Very few people know that I used to mentor and teach art to primary school children.
I’ve always found it easy to interact with kids. They say it how they see it – no agenda, no bullshit. And I have a very low tolerance for bullshit!
I’d happily take on a room full of kids over a room full of adults, any day!
I mentored one particular lad for about 18 months. He had just turned 8 when I first met him. He came from a deprived area, one of four siblings, his dad was in prison and his mum…well, let’s just say she wasn’t as conscientious as she should or could have been.
Later down the line, his 12 year-old sister accused one of the younger male teachers of indecent assault. Blimey, I remember that day vividly!
The lad, (let’s call him Bob!), was a lovely kid – really polite, always happy to see me (nice to be appreciated, eh).
Bob really struggled with reading and writing. To begin with, he refused to even try. All he wanted to do was play games. Time for negotiation – reading first, then we play games. He would often look up at me to read out the longer words for him. No mate, give it a try first. Break it down and work it out.
Admittedly, the school books were pretty crap, so I bought some more interesting ones to motivate him. He liked dinosaurs and pirates so that’s what we mostly read about.
I had studied art at university and he soon noticed that I could draw. So from then on, every session – “draw me a dinosaur!”, “draw me a pirate!”
Flipping heck, kid! How about you draw me a dinosaur!
In all honesty, I didn’t mind. It was nice to see him enthusiastic about something.
Despite my very obvious disability, in all that time, Bob never once questioned it – not that I would have minded if he did. From the get-go, I was just Caz the mentor.
He questioned everything else, mind you!!
~ How old are you?
~ What do you do?
~ Are you married?
~ Do you have kids?
~ Why not?
~ Where do you live?
~ Who do you live with?
~ Can I see your ID? (Yes, I showed him my ID to which he responded, “THAT’S NOT YOU!”)
~ What’s your real hair colour?
~ Can you dye your hair so I can see it, please??
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.
Picking a university can be a daunting task at the best of times – you need to try to chose one that matches your desired subject with predicted grades, and be in a location that you’ll be happy to live for the next three to four years. But for those who require a wheelchair trying to make the right choice can be a much greater challenge. Let’s run through some of the things you need to consider, as wheel as some universities that really stand out as being the most wheelchair, power chair and mobility scooter friendly.
City or Campus?
There are two types of universities in the UK, city and campus universities. Many of the best rated unis in the UK are town based – Cambridge, Oxford, and Durham for example, are town based. This can be a challenge as accommodation, lecture rooms and tutorials may all be in different locations and require navigating old city streets. However, some of the older universities are totally self-contained, and you may hardly need to leave the confines of the college walls during your stay. So be sure to check exactly where you will be housed and where your lectures and tutorials will be if you apply to a city university.
Campus universities are generally more wheelchair friendly because everything is on one site and most buildings are modern and accessible, and there will often be shops and other amenities on site too. This can make your day-to-day activities much easier, but if most of the socialising takes place in a nearby town, you may feel isolated if there are not good transport links in place, although a good mobility scooter or powerchair may be the solution.
As mentioned, few students look at the accommodation before going to uni, but this is probably the most important consideration. Many newer city universities have accommodation in mid-rise buildings (4 to 11 storeys) which although are usually modernised with lifts, are not always the most suitable option for wheelchair users.
Ideally, you should be able to get a room or apartment that has full wheelchair access with accessible bathrooms and kitchens. Kitchens should have low sinks and worktops, and ideally, there should be a wet room that you can roll your wheelchair into.
Disability Support Service
Contact the Disability support service at the earliest opportunity to discuss your needs and the facilities on offer. Pay them a visit on the open day too and have questions ready to ask – make sure they are geared up to support you fully.
Attend Open Days
Before applying to any university you should attend an open day. At the open day be sure to ask about accommodation too (many people forget this part) and take time to visit the halls of residences or area with student houses. Ask to see lecture rooms and tutorial rooms to check wheelchair access yourself.
Look Beyond the Campus
It is important to look beyond the university grounds as with both city and campus universities you will need to have easy transport to and from them. Some newer universities are often located in parts of town far from national railway and bus stations which can make it very difficult if you need to leave and arrive by public transport.
The terrain is also important. Cities such as Edinburgh and Exeter may provide modern university facilities, but many of the roads are very steep and wheelchair users will struggle to navigate all streets. It might be sensible to look up the most wheelchair friendly towns in the UK and then see which ones have universities offers courses you’re interested in. If you do head to a hilly university town, you might need to buy a new wheelchair that is lightweight and more suitable for the terrain.
