Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Lent Experiment

Good News Everyone!


Exciting little announcement before I get into the main thrust of this latest blog entry:

Towards the end of last year I was contacted by one of the founders of the website Feedspot. He informed me that my blog had been selected as one of the Top 30 Quadriplegic Blogs on the internet and sent me this little award to display on my page! I did consider asking exactly how many quadriplegic blogs there were on the internet but quickly decided against it, preferring instead to remain in blissful ignorance, insulated inside my little ego boost bubble!

Anyway, it's been a good while since I last posted anything and I'd hate to lose my newly acquired Top 30 billing, so without further ado: Happy 2018 and welcome back to the, now award-winning, Diary Of A Gimpy Kid!

Hellbent on Lent

With the Christmas excess and subsequent failed attempts at a dry January firmly in the rear view, it's time to turn my attention to a tradition I try to honour every year: Lent. Now although I do consider myself Christian (though not exactly what I'd call a practising one), I don't participate in Lent for a strictly religious reason. Instead I prefer to give something up for 40 days as a test of my resolve and usually in an attempt to be a little healthier, so that by the end, I can feel like I've achieved something, no matter how small. Previous efforts have included the giving up of alcohol, chocolate and even bad language one year (which is harder than it $!*#ing looks)!

When someone takes the last disabled bay you were about to pull into!

This year however, I have decided to test my willpower to the limit and give up a whole host of things! What exactly have I decided to give up?? Why am I putting myself through this ordeal?! All will be revealed shortly.

First, a little backstory...

Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice

A little over a month ago, it was the 13th anniversary of my being able to play wheelchair rugby, park at the front of the shops and pee sitting down (sometimes without even realising it)! It was on a Wednesday this year and I didn't really have any plans, so I used the day as an excuse to get a takeaway and watch a bunch of films to take my mind off things - Walking Tall, The Running Man, Stand By Me!

I'm not a huge takeaway eater nowadays, not because I don't enjoy them; in fact I'm a firm believer that everything terrible for you has been scientifically designed to taste amazing and sprouts taste like, well, sprouts! No, I choose not to have a great deal of takeaways because I want to stay as fit as possible. Actually, scratch that; I need to stay as fit as possible. Before my injury I would play sports, go to the gym and do some form of exercise most days because I enjoyed being active and also, truth be told, because I was vain and no doubt subconsciously sought to compensate for being a bit on the short side, so I wanted my body to be as toned as possible. Sure, I still had takeaways (far more than I do now in fact), but I was younger, my metabolism was faster, I was more active and I was on my feet - all factors that contributed to calories being burnt faster and my svelte waistline being maintained!

Warning: Portrayal may not be 100% accurate!

Fast forward to the present, and whereas I still enjoy playing sports and exercising, my injury has made damn sure that vanity and the dream of a toned torso play absolutely no part in my reasoning! Instead I do it in an effort to keep my weight down and maintain a level of fitness that will allow me to live an independent life.

My true Achilles heel in terms of diet, comes in the form of my insatiable sweet tooth. Whether it be biscuits, cookies, cakes, pies, pastries, sweets, ice cream or absolutely anything smothered in chocolate, not a day goes by where I don't find myself craving something sugary and delicious. It is the one thing in my life that I can say I am truly addicted to. Whenever out for a meal, no matter how much savoury food I may have eaten and no matter how full I may feel, I will always find room for dessert. As I tell people: I have a savoury stomach and a dessert stomach, kind of like being half-cow! It has gotten to the point where, if I'm going on a health kick, I try not to have any sweet items in the house other than fruit, because try as I might to resist temptation, I know that eventually I'll cave and ravenously dig into whatever tasty treat I might have hidden away in the kitchen. As part-time singer, part-time cult leader, R Kelly says: "My mind's telling me no, but my body, my body's telling me yes!"

Even when I'm out at the pub, my drink of choice has never really been beer, slightly too bitter for my palate. Instead, I much prefer cider; it's sweeter, full of sugar and on average contains more calories than a pint of Guinness! 

Waisting Away

So what effect has this love and dependence on sugar had on my body exactly? Well apart from making me feel tired, sluggish and grumpy when I haven't had any in a while, it has also helped me develop quite the pot belly! Now every quad who's suffered a neck break will know about the dreaded tetra/quad belly phenomenon: The lack of stomach muscles meaning that over a relatively short space of time you'll start to put on weight around your middle which will protrude even more due to the fact you're constantly sat down. No matter what size you were or what shape you were in before injury, eventually the tetra belly gets us all!

