Since we’re all still stuck at home, twiddling our thumbs, I thought I’d suggest some reading material for you.
The six books I have chosen focus on the themes of disability, mentalhealth, positivethinking, overcomingadversity, trauma, and recovery.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing this former Olympic hopeful who beat the odds and transformed her life after suffering a horrific accident.
Janine Shepherd radiates energy, enthusiasm and an endearing wit. Her memoir is a must-read!
Some of you may know that Lucy is a good friend of mine. Like me, she is a non-ambulatory wheelchair-user with a form of muscular dystrophy.
‘Wheels of Motion’ is a poetry anthology unlike any other. If you live with a disability yourself, I highly recommend you check this out! (Available on Amazon).
Amberly Lago is another remarkable, kind and generous woman I was able to interview following the release of her memoir, ‘True Grit and Grace: Turning Tragedy into Triumph’.
Fitness fanatic, Amberly’s life was turned upside down following a debilitating motorcycle accident in 2010, leaving her with significant nerve damage and lifelong chronic pain.
She now devotes her life to helping others.
Acid attack victim, Katie Piper, is now a well-known media personality, activist, documentary maker, charity founder and mother.
She has achieved so much since her brutal assault in 2008, which left her partially blind and with full thickness burns. Katie has endured over 200 operations and invasive treatment to ensure her recovery. She really is a true inspiration!
I read Katie’s first book, ‘Beautiful’, around eight years ago. It’s a real eye opener! Yes, it is shocking and distressing, but also incredibly motivational. I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone.
He attended university, completed a placement year, works full-time, started his own business, and is now on the Great Britain Air Rifle Talent and Development Squad. Josh is able to drive a wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV) and has lived independently since leaving his parental home at 18.
1. University ~ Can you tell us about the process of putting a care package in place and living independently as a disabled student?
During my last year of college, I expressed an interest in going to university. After research with my social worker and factoring my needs and desires, we identified appropriate universities that fit my criteria. I then had to decide on a live-in carer or a care agency. I opted for the agency route in order to be as independent as possible.
Once accepted by the university, I sorted accommodation and started looking for care agencies. My social worker provided me with a list of care agencies registered with the CQC, but it was down to me to make arrangements. The first care agency turned out to be unpleasant! So, after 4 months, I switched to another agency who I remained with for the duration of my university experience.
2. How was your overall university experience?
My overall uni experience was, let’s say, fruitful! From falling asleep in my wheelchair in front of the mirror to having university staff put me to bed within the first week because I was so drunk. It was clear that I was going to make the most of my 3 years at uni!
I got involved with numerous societies and activities to keep myself active and included with the student culture. I had a fantastic time and never experienced any discrimination or abuse. The staff made me feel at ease, allowed me to be as independent as possible, and provided access to necessary resources.
I graduated with a first class honours in IT Management and Business and, 4 years after graduating, I was invited back to receive an Honorary Masters in Technology.
3. You carried out an internship with Hewlett Packard during your studies, and then worked as a cyber security manager. What, if any, challenges did you encounter in finding employment and how does your disability affect your working life?
The general employment process with assessment days, face-to-face interviews and telephones interviews were fairly seamless. Most employers are extremely accommodating if you give them notice and make them aware of your access needs.
I do remember one assessment day with a popular car manufacturer where the activities impacted my ability to take part due to my physical requirements. This may have affected their decision to not employ me, even though I was just as capable, if not more so, than the other candidates. But apart from that, I have not had any issues finding employment.
Obviously, my disability limits me physically. However, as I work in technology it does not affect my ability to do my job. Yes, working full-time is not easy for me, but it’s also important to remember it’s not easy for able-bodied people either.
I have always been the sort of person who just gets on with it. I also believe that with technology making everything more accessible for disabled people, in most cases, our disability should not affect our ability to work. If you have any employer with an inclusive work culture, who is willing to support, understand and give you flexibility within the work place, then for sure you can work!
4. You returned to university to speak to students about entrepreneurship, and inspire them to start their own businesses. How did this make you feel and why do you think it is so important to encourage other disabled people to pursue any entrepreneurial aspirations they may have?
This gave me a sense of achievement and fulfilment. I believe that sharing experiences, whether positive or negative, helps others to follow their own passions and aspirations.
