Years ago, during a university art class, a fellow student sat idly, pissing and moaning about how awful and unfair his life was. (He wasn’t literally pissing, by the way. That would be odd!).
There, in my powered wheelchair, with teeth clenched, I chose to remain quiet while he complained about his superficial, so-called ‘problems’.
As I recall, he’d depleted the bank of mum and dad on nights out and booze, meaning he couldn’t afford to go clubbing again that week.
Oh dear, what an awful shame!
A lad opposite, who I didn’t know well, kept looking at me with a shared expression of annoyance – I remember it vividly. He finally interrupted, “you know what mate, we’ve all got problems! Maybe look around sometime”.
I couldn’t help but smile and offer a nod of respect.
I was 20 at the time. Now 33, my tolerance for ignorance and entitlement has dissipated with age.
Truth is, everyone, at some point in life, will encounter problems, challenges and setbacks. Indeed, we all feel stressed and depressed from time to time – these feelings are completely valid.
Of course, feeling depressed is NOT the same as suffering from depression itself. (That’s a whole other topic, which I won’t go into here).
I’m sure we’ve all been told, “others have it worse off”. While I find this phrase unhelpful and somewhat dismissive, I must concede, it is often true (sorry, not sorry!).
Not to undermine anyone’s struggles or experiences, I do think it’s fair to say that the problems of some people are far greater than those of others – to gain a little perspective, all you need to do is switch on the news!
Admittedly, over the years, I’ve allowed myself to indulge in moments of self-pity (not an attractive trait). The dark pit of despair is easy to fall into, and difficult to climb out of.
That said, I’ve never sulked or felt sorry for myself over what I consider petty complaints, such as missing out on a social gathering or event. Honestly, I’ve no time or patience for that sort of nonsense. Again, it’s about perspective.
On my darkest days, I would ask – Why me? What have I done to deserve this crap?
Funnily enough, no higher power ever answered. Which later lead me to ask – Why not me? What makes me so special?
Shit happens! And yes, some of us face more than our fair share of it. But like it or not, we must learn to accept, adapt and deal with it – limitation, loss, grief, disability, pain, trauma, illness…
What’s the alternative? Hide under the duvet covers and wallow? Trust me, that sort of self-destructive behaviour can only create further problems.
If I’ve learnt anything, it’s that life isn’t fair.
I continue to battle with frustration due to my health, physical limitations and circumstances over which I have no control. So, I now try my best to practice gratitude and remind myself of all the good things I am blessed with. I don’t always succeed, but I try.
I also find it hugely beneficial to avoid self-indulgent doombrains like the aforementioned art student!
As a kid, though aware of the physical differences between myself and my peers, I really didn’t care. I was generally happy with a good group of friends.
But, of course, kids (and adults) can be blunt and sometimes cruel with their words and observations. And, as time went on, I was subjected more and more to stares, pointing, judgement and exclusion.
I became a full-time wheelchair-user at the age of 10. Back then, it was very much a case of ‘suck it up and get on with it, these are the cards you’ve been dealt’. Looking back, I guess it affected me more than I realised.
My teens were hard – I became increasingly withdrawn, conscious of what I consider my flaws, and constantly compared myself to other girls, wishing I looked like them.
Then came the dating years…
Comments such as, “you’re no one’s type” and “no one’s going to want you” massively impacted my self-perception and relationships.
Somewhere along the way, I lost myself and my sense of identity.
Now aged 33, I appear more child-like than womanly. I can honestly say, I’ve never felt sexy, or even attractive, in my entire life!
I’m not body-confident, and I don’t think I ever will be. I still compare myself to others and shy away from people, places and opportunities.
But, I am really trying to accept the fact that there is nothing I can do about my body. It is what it is – unique. I need to make the best of what I do have.
If others don’t like it, that’s absolutely fine, but they can kindly fuck off!
In an attempt to push myself out of hermit mode, I recently ‘dressed up’, took some sour-faced selfies, and posted them on Instagram…
…Excuse the Listerine!
The response was positive, complimentary and sincere. It gave me the confidence to write this post and ‘put myself out there’.