Which Is Best?
There really is no “best” university for wheelchair users – every university works hard to accommodate all students equally, but one that does stand out is Loughborough University.
Loughborough is rated as one of the best campus universities (named Times University of the Year 2019) in the UK thanks to its top class facilities, access to green spaces and a good community feel in the student village. Loughborough’s Disability Office says that they support a range of long-term conditions as well as wheelchair users.
For a city campus university, here’s an interesting account of study at Canterbury Christ Church University. As you can see, some universities are extremely accommodating and will provide an excellent learning environment no matter what your abilities.
Are you, or have you recently attended, university as a wheelchair user? Please share your experiences below.
This guest post is provided by CareCo who provide mobility advice and support through their website and UK network of showrooms.
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.
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!
“Petworth has changed my life greatly…he has given me a reason to get up every morning.”
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the lovely Harriet Butler about life with her beloved assistance dog, Petworth.
Harriet, 26 from Worcestershire, studied media and cultural studies at University and currently volunteers at KEMP hospice. Like me, she has a form of muscular dystrophy.
Here she explains all about the application process and why she wouldn’t be without her canine partner…
1. What is your disability and how does it affect you?
I have Duchenne muscular dystrophy. This form of muscular dystrophy predominately affects boys but in rare cases females like me can have the condition. Duchenne is a progressive muscle-wasting condition that affects every muscle in the body. I was diagnosed at the age of nine. When I was younger I was able to run and jump around but over time things became more difficult and eventually impossible. When I was twenty-two, I broke my ankle and now I am unable to weight-bear and so I rely on a wheelchair to get around.
2. What made you decide to get an assistance dog and what did the process involve?
Several years ago I visited the dog show ‘Crufts’ at the Birmingham NEC. Whilst I was there, I watched an assistance dog demonstration. I was blown away by what the dogs could do.
In June 2014, I had a spectacular fall and broke my ankle. Before my accident I could still walk short distances on the flat. I had surgery in which pins and plates were inserted. I had hoped I would be able to regain my mobility but it became apparent that this would be impossible. Once home and in a difficult place in my life, I applied to Canine Partners. They are a brilliant charity that provides assistance dogs to those with physical disabilities.
Once I had applied, I was invited to an assessment day at their centre in West Sussex. I met some incredible dogs and did some task work to see how a potential assistance dog could help me. I also had an Occupational Therapist come out to visit my home. She checked that my garden and home environment were suitable. I was then added to the waiting list and Canine Partners would start the process of finding me a suitable dog. They try to find a dog that fits in with your lifestyle and the tasks you need help with. For instance I required a tall dog to pass me items because I am quite high up in my electric wheelchair.
Eventually I got the much-anticipated call from advanced trainer Chrissie to say they had found me a potential dog. I was invited to meet Petworth and it really was love at first sight. We seemed to click straight away and I really liked how unusual he looked. Petworth is a curly coated retriever Labrador cross. He has extremely long legs and a lovely curly coat. We discussed the tasks I would like him to do. The following day, Chrissie phoned to check that I wanted to go ahead with Petworth. Of course, I said yes.
The final stage involved going on a two-week training course and learning how to work with Petworth. I have now had Petworth for over two years and I couldn’t be happier.
3. How does Petworth assist you and how has he changed your life?
Petworth can assist me in so many ways, providing me with a degree of independence away from carers. He picks things up when I drop them (I do this very often due to my reduced dexterity). He gets help when I need it; he goes and finds my Mum. He brings the post to me when it arrives. He opens and closes doors around the house and also pushes automatic door buttons when I’m out. He turns on and off the lights in my room and bathroom. He assists me with taking my coat/jumper off and shoes and socks. He fetches my phone for me if I leave it in a different room. He is able to open and close cupboards so at feeding time he fetches his bowl for me. He also helps me tidy up by putting his toys away in a box. When we go shopping he can help getting items off the shelf. Once we are finished shopping, Petworth can help me pay and gives my purse to the cashier.
Having just written down the things Petworth does for me, I’m quite amazed. He really loves to help me but it isn’t all about work, he still gets time to be a normal dog. We both enjoy going to the park or going on a long walk. One of my favourite things is teaching Petworth a new task; he is a very quick learner. As my condition is progressive I can train Petworth to do more tasks that will benefit me in the future.