There is a general consensus that employment for disabled people is difficult to find, and arguably this could be due to the lack of inclusive employers. This is what makes the entrepreneurial world an attractive proposition for disabled people – it is flexible, offers them ability to work around their needs, and also avoids the hardship of being in a culture that is not disability confident.
5. You ventured into self-employment and founded AbleMove. Why was this so important to you?
I have always wanted to start my own business. When I realised I could create a product to make travel more assessible for disabled people, it was a no-brainer decision for me.
When you’re working on something you’ve created and can see the life-changing benefits, there is a real feeling of fulfilment.
Winning the award gave me a sense of personal achievement and recognition. It gave me a fresh perspective on developing my own business and the benefits it can provide versus working for a large company.
The prize money and a business deal with easyGroup Ltd enabled me to give up my full-time job in order to pursue my own business. This allowed me greater flexibility regarding how I manage my disability.
7. Prior to winning the award, you had to move home and rent within the private sector. What challenges did this present?
The challenges with the private rent sector (PRS) are vast, especially given almost 85-90% of PRS homes are inaccessible for wheelchairs.
After applying for the Stelios Awards, I was told I had to move out of a good sized two bed apartment due to the landlords requiring their property back. Having lived there for 3 and a half years, it was time to start the dreaded challenge of finding a needle in a haystack.
It’s purely pot luck if you can find an accessible house to move into straight away that doesn’t need any adapations.
After fighting with the council and various estate agents, we eventually managed to find a property on rightmove. Now, when moving home I need to consider carers since I rely on them throughout the day. My main PA (personal assistant) was unable to continue working for me, and so I had to re-jig and was then only able to maintain one PA.
Finding an accessible property and then having to manage your care situation around it is extremely stressful, tiring and irritating. On top of this, I was working full-time, getting the business of the ground, doing weekly exercises and training for the Great Britain Shooting Talent and Development Squad.
8. Can you tell us about your invention, the easyTravelseat. What is it and how does it benefit disabled people?
My travelling experiences involve being manhandled from wheelchair to aisle chair and then manhandled again onto the aircraft, which is highly undignified and uncomfortable. I therefore sought to create something that would help me travel in a more comfortable and dignified manner.
The easyTravelseat is a sling/seat combination that is designed to work as an in-situ piece of equipment. It is placed in your wheelchair, and you then remain seated in the easyTravelseat until you reach your destination.
For instance, when flying, you would remain comfortably and securely seated within the easyTravelseat for your entire journey through the airport, onto and during your time on the aircraft and off again.
Once I created it, I realised the many benefits it offers disabled people. It allows users to travel in a more safe, dignified and comfortable way, on all modes of transport. Furthermore, it opens up leisure opportunities such as canoeing, kayaking, skiing and so on. The easyTravelseat enables users to be transferred quickly and easily without having to be manhandled. The user is comfortably seated with their own cushion, a gel pad or foam.
9. Where did the idea for the easyTravelseat stem from, and what did the development process involve?
The development process involved researching the types of equipment already available, and the demand for such a product. I conducted market research to determine whether wheelchair-users would find the product useful. Then we identified a concept and progressed to prototyping in order to test how the seat would work. We then moved on to the point of manufacturing the seat and getting the required medical marking and approvals in place. During this process we had been working initially with airports around the lifting side of the device, including our sling manufacturer and then an airline. We started production in February 2019.
10. Does the easyTravelseat cater for disabled people of all shapes and sizes?
The easyTravelseat will cater for the majority of disabled users with the exception of very young children, bariatric passengers or people with extreme contoured seating.
11. How does the easyTravelseat compare with similar products on the market, such as the ProMove sling or the NEPPT Transfer Evacuation Sling Seat?
The difference with the easyTravelseat is the specific design and application of use for aircraft, whilst ensuring passenger comfort. It allows users to be moved around the aircraft, including during an emergency, and to then disembark the aircraft in a much safer, dignified and comfortable manner. All other slings are designed to be removed and offer no protection or comfort when in-situ.
12. What other assistance do you think airlines could and should be offering to disabled passengers?
I think the most important area airlines should be focusing on in the immediate is the loading of wheelchairs, both electric and manual, to prevent damage. It also concerns me the people on the ground lifting these wheelchairs are at risk of causing serious damage to themselves. There is industry equipment to load wheelchairs onto an aircraft without having to manually lift a wheelchair. This would help the loaders and reduce the amount of damage to both the chairs and the airport staff. Also, a secure area in the hold may also be advantageous to prevent luggage damaging wheelchairs during turbulence.