I went from a 28 inch waist at the time of injury, to a 32 inch waist, within the space of a couple of years, nothing too horrifying but enough to get my attention. In the following years I managed to more or less hold steady at this size, however towards the end of last year I started to notice my jeans were becoming a little tighter on me and I was developing a slight overhang of stomach podge, mortification!! This can almost certainly be accredited to the fact that 2017 was by far my most unhealthy year since injury; a combination of moving house, niggling shoulder pains and general apathy had led to a sharp reduction in the amount of weekly exercise I was doing, and my willpower to eat healthily was almost nowhere to be seen, a reassuring voice in the back of my head whispering to me; "after Easter", "after summer", "after your birthday", "after Christmas"...

I probably should have prefaced all this by stating that this isn't me complaining that I'm fat, what with my gargantuan 32 inch waist! Yes, I've got a tetra belly and you can most definitely 'pinch an inch' (or 5!), but other than that and a sprinkling of muscle in my arms and shoulders, I'm as skinny as a rake everywhere else, devoid of fat or muscle, another side effect of the injury and the reason why it's impossible to find a shirt that fits me properly! This is simply me making an observation about my general lifestyle, the effects it's having on my body/health and what I'm planning to do about it.

Which conveniently leads me back to the subject of Lent. I mean, my god, it's almost as if this was my plan all along...

...(it was not)!

The Battle of The Bulge

So, the main issues I wanted to face going into 2018 were:
  • My addiction to sugary products
  • My expanding stomach
  • My general health and fitness levels
It is therefore with all this in mind that I have decided that for Lent this year I am going to completely give up all produce containing refined/processed sugar (chocolate, biscuits, cakes, soft drinks, cider etc), as well as all beers, lagers and ales. Instead of relying on sugar to get me through the day, I'm going to attempt a more balanced diet, coupled with regular exercise, in order to lead a healthier lifestyle in general. Oh and in case you were wondering about me coasting on caffeine, I hate coffee!

This search for a healthier lifestyle will likely involve an increase in the consumption of produce such as fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, natural yoghurt, fruit tea, water etc. As far as exercise goes, my aim is to do some form of it at least 5 times a week. This could include things such as wheelchair rugby training, doing sets of weights and other activities with my various Active Hands aids, going on the handbike or even playing table tennis (I don't count pushing my day chair in this list, as it's something I have to do every day...well, either that or live my life as a bedrest boy, eagerly awaiting a call from The Jeremy Kyle Show)!

Slightly surprised this hasn't been a genuine headline...yet!

During this period I will intermittently be reporting back on here (every 10-12 days or so), to give brief updates on how things are progressing, including my current weight, current measurement around my stomach and most importantly, how I am feeling. I've read a number of articles stating that going cold turkey on refined sugar can lead to mood changes, tiredness and experiences of withdrawl, so it will be interesting to see if substituting this for a healthier lifetsyle can counter the negative effects at all. I already spend every waking moment either lying or sitting, and one of the side effects of my spasm medication is drowsiness, so it will be interesting to see if these changes will affect me more than they would an able-bodied person. Worst case scenario, I have to give out handwritten letters of apology to friends and loved ones, for the eternally tired, depressed, moody horror I devolved into during this period!

Vital Statistics 1 (Feb 13th - Before Lent)

Weight: 8st8lbs (54.4kg)

Stomach Circumference: 37" (94cm)

General Feelings: Having just stuffed myself full of pancakes, I can sense my body becoming tired and a little bloated, but overall I feel pretty much the same as I ever do; not full of energy but not entirely lethargic either. My weight is on the low side for someone of my height (5ft8" or 1.73m), but that's not a huge shock when you take leg and torso muscle atrophy into account. And whereas I would like to gain a little muscle in my arms whilst knocking a few cms off my stomach circumference (measured around my belly button), the last thing I need to do is lose weight from anywhere else on my body. That's part of the reason I'm doing this, to see if it's possible to reduce this accursed quad belly without losing weight from the rest of me, hopefully via a combination of healthy eating and exercise.

Let's Get Ready To (Tummy) Rumble

And so it begins. The annual Shrove Tuesday pancake gorging is over and tomorrow will signal the start of LLL: The Lean Lent Lifestyle! My customary Valentine's Day tradition of sitting alone at home, audibly weeping into a tub of Ben & Jerry's whilst watching Me Before You taking one of my many, many female admirers out for champagne and truffles will have to be put on hold this year, as for the next 46 days it's goodbye sugary delights and hello healthy alternatives.

That's right, Lent this year lasts from February 14th until March 31st, which is 46 days rather than the nice, round 40 days we always hear about. Upon further investigation, I found this to be because apparently Sundays aren't counted in the 40 day period; but not before I sat staring at my calendar for a truly embarrassing number of minutes, repeatedly counting over the days, whilst questioning everything I knew about maths, as an increasingly baffled expression grew over my face...


Sunday, 9 July 2017

The Disability Invisibility (Part 2)

*I had aimed for this to follow up Part 1 within a month, however moving house, writing off my car and being without a computer for nearly 4 weeks has led to some unforeseen delays for which I can only apologise!

