try and make sure people with a learning disability have a voice. People with learning disabilities need the same access to services as everybody else.
It’s about setting the direction of learning disabilities in England. Lobbying government and challenging the social care cuts. I need to make sure we do what we say we are going to do.
7. Why is it so important to you to campaign for people with learning disabilities?
Firstly, people with learning disabilities are much more likely to have sight problems than other people. Not only that, but they are the least likely to get the eye care they need. We are working so that eye care professionals make reasonable adjustments but what we really need is a national eye care pathway so that everyone with a disability can access a sight test.
Secondly, people with learning disabilities deserve to have their voice heard. We deserve the same opportunities as everyone else as we have so much to offer. We just need the chances to shine.
8. What do you think are the main issues that require attention and improvement?
We need to stop the social care cuts and get a good eye care pathway down for people with learning disabilities so they can get the right eye care!
We need good annual health checks.
And to make sure the government take people with learning disabilities seriously and listen to what they want. For example, most people with learning disabilities want to work, and we just need employers to give us chance so we can achieve what others can have a good life.
9. Congratulations on being awarded a British Empire Medal in the New Year 2018 Honours list. How does it make you feel to be recognised for your achievements?
I never thought I’d be recognised in this way, it’s a real big honour. I’m glad my work is being recognised nationally because it’s really important. It sends a message to all the eye care professionals that I work with, they need to know how important eye care for people with disabilities is.
10. Finally, what tips would you offer anyone like yourself with a similar disability, who is seeking employment?
Don’t stop trying to find employment. Don’t be afraid to say you have a learning disability and it’s ok to ask for reasonable adjustments. You will have so many positives to bring to any role and don’t forget that, you are actually very reliable, more than other people!
I’d like to thank Scott Watkin for taking the time to speak with me.
Are you lacking in confidence and social skills? Do you suffer from low self-esteem, struggle to form meaningful relationships or find dating too nerve-wracking a prospect?
Well, if you haven’t already heard of him, allow me to introduce Amin Lakhani, the Dating Coach on Wheels. With hints, tips, and tailor-made “no bullshit” advice, he could be just the answer you’ve been searching for.
Amin, from Bellevue, Washington, has a progressive form of Muscular Dystrophy called Charcot Marie Tooth Syndrome, which presents in overall weakness, particularly the hands and legs. Now 29 years old, he has been a wheelchair user since the age of 15.
He excelled academically, achieving two Ivy League University degrees within four years, progressing onto a successful career at Microsoft. Nevertheless, the Self-confessed “nerd with poor social skills” felt lonely and insecure, with only a few friends and no dating experience.
Finally, at the age of 23, Amin hired a dating coach whom he worked with for around four years. This enabled him to totally transform himself, his relationships and his life.
He’s popular, makes friends easily, has been on over 40 first dates, enjoyed sex and fallen in love. Now the Dating Coach on Wheels, image consultant and motivational speaker is returning the favour.
1. You became a wheelchair-user at the tough age of fifteen. How did this affect your sense of self and your personal relationships?
I didn’t mind so much at first because I have a huge family and a lot of support. In fact, it was pretty cool because I had this brand new wheelchair and I no longer felt exhausted all the time. Up until that point I could walk a little but I always used elevators and I sort of grabbed hold of the walls and furniture so that I didn’t fall.
But as soon as I started High School I felt different from my peers. I didn’t know anyone else who used a wheelchair, so the fact that I stood-out from the crowd made me really self-conscious. I was lonely, alienated and my relationships became strained because I wanted the impossible: I wanted to get rid of my wheelchair and be the same as everyone else. But of course, that could never happen.
I did have a few school friends but I never had a girlfriend, and was left out of all the usual teen dating etiquette. No girl ever wrote on my locker.
I felt unattractive and thought I had nothing to offer a girl, so I shut myself down. If ever a member of my family asked why I wasn’t dating, I would use the excuse that I was too busy for all that.