I also think the UK should be pushing (as Canada has done successfully) the airlines to provide free tickets for a carer when flying with a disabled person. After all, the airlines make it a necessary requirement for WCHC passengers who cannot move without any support to fly with a personal assistant/carer.
Airlines should also be addressing the toileting situation inside the cabin too. It is currently impossible for the majority of disabled passengers to access the toilet whilst flying.
Regarding hidden disabilities, there are those who are much more calm when they are surrounded by objects which are all different colours.
Long term, all airlines should be looking to allow wheelchair-users to remain seated in their wheelchair, inside the cabin, during the flight.
13. What does the future hold for you and your business?
The future is bright for easyTravelseat! We are off to a steady start with interest across the globe. We believe in an accessible aviation world and are able to provide an immediate solution to help reduce some of the significant problems with maintaining safety, dignity and comfort when flying with a wheelchair.
We will now look to ensure easyTravelseat is easily accessible in as many countries across the globe as possible in the coming years.
1. What is your disability and how does it affect you?
Lauren West:I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I’ve never walked independently and got my first powered wheelchair at the age of two and a half.
Despite the severity of my SMA, I passed my driving test, went to university three hours from home, and moved to London to start my working life. I now still live in London with my partner and with support from live-in PAs who do all my personal care and domestic tasks.
Michaela Hollywood: I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I commonly say that I can do pretty much nothing without assistance except speak! Although, I have recently learned to drive using hand controls.
Possibly the biggest impact of my SMA is my breathing and the impact of chest infections, which can make me sick quite often. I’m also deaf, and have pancreatic insufficiency which affects my ability to digest food, and that can cause a lot of pain and fatigue. My motto is; I can drive a van, and boil a kettle but I can’t make a cup of tea!
Emma Vogelmann: I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I’m a full-time electric wheelchair-user and since contracting Swine flu in 2009, I also use a portable ventilator via a tracheotomy.
2. How and why did you become involved with MDUK Trailblazers, and what is your role?
Lauren West: I became involved at the very start of Trailblazers, after I left the Whizz-kidz Kids Board. I felt I had a campaigning void in my life after leaving the board, so I was really excited when I heard about Trailblazers. For a long time, I was the only Welsh Trailblazer and so I formed a great bond with the original team, Bobby and Tanvi.
I stayed involved throughout university through participating in work experience and attending events like APPGs. I was delighted after a few years in different jobs to be offered the role as Campaigns Officer, as I’d always wanted to work for Trailblazers. It was then super exciting to take up the role of Trailblazers Manager at the beginning of 2016.
Michaela Hollywood: I was involved with Trailblazers from the very beginning, before it even started!
I was at a MDUK Family Weekend when I was 16, and, because of my disability and access requirements, I couldn’t book tickets to see the band McFLY perform in my local arena. Consequently, I spoke to the then Chief Executive of the charity Phil Butcher, and said we need a “young people’s forum”. My idea at the time was that those of us with a muscle wasting condition have powerful voices that weren’t being heard, and too many non-disabled adults were making decisions that affected our lives without even thinking of consulting us. And out of that Trailblazers was born!
I volunteered for the first number of years, and directed the organisation from Northern Ireland for a year before it became official. I went to university and did my undergraduate degree in Public Relations, followed by a Masters in PR and Communications, specialising in political lobbying. I then joined the team from home in Northern Ireland a little over 3 years ago.
Emma Vogelmann: I was invited by MDUK to a Parliamentary roundtable meeting about disability employment. I really liked that a prominent charity was directly engaging with young disabled people and their lived experiences. After that, I asked if there were any opportunities to get involved with the organisation which led to a 4 month internship with the Campaigns team. I absolutely loved it, so when the role of Employability Officer was advertised I knew I had to apply. The rest, as they say, is history!
3. How do you feel about being an influential career woman with a disability? Has your disability made you more determined to pursue your career goals?
Lauren West: I don’t think I would describe myself as an influential career woman but if I am seen that way, then that’s a real honour.
I think my disability has made me much more determined in all parts of my life, not just my career. I have always been quite driven and even when I wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to follow, I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference.