Why? Because I am what I am. I’m not “normal”. But what is “normal”, anyway?
“Normal” life came to an abrupt halt and, 5 weeks later, I’m still struggling with breathlessness, pain and exacerbated chronic fatigue.
For those of you who don’t know, I was born with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy – a progressive condition. Consequently, my lung function is total crap, immunity impaired, and a significant scoliosis causes my internal organs to fight for space.
I’m a seasoned pro when it comes to extended periods of enforced isolation and inactivity, resulting from a lifetime of ill health. Fortunately, I’m more than comfortable with my own company!
In all seriousness, spending your days sat in the same chair, in the same room, attached to a ventilator 24/7, unable to make it as far as the kitchen, let alone leave the house – it’s…really not good!
This latest period of downtime allowed me to reflect on my 33 years – what I’ve learned, and what I want to focus on going forward.
My Life Lessons
Stop caring what others think of me
(because, actually, they’re probably not thinking anything)
I can trace this back to a comment made by a fellow pupil at primary school who told me, “you look normal when you sit down but really weird when you walk”.
I remember it vividly and, ever since, I’ve been painfully self-conscious, particularly about my appearance. But, now I’m ‘old’, I’m trying not to care about the opinions of others, especially total strangers.
Take me as I am or not at all.
Be my true, authentic self
I once had a (sort of) date which ended up in the guy’s completely bare bedroom. In this room was only a bed, some strewn clothes and a copy of, Alice in Wonderland. Rather than attempt to flirt and seduce (yeah, I’m cool), I turned my attention to the book and asked what it meant to him.
His answer made an impression on me:
“I like it because it’s about being open-minded, being yourself, holding onto your identity, and being comfortable with who you are. I’m weird, you’re weird, everyone’s weird! And that’s a good thing, in my view.”
Man, he was…DEEP!
Don’t waste my time, effort or tears on those who don’t care
I think, for most of us, our social circle becomes smaller as we age. And this isn’t a bad thing! On the contrary, you learn who you can be your unfiltered self with, who is willing to tell it as it is, who has your back, and who you can count on when times are hard – the ‘no matter what’ friends and family.
I am guilty of investing too much energy into the wrong people. But, from here on, I will realise my worth and focus only on those who bring joy to my life.
Well, I must now bring this lengthy blog post to a close and get back to my milky tea and digestive biscuits.
I was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, affecting my body and physicality. I have a severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine) which, for various reasons, is not surgically corrected. This causes asymmetry and a shortened torso. Joint contractures mean I am unable to stretch out my arms or legs. Furthermore, the muscle wasting nature of my condition results in extremely thin limbs.
Now 31, I look very different from other women my age. My pixie-sized stature is emphasised by the scoliosis. In place of womanly curves, are unwanted and abnormally crooked humps and bumps. This visible contrast negatively impacts my sense of self and makes me feel odd, weird, and self-conscious.
I love fashion but fashion doesn’t love me
Over the years, I have desperately sought to hide my body with shapeless, baggy clothes. Anything resembling a potato sack is a winner. I live in leggings because jeans are a no-go and frankly, they are the next best thing to pyjamas!
Clothing manufacturers don’t cater for my body since it doesn’t meet standard criteria. Shopping is not an enjoyable experience. It is a frustrating and disappointing struggle to find anything at all to fit, let alone look flattering. Most of the clothes I buy have to be returned which makes me wonder why I bother at all – well, simply because I can’t roll about naked!
Accepting my unique body
Do I love, embrace and celebrate my unique body shape? Hell, no! BUT – I have slowly and gradually learnt to accept it. After all, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change it. So why stress myself out over something I cannot control.
Exercise isn’t an option for me. I can’t go to the gym and buff-up. And why should I resort to cosmetic surgery? Why put myself through pain, trauma and financial strain simply to conform to societies high and unrealistic standards of beauty? Okay, it might make me feel more confident to look a little more like the average woman. Then again, it might not…
Societal standards of body beautiful
Our perception of body image and beauty is arguably increasingly influenced by social media, particularly Instagram. Heavily airbrushed, edited and filtered selfies are everywhere to be seen. With a smartphone, we can all look like a celeb from a magazine spread!