2. Where did you get the idea to seek assistance from a dating coach, and why did you choose that route?
I had tried online dating – the likes of ‘OK Cupid’ and ‘Plenty of Fish’. I was really thorough with my research and looked up what I should and shouldn’t be doing. I was enthusiastic and did everything right according to my research. I was, on paper, a catch. Or so I thought. I was a grade-A student, a high-achiever academically, I had a great job at Microsoft. But it just wasn’t working out for me and that made me feel hopeless. I think my downfall was the fact that I tried to hide my disability from my online dating profiles. I never showed pictures of my wheelchair and never mentioned it. I basically listed my achievements but failed to inject any personality or humour. Had I done this I think I would have been met with a more emotional response. Any response.
I look back now and cringe, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Ultimately it led me to search online forums which is where I found the guy who would become my dating coach. I was 23 at the time and he was doing a workshop called, “Conversation Secrets”. It was then that I decided to get his advice.
2. You say a turning point for you was being told, by your dating coach, that you will never blend in but that’s okay; rather you should make yourself stand-out from the crowd. Why did this realisation have such an impact on you, and why do you feel disabled people should aim to stand-out rather than fit in?
Yeah, that really did make an impression on me. I learnt that if you don’t like something you should change it. And, if you can’t change it, you should change your opinion of it. It’s true, disabled people are memorable because of their disability. It does make us stand out. But that isn’t a negative thing.
I do think disabled people should embrace their individuality and dress to grab positive attention. People are going to look at you anyway. By nature, humans are curious and we all check each other out – disabled or not. So, make people look at you and remember you for the right reasons. Make them remember your outfit or your style. If you put the effort into your self-image, you look good and feel good about yourself, people wont pity or feel sorry for you because they wont be focused on your disability.
I also learnt, from my dating coach, that being in a wheelchair gives me free rein to talk to any girl in the world. No one is going to slap, punch or snub a guy in a wheelchair, right? So effectively, I could approach any girl I like and just start talking because even if she’s with a guy, he’s unlikely to feel threatened by me. It’s all good practice!
4. You clearly pay a great deal of attention to your appearance – the signature bow tie, a pop of colour and an overall minimalist, classy aesthetic. How did you develop your personal sense of style and why do you feel this is so important?
I believe you attract what you project. So, if you want to attract a punky type of person, it’s probably a good idea to shape your image around that look. I now look completely different from how I used to. I changed how I dress and style myself according to the type of girls I’m attracted to. We all need to embrace our individuality, consider what we wear and how we wear it. If we don’t feel good about our own appearance, it affects our confidence.
5. Much emphasis is placed on sex, and for some disabled people this can be a cause for concern. How then would you coach someone whose disability prevents them from participating in the physical act of sex?
Okay, first of all, sex isn’t everything, it’s just a small part of what a relationship is. It’s more important to talk, flirt, connect and feel comfortable in each others company.
With regards to sex itself, I have clients explain their difficulties, circumstances and challenges to me. It’s all about individuality. Every disability is different therefore it’s important to consider everyone’s specific situation.
I have two main points:
Firstly, I ask what the client wants. Do they want someone to support them to participate in sex? Or do they want their partner to support them in the act? Either way, it’s essential to do your research and maybe find out from others with the same physical limitations how they approach sex.
Secondly, you’ve got to make it sound fun and exciting for your partner. Tell them what you want in a flirtatious way and make it sound hot and kinky rather than practical. Remember, you’re giving a gift to this person – to your partner. It’s a hugely intimate thing you’re asking and you’re entrusting your body to them.
6. You have talked candidly about sex and your own personal experiences. Why do you feel it is important to share this in order to help others?
Yeah I think it’s helpful for me to talk about my own experiences with my clients. It enables us to relate to each other. I’ve been through the same struggles myself and so I can identify in a way that an able-bodied dating coach couldn’t.
I offer advice that is sometimes unconventional. For example, I tell people it’s okay to feel like shit when you get rejected or things don’t go to plan. But you’ve then got to keep going, get out there and try again. All experience is beneficial.