Petworth has changed my life greatly. In many ways he has flipped it upside down. Before I had him I was too scared to leave my house. I was always worried I would drop my phone or keys. I always felt like all eyes were on my wheelchair and me. I didn’t have a social life and I became very isolated. Now I feel like a different person as Petworth gives me so much confidence. People are more interested in Petworth than my chair. He is a fab talking point and people love to ask me questions. I don’t have to rely so heavily on carers. Most importantly he has given me a reason to get up every morning. He looks after me and I look after him.
4. What, If any, are the challenges of having an assistance dog?
This probably sounds cheesy but I don’t think it is a challenge. Petworth really has enhanced my life and opened up many doors…literally!
The main hurdle we face is good old British weather – come rain or shine Petworth needs a walk. This means wrapping up warm, getting my waterproofs on and embracing whatever Mother Nature has to throw at us.
I was initially worried that I would struggle looking after a dog due to fatigue, but in reality Petworth gives me more energy by completing his tasks. I am responsible for exercising, grooming, feeding and playing. This has helped me maintain some muscle strength and it has given me a purpose and a sense of achievement.
5. What would be your advice for others who are considering getting an assistance dog?
Go for it! Having Petworth has completely changed my life and an assistance dog could do the same for you. I know some people think I’m too disabled or I’m not disabled enough but I still recommend applying. I would try to speak to somebody who already has an assistance dog to see what is involved and if it’s for you. The best advice I can give is be patient. It is not a quick process and the charity waiting lists are long at the moment, but it really is worth the wait.
*All images courtesy of Harriet Butler
I would like to thank Harriet for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly.
I recently got chatting with a lovely lady called Rebecca, who contacted me after reading my blog.
Rebecca, who has cerebral palsy, is high-achieving, ambitious and incredibly interesting to talk to.
Consequently, I thought it would be beneficial for you guys to learn more about Rebecca, her views and how she manages life with a physical disability…
1. What is your disability and how does it affect you?
I have Ataxic Cerebral Palsy, which affects my four limbs and means that I use an electric wheelchair for getting around both inside the house and for outside activities in my day-to-day life. I also have a visual impairment called Nystagmus, which prevents me from going out unaccompanied as I sometimes struggle to see steps and kerbs in the street. My disability affects my life as I require 24 hour care.
2. What is the worst thing about living with your disability?
The worst thing is the stigma and negative attitudes that still surround disability. For example, strangers often make assumptions about my mental capabilities and underestimate my intelligence. However, I am learning to become resilient through my experience of this, and have developed coping mechanisms.
3. What, if any, are the positives to having a disability?
The free carer ticket to gigs/festivals/theatre/talks is a bonus! I also value my electric chair and the feeling of acceleration when I drive fast. On a more serious note, I view the fact that I feel I have a unique perspective on the world as a result of my disability as a positive. I have a greater tolerance of difference due to the empathy and understanding that my disability has taught me.
4. How do you feel about the term ‘disability’? Do you refer to yourself as having a disability or do you prefer another term, such as differently abled?
I used to physically jump at the word ‘disability’ as well as ‘wheelchair’ and ‘handicap’. This was because hearing myself being described as disabled hit home the fact that other people viewed and labeled me in this way. It made me feel as if my disability was my main or only attribute. This all changed when I attended counseling sessions in my early 20’s, where I was encouraged to unpack the meaning of these words and confront why they prompted a physical reaction from me. It is still the case that disability will never be my favourite word, but I’m now comfortable enough to describe myself in that way to others.
5. Do you feel under-represented in the media? If so, what changes would you like to see?
I can understand why some people would feel under-represented, and I agree changes do need to be made. But in my opinion, these changes reside in discussion, ideas and inclusion rather than purely exposure.
6. Are you a leader or a follower?
I used to be a follower, afraid to voice my opinions. Now I am comfortable taking the role of the leader in certain social situations, i.e. with less confident friends I am able to guide the conversation to allow people to be heard. As well as this, I hope to lead with my ideas surrounding disability ethics and the research I am doing in this particular area.
7. Optimist, pessimist, realist or idealist?
I live in the most realistic way possible so that I am most connected with reality and grounded in my thoughts. To be too pessimistic can prevent us from progressing, whereas being overly optimistic can also be counterproductive to personal growth.
8. Are you easy going or high-maintenance? Would those who know you best agree?
I would say that I am easy going because I have learnt how to balance my own well-being so as not to allow myself to become too stressed out. Those who know me best would probably agree, but I imagine they would claim that I’m more high-maintenance when I have an important deadline to meet!
9. Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
This really depends on whom I am with. In my professional career as a counsellor it is my responsibility to be the facilitator who steers the conversation, and this doesn’t allow for me to be introverted. However I can still become shy around people that I struggle to connect with on a deeper level.
10. Are you more creative or logical?
I am more creative in my thoughts and my writing and in the way I can construct an argument in a debate.
11. You are currently studying Philosophy at Cambridge University – why did you choose that subject in particular?
I have been fascinated by the world around me from a young age with my intuitive questioning of values and beliefs. This then developed when I embarked on a short course to find out more about the subject, which then inspired me to study philosophy at a higher level. What I like about philosophy most is that it’s a never-ending endeavour; there is always more to question, learn and explore. Philosophy can help to find new ways to think about old problems and with considering things from different perspectives, to overcome many of the hurdles that we encounter in our everyday lives.
12. What difficulties have you faced whilst at University, resulting from your disability?
Having to deliver presentations has been difficult for me, but luckily the University allowed me adapt my assessments, and have been really accommodating. One of my personal assistants delivered this presentation and I was able to answer class questions afterwards. I also require a personal assistant to write down my thoughts, and this can sometimes take a long time because conversations can be misinterpreted. For this reason, I always request the option of extra time because it can take longer for me than for an able-bodied student to formally express my thoughts in an assignment.
13. What do you hope to do following completion of your degree?
I am hoping to continue studying and develop my qualifications, embarking on a postgraduate course that combines philosophy and mental health.
14. Are you the type of person who always knew, from an early age, what job you wanted to pursue?
Yes, from about the age of 10 I remember hearing of people’s difficulties and wanting to help them by giving them advice at the time! This then developed into aspiring to become a qualified counsellor.
15. What is your ultimate ambition in life?
To gain as much knowledge and wisdom as possible to discuss new ideas and create meaningful change.
16. Bucket list: Can you list your top 5 goals?
I took some time to contemplate this question because I’ve never had a bucket list as such, but I’ve managed to come up with 5 things that are important to me:
1. Experience something daring in nature – i.e. wheelchair tree-top climbing
2. Using my counseling skills to change someone’s life for the better
3. Learn more about the psychiatry side to mental health
4. Finish reading a book in its entirety!
5. Finish my dissertation
17. If you won the Euromillions, what would you do with the money?
I would first of all build my own custom-made cabin in the forest. I would also double my betting stakes. (I do now and again enjoy a little flutter on the horses and football!) Although overall I am pretty content with my life how it is now.
18. Where is your favourite place in the world?
I really love spending time by the weeping willows in Newnham, Cambridge. These trees overlook the River Cam which makes it a very tranquil spot, where I feel safe and at peace.
19. Do you believe in ghosts, spirits and the like?
I have heard many stories about spirits and the afterlife that have led me to believe, or at least be open to the idea.
20. If a pill existed that could completely cure you of your disability, would you choose to take it, and why?
No, simply because I wouldn’t be me any more. And I wouldn’t have experienced the same things if I had been able-bodied. The only thing I would perhaps alter is the fact that I don’t get to spend much time on my own.
I’d like to thank Rebecca Sherwood for taking the time to answer my questions.
What do YOU think of Rebecca’s responses? how would YOU answer these questions? Leave and comment and let me know!
If you found this blog post interesting, please do share so that others can see it too – thank you!
Are you lacking in confidence and social skills? Do you suffer from low self-esteem, struggle to form meaningful relationships or find dating too nerve-wracking a prospect?
Well, if you haven’t already heard of him, allow me to introduce Amin Lakhani, the ‘Dating Coach On Wheels’. With hints, tips, and tailor-made “no bullshit” advice, he could be just the answer you’ve been searching for.
Amin, from Bellevue, Washington, has a progressive form of Muscular Dystrophy called Charcot Marie Tooth Syndrome, which presents in overall weakness, particularly the hands and legs. Now 29 years old, he has been a wheelchair user since the age of 15.
He excelled academically, achieving two Ivy League University degrees within four years, progressing onto a successful career at Microsoft. Nevertheless, the Self-confessed “nerd with poor social skills” felt lonely and insecure, with only a few friends and no dating experience.
Finally, at the age of 23, Amin hired a dating coach whom he worked with for around four years. This enabled him to totally transform himself, his relationships and his life.
He’s popular, makes friends easily, has been on over 40 first dates, enjoyed sex and fallen in love. Now the Dating Coach on Wheels, image consultant and motivational speaker is returning the favour.
1. You became a wheelchair-user at the tough age of fifteen. How did this affect your sense of self and your personal relationships?