But without further ado, it's time for Part 2

From Bathrooms To Bays

In my previous blog entry I wrote all about disabled bathrooms, the new signs that were beginning to appear outside them, and the positive and negative effects these could have on disabled users. Some of the feedback I received on the entry was from people who had found that these new signs, although designed to highlight the varying nature of disabilities, were instead confusing people and leading them to believe that the bathroom was for use by anyone, disabled or otherwise. This isn't something I had considered at the time of writing, but it's a legitimate point and certainly one worth adding to the argument and mentioning here. It goes to show just how tricky it can be to put across a point (in this case that 'not every disability is visible') without diluting that point and leading to even more confusion.

In this second part of The Disability Invisibility, I'm switching my attention from bathrooms to parking bays as I take a look at who should and shouldn't be using the disabled bays, the issues and frustrations that come with needing to park in one of these bays, and what, if anything, needs to change...

When you take things a little too literally!



I was driving for a little over 5 years before I had the accident in which I broke my neck. And in those 5 years I can honestly say that I never once parked in a disabled bay. I mean, why would I?! I didn't need the extra space to fully open my door when getting out, if I was in a rush to get somewhere then I could simply walk faster, and it's not as though every other parking bay was located in a field, a 2 mile hike from my destination!

Since my injury however, disabled parking bays have naturally become a lot more relevant in my life. Now, as a full time wheelchair user, if I go out in the car and am unable to a find a suitable space to park in, then I'm really only left with 3 options: a) Pull over, get the binoculars out and stakeout the disabled bays until one becomes free, much to the annoyance of every other driver who now has to manoeuvre around me, b) Begin a monotonous 2mph circuit of the car park, instantly revving into fast and furious mode the minute someone approaches a car parked in one of the disabled bays, or c) Let out a few colourful words, turn around and go home. Because if I can't park somewhere that allows me enough room to get my wheelchair out, then I physically can't get out of the car, it's as simple as that.

During my younger, more hot-headed years, I had a number of verbal altercations over parking bays, and was met with a variety of different reactions and excuses; from apologetic and defusing, to sarcastic and antagonising. But one always sticks in my mind: As a woman exited a sports centre/gym with her two children either side of her and made her way to her car, I rolled down my window and asked, "Excuse me, but do you know you're parked in a disabled bay?", to which she replied, "'Ere, I've got two kids mate!" My initial thought was, "Well if you consider your children a disability upon yourself, then maybe you should've thought more before having them!" However this thought, probably wisely, stayed in my head and I instead chose to scold her with a rather tame, "Well that's no excuse for being a lazy #?!*$ so-and-so!"

Yes, I think it's safe to say that since my injury, nothing has caused exasperation and expletives quite like the disabled parking bay fiasco!

Saying what we've all thought before, albeit in a much politer way!


To Park Or Not To Park...

As a general rule of thumb, if you are ever driving around, see an empty disabled bay and wonder, "Should I park in that bay?", this can be answered by following this very handy guide: Simply ask yourself the question, "Do I have a disability or impairment which severely affects my mobility?" If the answer to the question is "yes", then the space is all yours. If however, the answer is "no"/"I'm not sure"/"well I did stub my toe getting out of the bath this morning...", then those parking bays are not applicable to you I'm afraid and you'll have to slum it with the common man in one of the many, many, *deep breath* many regular bays on offer. Honestly, you wouldn't believe the number of times I've gone to the gym of all places and found that all the disabled bays have been take up by regular gym goers who must simply see the yellow spaces in front of them as they pull into the car park and lock onto them like homing missiles. The irony is that they're not even the closest parking spaces!

The clue is in the name: Disabled Bay. Not, I'll Just Be 2 Minutes Bay. Not, I'm Picking Up My Kids Bay. Not, There Was Nowhere Else To Park Bay. And most certainly not, Luxury Bay For Lazy Baes (I'll get my coat)!


Now I know what you're thinking, that an even simpler question to ask would be, "Do I have a blue disabled parking badge?" And you're right, that would be a more straight forward way of testing, but one however, which comes with a more complicated answer. For example, I'm fairly sure that I'm not the only one who has seen someone pull into a disabled bay and pop a blue badge onto the dash, before hopping out and casually strolling off. And I'm definitely not the only person who, after seeing this, has thought to themselves, "Well someone's taking advantage of grandma's parking privileges!" No, unfortunately policing blue badges and disabled bays is an absolute minefield and challenging a person who is parked in a disabled bay can put you in a rather sticky situation, as more and more people seem to have blue badges now and being able to tell apart those who have genuine mobility issues from those who don't is becoming increasingly tricky...

The Invisible Disability Strikes Again!

