Being a teacher, you offer yourself up like a sacrificial lamb for whatever fund-raising needs to be done for whatever in-school club/society/social committee/dance or music group that requires it. I was a ready volunteer for humiliating myself for a good cause. I’ve had my legs waxed, sang and danced horrifically doing a South Pacific skit, danced ridiculously numerous times for public amusement in shows, swam, ran, allowed any number of things to be done to me so that money could be raised both for the schools I worked in and the surrounding community.
I wish I’d taken a sponsored bone breakage before my crash, I’d have surely raised thousands.
In the aftermath of my car crash where I broke 37 bones and rendered myself paraplegic, I was faced with the grim possibility that my teaching days were over. As I lay on enforced bed rest to allow my shattered bones the chance to fuse back together naturally, I struggled to cope with the reality of it all.
Social media via my smartphone (held above my head while I lay on my back, head between two padded supports to stop movement and keep my neck, which had been broken in two places, straight) became my lifeline to the outside world. Facebook, Twitter and Hotmail were my links to current events and my friends and colleagues. It was while flicking through my newsfeed that I saw Sober for October mentioned.
I joked to my girlfriend that I should do that. It’d be easy to stay off the booze while immobilised in hospital where alcohol is prohibited. Charity without the effort. I’d joked, but while I was stuck in hospital with only the light fitting, which I’d named Wilson, to aim my rage at and a blog that I’d started to keep my mind working, I was desperate for some purpose. My girlfriend, seeing the misery I was suffering in lieu of the job I loved and facing an existential crisis, started a Just Giving page for just what I ‘d joked about.
The money (of which I doubted there’d be much) was to be donated to Spinal Injuries Scotland, whose presence in the spinal unit was marked. The visits I received from its members were welcome distractions and it was good to speak to people who had been in a similar place to myself and come out the other end. I wanted to show my gratitude, and knowing the money would go into helping others in my situation was a nice feeling.
The money raised, over the course of a couple of months, amounted to over £5000!
I had no clue that my friends, family, pupils and colleagues would get behind me in such a massive way. Concerts, Young Enterprise projects, sports events were all used to contribute donations. One of my pupils, Jack Dunn, who sported an impressive mop of hair bravely had it shorn to raise money on my behalf. The Montrose Academy Sports Ambassadors masterminded a number of fund raising activities to add to the amounts. The Baroque Ensemble, a talented group of young local musicians also donated, as did numerous others from the schools I had worked at. It was remarkable.
I had raised that amount of money without doing anything but allowing others to donate selflessly because they knew and inexplicably liked me and sympathised with my situation.
Such an outpouring of love and support, though touching and appreciated, didn’t change the fact that my lower body no longer worked. I wasn’t the all singing, all dancing teacher I once was. I went into a depression, compounded by the breakdown of my relationship and a rehabilitation programme I feel was more aimed at ticking boxes rather than encouraging recovery (no matter how small that might be) and empowering the patient. I was discharged with very few of my boxes ticked, to a Stroke hospital in Angus as there was nowhere else to send me.
As a spinal cord injury isn’t something that heals, like a broken leg, you’re left with a whole new way of living to adapt to. This way of living is, by and large, ignored or misinterpreted. The fall back assumption when someone sees a wheelchair user is that it can’t be that hard, sitting all day! That’s because so little is known about SCI. No-one takes into account the loss of abdominal muscles that are what keep us balanced, or the nerve pain that causes a constant and maddening burning sensation in the ass, or the spasms that can send legs flying out randomly, further causing loss of balance. People just assume it’s easy to wheel around the places people walk.
I’ve been fighting a battle to alert people to the reality of life in a wheelchair. I’ve been fighting with the people tasked with assisting me with housing and a return to work. I’ve had to explain the realities of a completely concave wet room being no use when you’re on wheels, the room taken up by cupboard doors when open, the height of surfaces for people who can stand opposed to those who can’t and many, many more besides. Nothing is more misunderstood though than the difficulties that I face wheeling around on terrain people who can walk, take for granted.