But I genuinely think there’s been one driving force behind my ambition and that was a social worker who was sorting out my university care package. She made an off-the-cuff comment about how when I was done having fun at university, I’d come home and she’d help set me up on benefits in a little flat. Whilst this is needed for some, this is not how I wanted my life to go, but I knew I’d face similar beliefs and attitudes throughout my whole life. So I was determined to fight against that societal expectation.
Michaela Hollywood: For me, I think it made my education very important. And it’s made me steely and determined. It’s a good advantage to be able to use my voice as communication is so important when your impairment is so physical. I’m proud to be in the position I am, and try to keep my focus on what I can do for others.
Emma Vogelmann: I never really thought of myself as an influential career woman in all honesty. I suppose you just crack on with your day-to-day work, so you never stop to think about it.
Now I am starting to see the impact my work has on other people, such as my employment work. I’ve seen the people involved in my project access jobs, find a careers mentor and so many other meaningful changes. That’s incredibly rewarding for me.
My disability makes me more determined to do a lot of things, but definitely in my career. Someone in a meeting I ran summed it up perfectly, “disabled people feel the pressure to be exceptional just to be considered equal to their able-bodied co-workers”. While this is not the culture at MDUK, I do feel that internal pressure to prove myself constantly. I’ve learned first-hand and from others that it is unfortunately really hard to enter the working world as a disabled person, so once you’re there you feel like you need to show your employer why they made the right decision.
4. In relation to employment, what challenges have you faced due to your disability, and how have you overcome these obstacles?
Lauren West: Throughout school and university, getting a typical student job just wasn’t on the cards for me. For one thing, I just didn’t have the stamina to study and work. But also the usual student jobs just weren’t physically accessible to me. I was worried that this lack of work experience would put me at a severe disadvantage for getting a job once I’d graduated.
I was lucky that Trailblazers found me an internship at my local MP’s office, so I did one day a week there for three months in my final year of study. I also did work experience at MDUK which gave me a great taste of living and working in London.
I was incredibly fortunate to secure a job in London prior to graduating from my Master’s degree. However, when this job turned out to not be what I expected and complete with a very abusive boss, I had real trouble finding a new job. I mainly applied to charities and many claimed to be part of the ‘two ticks scheme’ which offered guaranteed interviews for disabled applicants.
However, it was rare I’d even get called for an interview and it took many unhappy months before I was offered a role as a mental health advocate. The same year, I started working for MDUK and I love being part of a charity that values diversity and inclusivity.
I think the only way I’ve overcome challenges within employment is just through stubbornness and determination. I really think there are organisations out there for everyone but it can just take a long time to find the right fit.
Michaela Hollywood: The biggest one is my health. Self-care is important to keep me ticking over. I’ve been really lucky to work for a group I wholeheartedly believe in, and where we see real help and progress happening. I try to make sure others are afforded the same opportunities I have been lucky to have.
Emma Vogelmann: I struggled to find an employer willing to give me a chance after university. Of course, this is true for most graduates. But I do feel that being a disabled graduate made it harder. I remember asking Lauren West for advice before I started working at MDUK about when, where and how to disclose my disability, because I didn’t want to be counted out too soon for jobs, but I also didn’t want to hide something I consider a strength. I decided to always disclose my disability, though this is a very personal choice that isn’t necessarily right for everyone. I work within a disability charity, so it is extremely relevant to say I’m disabled, but I know a lot of people who aren’t comfortable with this and that’s completely okay too.
As someone who was part of Trailblazers from the start, being able to bring those 10 years together through an incredible event in Parliament was just the best experience. Seeing over 100 people all in one room celebrating their successes of the past 10 years will be forever one of my best moments.
Michaela Hollywood: This is a tough one! My dad, Michael, likes to tell anyone and everyone he meets to “Google” me because he is so proud of what I’ve achieved.
Emma Vogelmann: What a tough question! I suppose it would be winning my case against a taxi driver who discriminated against me due to being a wheelchair-user. It happened on my second day of work at MDUK and it was a difficult experience to go through. But to have two courts agree that wheelchair-users cannot be overcharged was a great feeling. I really hope it will empower other wheelchair-users to not accept discriminatory treatment from taxi drivers.