To quote my previous entry, "there are a countless number of disabilities that exist beneath the surface, affecting millions of people and giving them just as much right to use the disabled facilities as someone in a wheelchair". This statement was true for disabled bathrooms and it's equally as true for disabled parking bays. In fact, when you think about it, the mantra of, not every disability is visible, is even more applicable here as I would imagine there are even more people who have the right to claim a disabled parking bay than use a disabled bathroom. Having a weak heart, shortness of breath, chronic fatigue syndrome, those who experience pain, those who have psychological/behavioural problems, the elderly; most of these people wouldn't necessarily need to use a disabled bathroom, but all are eligible to at least apply for a disabled parking badge, and rightly so. If you have an issue that affects your mobility or limits how far you can travel on foot, where parking that little bit closer or having a little extra room to get out would make life that much easier, then you have every right to do that. Once again, the issue comes down to being one of honesty but also one of obtainability.

Lest we forget

It's definitely much easier to police who uses a disabled parking bay than who uses a disabled bathroom, as you at least need to display a badge in your windscreen when parked in a disabled bay, or risk getting the dreaded parking fine! However, if your vehicle has a disabled badge belonging to a friend or relative then essentially all you'd need to do is pop it on the dashboard, instantly giving you carte blanche to park in any space you wanted, without fear of repercussions. And if anyone were to query it then you could just hide behind the near impenetrable invisible disability shield! Short of making a citizens arrest and demanding to see the photo ID on the back of the badge, there's not an awful lot else a person could do after that, no matter how able-bodied a person may appear. Yes, a disabled badge is a wonderful weapon to have at your disposal, especially if (as is often the case) badge holders park for free!

A Two-Tiered Overhaul

So what, if anything, should change? Personally I believe that, as far as disabled parking bays are concerned, the biggest issue is that of obtainability; there are simply not enough of them to cater for the near 3 million blue badge holders in the UK. This is especially problematic if you are a wheelchair user who absolutely needs a larger space in order to get your wheelchair out. Sure, it would help if there were more disabled bays available, and in a perfect world there would be enough spaces to cater for everyone; but this is not a perfect world and the Mega Car Park: Space For Everyone solution is neither practical nor realistic.

No, instead I would suggest an overhaul of the blue badge system; splitting it into two tiers: One for those who require larger spaces for wheelchairs or walking frames, and one for those who can walk largely unaided but require proximity parking. From what I have seen, it seems to be a relatively small percentage of blue badge holders that require wheelchairs or walking frames to mobilise. I would therefore leave the majority of disabled spaces as they are, but set aside a handful of spaces in each car park specifically for those who have the 'top tier' blue badges, meaning they require larger spaces for wheelchairs etc, and making them distinct from the 'regular' disabled bays. They wouldn't even necessarily have to be right at the front, just as long as they were big enough for a person to open their door fully and assemble their chair.

I don't mean to come across all Animal Farm and imply that all disabled people are equal but some are more equal than others; this is purely my personal idea and opinion, and I'm sure there will be numerous flaws in what I've just suggested. Maybe I'm being selfish and looking at it purely from a wheelchair user's perspective, I'm just trying to come up with what I think would be the most practical solution. And I do believe there needs to be a change.

But what do you guys think? Feel free to let me know if you agree or disagree and whether you have a solution you think would work better. 

As always, thanks for reading!


Friday, 5 May 2017

The Disability Invisibility (Part 1)

Post Easter Intro

Hey guys! I hope everyone had a great Easter and celebrated Jesus' resurrection in the most appropriate way possible - by ploughing through a mountain of hollowed-out, chocolate eggs that were delivered by an omnipotent rabbit! I gave up chocolate for lent this year, but like a recovering addict who's fallen off the wagon, I've been hitting it pretty hard since Easter Sunday.

My mother, the enabler!

I'm determined however to battle through the palpitations and fluctuating energy levels to get this entry written before I pack everything up, move house and then inevitably spend the next 6-12 months staring at the sea of sealed boxes in the spare room, wondering when exactly they'll begin unpacking themselves?! But I digress...

For this latest blog entry I've decided to look at how different disabilities are viewed when it comes to using certain disabled facilities. I'm breaking it up into two parts, with this first part looking at disabled bathrooms, the concept of the 'disabled person' in relation to these bathrooms, and why new signs are starting to be put up outside of them.

Sign of The Times

Last month I read an article that had been posted on the Active Hands Facebook page about the new signs that are beginning to appear on disabled toilets; signs stating that:
I think we can all agree that the message here is fairly self-explanatory: Just because you cannot physically see that someone has a disability, this doesn't mean that they don't have one. It's the age old adage of 'don't judge a book by its cover'. And it's completely true. The outline of a figure in a wheelchair has long been seen as the universal symbol of disability. It's a fairly outdated image that has had the unfortunate side effect of stereotyping every disabled person as a wheelchair user and only a wheelchair user. Sure, if you've got a crutch or severe limp then you'll maybe sneak into the club, but anything less than that and you'll be on the receiving end of tuts and evil eyes as you shamefully emerge from the disabled toilet, a hang-dog look about you. I think most wheelchair users, myself included, at one time or another, will have silently judged or 'cripple-shamed' someone for using what is seen as the 'wheelchair only bathroom'.