But this is misleading, unrealistic and unattainable. I can’t relate to the pouty, posers of Instagram. Honestly, can anyone?!
Diverse bodies are sadly under-represented in the media. This is starting to improve but there is still a long way to go before the presence of disabled bodies on our screens becomes mainstream.
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.
Shane Burcaw is a high-profile, 26 year-old American writer, public speaker and charity founder. He has documented all aspects of his life with spinal muscular atrophy with candid humour, thereby informing and inspiring others whilst also influencing the public perception of disability.
Burcaw has been commended for his ongoing determination, sincerity and ability to raise awareness of often uncomfortable issues, in a sensitive manner.
Shane kindly took time out of his busy schedule to speak with me about life with SMA, what motivates his work, and why personal care doesn’t affect his relationship with able-bodied girlfriend, Hannah.
1. Shane, please could you tell us about your disability and how it affects you and your lifestyle?
I have Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2, but I’m on the weaker end of the Type 2 spectrum. SMA is a neuromuscular disease that causes my muscles to weaken and waste away over time. I’ve been using an electric wheelchair since the age of two. In a nutshell, my disease affects every single function of the body that involves muscles. I can barely move my legs, arms, and hands. I have difficulty swallowing, speaking, and breathing (especially when sick). Because of this weakness, I rely on other people for pretty much every aspect of daily life, from getting out of bed, to eating, to going to the bathroom. Luckily, I’ve been surrounded by incredible people who have always been there to help me, and because of that, I’m able to live a fairly “normal” life, with a career, a variety of hobbies, and frequent traveling for both leisure and work. I live with my girlfriend, Hannah, in Minneapolis, and she is my primary caregiver.
2. What motivates you to do the work you do (writing, public speaking, raising awareness through social media and your charity LAMN) and how do you find the energy?
My disease is progressive, so my condition and abilities deteriorate over time. I learned at a young age that many people with SMA pass away at a younger age than the average, and that realisation instilled in me some sort of existential determination to leave a mark on the world. Some might call it vain, but I was terrified by the prospect of dying without having done anything to be remembered for. I began sharing my story through funny blogs and later books, and working hard to grow a non-profit organisation that provides free equipment to others with my disease. Coffee is really the only way I’m able to balance writing, the non-profit, blogging, vlogging, and public speaking!
It should be noted that two years ago, the first-ever treatment (Spinraza) for my disease was discovered and approved. I began receiving it at the age of 25, and it’s supposed to stop the progression of my muscle-wasting. This has been a huge development in my life, both physically and mentally, and I’m still coming to terms with the fact that my future might be much different than I originally imagined.
3. Could you please tell us about Laughing At My Nightmare (charitable organisation) – how it all began, aims and objectives?
Our non-profit grew out of my blog that I began writing in 2011. People from all around the world felt an authentic connection with the idea that humour can help us cope with adversity. My cousin Sarah and I co-founded LAMN as a way to spread that idea to more people, and along the way we began raising funds to provide equipment to the muscular dystrophy community. In the past three years we have provided over $150,000 in medical and adaptive equipment to people living with muscular dystrophy.
4. In 2014, you wrote your first book. A memoir also entitled, Laughing At My Nightmare. Two further books followed. Who are your books aimed at and can readers expect?
5. In the past, you have faced criticism from some in the disabled community. The terms ‘inspiration/pity porn’ have been used. Can you explain why this is and how you feel about the backlash?
Living with SMA can, at times, be extremely difficult from an emotional/mental standpoint. Experiencing the slow decline of ability through my adolescence and coming to terms with my future and my place in society was not always a bright, cheery process. My writing has always been an authentic reflection on my thoughts and experiences, so I wrote honestly about my fears and challenges. When my story began to receive attention on a larger scale, there were some people in the disabled community who didn’t agree with my sharing of these intimate worries. People accused me of playing up the negative aspects of my disability for attention, while others thought I was exploiting my life in an attempt to be “inspiring.”