Many thanks to the brilliant Emma, Lauren and Michaela for answering my questions.
The 21 year-old who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2, moved from the Ukraine to England at the age of 6. She currently lives in Bradford, Yorkshire with her Mum and younger sister.
Kat was good enough to talk with me about life with a disability, her experience as a physically disabled model, her growing YouTube channel and the issues she campaigns for.
Spinal Muscular Atrophy
1. Kat, please tell us about your disability and how it affects you.
I was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy type 2 when I was only a year old. This is a genetically inherited, progressive muscle-wasting condition.
I was told that essentially my spinal cord doesn’t communicate with my muscles properly. This means that over time my muscles slowly lose any strength they once had.
SMA2 affects all my muscles. This limits my mobility and my breathing. I’ve never had the ability to walk but I used to be able to crawl until around the age of 10. I’m now non-ambulant and a full-time wheelchair user.
When I was younger, I was often in and out of hospital because I struggled to fight off infections. A common cold would often develop into something much more serious. As a result, I was unable to attend school and was home-tutored instead.
I guess I’ve had quite an unconventional, drama-filled life, but I don’t know any different. This is my normal.
Life as a disabled Model
2. How did you become a model and what does this mean to you, as a young disabled woman?
I’ve always enjoyed being creative and experimental with my style. Not only did Instagram provide a platform for that creative outlet, it also encouraged me to express my style and share my life and experiences with people who are leading similar lives.
When I was younger, I had never seen anyone with a disability in the fashion world, and so I never imagined that someone like myself, with a physical disability, could be a model.
One day, Instagram suggested that I follow Zebedee Management. After scrolling through to find out more about them, I quickly fell in love with what they’re all about and instantly knew I wanted to be a part of their family.
I applied after attending a fashion show hosted by Zebedee Management, and was then invited to attend a shoot. I never imagined myself as a model but being accepted by Zebedee has given me a massive confident boost!
Joining Zebedee as a disabled model has made me proud to be able to represent young disabled women, like myself, in the media. This opportunity has enabled me to empower and act as a role model for the younger generation.
I feel privileged to have worked on three wonderful campaigns, all of which are very special to me.
I’ve made it my mission to embrace and love my body after years of self-loathing. It was therefore a really special experience for me, especially to have found the confidence to bare all on camera and share my scoliosis story.
I was fortunate to be chosen as one of their ambassadors, and to work alongside seven very talented people. The four LGBTQ+ campaigners, including myself, were partnered with four incredible artists who painted our portraits. The portraits were then displayed throughout the UK during the Birmingham, London and Brighton Pride weekends.
Our portraits went on to be sold at auction and all proceeds went to LGBTQ+ charities.
Visibility, diversity and inclusion is so important, and I’m so proud to be able to share my perspective and represent those with disabilities in the LGBTQ+ community. Unfortunately I do believe that we are underrepresented and I’d love to improve this by talking about my sexuality more.
It is only two years since I came out, so I’m still learning about myself and the community. I’m very fortunate that my Mum accepts me and my sexuality, although my family back home in the Ukraine are not yet aware.
3. Kat, could you please tell us about your Youtube channel?
I started vlogging because I wanted to share the highs and lows of my life, as a young disabled woman living with SMA2. Not only that; I also wanted to raise awareness of the fact that my life is actually pretty ordinary for a 21 year-old woman, despite being a full-time wheelchair user. I live at home with my Mum, younger sister and our dog named Khloe Kardashian. I love to go out shopping, clubbing, meeting friends and traveling.
I was inspired to start my own Youtube channel after I became obsessed with other vloggers whilst in hospital. Back in 2012, I was subscribed to many of the famous ‘Brit crew’ content creators, such as Zoe Sugg and Louise Pentland. I found myself watching their YouTube channels for hours and I always knew it was something I wanted to pursue.
I’m proud to be a disabled creator and put the platform to good use by sharing my experiences. I hope my contribution offers a realisitic and informative insight into what life is like with a disability, and that society learns to understand us (disabled people) better.
I love the YouTube community and feel like it’s a second family. I can definitely see myself working in the media in the future.
I also love that YouTube allows viewer anonymity. Anyone can observe my vidoes without needing to engage with me directly, thereby eliminating any potential awkwardness.