"Bloody walkers, coming over here, taking our toilets!"

But as time has gone on I've come to understand that there are a countless number of disabilities that exist beneath the surface, affecting millions of people and giving them just as much right to use the disabled facilities as someone in a wheelchair. Conditions such as ADHD, autism, Crohn's disease, chronic fatigue syndrome and ulcerative colitis all exist beneath the surface, invisible to the naked eye. Even conditions that affect mobility such as multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy can go by unnoticed in their milder forms. However, this shouldn't deny them the right to use the disabled facilities. Several comments on the article were made by people who had in the past been publicly shamed for using the disabled toilet due to their condition being invisible. No matter how mild or unnoticeable it may be, if you have a condition that would be eased by the use of a larger, more accessible bathroom, then you have a right to use it.

The issue really is one of honesty.

Taking The P: Disabled Bathroom or Convenience Cubicle?

Much of the feedback to the article on the Active Hands Facebook page demonstrated that the major concern most people have with these new signs is that they would encourage more people to abuse the facilities. Proximity, convenience, peace and quiet, needing to go number 2; I'm afraid none of these are acceptable reasons for using the disabled bathroom! It is after all called the disabled bathroom, not the convenience cubicle; and as I once informed a gym employee who thought it was okay to use the room to unleash a devastating chemical attack, "It's not your own, personal s******* chamber!"

You know who you are!

Many people use the accessible bathroom without strictly needing to, this is a fact, and one which is proving increasingly difficult to police. In theory one could argue that by limiting the use of these bathrooms to only people in wheelchairs, you are ensuring that only those who need them most are using them; unless of course a person were to borrow a wheelchair for the sole purpose of gaining access to the disabled bathroom, in which case I can only applaud your determination! But by implimenting this rule you would then be discriminating against all the aforementioned people with invisible conditions, which would be unacceptable.

On the flip side however, by now using signs physically stating that "not every disability is visible", you are opening the door to every man and his dog using these facilities whilst hiding behind the 'invisible disability' mantle. One solution would be to ensure that every disabled bathroom was fitted with a radar lock and key system, so that only those carrying a radar key can gain access. However, this would be dependent on every person with a disability having a radar key on them at all times, otherwise you'll be left crossing your legs for the duration! Personally, I really only take my radar key out with me when I go to pubs, most of which utilise these locks; but even then I've been guilty of forgetting it from time to time.

In Conclusion

The truth of the matter is that, short of installing finger print scanners outside of every bathroom and moving one step closer to a hellish, Orwellian reality, there is no sure fire way of ensuring that only those who need to, get to use the disabled facilities. Instead we must continue to rely on a combination of honesty and guilt. Sure, we could always politely confront the person if we didn't think they should be using a particular bathroom, but if they claim to have an underlying condition then who are we to argue? The most important thing is that those who need to access them, can access them, without being shamed for it. And in that regard, these new signs can surely only be a positive thing?

In Part 2 I'm going to switch my attention to disabled parking bays and the joys/battles that often accompany them. In the meantime however, I shall leave you with a cautionary tale and perfect example of just what can happen if you use the disabled toilet without an appropriate reason...


Saturday, 28 January 2017

Dealing With My Feelings about Wheeling

12 Years A Slave (To A Wheelchair)

It was my birthday the other week. Not my real birthday you understand, but rather my wheel birthday; the day I lost control of my car, broke my neck and swapped walking for wheeling. I'm always aware of the day when it rolls round, largely due to how soon after New Year it falls. What's changed over the years however, is the way I look upon the day and similarly, the effect the day has upon me.

With that in mind, I thought I'd take a brief foray down memory lane, look back over the years at how my feelings towards that day have changed and what the possible reasons are for this progressive metamorphosis. Of course, everyone is different; I know people who have taken spinal injury completely in their stride and others who are constantly struggling to accept their situation. I didn't make a conscious choice to react to it and move on from it the way I did; and any changes that occurred happened without me even realising. We all react differently to events, we all have our own ways of processing things, and we all move forwards in our own way and at our own pace; this is just my personal experience.

Reality Bites

For the first couple of years, January 3rd felt like a monumental date stamped on the calendar: The Day That Everything Changed. I'd wake up, look at the clock and think to myself, "Had I set off by now? Was I driving? Whereabouts was I by this point?" My mind would begin wandering into thoughts of, "If only there was a way I could go back in time and change things, stop the car from starting that morning; hell, stop me from driving the car up to university in the first place! If only I hadn't had that crash, then all the negatives would be gone and my life would be an eternally blissful euphoria." That's how it works right, no wheechair no cry...