7. It’s fair to say your target demographic is men. Why is this? Do you think men struggle more than women with confidence and making themselves attractive to others?
Obviously as a guy myself, I can relate more to men, although I have had more female clients recently. I have a wealth of dating and relationship experience that allows me to relate and identify with male clients especially.
There is definitely a gap for guys. They just don’t know how to get in the drivers seat. Women want them to take control but in order to get their guy to that place, they themselves have to take control. So a lot of the time I’m trying to help guys take charge.
8. Can you please explain your working methods?
As a dating coach I help people build their skills to make themselves more attractive to others. It’s not just about sex and dating, but also forming meaningful relationships and friendships, too.
For the most part I communicate with clients through video calls and we also Email in between. The length of time I spend with a client depends very much on what they want me to help with, and how hard they are willing to work to achieve their goal. I spent up to a year working with one particular guy who is actually able-bodied. He was incredibly reserved in social settings due to a lack of self confidence, and was looking for more than just a few pointers.
9. What is the one question you are asked most frequently, and what advice do you give in response?
Men want to know how to ask a girl out and how they can tell if she likes him. I tell them there’s no way to really know for sure if a girl likes you back. You’ve just got to rip off the band aid and go for it.
Women mostly ask how to find a guy who’s interested in more than just sex. My response is to learn to say no! Take your time and make a guy work for it. Don’t give it up on the first date as it leaves a bad impression. Inevitably the guy would assume you give it up to all guys just as easily, and that’s not what men want ultimately. We love the chase and value what we’ve worked hard for.
10. What are your top dating tips for those who are particularly nervous or lacking in confidence?
It’s okay and totally natural to be nervous. I still get nervous going on a date for the first time. It takes courage and courage leads to nervousness; everyone feels it. You’ve just got to do it. No matter what, you have to try. We all have to go through awkward stages and you will probably look back and cringe at yourself and your failed dates – I know I have. But again, that’s okay.
I also recommend bringing up your disability early on, but in a humorous way. Don’t try to hide it, but at the same time, don’t disclose everything in great detail. You don’t need to be 100% emotionally okay with your own disability. We’re all a little insecure about something. Just put your best foot/wheel forward so you can find the people who prioritise things other than their partners physical abilities. These people are a rare breed, so it will take work (and inevitable heartbreak) to find them.
In terms of date conversation: Pauses, I think, are actually a good, powerful thing. They can be sexual and flirtatious, allowing you to lock eyes and check each other out. I am consciously quiet for extended periods when I go on a date. During these pauses I look my date up and down and make it known that I’m checking her out. This lets her know I like her and will probably make her giggle and flirt in return.
Remember not to talk too much and don’t attempt to fill the silences. It can be exhausting as it’s impossible to process all that verbal information quickly.
Do ask questions, but not just typical introductory questions. Become interested in your date and respond to their answers. If they answer a question very briefly, realise that perhaps they don’t want to talk about that particular topic. Dig deeper into what they do want to talk about and tap into their interests.
11. Do you think there’s a limit to who you’re able to coach, and have you found any of your clients to be especially challenging?
Oh yeah absolutely. It’s all about motivation. If a client isn’t motivated or willing to do what it takes and work hard for it, they won’t get results. At the end of the day, they need to trust me and do what I tell them, no questions asked. I can’t do the hard work for them.
12. Where do you see your career taking you and what more do you hope to achieve?
I’m kind of happy where I am right now. I really just want to help more people.
I enjoy writing but mostly I love making videos, talking and being myself on camera. So, ideally I’d like to be more active on Youtube. There’s something about being recorded that’s more effective than someone reading something I have written. In a video, you’re hearing my voice, seeing my mannerisms and humour. You’re receiving the information exactly how I want you to. You just don’t get that through writing.
I feel like I was born to do the work I do. All of my personal struggles have been for a reason. I now have a sense of purpose and can make an impact in a way that I couldn’t if I were able-bodied. In that way, my disability is beneficial.
I’d like to thank Amin for taking the time to talk with me.
Please do connect with the Dating Coach on Wheels on social media:
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.