I’m glad that people spoke up with their criticism. Although my writing has always been overwhelmingly positive, their feedback helped me reflect on some of my fears about getting worse and dying. Getting involved in the muscular dystrophy community has been such a positive thing for me, and they’ve helped me reframe my outlook on a personal level, which, in turn, has changed how I write about my disease. We are all learning and growing together!
6. Has your attitude to disability, your own in particular, changed over time?
Earlier in life, my biggest concern was minimising my disability for the sake of appearing “normal.” As I’ve gotten older, I’m less concerned with fitting in, and becoming more passionate about embracing my disability and changing the way society sees disability.
7. You have been with your able-bodied girlfriend, Hannah, for over two years. If you are comfortable doing so, would you please share with us how you met and a little about your relationship.
Hannah and I live together in Minneapolis, and she has been my primary caregiver for the past seven months. After doing two years of long distance, we are both happier than we’ve ever been now that we are permanently together. Like all couples, we have the occasional disagreement, but by and large we don’t feel like the caregiving aspects of our relationship create a strain. In fact, we both agree that these caregiving activities help strengthen our emotional connection.
I would like to thank Shane for taking the time answer my questions.
My good friend Lucy recently graduated from Canterbury Christ Church University with a First class honours degree. Like me, 24 year-old Lucy who lives with her family in Kent, has a progressive form of muscular dystrophy.
Now that she’s free from study, I thought I’d grab her for a chat and ask a few questions about her university experience from the perspective of being a physically disabled student.
Perhaps the insight, information and advice offered here might be helpful to anyone out there with a disability who is applying to university or considering higher education.
1. Hi Lucy, can you please describe your disability and how it affects you.
Hey! So, I have Congenital Muscular Dystrophy – Merosin Deficient, meaning I lack the merosin needed to knit the layers of my muscles together. Because of this, I get progressively weaker over time due to my muscles being unable to properly repair themselves.
This weakness means I can’t really do anything for myself without support from other people. It also makes daily habits difficult as I lack the strength to hold things and do things. A few examples might be that I find it difficult to feed myself as I find certain cutlery too heavy to lift, I can no longer read books unless they’re digital as I cannot hold them or turn pages, and I need regular hoisting for transfers and the bathroom.
Being a muscle defect, my organs and my lungs in particular are affected, meaning I have regular medication and ventilator intervention to aid my breathing. Lying down helps with this, as well as only being able to write/type lying down, which means I lie down most of the time.
2. Did your disability put off going to university? And what, if any, concerns did you have prior to applying for university?
I knew it would be difficult to apply to university but I wouldn’t say my disability ever “put me off” of applying. I’ve been very lucky with my education in that my parents have always pushed for inclusion and for me to receive education befitting my abilities. I went to a mainstream primary school, a grammar school for my secondary education, and college after that. So applying for university, whilst scary, was the logical next step for me.
That’s not to say I didn’t have any concerns regarding how I would be able to access higher education with my disability. One of my main worries was that Uni is a very different environment from school in that the campus is a lot bigger! Having hoists and a portable bed so I can lie down is all well and good when it’s accessible but, what if I was timetabled for lectures in a different building to my equipment? It wouldn’t be possible to transfer every 5 minutes, so it took a while to negotiate a timetable solely in one place – it was tough but doable.
3. Could you please explain the application process and any challenges you faced?
After applying and being accepted, I began having regular meetings with the disability officer who would be supporting me during my time at Uni. The disability department at my university in particular was split into different fields: physical disabilities, learning disabilities, and mental health.
We discussed suitable timetabling, storage for my hoists and bed, even suitable places for my carers to chill out whilst I was in lectures. It was all sorted over the summer months before term was due to start.
I chose to live at home with my family throughout the duration of my course (2015-18) rather than on campus, so that was one less thing to organise.
4. What support did you receive and was it difficult to get this support in place?
I have my own team of personal carers, provided by an agency, who supported me whilst a student. In my case, this wasn’t something the university or disability officer organised or supported with.
The DSA I used mainly to pay for transport. I paid for a wheelchair-accessible taxi to take me to Uni or the library each day. The finance was also used to supply me with a MacBook and accompanying software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking and Claroread, as well as a printer and allowances for things like ink cartridges and paper.