"Me next song I'm gonna sing is called 'Get Up, Stand Up'!"

During that initial phase, whilst I was still coming to terms with everything, I also barely touched alcohol, something that would stagger most people that know me now! This was almost entirely down to the fact that I still didn't fully understand how my body worked post-injury and was terrified that, a) I'd forget to go to the toilet and end up either voiding or exploding and, b) I'd lose balance and end up on the floor in a drunken heap of disability!

I still felt somewhat self-conscious about being in a chair at that point too and everywhere I went I could feel invisible eyes staring at me. I especially hated people watching me as I got out of the car, shuffling across the bright yellow slide board I relied on at that time. Sometimes I'd even purposely delay getting out if I felt anyone nearby was watching!

The Fun and Friendship Factors

Gradually though, once the initial couple of 'coming-to-terms-years' were out of the way and I started to get some idea of how my body worked and what my capabilities were, my confidence began to seep back, I started venturing out more (hello pub!) and began feeling more like my old self. Then I would often use the day of my injury as an excuse to meet up with friends, either at my flat or at the pub and drink the night away in an ironic celebration of the day I freed myself from the shackles of normality! I'm sure, deep down inside, there was still a part of me that was doing this as a distraction to stop my mind from dwelling on things, but as long as I was drinking and laughing with friends, that was good enough for me. None of them have ever treated me any differently than they would if I could walk; we freely and mercilessly take the mick out of each other on a regular basis, and no matter which friends I'm with, none of them feel the need to wrap me in cotton wool and make sure I'm managing okay. They took away many of the stigmas I might have had about being in a wheelchair and made me feel completely at ease. In all honesty, one of the best pieces of advice I could give someone who's gone through a life changing injury would be to surround yourself with a close group of friends. Without wanting to sound overly saccharin, I think it would've taken a hell of a lot longer for me to come to terms with my situation had it not been for the friends I had around me at the time of my injury and the friends I've made since.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Other factors that have unquestionably helped are those of accessibility and a change in public perception. Years ago, access for those with mobility issues was largely ignored when it came to the planning and construction of new buildings. Whether they be shops, pubs, restaurants or hotels; odds were they'd have a combination of steps, narrow doorways and inaccessible bathrooms, pretty much denying entry to anyone who struggled with mobility. It never struck me at the time, but looking back on my school days, there's no way I could have attended the school I did if I'd been in a chair at the time, with numerous winding staircases being the only way to access a large proportion of the classrooms. Which is one of the reasons why I'm thankful that, if I had to have my injury, I had it at the time I did. Accessibility is now one of the primary concerns when plans for new buildings are drawn up and many existing ones have undergone alterations to improve accessibility. Public transport too, whilst by no means perfect, is getting better; with the majority of buses, trains and major taxi firms having ramps and wheelchair spaces available. Recently, a man in a wheelchair won a Supreme Court case that means bus drivers will have to give disabled passengers priority to the spaces available for them. All these things, though they may seem inconsequential to many, have made it a whole lot easier for people like myself to come to terms with serious injury and see that it may not be as life changing as initially thought.

As for the change in public perception, that's been an even more recent development, with London 2012 really thrusting disability and disability sport into the public eye. Those few weeks in September, when television and media were focused on all the things people with disabilities could do instead of the things they couldn't, gave the public a far greater insight and far better understanding of what it means to have a disability than anything that had ever come before it. At the same time it sent a message to people with disabilities all over the country world, that they can do anything they choose and be anyone they want if they put their minds to it. The legacy London 2012 left behind cannot be understated, and although not everyone with a disability is a 'superhuman' Olympic athlete (Exhibit A sitting right here folks!), chances are we're capable of a lot more than you may have initially thought (especially when using our Active Hands gripping products *plug plug*)!

This? Oh it's just Aaron Fotheringham me chilling in between blogs!

Rolling Forwards

Nowadays, when the Day of Destiny comes round, I greet it fairly nonchalantly, with it barely even registering on my emotional scale anymore. This year, when I woke up and realised what day it was, my initial thought was, "Twelve years?! Jeez, I am getting old!" And then it was just another Tuesday; I got up, did some work, went sofa shopping (like I said, I'm getting old!), followed by wheelchair rugby training on the evening. Without me realising, it went from being that day to just 'that day'. I don't think it's ever going to be a date I forget; as I said previously, it comes too soon after Christmas and New Year. However the emotions and feelings that initially resonated from it are now massively diluted as I have come to realise that my spinal injury is really only ever going to be as life changing as I choose to make it. Now, if I feel eyes watching me as I get out of the car, I just get on with it; even if there may always be a little voice in the back of my heading whispering, "Come on Gareth, don't f*** this up now!"