I didn’t mind so much at first because I have a huge family and a lot of support. In fact, it was pretty cool because I had this brand new wheelchair and I no longer felt exhausted all the time. Up until that point I could walk a little but I always used elevators and I sort of grabbed hold of the walls and furniture so that I didn’t fall.
But as soon as I started High School I felt different from my peers. I didn’t know anyone else who used a wheelchair, so the fact that I stood-out from the crowd made me really self-conscious. I was lonely, alienated and my relationships became strained because I wanted the impossible: I wanted to get rid of my wheelchair and be the same as everyone else. But of course, that could never happen.
I did have a few school friends but I never had a girlfriend, and was left out of all the usual teen dating etiquette. No girl ever wrote on my locker.
I felt unattractive and thought I had nothing to offer a girl, so I shut myself down. If ever a member of my family asked why I wasn’t dating, I would use the excuse that I was too busy for all that.
2. Where did you get the idea to seek assistance from a dating coach, and why did you choose that route?
I had tried online dating – the likes of ‘OK Cupid’ and ‘Plenty of Fish’. I was really thorough with my research and looked up what I should and shouldn’t be doing. I was enthusiastic and did everything right according to my research. I was, on paper, a catch. Or so I thought. I was a grade-A student, a high-achiever academically, I had a great job at Microsoft. But it just wasn’t working out for me and that made me feel hopeless. I think my downfall was the fact that I tried to hide my disability from my online dating profiles. I never showed pictures of my wheelchair and never mentioned it. I basically listed my achievements but failed to inject any personality or humour. Had I done this I think I would have been met with a more emotional response. Any response.
I look back now and cringe, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Ultimately it led me to search online forums which is where I found the guy who would become my dating coach. I was 23 at the time and he was doing a workshop called, “Conversation Secrets”. It was then that I decided to get his advice.
2. You say a turning point for you was being told, by your dating coach, that you will never blend in but that’s okay; rather you should make yourself stand-out from the crowd. Why did this realisation have such an impact on you, and why do you feel disabled people should aim to stand-out rather than fit in?
Yeah, that really did make an impression on me. I learnt that if you don’t like something you should change it. And, if you can’t change it, you should change your opinion of it. It’s true, disabled people are memorable because of their disability. It does make us stand out. But that isn’t a negative thing.
I do think disabled people should embrace their individuality and dress to grab positive attention. People are going to look at you anyway. By nature, humans are curious and we all check each other out – disabled or not. So, make people look at you and remember you for the right reasons. Make them remember your outfit or your style. If you put the effort into your self-image, you look good and feel good about yourself, people wont pity or feel sorry for you because they wont be focused on your disability.
I also learnt, from my dating coach, that being in a wheelchair gives me free rein to talk to any girl in the world. No one is going to slap, punch or snub a guy in a wheelchair, right? So effectively, I could approach any girl I like and just start talking because even if she’s with a guy, he’s unlikely to feel threatened by me. It’s all good practice!
4. You clearly pay a great deal of attention to your appearance – the signature bow tie, a pop of colour and an overall minimalist, classy aesthetic. How did you develop your personal sense of style and why do you feel this is so important?
I believe you attract what you project. So, if you want to attract a punky type of person, it’s probably a good idea to shape your image around that look. I now look completely different from how I used to. I changed how I dress and style myself according to the type of girls I’m attracted to. We all need to embrace our individuality, consider what we wear and how we wear it. If we don’t feel good about our own appearance, it affects our confidence.
5. Much emphasis is placed on sex, and for some disabled people this can be a cause for concern. How then would you coach someone whose disability prevents them from participating in the physical act of sex?
Okay, first of all, sex isn’t everything, it’s just a small part of what a relationship is. It’s more important to talk, flirt, connect and feel comfortable in each others company.
With regards to sex itself, I have clients explain their difficulties, circumstances and challenges to me. It’s all about individuality. Every disability is different therefore it’s important to consider everyone’s specific situation.
I have two main points:
Firstly, I ask what the client wants. Do they want someone to support them to participate in sex? Or do they want their partner to support them in the act? Either way, it’s essential to do your research and maybe find out from others with the same physical limitations how they approach sex.
Secondly, you’ve got to make it sound fun and exciting for your partner. Tell them what you want in a flirtatious way and make it sound hot and kinky rather than practical. Remember, you’re giving a gift to this person – to your partner. It’s a hugely intimate thing you’re asking and you’re entrusting your body to them.
6. You have talked candidly about sex and your own personal experiences. Why do you feel it is important to share this in order to help others?