I personally found the process of co-ordinating with my disability officer really straightforward at the beginning. She really listened to what my needs were and to the best of her abilities made sure everything was in place before I started my course. However, it was once I had enrolled that her involvement became less proactive. I think a major learning experience for me would be that I should have been more proactive myself in maintaining regular contact with her.
There are undoubtedly going to be a number of disabled students on the system at whichever university you attend. Therefore, I would say if you feel you need help or advice, don’t hesitate to ask! Because, when I did ask, she generally followed through. I only wish I’d asked for her help a lot more than I did.
5. How would you rate your university experience from a disability/inclusivity perspective?
Looking back on my experience as a disabled student, I’d rate my experience quite highly to be honest. There were certain things I found more difficult but generally I was included really well. I was able to lie down in lectures and participate fully, timetabling was set so I remained in one classroom for the entire day (something which my peers were VERY appreciative of, and made it known to me regularly). My equipment both on campus and at the library was easily accessible and staff were very helpful in its safe storage. All members of staff – from lecturers to security and housekeeping were continuously supportive and understanding of my needs.
6. In your opinion, what improvements need to be made to make higher education more accessible to disabled people?
As previously mentioned, I’ve been lucky in having the family support and confidence to access university, but I know how difficult it can be to have that confidence. I think one of the main reasons for this is because the process isn’t made clear or obvious. I mean, I had to work out my own process moving forward after my application. Whilst every process for establishing individual needs at Uni is going to be different, I think it’s important that the availability of such a step is highlighted.
I think UCAS and all university websites should, as a minimum, have a clear disability section outlining key contacts of enquiry. It’s far easier to make confident decisions if you’re fully informed and know that there’s going to be the support you need behind you.
I won’t rose tint – accessing higher education as a disabled student can be like having to find your own way in the dark! By no means is it a clear, easy-to-follow process.
7. What advice would you offer other disabled people considering university?
Having now completed university, I guess I’d advise others to try their best not to get anxious about the process. Yes, it’s daunting. Yes, it’s tough. But ultimately it is worth it.
As long as you’re clear and assertive about your needs, there will always be people around to support you. If you need support with campus or timetabling issues, ask the Uni. If you need help in class, ask your lecturers. If you need a pen, ask one of your peers! It all sounds really obvious and stupid but I can’t stress enough how important it is to just ask for help. But most importantly, be confident in yourself and just be yourself!
8. As a physically disabled individual, what do you consider to be the potential challenges around the social aspect of university life?
I think the social aspects of life in any context can be difficult for disabled people but at Uni it can be especially hard for some. I think one of the most important things to remember is that, actually, it’s not just you and it’s definitely not just disabled people that have this issue.
Many students relocate for university, sometimes half way across the country, sometimes half way across the world. So you’re all going to be in the same boat in that respect.
However, I’m not dismissing the fact that disabled people have it tougher than most. I think the most important thing is, once again, confidence. Many people lack the confidence to introduce themselves to disabled people for a multitude of different reasons – they don’t know what to say, they don’t know if you can respond, they don’t know if you want to be spoken to. All of these things can seriously put people off because they don’t want to embarrass themselves, or you for that matter, so it’s up to us to have the confidence that they lack.
Introduce yourself to people at Freshers’ Fayre, be an active member of your class and, if possible, join a society or two. Be the best version of yourself and people will be drawn to you.
*All images courtesy of Lucy Hudson.
I’d like to thank the lovely Lucy for putting up with my interrogation!
She is in fact a brilliant poet, having co-authored the poetry anthology ‘Wheels of Motion’ which can be purchased here!
24 year-old Becky Dann has kyphoscoliosis – a severe curvature of the spine. She was diagnosed at the age of four and became a wheelchair-user from the age of nine. She was subsequently bullied at school for her physical appearance.
You may recognise Becky as one of the participants from series 8 of the hit Channel 4 television show, The Undateables. But what you may not know is that she is also an accomplised artist.
As someone who has studied art throughout school and at undergraduate level myself, I thought it would be interesting to chat with Becky about her striking photography series, ‘I’m Fine’, and her work with Shape Arts, London.