Friday, 4 November 2016

From Rio With Love!

A September To Remember

It's hard to believe it, but six weeks ago I was at the Paralympic Games in Rio! Not competing of course, eleven years of confusion, blind panic and 'headless chickening' on the rugby court does not a GB player make (although the day they announce Paralympic Pudding Eating, I'll be knocking on that door, spoon firmly in hand)! No, I flew out to Rio with friends to soak up the sun, drink coconut water, sample some Brazilian beef (calm down!) and of course, take in the Paralympics live for my very first time. It was all rather exciting!

However that excitement was also masked with a certain amount of trepidation as much of the news coverage prior to the opening ceremony had focused on the monetary problems and criminal aspects of Rio: stadiums were being prematurely dismantled, public transport was being cancelled and gangs were roaming the streets, hunting down tourists to separate from their valuables. Well, if any of this was happening then I certainly didn't see it. From the moment I arrived to the moment I left, there was an overwhelmingly positive buzz in the atmosphere, the people were friendly and helpful, and the public transport was second to none, with Rio's subway system putting both London's and New York's to shame in terms of accessibility. In truth, the only time I felt remotely unsafe was when my casters were rattling over the uneven, mosaic street paving which, during our thirteen night stay, inevitably caused more than one of us to stop, drop and roll!

Not the worst view to wake up to!
As for the scenery, good grief! I could fill this entire entry waffling on about the mountains, the jungles and the ocean, all of which you needed only to step outside of your hotel to see. I spent the numerous taxi and train journeys gawping out of the windows as we passed through the city which is built into a wall of mountainous greenery the likes of which I had previously only seen on TV (often accompanied by a gyrating Peter Andre)! And the views from the top of Christ The Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain, jeez! Up there you can fully appreciate the scale and magnitude of the city and its surroundings. I'm not someone who normally gushes about this kind of thing, but it really was breathtaking! Let's not forget, I'm from Middlesbrough, I pull over and take a picture if I see a tree!

Bird's-Eye View!
Also, a quick word of thanks to anyone whose photos appear in this entry. Unfortunately I was unable to take any pictures myself, as the moment I arrived in my hotel room, my phone decided to commit suicide get into the Paralympic spirit by throwing itself off a ledge diving off the top board and into the toilet pool. What a way to begin proceedings!

Christ's-Eye View!

A Few Minor Hiccups

They say that bad luck comes in threes, and this certainly appeared to be true in my case, as sandwiched between my phone's untimely demise was the hotel check-in, where due to a small miscalculation on the financial side, we were greeted with a bill four times the amount we expected, and afterwards the realisation that none of our Paralympic tickets said anything about accessible seating on them. So it came to pass that our first couple of days in Rio were spent frantically organising alternate accommodation and then trekking in the glorious 35 degree heat (this is Brazil's winter!) to the CoSport office to get our tickets switched over, just the standard fun and games you come to expect when wheelers travel en masse! But once that was all sorted out it was time to let the Games begin!

Well, almost...

Active Hands No Brasil!

It would be amiss of me not to mention that the other reason I flew out to Rio was to represent Active Hands, who had won the fantastic opportunity to present their unique gripping aids at the Pitch At The Paras event. During this rather surreal day I would rub shoulders with royalty, pose with Paralympians, jostle with journalists (a Daily Telegraph reporter literally picked me up!) and later take full advantage of the free bar on offer! To read more about the event and to find out how Active Hands got on, click the link here.

The Pitch At The Paras crew alongside double gold medallist Jody Cundy!

Let The Games Begin!

As I said earlier, I had never been to a Paralympics before and so was unsure exactly what to expect from this. If BBC news was anything to go by, only 10% of tickets had been sold, so I went there half-expecting to be greeted by a deserted Olympic Park with sparsely populated stadiums and the odd bundle of tumbleweed thrown in for effect as a lone harmonica player welcomed lost visitors with a foreboding tune. However, the closer I got to the Park, the clearer it became that thankfully this would not be the case! As we rode the subway and bus, it became impossible not to notice the number of people either wearing uniforms emblazened with the Jogos Paralímpicos logo or wearing at least one item of clothing bearing one national flag or another. And then there were those who took the flag wearing a little too literally...
"Whadda ya mean you won't serve me until I put on some pants?!"
After disembarking the bus we joined the steady stream of people flowing towards the Park, crossing over the motorway by means of a temporary bridge constructed entirely out of scaffolding and hardboard that seemed to become less and less 'constructed' as the week went on! As I went through security, entered the Park for the first time and took in my surroundings, I remember thinking, "If this is 10% full then I'd hate to think where the other 90% would fit!" The place was absolutely awash with people of all nationalities, wandering around in between events, taking in the atmosphere and arenas surrounding them. There were music stages, big screens where you could watch events live as they unfolded, dozens of food and drink stands, including one solitary McDonald's which only served McFlurries (go figure?!), and of course the arenas; giant, stylish pieces of architecture, each with their own unique design and feel. However, it was Carioca Arena 1 our group was most interested in, as this was where the wheelchair rugby was taking place...

Rugby Or Not To Be...

Now, I have a confession: I'm not the most vocal or enthusiastic of supporters when it comes to watching sport, instead preferring to quietly take in a game whilst cradling my chin in one hand, my silent musings giving off the (entirely misguided) impression that I know exactly what's going on and what the next play should be. And so when the rugby began, I adopted my customary pose and prepared to muse.
"If only I had a flag to wrap round myself..."
However, it didn't take long for me to become completely invested in the games and with it, far more animated and vocal. My docile, ponderous posture faded and was replaced by all-chanting, Mexican-waving excitement! Yes, the rugby games were all as fast-paced and hard-hitting as you'd expect, with chairs and players sent flying as goal after goal was scored. Yes, it helped that I knew and had played against a number of the athletes on court. And yes, it certainly helped to have bursts of music playing throughout (although the constant playing of the chorus to Foo Fighters' "Wheels" every single time someone made an equipment call has utterly killed the song for me)! But for me, the main reason that I was so uncharacteristically energetic during the games was simply down to the infectious enthusiasm and feel-good vibes being given off by the crowd. 

There were none of the malicious chants or gestures that you see hurled around every week at football grounds, it was just non-stop cheering and singing. Of course there were rivalries on and off the court, but they were rivalries built on mutual respect that ended with smiles and handshakes. And whereas not every game was sold out, it has to be said that the Brazilian supporters certainly know how to throw a party and electrify the atmosphere! The Japanese crowd soon became fan-favourites too, continuously singing, dancing and evening spending one game creating dozens of traditional Japanese hachimaki (headbands) for the crowd to wear whilst chanting "Japão"!

A glimpse of what to expect at Tokyo 2020!
The highlight of the entire Games for me however was attending the wheelchair rugby gold medal match between Australia and USA. This wasn't just because it was a Paralympic Final with the medal ceremony immediately proceeding the game. It was because it was quite simply an unbelievable game of rugby, contested by two extremely passionate and evenly matched teams who shared a single goal: to bring home the gold. The determination, aggression and emotion in the players was clearly visible throughout; with lightning fast pace and thunderous hits reminding everyone just why this sport was initially named murderball! Goals were racked up in rapid succession by both teams, as the lead switched back and forth, with neither side able to pull away from the other. Line-ups were rotated, training ground plays were implemented and the tension kept on rising. By the end of the 4th quarter both teams were level and it took two sets of overtime before Australia finally got the break they needed and edged the USA, 59-58! Cue cheers, tears, embraces and rapturous applause as the arena exploded and Australia were crowned Paralympic Champions!
Left: An emotional Ryley Batt receives his gold medal. Right: The flags of the medal winners are hoisted to military fanfare.

A Lasting Impression

I know I've pretty much solely focused on wheelchair rugby here and you'd be entirely justified in thinking that this was the only event I saw during my time in Rio! In truth, the rugby was where my main interest lay, but I must say that I also had a great time watching track and field events at the athletics stadium as well as the triathlon, part of which handily took place outside our hotel! A big shout out to the blind football too, which I had unbelievable fun watching and wish I could have seen more of. Any game where a player responds to being fouled by gut-punching his opponent and hoping the referee hasn't spotted it is alright by me!

So that was my time in Rio; a fascinating city that has given me some amazing memories but one which I really only scraped the surface of. The Paralympics were an incredible spectacle and one which I hope to experience again in four years. My advice to anyone who visits Rio would be to do some research before going, know what it is you want out of the trip and look for the places where you are most likely to get this. There are some amazing beaches on offer, with Copacabana being the most famous and therefore most commercialised. However there are plenty of other beaches on offer if you're looking for a more traditional feel: Barra da Tijuca, Ipanema and Prainha, to name but a few. If it's nightlife you're after then Lapa is definitely the place to go, with cocktail stalls, samba clubs and trinket sellers lining the streets to create a carnival atmosphere. And be sure not to leave Brazil without first venturing into a traditional Brazilian steakhouse because, my god, the selection and quality of the meats on offer is just exquisite; I'm tearing up just thinking about it!

Upon leaving Rio, I flew to America to spend some time in New York, which in all honesty, I could write an entirely seperate blog entry on! But I won't. Instead I will sum it up thus: An endless barrage of noise, lights, tastes and smells; an absolute assault on the senses in all the best ways; and probably the quickest known route to type 2 diabetes!