*Trigger warning – the story below contains details of a serious injury.
I don’t remember the accident itself. I think that’s a defence mechanism of the body to block out the trauma. What I do know is that when I woke up, life was in contrast to what it been a week earlier. Broken leg. Ripped bicep. Damaged nerves. Chunks of skin missing. Broken back. Broken neck.
Summer 2006 was the longest summer I can remember. Fourteen weeks of lying on my back. I started out having a great summer. I was working behind a bar in the Lake District, enjoying fell climbing, open water swimming and even some fire breathing. I was having a blast.
That all came to a sudden end on June 21st when going along country lanes I lost control of my motorbike, crossing into oncoming traffic to be met by an artic lorry. There was never going to be a good outcome from that. I was lucky to still be alive.
I was paralysed from the neck down and unable to do anything for myself. Eating. Drinking. Washing. Toileting. Even breathing had become difficult.
The highlight of my birthday just 3 weeks later was having my mum feed me a piece of cake. At a time when I should be independent, everything had been stripped away and I’d regressed to being looked after by mum.
While fourteen weeks seemed like it would last forever, it didn’t.
Over time, my bones healed and my scars faded. The most significant of my injuries was the break in my back causing paralysis from chest level down and thrusting me into a life I knew nothing about and cared little to know about before this point.
Now that my legs didn’t work, I needed an alternative way to get around. Often seen as a symbol of disability, I was going to learn that the wheelchair was going to become my freedom.
A tool that was to replace my legs and in the near future enable me to get around and do everything that I wanted to do. A scary concept when you think about it, but with no other option I had the choice to lie down and give in or embrace this.
I often think of the irony that the wheelchair is seen as a symbol of disability when it’s actually one of the most powerful tools to empower those who need it.
Having the skills to use any piece of equipment is essential to make sure that you can use it effectively. Having the skills to use a wheelchair is no different.
Developing skills takes time, patience and commitment. It doesn’t happen overnight. You’ll fall. Maybe a lot. I know I did. It’s at that point we have a choice. Each time you fall, you can lie on the floor or you can pick yourself up and try again.
Leaving hospital, I was keen to get back to things that gave me a sense of normality. I found a wheelchair accessible flat. I learned how to drive. I went back to the degree I’d dropped out of.
I started trying new things as well. Sports that I’d never known about before. Wheelchair basketball. Wheelchair handball. Swimming without being able to kick your legs. Now that’s a whole lot tougher.
I was doing okay. I was managing to get around in my wheelchair. I was doing all the things I wanted. What I didn’t know was just how far I still had to go in learning what I could do in my wheelchair.
It was only when I attended a wheelchair skills training session that I got an insight into what could really be done. It was brilliant. Less than a year after my own injury, I was learning from experienced users that had been doing this for more than 10 years. A life time in my mind.
I think that it was that point when I learned the true value of peer support. No one can teach you as well as someone who has already walked, or rolled, that path.
There was no stopping me now. I returned home and was trying even more than I had before. Learning these skills had such a big impact on me that I wanted to give something back. A year later I trained to be a wheelchair skills trainer and have been doing it ever since.
Learning wheelchair skills changed the way I looked at everything. All of a sudden, the world seemed a lot more… possible. I had learnt the skills inside a sports hall with guided supervision, but now I was ready to take them out into the world and see what I could do.
Growing up I’d always had aspirations to travel, but the barriers had always seemed too big to make these dreams a reality. Ironically, now I was using a wheelchair I no longer saw those barriers as something that was going to stop me, but obstacles that I needed to overcome.
I was lucky enough to go on a lot of trips over the next few years with a couple of road trips around Europe, scuba diving in Malta, Egypt and Croatia, backpacking round South East Asia and even driving to Mongolia.
The one that stands out as the ultimate test of my wheelchair skills started when I was volunteering at a hospital in Bangladesh. With no large bodies of water between Bangladesh and the UK, I thought it would be an adventure to travel home without flying– taking the overland route by using buses, boats, trains and traversing tough terrain.
I started a fundraiser for my trip, calling it ‘Rolling Back Home’ – 5,000 miles, 15 countries, 2 continents and 1 set of wheels.
It took me 5 months to roll back home. It was far from an easy journey. Most of it was inaccessible and a real challenge. Exactly what I wanted. There were a lot of times when my stomach dropped looking at the path in front of me. But I always found a way to keep moving forwards.
It’s been more than 10 years since I rolled back home. A lot can happen in a decade and a lot has happened for me. There’s been some travel and some adventure. But the bigger changes have been in lifestyle. Finding a career as a manager in the third sector, working for a number of charities over the years that all support and empower disabled people.
Although a big part of me, disability doesn’t define everything about me. Much like my sense of adventure, it’s always going to be there, it’s part of my identity. Disability will always have some impact on my life, but it’s more of an underlying constant that I deal with. Sometimes it’s easier to deal with than others, but I try to not make it a focus.
I’m proud of my achievements. From the big trips to the days at work when I have a breakthrough on a project. I owe a lot of this to wheelchair skills. Both in enabling me to get around, but also the confidence that has built up over time that started with me teaching the skills back in 2008.