Some people are curious to ask disability-related questions but are often too shy or afraid to do so. They might be scared of saying something that may come across as inappropriate, or they may not know how to address topics appropriately.
I’m open to discussing most topics, however taboo they might seem. For me, it’s about trying to encourage people to interact and engage with me and my videos, as I love to educate, inform, raise awareness and simply chat with curious folk!
4. You describe yourself as a disability activist. What are the issues that are most important to you?
I grew up feeling super self-conscious about my disability, to the extent I would actually try to ignore it in the hope that one day everything would be ‘normal’. But when you think about it, what is ‘normal’, anyway?
I believe that we should embrace our differences, encourage acceptance and celebrate diversity in all its forms!
I think that society in general still interacts with us (disabled people) in a very condescending and neglectful manner. People are either sweeping us under the rug, or using us as tokens of diversity and not really accepting or understanding our lifestyles. It’s 2018 and frankly, it’s tiring!
I’ve been involved with a number of opportunities, such as speaking on ITV national News about my short film, which I released last year with the help of Fixers UK. I also attended an event in London with FixersUK, where I spoke to sponsors about my film and promoting disability awareness.
I have also presented talks, and held workshops with students and tutors in schools and colleges. As well as participating in panels at the WoW festival, I recently took part in a discussion for BBC 5 Live about how disability can be better represented in the fashion and beauty industry.
I’d like to thank Kat Pemberton for taking the time to answer my questions.
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 us how your disability affects you and how you continue to cope with ongoing, chronic pain?
Following my motorcycle accident in 2010, I was diagnosed with Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome. CRPS is known as “the suicide disease” because it causes constant chronic pain. It’s ranked highest on the pain scale and has no known cure. When I was first diagnosed, I was told I’d be permanently disabled and wheelchair-bound.
At first I lived in denial and pretended nothing was wrong. Behind my smile, I was dying inside from physical and emotional pain. Everything I read about CRPS left me feeling hopeless. Still, I continued moving forward, despite the feeling of a vice grip on my foot and battery acid through my veins. I tried every kind of treatment for my pain, including a spinal stimulator, nerve blocks, ketamine infusions, Eastern and Western medicine, and anything that claimed it could bring me relief.
It wasn’t until I accepted the fact that I had CRPS and what I call my “new normal” that I began to show myself the self-love and self-compassion I needed to start to feel better. I wish I could tell you I found some magic pill or movement that relieves my pain, but the truth is, every day is different, and so are my pain levels. What works some days doesn’t always work the next, so I just keep trying, and doing, and praying.
When I am in pain, I go through my list of helpful tools. There is no particular order.
I practice mindfulness, meaning I do whatever I can to stop thinking about and focusing on my pain. I surround myself with positive people. No more doggy downers, only puppy uppers!
I count my blessings and practice gratitude.
I give myself permission to rest on a flare day and remember that I am doing exactly what I need to do. I am recovering.
I eat an anti-inflammatory diet.
I am on a sleep schedule (and yes, this means that I have an alert on my phone that tells me when it’s bedtime).
I am still learning to meditate.
I breathe deep breaths.
I do everything I can to be of service to others. When you focus on the well-being of others, your self-pity disappears as you improve the quality of someone else’s life.
Then I repeat. Instead of allowing my pain to make me bitter, I do my best to appreciate everything I have, no matter how big or small. I will focus on the good in my life and let that be my medicine.
2. You endured incredibly trying times prior to your motorcycle accident, including parental divorce and sexual abuse. How has maturity and resilience helped you since your accident?
I learned from a young age to “cowgirl up” because at the time, there was no alternative. Dwelling on why reality wasn’t prettier wouldn’t have done a thing for me. It would have crippled me then, preventing me from achieving everything I wanted to and crippled me years later when I was actually crippled, preventing me from choosing nothing less than recovery. As weird as it may be to say this, I believe the pain and isolation I felt in those difficult times as a child were an ironic blessing of sorts. When you know from an early age that you’re on your own and can rely only and entirely on yourself, it’s as liberating as it is sad. But if you can take the sadness and self-pity out of it, then what you’re left with is a liberating sense of freedom—and, when trauma strikes, you don’t waste any time looking for someone to bail you out.
3. How and why did you choose to ignore and defy the doctor who abruptly told you that you would never function normally within society, not walk again?