I’ve been struggling with this since my discharge, and it was becoming a serious problem. I’d been moved to a flat some 40 miles away from my school, which was keen to have me return as soon as possible, as was I. I had no car though the flat was only 5 minutes from the train station and then from the next station to the school, 15 minutes. Walking that is. A test run revealed a 5 minute walk took 15 minutes to wheel, and 15 minutes took 45 minutes. Yet this was the course of action I was told “would be fine”.
Codie Petrie, an insanely sporty pupil who ran 5 kilometres every day for 50 days and raised over £300 for SIS while I was back in Angus had inspired me to get fund raising again. I wasn’t back at work yet and I desperately needed focus, a goal. As I’ve given up drinking to excess, a Sober for October effort was too easy. I wanted to challenge myself while raising awareness of the shortcomings of provisions for wheelchair users. I decided to show the world what “fine” according to the walking majority actually means for the ones unable to walk (not from tanking alcohol I might add).
My discharge did not consider my return to work or skills navigating real life obstacles in town, nor was my chair really up to the task. So my challenge was the 15 minute push to the train station and back, every day (as a standard teaching week goes), in whatever weather conditions. I would take a selfie at the station every day and post it on Twitter and Facebook, and I would film the route so everyone could see the challenges of crossing busy roads, pushing uphill, pavements that are angled for rain drainage, drop kerbs that are barely drop kerbs, and access into public locations like train stations. I did this for the month of October.
It was an experience. Wheeling in a chair is hard on the shoulders and back, especially when you’re hunched over to keep your balance while going uphill, or at an angle to compensate for the camber of the pavement. I was popping ibuprofens most days. When it’s raining, the wheels are slippery to the point where getting any useful grip is impossible. Again, on a slope, this becomes highly dangerous, and when coming to cross a road, could be fatal. The particular road I had to cross to get to the station was a busy junction where buses from the nearby bus station roared through, and cars didn’t slow down, because, well, who expects a wheelchair user to be crossing? Occasionally people liked to offer help, whether it was a car slowing to let you cross or a pedestrian wanting to push you up a kerb. Problem is that though the car on one side of the road has stopped to let you cross, that’s no guarantee that the van screaming round the corner on the other side of the road will do the same. Though it’s nice people want to help, it has to be remembered that offering first is usually good form. I was attempting a kerb (albeit unsuccessfully) when I was pushed up it, which because I wasn’t expecting it, nearly sent me spilling out of the chair, only for the helpful person to tell me to be careful, and it was no problem helping me before he was gone!
Too much is assumed helpful for wheelchair users that in practice, isn’t. A sloped gradient on a crossing is a good idea, but not next to a pelican crossing where you need to press the button for the green man. Doing this on a slope that will take you into the path of oncoming traffic is crazy. Yes, you could get into position, stick your brakes on and press the button while maintaining your balance at the slight gradient, but why should you? Similarly, ramps that are so steep you see mountain goats struggling to manage but because it’s a ramp, the cash machine at the top is accessible. As for heavy doors, strong shoulders and not being able to feel your knees is the strategy there.
My challenge hopefully highlighted these things, as well as something which should be obvious. Road and pavement surfaces are shocking in their condition. What is flat for someone who can walk, can be the bumpiest most uneven surface for someone using wheels, causing spasms, imbalance, and simply, huge discomfort and effort over distance. What is also important but maybe not so obvious is when wheelchair users get wet from the rain, it isn’t as simple as a quick change of clothes. It takes me having to transfer onto a bed to get my wet clothes off, dry myself and then change into dry clothes which takes time. There’s no doubt easier ways but I haven’t been shown any. Had I embarked on the “fine” journey to work via train and pushing on a wet day, I’d have been cold, wet, and my classes would have needed covered while I changed. Small things that able bodied people take for granted become huge obstacles for a wheelchair user.
My challenge has so far raised over a thousand pounds. I’m intensely grateful to all that have donated. As for my return to work, I now have a car, which means I can now drive the 55 minute journey to my school. I have just started this very week to go in on a phased return. Getting to grips with the chair is still ongoing.
My experiences have galvanised a desire to make people aware, to encourage people to think and understand (going against the common all encompassing belief that we’re all the same) that being in a wheelchair does make you different with different needs. I don’t think there’s shame in acknowledging it. I think there’s shame in doing nothing about it.
I’ll settle for nothing less than changing the world.