1. Can you tell us about your photography project entitled, ‘I’m Fine’?
‘I’m Fine’ is a project that started in my second year of university. For most of my childhood, I was told I was different (due to my disability) and I didn’t understand it because I felt just like everyone else. University was when I really started to accept myself and how I looked. It was also the time when I started to realise that it wasn’t okay that I was constantly treated differently instead of an equal.
The project originally started with a research and development period, which looked at dating with a disability. As someone who started out very much hiding my disability online, I then explored why I did this and what the outcome was once I told someone. I then looked at the difference in dating online when my disability was put out there publicly from the outset.
As time went on I started to realise that looking deeper into things, I wanted to use this project as a ‘self-exploration’ project as well as a ‘challenging perceptions’ project. I was okay with how I looked – I wanted others to know that I’m okay and that people shouldn’t see me differently.
I decided to take some self-portraits in the studio as I wanted to show myself with my scoliosis on show as if to say, ‘this is me, I’m fine’.
Over the second and third year of university, I really explored this concept deeper and decided to develop the self-portraits into a live art piece. I wanted an audience and I wanted to challenge how comfortable they were around someone with a ‘different’ body. So, I advertised around my university – it was explained to audience members that the piece was a participatory piece whereby they were invited to paint a handprint and place it somewhere on my body, wherever they felt comfortable. Of course I kept my modest areas covered so people couldn’t take advantage, but I left my back clear.
It was really interesting because I was effectively a ‘statue’ and couldn’t talk. People were told to put the handprint anywhere on my body, but they continued to try and ask me where was acceptable. At one point I heard someone say, “There’s nowhere left”, though I knew full well that my back had not been touched. It wasn’t until one confident person put a handprint on my back that suddenly everyone realised it was okay.
2. How was your university experience (in terms of inclusivity and being a student with a physical disability)?
When I first started university (the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey) I was a full time wheelchair user with no clue what I was entitled to and I didn’t even know I was dyslexic. I remember first viewing my accommodation and quickly picking up on the fact that they seemed to put all disabled people together in one building, which was incredibly segratory.
I struggled to start with because I started to realise that a lot of my curriculum involved doing outdoor photography shoots, and I wasn’t sure how to do this without help – I couldn’t physically carry everything. I eventually asked for help and was pointed to our student services, where I was soon set up with a support worker which became really helpful to me.
In school, I had always struggled to retain information and although this was passed off without concern or investigation, I knew something wasn’t right. It wasn’t until I reached university that one of my tutors hinted that some students may want to go to student services for dyslexia support. I decided to seek help and see if that was the problem, and low and behold it turns out that I am in fact dyslexic! This meant I was given support with essays which became so useful since it really helped me to work to my full potential. I went from being a C/D grade student in my first year, to an A/B student in second and third year, eventually graduating with a First Class Honors degree.
I also gained enough movement in my legs during my second year, enabling me to start walking more with a crutch. Thankfully, my campus was so small and so going from campus to class was simple for me. It was great to finally feel independent.
Admittedly, I was really lucky at university as I had very supportive tutors around me, and I was there when DSA (Disabled Students’ Allowance) was in full force. But it was in my final year at university that I really started to notice how things needed to change for disabled students. Consequently, I ran for Disabled Students’ Officer in my Students’ Union elections, so that I could help represent my peers on campus. I won the election and helped make changes which was great. This then spurred me on to run for Campus President at my Students’ Union, where I was able to continue representing disabled students. I got to sit on boards within the university such as the Equality and Diversity board and the Inclusion board. I was able to speak out on behalf of disabled students, and help the university to become more inclusive. Furthermore, I was asked to speak at conferences with university staff about the importance of an inclusive education, and I was told by tutors who worked there that I’d made a real impact which meant a lot to me.
I was incredibly sad to say goodbye to my university, but I had the best years of my life there and I still speak to some of the staff!
3. What does your job at Shape Arts involve?
I work for an arts commissioning programme called Unlimited, which is run by Shape Arts and Artsadmin, two arts organisations in London. I am based at Shape Arts, an organisation working in the arts sector to improve access for and representation of disabled people, part of which is providing and sharing opportunities for disabled artists.
Unlimited commissions disabled artists to create their work. We have had some amazing artists such as Jess Thom from Touretteshero and Jackie Hagan too.
I am a trainee and have been working there just over a year. I am a key contact for a few of our artists, which means I am their point of call with anything regarding their commissions. When our current commissions are ready to tour, Southbank Centre has a festival at which some of our artists get to show their work. The next festival is 5 – 9 September 2018.
My role allows me the opportunity to do a lot of great things such as travelling to see different artworks, which I love. I recently went to Bristol and saw ‘The Nature of Why’ by Paraorchestra, another Unlimited commission at The Bristol Old Vic. I had already heard about Paraorchestra through working here, though I hadn’t seen any of their work and so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
As someone who isn’t usually good with immersive art, I was kind of nervous when I found out that the performance was around the audience and that dancers could come up to you. But as soon as the musicians started singing and the music started, there was a sudden wave of emotion that came over me. I listened to the whole piece so intensely and I felt so much emotion that I ended up crying! It was amazing and made me feel incredibly happy. I really love my job!
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.
Aged nine, I was offered corrective scoliosis surgery.
At the time, I had no idea why I was going to see this new doctor. To me, it was just another appointment.
There was no faffing around; this guy was straight to the point!
He firmly asserted that I needed an operation to prevent further decline of my spinal curvature.
I was horrified to hear of the graphic details, lengthy recovery period, and how it could even prove fatal.
Bear in mind, we’re going back more than 20 years – the whole procedure was very different to what it is today.
Of course, as an adult I now appreciate that with any surgical procedure, doctors are obliged to inform the patient of every potential risk and outcome, including death. But this was pretty shocking and unexpected news to take in at a young age.
How I Made My Decision
As a child, I attended annual outpatient appointments at Birmingham Heartlands Hospital, where I saw a paediatric neuromuscular Consultant.
My parents and I were never given a prognosis, nor any indication regarding if or how my condition might progress. Life expectancy was never discussed and no doctor could tell if I would, in time, come to rely on a wheelchair. We were very much in the dark, living day-to-day.
Frankly, these appointments frustrated and bored me to tears! We would wait hours to see the doctor, and leave knowing nothing more than we did before.
I have, in all honesty, learnt infinitely more as an adult through my own research and from others living with muscular dystrophy.
My point here is that my parents and I had nothing on which to base our decision. Or rather, my decision.
It is now more than 20 years since I was told I needed a spinal fusion. This was pre-Google and pre-social media.
We weren’t put in contact with anyone who had experienced the operation. So, other than a brief verbal overview from the Consultant, we had no other information or point of reference.
After leaving the appointment in a state of shock, my parents told me that ultimately the choice was mine. I decided I didn’t want to put myself through such an ordeal. I was, at that age, considerably more able than I am now, and none of us had any reason to think I would deteriorate as severely as I have.
Do I Regret My Decision?
At the time, it was, or at least seemed the right decision. I was able to weight-bear, finding clothes wasn’t an issue, I was pain-free, and did not require any inhalers, medication or respiratory support.
The procedure back then was much more invasive, and the recovery extremely lengthy compared to what it is today.
My condition was stable, I was happy and relatively able. Under those circumstances, the disadvantages outweighed the potential advantages.
However, I do often wonder how different my life, body and health might be had I said yes to a spinal fusion.
No one predicted that just a year after the offer was made, aged 10, I would become completely non-ambulant within a very short space of time. Had I any indication that this might occur, my decision may have been different.
Though my scoliosis was considerable, the ‘S’ shaped curve is now much greater. Consequently, my respiratory function is significantly affected and basic comfort is a distant memory.
On bad days, when I’m in pain and struggling for breath, or when I’m ill for months (yes, months) with respiratory infections; I do regret forgoing my one opportunity to correct my skeletal deformity.
But, what’s done is done, and cannot be undone. I’m stuck with me! I can’t change past decisions. I simply have to make the best of what I have and keep moving forward.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with scoliosis and spinal surgery.
– Have you turned down corrective surgery?
– Have you had a spinal fusion? If so, how has your life changed as a result? Is it better or worse?