Call it my stubbornness or my love of a good challenge or being in complete denial, but I wanted, more than anything, to chase after my daughter like a mother should and be free to do the things that make my heart sing, like hiking and exercise. Just because my body was “broken” on the outside, I was still the determined athlete on the inside. I learned to truly listen to my body and to be the healthiest I could be, despite my circumstances. We may not get to control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. So, getting on with my life was a series of three steps up (to the degree that I could take steps) and six steps back, both physically and emotionally. Every one of my surgeries, that totaled 34, I viewed as bumps in the road. I couldn’t think of them as anything but that. If I had, I would have given up. And nothing, not even a doctor’s advice, could get me to do that. Although I love my doctors, I had to think for myself when it came to my own health and happiness.
4. Understandably, you experienced severe depression following your accident. What was the turning point for you? And how do you find strength and energy to turn such despair into positivity?
Somewhere in between surgeries number 28 and 34, I mentally spiraled into a deep, dark depression. I could feel myself giving up and giving in to the pain, and in that moment, I thought about my beautiful children, my family, my friends, and my clients, and realized I had better make a decision. I could go down the road of despair or down the road of peace and happiness. I immediately threw myself into a place of gratitude for all I did have in my life. Every time a negative thought crept into my mind, I replaced it with something I was grateful for. I threw myself into physical therapy and stayed active with my fitness clientele. Even though I couldn’t physically train them at first, I could still create their exercise plans and coach them over the phone. Being of service really took me out of my despair and gave me a sense of purpose and a strong feeling of connection.
5. Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) is also often referred to as “the suicide disease” due to the fact so many sufferers take their own lives. How did you overcome the odds and move forward in order to achieve your goals and live life to the fullest?
My heart sank the first time I learned I had what is known as the suicide disease. When I found out I had an incurable disease that would leave me in constant chronic pain, I defaulted to denial; it took me years to accept that I am a woman with a disability. It wasn’t until I completely accepted my disability that I could begin to heal—not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. I focus on what I can do and don’t get caught up in past accomplishments. I celebrate small victories along the way, whether being able to walk up the stairs on my own or walk on the beach with my family. I only look back to see how far I have come. I connect to my higher power every day and pray. Instead of letting my chronic pain detour me from my endeavors, I use it as a tool to connect me with others going through challenges and am reminded that I am not alone on this journey.
6. Throughout the book, you discuss the need for hope, acceptance and gratitude — to be thankful for all you have rather than looking to the past and what you have lost. Do you feel this is the key to getting the most out of life?
At first I was so caught up in my past accomplishments that I couldn’t live fully in the present moment. I went from being a dancer, athlete, and fitness trainer to fighting just to stand upright for a few seconds at a time. I was so embarrassed of my scars and tried to pretend that nothing was wrong with me. Allowing others to see my scars crushed me. Slowly, however, my perspective changed and I took ownership of my story. I then viewed my scars as battles I had won. Instead of looking down at my leg in anguish, I looked at it as a blessing. I still had my legs. Once I embraced my imperfections and learned self-acceptance, I truly began to heal and be comfortable in my own skin.
Without the traumas and heartbreaks of life I wouldn’t be able to serve the way I do now. It’s not about circumstances but about what you decide to do with them. I focus on what I am grateful for and don’t leave any room for self-pity. I make my purpose bigger than my problems.
As Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is though nothing is a miracle. The other is though everything is a miracle”. I believe in miracles.
7. Your role as a wellness coach and motivational speaker involves supporting, inspiring and advising others. Why is this so important and how does helping other people through their difficulties benefit you personally?
I wanted more than ever to get back to my passion, which is working with people, but I did wonder who would want to train with me. I felt broken. I trained fitness competitors, boxers, and CHP officers for years—and then I found myself on crutches. I now needed my clients more than they needed me. I needed to get back to work. I needed to give my life purpose above and beyond trying to walk again. Purpose was what would save me mentally, psychologically, spiritually—and, for that matter, physically. Purpose was what would get me on my feet and, someday—as I prayed—running again. I did whatever I could to get myself stronger—and then came the miracle. Business began booming, and did so quickly because people saw me in the gym, in my wheelchair or on crutches, even pushing myself from station to station in a wheelchair. I became the trainer of encouragement who told people, Yes you can! and that was how I trained them. Speaking to groups of people, whether a gathering of youth or business professionals, about overcoming obstacles is a way of connecting, and when people connect, magic happens. I believe we need to lift others up to be better ourselves.
8. What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?
What I have learned in life is a series of choices we make regardless of our circumstances. I could either make the choice to give up and let my life be determined by my circumstances, or fight to create something positive out of my situation. My choice is to notice the gifts life offers, which are particularly plentiful when you look for them. I believe in seeing the good in every situation and learning something from it.
I believe we can have the life we have always imagined, even if our circumstances have narrowed our possibilities. My sincere wish is that my story will help each reader claim their own power and belief in themselves and their dreams, and find their own resilience to move forward and choose a life filled with laughter and love, even when things don’t go as planned. We can’t choose what life throws our way, but we can choose to be happy and live a full life, despite our circumstances. Through our trials, we can embrace our challenges, connect to our innermost resilience, and change our perspective on life. We are all strong, but together we are unstoppable!
I’d like to thank Amberly Lago for taking the time to answer my questions so considerately.
Please visit her website to learn more about her life and work as a motivational speaker.
20 year-old Shelby Lynch is an up-and-coming YouTuber from England, who happens to have a muscle-wasting condition similar to myself.
She was recently kind enough to chat with me about her disability, life as a YouTuber and her involvement with the Missguided #KEEPONBEINGYOU campaign.
1. Could you please tell us about your disability and how it affects you?
My disability is called SMA (Spinal Muscular Atrophy). This causes my muscles to become weaker over time. I have a curve in my spine (scoliosis) and am unable to walk, so I use a powered wheelchair to get around. I also need to use a ventilator 24/7 to help me breathe.
2. What have you found to be the biggest challenges of living with your disability?
The biggest challenge of having a disability is having to rely on other people to do things for you. My daily life is affected – I need help with simple things like getting around, eating and personal care. I’d love to be able to do my own hair and makeup.
Also, not having as much independence as someone my age should. Independance for me is key.
3. What, if any, do you feel are the positives to having a disability?
There are a lot of perks! For me, the biggest positive that comes with having a disability is getting to skip the queue for certain things. Sometimes I can get free access to certain places too. But then others do take the piss and charge disabled people more than they would an able-bodied person.
4. Can you please explain why you decided to become a Youtuber?
I wouldn’t say I’m a successful YouTuber but if I’m helping people in a certain way then that’s cool. I started watching YouTube around four years ago. I thought it looked really fun so I decided to make a channel too. On my channel I talk about fashion, beauty, lifestyle and my disability.
Really, I just want to have fun with it to be honest. I want to show people that I’m just a regular 20 year old who enjoys doing what other people like to do. Whether it’s going to concerts or hanging out with friends.
5. Do you consider yourself to be an inspiration?
No, I don’t consider myself to be an inspiration unless I have done something to impact people. People usually call me an inspiration just because I’m disabled but to me, that’s not right.
6. Can you talk about your involvement with the Missguided campaign, and what it means to you?
I saw their campaign on Instagram and really liked the fact they were showing different types of people. So, I took a picture of myself wearing one of their jumpers, and used the hashtag #KEEPONBEINGYOU.
Only a couple of hours later they had reposted my picture. It was so overwhelming receiving so many nice comments from people I didn’t even know. Then somebody from Missguided contacted me, offering to send some clothes, and asking if I would like do a mini photo shoot and video for their campaign which felt like a dream!
Working with them was absolutely incredible! When they asked me if I would join their campaign I was over the moon. It was such a great start to the week. I was a bit nervous as I have never done anything like this before.
But Missguided is a brand that I actually love. And I feel like their clothes are different to any other fashion retailer. The clothes make me feel confident and cool, so getting to work with them was a dream come true.
In addition, it’s great that they aren’t afraid to break barriers by showing some diversity in their campaign. This is something I personally respect so much.
In my caption for my picture I spoke about how disabled people aren’t often seen as pretty or sexy because of their disability, and that’s not the case. We should feel empowered no matter what.
– “Keep On Being You means to be confident in your own skin, and not letting anyone in life tell you that you can’t do anything.”
I hope they ask me to work with them again as it was so much fun and they are certainly leading the way in showing diversity as a fashion brand.
Find out more about Shelby’s involvement with the Missguided #KEEPONBEINGYOU campaign here.