Yeah I think it’s helpful for me to talk about my own experiences with my clients. It enables us to relate to each other. I’ve been through the same struggles myself and so I can identify in a way that an able-bodied dating coach couldn’t.
I offer advice that is sometimes unconventional. For example, I tell people it’s okay to feel like shit when you get rejected or things don’t go to plan. But you’ve then got to keep going, get out there and try again. All experience is beneficial.
7. It’s fair to say your target demographic is men. Why is this? Do you think men struggle more than women with confidence and making themselves attractive to others?
Obviously as a guy myself, I can relate more to men, although I have had more female clients recently. I have a wealth of dating and relationship experience that allows me to relate and identify with male clients especially.
There is definitely a gap for guys. They just don’t know how to get in the drivers seat. Women want them to take control but in order to get their guy to that place, they themselves have to take control. So a lot of the time I’m trying to help guys take charge.
8. Can you please explain your working methods?
As a dating coach I help people build their skills to make themselves more attractive to others. It’s not just about sex and dating, but also forming meaningful relationships and friendships, too.
For the most part I communicate with clients through video calls and we also Email in between. The length of time I spend with a client depends very much on what they want me to help with, and how hard they are willing to work to achieve their goal. I spent up to a year working with one particular guy who is actually able-bodied. He was incredibly reserved in social settings due to a lack of self confidence, and was looking for more than just a few pointers.
9. What is the one question you are asked most frequently, and what advice do you give in response?
Men want to know how to ask a girl out and how they can tell if she likes him. I tell them there’s no way to really know for sure if a girl likes you back. You’ve just got to rip off the band aid and go for it.
Women mostly ask how to find a guy who’s interested in more than just sex. My response is to learn to say no! Take your time and make a guy work for it. Don’t give it up on the first date as it leaves a bad impression. Inevitably the guy would assume you give it up to all guys just as easily, and that’s not what men want ultimately. We love the chase and value what we’ve worked hard for.
10. What are your top dating tips for those who are particularly nervous or lacking in confidence?
It’s okay and totally natural to be nervous. I still get nervous going on a date for the first time. It takes courage and courage leads to nervousness; everyone feels it. You’ve just got to do it. No matter what, you have to try. We all have to go through awkward stages and you will probably look back and cringe at yourself and your failed dates – I know I have. But again, that’s okay.
I also recommend bringing up your disability early on, but in a humorous way. Don’t try to hide it, but at the same time, don’t disclose everything in great detail. You don’t need to be 100% emotionally okay with your own disability. We’re all a little insecure about something. Just put your best foot/wheel forward so you can find the people who prioritise things other than their partners physical abilities. These people are a rare breed, so it will take work (and inevitable heartbreak) to find them.
In terms of date conversation: Pauses, I think, are actually a good, powerful thing. They can be sexual and flirtatious, allowing you to lock eyes and check each other out. I am consciously quiet for extended periods when I go on a date. During these pauses I look my date up and down and make it known that I’m checking her out. This lets her know I like her and will probably make her giggle and flirt in return.
Remember not to talk too much and don’t attempt to fill the silences. It can be exhausting as it’s impossible to process all that verbal information quickly.
Do ask questions, but not just typical introductory questions. Become interested in your date and respond to their answers. If they answer a question very briefly, realise that perhaps they don’t want to talk about that particular topic. Dig deeper into what they do want to talk about and tap into their interests.
11. Do you think there’s a limit to who you’re able to coach, and have you found any of your clients to be especially challenging?
Oh yeah absolutely. It’s all about motivation. If a client isn’t motivated or willing to do what it takes and work hard for it, they won’t get results. At the end of the day, they need to trust me and do what I tell them, no questions asked. I can’t do the hard work for them.
12. Where do you see your career taking you and what more do you hope to achieve?
I’m kind of happy where I am right now. I really just want to help more people.
I enjoy writing but mostly I love making videos, talking and being myself on camera. So, ideally I’d like to be more active on Youtube. There’s something about being recorded that’s more effective than someone reading something I have written. In a video, you’re hearing my voice, seeing my mannerisms and humour. You’re receiving the information exactly how I want you to. You just don’t get that through writing.
I feel like I was born to do the work I do. All of my personal struggles have been for a reason. I now have a sense of purpose and can make an impact in a way that I couldn’t if I were able-bodied. In that way, my disability is beneficial.
I’d like to thank Amin for taking the time to talk with me.
Please do connect with the Dating Coach on Wheels on social media: