Wednesday, 16 October 2019

My Disability Inability To Accept Offers of Cordiality

An Aversion To Assistance

Confession time: My name is Gareth and I am terrible at asking for help from strangers. I haven't always been this way however, this little aversion being a definite mental side effect of my injury. I'm not sure what exactly it's rooted in; whether it's a combination of pig-headed pride and stubbornness, or whether it's because I always used to be the person others would come to for help when it came to physical tasks and hate the thought that I'm now somehow less able than I was. Either way, for the last 14 years I've struggled to shake the feeling of defeat when having to rely on a random person to help me do something, especially if it's something I could have done with ease before my injury but am now entirely incapable of doing myself.

The thing is, I know exactly how ridiculous this all is, especially as a person in my firmly seated position who realistically should be requesting and accepting help far more than your average bipedal human. The most common example of this bizarre phobia can be found in the supermarket where I have zero problem asking for something to be passed down from a high shelf if I'm with a friend or family member, but if I'm on my own then I'll sit there, sizing the challenge up and judging whether I can get my fingertips to the item without causing a "clean-up on aisle 3" alert! If there's no chance of me reaching it and it's something I absolutely need then sure, I'll bite the bullet and either find a member of staff to help me or awkwardly camp out under the shelf and wait for an appropriately sized civilian to pass by. But countless other times, if it's something I've wanted but not necessarily something I've been in urgent need of then, rather than bite the bullet, I'll instead bite my tongue; aborting the mission rather than seeking out help. And that's weird right...I'm weird?!

Oh top shelf, why do you mock us so...?


When Helping Hinders

Without doubt, one of the biggest pet peeves since my injury is people who won't take no for an answer, the insistent assisters. These people, although well-meaning, don't so much offer help as insist upon it. I've lost count of the number of times I've declined an offer of help as I'm pushing up a bank, only to hear the familiar follow-up of, "don't be silly, I'll give you a hand!" And suddenly I'm whisked away, whether I like it or not; eyes glued to the ground in front of me for any potholes or other potential death traps. Similarly, when leaning out of the car and dismantling my chair, I've had people ask if I need help whilst simultaneously scooping the chair up and out of my grasp. Every time this happens, the same thought goes through my head: "well, I didn't need help before you did that...!" Oh and please, taxi drivers, I am begging you, if a person is transferring out of your taxi and into their wheelchair, do not grab them under the very arms that they are currently using to lift themselves with! We essentially become a sack of potatoes when you do this. But even after myself and/or my chair have finished being manhandled, what do I do? I say thank you! Granted this is more of a begrudging politeness uttered through gritted teeth, but what else can you do?! They're not doing this out of malice, but rather out of a misjudged kindness; I'm their good deed for the day! 

Sometimes however, no matter who you are or how awkward you may feel, sometimes you genuinely need to ask for help. For me, those moments arise whenever I inadvertently nosedive out of my chair and onto the floor, more often than not in a bewildered heap. In those moments I know that, barring some kind of a miracle, I'm going to have to yell, call or buzz someone for assistance. But even then, I'll still give a few gung-ho attempts at recovering the situation, and a comical montage of desperation unfolds before finally admitting defeat and slumping into a pile of C6 frustration. The one time I actually managed to drag myself from the floor to the bed exhausted me so much that I needed an immediate recovery nap!

The Big Bathroom Blunder

A perfect example of this stubborn desperation occurred earlier this year when staying at a Travelodge in Glasgow. A few years prior I had posted a blog entry about the proud moment I figured out how to get myself in and out of the bath, and as of January this year I had a 100% completion record in this feat...

I guess it was always going to happen and alas, this was the day. I drained the water, popped my legs over the side, pulled myself forwards and upwards onto the edge of the bath, went to place my hand on my chair for support, completely missed and somersaulted forwards, out of the bath and onto the floor, naked as the day I was born!

You're welcome!

It's safe to say I was somewhat aggrieved at the circumstances I now found myself in, but this was virgin territory for me; I'd never fallen out of the bath before and as such, I'd never attempted to get myself back in either. So I swung the lower half of my legs back over the bathtub, pulled my torso up against my thighs and for a solid (no joke) 30 minutes valiantly attempted to haul myself back into the bath, failing miserably of course. But do you know what, there were a couple of times where I thought I had it, a couple of times where I was desperately grasping for the bath rail, wishing I had an Active Hands aid with me so I could actually get a firm grip on what kept slipping through my fingers. Hell, the new Hook Aids would be ideal! Sadly neither were on hand, therefore off I shuffled into the bedroom to roll around on the floor and get some clothes on, coming face to face with all the secret stains and smells hidden in the Travelodge carpets; truly a bucket list item was ticked off that day!

Once dressed I did what any sane person in my position would do and spent a further 30 minutes valiantly stupidly trying again to get myself back into the bath, because jeans would surely provide less friction than skin against the tub, allowing me to glide up and a panting pile of prostrated paralysis on the bathroom floor!

Aching and overcome, I reached out a quivering hand and for the first time ever, deliberately pulled the emergency cord dangling by the bathtub. And I waited...and waited. After 5 minutes had passed I figured that particular cord must be faulty; after all, every time I'd accidentally activated an emergency button in the past, within seconds the door was being eagerly beaten down by staff members. So I did my little butt shuffle from bathroom to bedroom, where another emergency cord hung, and for the second time ever I deliberately gave it a yank. And I waited...and waited...and waited. Eventually, after more minutes had passed, I accepted the fact that my calls were going unanswered and so telephoned the reception on my mobile, explaining my predicament. Seconds later a couple of very helpful and very apologetic staff members came in, scooped me off the floor and plopped me into my chair whilst explaining that they assumed it was the cleaners who had set the alarms off and definitely not the wheelchair user occupying the room at that time! Still, they were very nice and helped make me feel a little less sheepish about things, so it was all good. I'm just relieved I was able to get myself dressed first, for their sakes as much as mine!

Anyway, for several days after "the incident", the muscles in my arms and shoulders ached fairly intensely, so I'm going to say the moral of this story is; if you end up in a heap on the ground, then swallow your pride and get someone around!

A Gradual Acceptance of Assistance

I think what I've come to realise through all this is that, no matter how prideful, embarrassed or stubborn I may feel, and no matter how much it may pain me to do so, sometimes you just need to ask for help. And that's okay. Nobody in the world, no matter how able they may be, goes through life without asking for assistance at various times. And inversely, nobody goes through life without being of assistance to others; after all, help doesn't always have to be physical.

I'm sure I can't be sitting here alone in my little assistance aversion bubble though, I can't be the only stubborn S.O.B. out there, right?! Feel free to leave a comment below if you can relate to anything I've said here, it'd be nice to know I'm not a solo weirdo! Or hell, feel free to comment telling me what an idiot I am, it happens more often than you may thi...actually, it happens exactly as often as you may think!

In the meantime, I shall leave you with a brief synopsis of an instance in Rio a few years ago when I did actually ask for help, having fallen when transferring into my shower chair late at night.  On this occasion I'd had to haul myself down the hallway to my friend's room and knock on the door for assistance, only to be greeted by a bewildered Brazilian lady in a nightgown. It was at this moment I realised to my utter horror that I had my hotel layout all wrong and had in fact knocked on the wrong door. Late at night. Whilst sat in just my pants. After sharing several seconds of mutually horrified eye contact with the poor lady, I began slowly shuffling my-largely-naked-self backwards down the corridor, like something straight out of a Japanese horror film...

Who knows when the dreaded creepy crip crawler might show up outside of YOUR door!

...and we shall never speak of this again!


Monday, 1 July 2019

Hook Aids - A Gimpy Kid Review

A New Product To Get Hooked On

A few years ago you may (or more likely, may not) recall that I wrote a blog entry about how Active Hands was branching out and had begun selling certain disability products designed by others alongside their own gripping aids. I focussed specifically on the Ungrip, a material loop that fits onto the back of any phone, allowing you to slide a finger into it and ensure it spends more time in your hand and less time on the floor with a giant crack across the screen! Since then, plenty more new and unique items have been added to the website, a detailed list of which can be found here.

However, it's not just the Products by Others section that's been growing, no sir! Far from resting on their laurels, content with the creations they've already concocted, the Active Hands elves have been hard at work crafting some brand new, ingeniously innovative aids designed to help anyone with limited hand or finger function 'get a grip' (three words I hear on a near daily basis)! A couple of years ago they launched the Limb Difference Aid, specifically designed for those with missing fingers and/or hand parts. Fast forward to present day, and the first half of this year alone has seen the release of not one, but two brand new gripping aids; in the form of the Small Item Gripping Aid and the Hook Aids. Having already written an article for the Active Hands website on the former (which can be found here, complete with video montage of yours truly), I decided that I should now focus my attention on the latter.

So without further ado, here is my review of the Active Hands Hook Aids and how you can incorporate them into your workout, whether at the gym or at home:

What Are Hook Aids?

Hook Aids are a new type of Active Hands gripping aid, specifically designed for easy hooking onto and off of various gym apparatus and exercise equipment. They are ideal for use in any activities that involve close-ended bars, and are great for the likes of: pull-ups, rowing machines, lat pull-down machines and certain handbikes.



How Do They Work?

Similarly to the General Purpose gripping aid, once you slip each hand into a Hook Aid, the neoprene material is securely fastened round your wrist using a Velcro strap. You then slip the elastic loop over a finger (usually the middle one), pinning the stainless steel hook to your palm and stopping it from flopping forwards onto your wrist. You then have complete control to hook onto and "grip" whatever exercise equipment you so wish. And once you are done, simply lift your hands/hooks off the equipment, undo the Velcro and remove the aids.


In reality though, anyone can spout some jargon about a product and what its supposed benefits are. But the products sold by Active Hands are specifically designed for people with limited hand and finger function. Therefore the most logical way of reviewing a product of theirs is by sharing my own personal experience of using it as a tetraplegic... 

My Hook Aids Experience

I will admit to being both excited and a little sceptical when I first read about the Hook Aids. I had given up my gym membership towards the end of last year due to there not being enough equipment I could easily access to justify the monthly fee, and had instead purchased an ex-gym handbike. This, when coupled with my dumb-bells, gave me just as good a workout as I had been getting at the gym, but I was always on the lookout for more exercises to add. The slight scepticism I felt was all down to my niggling doubts as to whether my C6 quad arms would be able to 'pull up' any part of my C6 quad bod! But I chose to remain positive, and once I knew the Hook Aids were on their way, I popped online and ordered an inexpensive pull-up bar (just under £15). This bar was designed to be attached to either side of a doorframe and, when used in conjunction with the Hook Aids, should allow me to do pull-up exercises from home. (A quick word of advice if purchasing a doorframe pull-up bar: Make sure it's a removable one; unless of course you want the added comic value of anyone over 5 feet tall getting clotheslined whenever they walk nonchalantly into the room! Mine slots fairly easily in and out of two brackets that had to be screwed onto the frame, and it's possible they are all designed like this. But just in case they're not, you have been warned!)

Twist the bar one way to lengthen & attach, then the other way to shorten & detach.

Another thing I will stress is the importance of reading the instructional leaflet that comes with the Hook Aids themselves, as this explains how to adjust the position of the hooks and how to either trim or stab a hole in the neoprene at the desired spot so that the elastic loop can comfortably go over your finger. It's important to take your time with this and it may be worthwhile seeking out a handy helper monkey to do the aforementioned trimming/stabbing, as the neoprene cannot be untrimmed/unstabbed. A friend of mine (definitely not me) thought he (or she, could've been anyone) was above reading instructions, and instead spent a truly embarrassing amount of time squinting at the neoprene whilst trying to push the elastic loop through a non-existent hole. What a buffoon that person must've felt eh (a person that, I cannot stress enough, definitely 100% was not me)!

Anyway, once the aids were set up, I parked myself under the pull-up bar, fastened the Hook Aids firmly round my wrists, hooked them snugly over the bar, took a deep breath, and heaved upwards... 

A proud moment as I perform my very first quiff-up!

Success! I actually managed to haul my butt off the seat and do a bloody pull-up (my first in over 14 years)! Feeling an exhilirating swell of confidence, I decided to do a few more, and quickly discovered the rather shameful limits to my stamina levels! Happy with my initial test run, I lifted my hands up and the hooks instantly detached from the bar. Realising how simple an exercise this was for me to do, I returned to it the next day, and the day after, and the day after that; my stamina levels gradually increasing. It turns out my scepticism had been unwarranted, as these aids genuinely do give a person with limited arm and finger function the ability to do pull-ups, pull-downs, and any other related exercises you have the equipment for. (Full disclosure: After seeing videos of it online, I did strap myself to my chair and attempt a MEGA PULL-UP; however, trying to lift what is essentially a 57kg dead weight strapped to another 13kg dead weight using just my arms, proved a bridge waaaay too far, so for now I shall remain content with my modest butt lift pull-up!)

To Buy or Not To Buy...

But would I recommend getting this product even if you already have other Active Hands aids? Honestly, this was something I'd asked myself before the Hook Aids arrived, as I was unsure what they would offer that I couldn't get from, say the General Purpose gripping aids. However, after having tried them out for the past month, I can confidently state that these are a totally unique and very worthy addition to any gym user's or fitness enthusiast's Active Hands arsenal. To start with, I would have to stress the ease of use and independence that the Hook Aids offer. I love my General Purpose gripping aids and I use them for countless activities around the house and in the garden, as well as for the obvious fitness purposes. I'll admit though, it can be a little tricky to independently attach a left glove and a right glove at the same time. So, for example, when I lift dumb-bells, I do a set with my left hand, followed by a set with my right, as opposed to doing both arms together. However, I can effortlessly attach and use both Hook Aids independently, and the elastic finger loops ensure I am able to hook onto, and afterwards unhook from, the pull-up bar with ease.

 The other thing I will say is that using the Hook Aids in conjunction with a pull-up bar gives you a swift and simple exercise that takes up no time and focusses on specific muscles, so you really feel like they've been worked afterwards. I usually jump on and do 5-10 sets of 5 pull-ups which takes maybe 10 minutes, but during this time I can feel the tensing of my biceps, shoulders and lats. Hell, I'm not even sure if my lats are functional but something's certainly burning in that area afterwards!


I was very pleasantly surprised with these Hook Aids; they've opened the door to another great exercise I can do from home, an exercise that requires far less time and preparation than say, a stint on the handbike or a set of dumb-bell lifts. And if you're a gym member or have access to, for example, a rowing machine or lat pull-down machine, then there are even more options open to you. They can be found now by searching on the Active Hands website or by simply clicking the link HERE.

I shall leave you with video footage of the moment I donned the Hook Aids for the first time and heaved myself to the heavens...or at least a few inches in that direction!


Thursday, 31 January 2019

Putting The "Aid" In Homemade

Bedbaths & Beyond

So here we are: 2019 and 14 years down the spinal cord injury line. Where does the time go?! It feels like only yesterday when I was lying helplessly in my bed in HDU, being rolled from side to side as the nurses bed bathed me and I wondered to myself why they always seemed to take so long washing my back (turns out they weren't just washing my back)! Months later I would be discharged to my parents house, complete with the most rudimentary set of wheelchair skills, and just about able to wash and dress my top half, but very little else.

As my parents house wasn't built with wheelchair accessibility in mind, I stagnated in this basic state for around 18 months, until a flat became available nearby. Once moved in, I spent the next year or so exploring ways of getting around my disability and regaining my independence. This started off with simple things like getting dressed/undressed, showering myself, using the toilet etc, before gradually moving onto things such as transferring in and out of a car, taking my chair apart, cooking and the like (although how much cooking you can actually do with a microwave oven and plug-in, electric hob is highly debatable!)

Finding success in each one of these processes was very much down to trial and error, having to experiment and explore every possible avenue in order to find the one that worked best for me and my specific injury (no spinal cord injury is the same after all). For the longest time, before I discovered this, in order to get toothpaste out of the tube I would suck it out. I didn't have the individual hand function that would allow me to squeeze it out whilst holding the brush, and if I sat my toothbrush down and used two hands, more often than not the brush would roll onto its side at some point, smearing paste all over. So instead, twice a day I would sit and casually suck a white substance into my mouth, now let's all move on like the mature adults we are...

By Hook or By Crook

An integral part of this general experimenting came in the form of finding and utilising items to help me achieve my goals. These could be purpose made disability aids such as a monkey pole hanging over my bed to help me sit up and pull myself around, easy use nail clippers, or jar/can/packet openers and cutlery grips. However they could just as easily be everyday items, repurposed to work as disability aids.

Before I was discharged from hospital in 2005, a staff member gave me what looked like a large safety pin that would traditionally be used in embroidery or some kind of crafting I presume. They knew that I was struggling to do up buttons on trousers and shirts and thought that I may be able to use this item as some kind of looped hooking device that I would insert through the button hole, hook round the button and then pull back through the hole. And it worked like a charm! I used this repurposed crafting hook on a daily basis for many years, and even though I picked up purpose made button aids and eventually worked out a way of doing buttons up by hand, this little beauty still resides in a drawer next to my bed in case of button related emergencies!

The 4 stages of tetra trouser tightening!

This proved to be the first of many subsequent times when an everyday item was repurposed and put to use as a disability aid in my neverending battle for independence:
  • A wire coathanger was straightened out to become a long reach hooking device that I could use to grab things that had either fallen or been placed in areas I couldn't access, such as underneath desks, between tight spaces etc. I even used it to hook onto and pull down things at the top of my wardrobe, such as bags and suitcases, although be prepared to catch (or at least act as a safety net for) whatever you pull down!
  • The leather, fingerless weightlifting gloves I used for pushing often doubled up as cutlery grips, where I'd slot the knife and fork down the side of my index finger and into the glove, holding them in place as I ate.
  • I'd get split ring keyring hoops attached to the zips of all my rucksacks, carry bags and suitcases, enabling me to put my finger through them and zip/unzip them with ease. 
These are just a few examples of how I repurposed and used everyday items as disability aids over the years. Of course I'm not saying that these were all my own original concepts, I'm not the wheelchair MacGyver! But with a combination of creative problem solving, searching online and chatting to friends who may have similar struggles, I found that it was often possible to create my own solutions. They may not have looked glamorous or professional, but dammit they worked! You've got to remember that this was back in the dark ages, before companies like Active Hands were formed, when the majority of disability aids were made for those who could grip the items. It's all good and well having a reacher/grabber, but if you need to operate it by squeezing the handle & trigger together, then it's completely useless for anyone with limited grip! If only there was one available that you operated with your wrist...

Letting something as trivial as a quadriplegia get in the way of my holiday shenanigans? Never!!


The Clammy Kitchen Conundrum

Anyway, fast forward to summer 2017; I move out of my flat and into a house, complete with ramped entrance, through floor lift, and wet room, plus a real oven and set of five gas hobs!! I was both literally and figuratively cooking on gas!

You may be wondering why I'm focussing on the cooking aspect of things here or, more likely, you may just want me to get to the flipping point! Well here it is: Above my hobs sits an extractor fan to suck away all the steam (and occassionally smoke!) that comes out of whatever culinary "delight" I may be cooking up. Unfortunately, the controls for the fan are located on the front of it, a good 50+cm out of my sitting reach.

So for the next 18 months the extractor fan sat virtually unused, unless I was cooking with an able-bodied friend or family member. Almost every day I would use the hobs to cook or heat things up, and almost every day the kitchen windows would steam up and condensation would trickle down them, onto the sills. Every few months, usually coinciding with my cooking accidentally setting off the smoke alarm, I would search online for a wheelchair button pusher, prodder or poker; but to no avail. I should mention here that I know you can get lowered extractor fans or ones with remote controls, but I don't know, it just somehow seemed wrong to spend hundreds of pounds replacing a perfectly good fan just because I couldn't reach the damn thing! I'm not what you would call, flush with cash, and it wasn't like it was creating a huge issue for me, I just had a bit of a sweaty kitchen!

Then one day I had a bit of an epiphany. An idea that could solve my clammy kitchen conundrum. So I popped onto Amazon, found what I was looking for and placed my order. And when it arrived the next day, I was ready for action...

A photographical & metaphorical oxymoron!

Yes, the answer to my pusher/prodder/poker problem came in the form of the OG mobility aid, the granddaddy of them all - The Walking Stick!

"Ain't no button hiiiiiigh enough..."

Now I know what some people will be thinking at this point: "Well duh, I can't believe it took you a year and a half to think of this", or maybe, " bought a stick? Congratulations", and both are valid points. Maybe it should have dawned on me sooner to think outside the box. But I was so focussed on looking for a purpose made solution, that I didn't think to consider other possibilities. And maybe it doesn't seem like that big of a deal to some people. After all, there are far bigger problems in life than having a steamy kitchen. But to me it was about overcoming another small hurdle to keep on proving to myself that every problem my disability may throw at me has a solution.

Where There's A Wheel, There's A Way!

The overall point I've been trying to make in this entry is that no matter what disability you may have, you will always be presented with problems to be solved. Ever since the first person decided to walk with the aid of a stick in order to take some pressure off their aching body thousands of years ago, we have been creating solutions for disabilities. Thankfully we live in a time now where mobility stores are common place in towns, and online stores offer a huge variety of disability aids for virtually every aspect of life, so we need to do very little problem solving of our own. Thank god someone invented the wheelchair and marketed it to the masses, otherwise I'd probably be getting piggybacked everywhere!

"Faster Hodor, the Next sale begins at 6am!"

However, there will still be the occasional oddity, a problem that feels more specific than generic perhaps, that needs that little bit more thought putting into it in order to come up with a solution. This could involve repurposing an already existing household item, giving a new use to an existing disability aid, or maybe even coming up with your own invention - there is a solution for everything. And if you can't find what you are looking for in stores or online, it just means it hasn't been invented yet!

Rob Smith was faced with just such a dilemma after his injury, when he found that there wasn't anything available to help with the lack of grip in his hands. So he developed the General Purpose Gripping Aid and formed The Active Hands Company which has now been solving disability related problems worldwide for over a decade!

But what about you guys? Have any of you come up with any ingenious solutions to life's little problems that you fancy sharing? If so, then feel free to comment below!

Oh and speaking of repurposing existing disability aids, I shall leave you with this image, taken from a website that has found a very specific use for the General Purpose Gripping Aid!

I really hope the "Size" option relates to the Gripping Aid!


Monday, 29 October 2018

The Disability Unemployability Conspiracy (Part 5)

Well we made it, the final Monday of disability employment awareness month. And if you weren't aware of it beforehand, after five blog entries of me prattling on about it, you sure as s*** must be by now!

We've heard from several different people, offering varying different opinions and perspectives on not only looking for employment as a person with a disability, but also being accepted into the workplace as a person with a disability; seeing very much the good, the bad and the ugly sides of things.

But what if you or someone you know are wanting to get into employment? What opportunities and resources are out there to make things easier for people with disabilities to find a job? Let's take a quick look...

The Links Effect

Remploy - To anyone seeking advice or guidance to do with getting back into work, or who is looking for support once back in work, then look no further than Remploy. For over 70 years, this company has helped individuals with disabilities to find employment; whether this be through helping them acquire the necessary skill sets, suggesting ways to polish up their CVs and interview techniques, or simply talking through their options. On top of this, Remploy also works with employers and communities in order to help them recognise and remove barriers to allow access to the workplace for all, whilst also striving to create a friendly, inclusive workplace environment. They had previously also operated a number of nationwide factories manned exclusively by disabled workers; however these have since all been closed as the government believed it was best "to concentrate on getting disabled people into mainstream work, rather than subsidising disabled-only factories". Nevertheless, their website is an absolute goldmine of useful information and they have telephone as well as online advisors at hand, ready to help. I would recommend that anyone with any questions to do with disability employment make this their first point of call.

Disability Jobsite - Assisting people with a disability to actively participate in employment  and supporting them on the pathway to work, the Disability Jobsite gives some basic interview and CV advice as well as having an employers database of possible job opportunities for people with disabilities. Here you can see if they have any jobs listed in your area and if you see anything that piques your interest then you can select to apply for the job through the website, the idea being that this will offer you "barrier free" e-recruitment.

Reasonable Adjustments For Disabled Workers - The law states that "employers must make reasonable adjustments to make sure workers with disabilities, or physical or mental health conditions, aren’t substantially disadvantaged when doing their jobs". These "reasonable adjustments" can be anything from altering the recruitment process or workplace setup so wheelchair users can have their interviews or do their jobs on the ground floor, to making physical alterations such as installing ramps. Speaking to your employer about these types of alterations should always be the first thing you do once you have a job and/or are ready to return to work.

Access To Work - Once you have spoken to your employer about any reasonable adjustments they can make then you can choose to apply for a grant from Access To Work; the idea being that they help make it as easy as possible for people with disabilities to do their jobs. This could mean providing specialist equipment, adaptations or support worker services to help you in your job, or by helping you with transport to and from work. While they won't pay for things you would need to do your job whether or not you were disabled, they will pay for things you need to do your job because you are disabled (as long as you fit the criteria). So if you feel that certain items would significantly improve your ability to do your job, or if you struggle to get to and from work, then it's worth clicking on the link and seeing if you are eligible.  

Spinal Injuries Association (SIA) - A one-stop-shop for all things spinal, the SIA offers guidance and advice to do with any and all aspects of spinal cord injury, including employment. On their website you can find message boards, an email address and a freephone advice line where you can talk to a trained specialist one-to-one, who will be able to give you all the support you need. This could be in the form of a list of the best websites to visit when looking for employment, the best people to speak to if you're having issues at work, or just what options are out there for the spinally injured when it comes to employment. The website also advertises any potential jobs or voluntary positions that are going within SIA, so it's always worth looking to see if there is something in your area. And I know that 'spinal injury' is only a very small slice of the 'disability pie' (I used SIA as the example here because this is the one I've had the most personal experience with), but almost all disabilities will have their own Association - just do a little search online, "[insert disability/condition] association", and it will likely be the top result.

Jobcentre Plus - Probably the most obvious suggestion for any able-bodied person looking for employment, but did you know that every Jobcentre Plus should have a Disability Employment Advisor specifically there to help advise and assist those with disabilities to get back into work? These advisors or work coaches can carry out assessments to find out what sort of work would be best for you, based on your qualifications, previous jobs and the extent of your disability. After this assessment you can work together to form a plan of action on how to best move forward and gain employment. It was a trip to my local Jobcentre Plus, 10 years ago that found me the volunteering position at the primary school, which then led me to completing the teaching assistant courses, which in turn led me to be employed in the college I now work at, so who knows what you might find. For a full list of all the Jobcentre Plus offices and where to find them, check out this link

Positive About Disabled People - When searching or applying for a job, it may be worth keeping your eyes open for this symbol:
This is awarded by the Jobcentre Plus to employers who have demonstrated that they are committed to recruiting disabled employees and developing their skills and prospects. In order to gain this recognition, an employer must meet and uphold these five commitments:

1. To interview all disabled applicants who meet the minimum criteria for a job vacancy and to consider them on their abilities.
2. To promote open discussion with disabled employees (at least once a year) to talk about what both parties can do to make sure they’re developing and using their abilities.
3. To make every effort when an employee becomes disabled to make sure they remain in employment.
4. To take the appropriate action to ensure that all employees are equipped with the sufficient disability awareness needed to make these commitments successful.
5. To review these commitments annually and assess what has been achieved and plan ways to improve. Also, to update employees and Jobcentre Plus about progress and future plans.

This means that, as long as you meet the minimum job criteria for the vacancy, you are guaranteed an interview; a metaphorical yet invaluable 'wheel in the door' so to speak! Then it is up to you to demonstrate why you and you alone are the right person for the job.


Volunteering - Okay, so this final one is a bit of a cheat as it's tecnically not really an opportunity or resource, but as I've mentioned previously, I wouldn't be in the job I am now had it not been for starting off as a volunteer school reading assistant. Sure, you don't get paid for the work you do, but that doesn't mean you won't be getting anything out of it, with the experience and demonstrated ability to work being invaluable additions to your CV and great ammo to use in an interview. Plus it can be a genuinely cathartic feeling to know you're giving back to the community and putting your skills to use. Maybe you're just not interested in entering the sometimes stressful world of paid work, maybe you just fancy doing something to keep your mind and body active; there are any number of reasons why taking up a voluntary position could be the right move for you. If you think you're interested in volunteering then pop into your local Jobcentre Plus or simply visit Do-it, the UK's national volunteering database, where you can enter your postcode/town to find volunteering opportunities near you, including work from home positions if this is what you'd prefer. 

Summing Up & Signing Off

There will doubtless be other helpful services and oranisations out there (and if you think I've missed any big ones then feel free to mention them in the comments section), this is just a brief look at some of the ones I found that could hopefully make it that little bit easier and offer you a starting point if/when you decide to take the employment plunge!

If you've read the four previous entries leading up to this (and if not, pause everything and go do it!) then thanks for sticking with me, I hope it's been an entertaining and informative trip down Disability Employment Avenue! Personally speaking, I think if I've learnt anything from the various accounts I've relayed here over the past month it's that, whereas there has been a definite general improvement and societal shift towards disability employment in the 21st century, there is still a way to go before we are given unequivocal equal standing with our able-bodied counterparts. 

More input is needed from the disabled community, and a better general awareness and understanding of disabilities is needed on the part of employers and the workforce as a whole. And whereas there will be certain disability specific jobs tailored for us (see Shaun's story), we shouldn't be limited to only being considered for employment in positions such as those. Unfortunately Jamie's horror story (see Part 3) will not be an isolated incident and many other disabled people will have been victims of unprofessional and negative prejudices, either when looking for employment or in the workplace itself. It is up to us a community to rise above this, support each other where possible and refuse to allow this to sway us from our goals. Equality and change is happening. And at the end of the day, we're a resilient bunch and chances are we've been through a hell of a lot worse...

Thanks for reading!


Monday, 22 October 2018

The Disability Unemployability Conspiracy (Part 4)

So here we are, nuzzled comfortably into the ample bosom of the 4th week of disability awareness month. This week I talk to Shaun who, after three and a half decades in a wheelchair, knows all the ins and outs of life after spinal injury, including the ups and downs of seeking employment.

This is his story...


Year of injury & cause: 1983, swimming pool accident
Age at time of injury: 14 
Current age: 49
Injury level: C5 complete

At the time of his injury, Shaun was a schoolboy with no previous experience of employment. He spent the best part of 12 months in hospital (remember, this was 1983, long before the 12 week spinal injury conveyor belt system of rehabilitation was introduced), and upon discharge set about spending the next few years completing his education and gaining the necessary qualifications with which to seek employment.

However, Shaun found it very difficult to find a job in the years after leaving school and completing his rehab, and whereas he was never directly told that his disability had played a part in him not getting a job, the nagging thought would linger. So instead he chose to focus on living his life to the full; becoming involved in the likes of Back Up and SIA, making numerous trips abroad to explore Europe, the Americas, the Orient etc, travelling to support GB at multiple Paralympics and starting up his own wheelchair rugby club which, to this day, competes at both national and international levels.

Then in 2003, a new spinal injuries unit was opened in Shaun's home town and the volunteer post of peer support officer was advertised, something that Shaun felt he was ideally suited for, given his 20 years experience in adapting to and fully embracing life with a high level spinal cord injury, where his wheelchair would be seen as a reason why he should be hired, as opposed to an excuse for why he shouldn't. 
 "My injury has definitely had a positive impact on my current job."
Naturally Shaun got the job, which involved him going into the spinal injuries unit a couple of days a week, seeing newly injured patients and their families, and advising/supporting them on all manner of topics: everything from coming to terms with the injury itself, bladder/bowel management and family matters, to life outside hospital, finding accessible accommodation and keeping active with sports and hobbies. In fact, back in 2005, Shaun was the first person to come and talk to me about life after injury and the possibility of taking up wheelchair rugby once I was discharged. Yes even back then, as I lay hooked up to various monitors in the high dependency unit of the spinal ward, Shaun could see the potential for me to one day become a slightly below average wheelchair rugby half pointer! 

He continued in this role on a voluntary basis for a few years until the Spinal Injuries Association realised the value of the work being done by people like Shaun and made it a paid position which he has now held for over a decade.
"None of [Shaun's] colleagues or fellow staff members at the spinal injuries unit treat him or see him any differently due to his injury."
Shaun's job is specifically tied to him being spinally injured and his acute knowledge and ability to empathise with and relate to those newly injured means that he almost certainly would not have been suitable for this job had he not suffered his injury all those years ago. Shaun is also insistent that none of his colleagues or fellow staff members at the spinal injuries unit treat him or see him any differently due to his injury. And really, why should they? Shaun is there doing a job that is just as vital as any when it comes to patient rehabilitation, and outside of work he has travelled and experienced more of the world than most could ever dream of.
"More career advice is needed both inside and outside of hospital to help newly injured people find employment opportunities."
On the question of whether more could be done to help people find work after spinal injury, Shaun is adamant that more career advice is needed both inside and outside of hospital to help newly injured people find employment opportunities. He believes this is especially important for those who are unable to return to their pre-injury careers/jobs; people such as Peter, who I wrote about in Part 2.

Next week I'll conclude this series by briefly assessing what these individual stories say about the bigger picture involving disabilities and employment, before looking at the best routes to take if you have a disability and wish to seek employment.

The aim is to provide some handy info and resources for people to check out so hope to see you then!


Monday, 15 October 2018

The Disability Unemployability Conspiracy (Part 3)

Hello and welcome back! In our 3rd week of disability employment awareness month, I talk to Jamie, a young man whose enthusiasm for getting back to the career he loved quickly became a nightmare, which saw him fighting numerous battles everyday just to keep his job.

This is his story...


Year of injury & cause: 2014, RTA (car crash)
Age at time of injury: 31 
Current age: 35
Injury level: T4 complete

Prior to his injury, Jamie had worked several steady jobs including shop assistant, bar manager and teacher. In fact, only a week before his injury, Jamie had started a new teaching position, and one of his main focuses throughout rehab was returning to this job as quickly as possible, something he accepts may have been to the detriment of his overall recovery. Upon discharge, the next challenge to overcome was finding accessible accommodation within reasonable distance of his work, a process that took nearly a year!
"I was in fact, back at work long before suitable accommodation had been found, making an 80 mile round trip every day to continue doing my job."
However, Jamie persevered - determined to return to the job he loved, and at first everything seemed to be going well, with a very positive set of colleagues and staff eager to welcome him back into the fold. He was even provided with a room in which he could get changed as and when necessary. However, after this initially promising start, attitudes swiftly changed. Promises around basic accessibility and patience towards Jamie's perceived limitations all dried up fast, and the "changing room" he had been provided with was often closed off for other purposes. 
"I know for a fact I wouldn't have got my job with my injury. The practicalities of Support for Learning teaching doesn't support those with less abilities."
The longer this went on for, the clearer it became to Jamie that there was a general lack of understanding or empathy in regards to being a spinally injured teacher. Cramped classrooms with narrow spaces between desks made it extremely difficult to navigate in a wheelchair, vastly limiting teacher/pupil interaction, and the kitchen and toilet areas were similarly cramped and borderline impossible to navigate.
"Facilities an able bodied person takes for granted are stressfully limited for a wheelchair user."
On top of all this, it took nearly 6 months for a door to be put in place that Jamie could open unaided; up until then he was having to wait in hope that someone was around to open it for him. As far as solving the issue of navigating his way around staffrooms, computer suites and classrooms - even his assigned occupational therapist couldn't come up with any longterm, practical solutions. Jamie didn't expect the entire school to be altered to meet his needs, he simply believed he deserved an equal opportunity to access the building and navigate his classrooms in a way that would allow him to do his job to the best of his ability, not in spite of his disability. And although efforts were initially made, attitudes fast became exhausted and irritable at his perceived physical limitations.
"[Things] quickly turned unprofessional, staff members largely ignoring me, talking down to me or just avoiding me."
The staff seemed reluctant to accept some of Jamie's difficulties and largely struggled to empathise with the challenges of being a spinally injured wheelchair user, especially one as newly injured as Jamie. Personally, I cannot think of another person who has returned to employment as soon after injury as Jamie, and whether or not I believe this was the best thing for his longterm rehabilitation, I cannot help but admire his determination and refusal to languish. The people in management however, chose to view these issues as reflections of Jamie's character and work ethic, culminating in his employment being terminated. These managerial views have led the authority he was employed by to make assertations to justify his sacking, and as a result Jamie is now not only unemployed, but also battling to keep his teaching registration. He is currently untouchable as an employee.

When I asked Jamie whether more could be done to help people find work after spinal injury, he had this to say:
"There needs to be more input from the spinally injured. Whether that's for adaptions or even just dealing with attitudes of ignorant staff. The law is very much on the side of those who can do everything without difficulty. For those with injuries, and resulting trauma and depression, there's little to no understanding or empathy."
Next week I'll be talking to Shaun who has been injured for 35 years and after many years of struggling to find work, eventually found a job that utilised his knowledge and experience of day to day life in a wheelchair.

Hope to see you then! 


Monday, 8 October 2018

The Disability Unemployability Conspiracy (Part 2)

So, we're now in the 2nd week of disability employment awareness month and this week I'm focusing on Peter who, as I said at the end of last week's entry, has struggled to find employment since his injury and thinks it is far harder for people with disabilities to find employment than those without.

This is his story...


Year of injury & cause: 2004, RTA (motorbike crash)
Age at time of injury: 45 
Current age: 59
Injury level: T11 complete

Although unemployed at the time of his injury due to workforce cutbacks, Peter had spent the previous 15 years working for Great Lakes Chemicals as a plant labourer/machine operator and before that had worked on production lines at various factories. During this time he had acquired a multitude of skills relating to his specific roles in these jobs.
"There really wasn't much out there for a spinally injured person in his position."
He was initially keen to re-enter the workplace after leaving hospital and settling back into everyday life, so visited the local Jobcentre to see what his options were. However, after listing his previous employment roles and skills he was stunned to be told that there really wasn't much out there for a spinally injured person in his position, as he could no longer do the manual labour, machine operating or forklift driving he had done in his past jobs. He was instead told that if he wanted a job, he would need to look at a completely different career which would mean retraining in an entirely new field and acquiring a whole new skill set. Being told that everything he had leant and all the skills he had acquired over the past few decades were now worthless and he would need to start from the beginning again at age 46 was, as you can imagine, crushingly disheartening to hear. So much so in fact that it killed off Peter's hope and desire to return to work dead in its tracks.

When I asked Peter what could have been done differently at that time to help him find work, he stated that there needed to be more feesable options available for people post-injury, especially those who come from a manual labour background, whose skill set is most severely affected by spinal injury. There should be more options available for people who have worked for decades in a certain career or industry other than having to retrain in an entirely new one. Personally speaking as an English Lit graduate, if someone told me that in order to continue working I would need to retrain in mathematics, the term panic attack would not do justice to the abject terror that would wash over me!
"There remains a negative stigma surrounding disability in the workplace."
Peter also strongly believes that, when applying or being interviewed for a job, certain parameters need to be maintained in order to ensure disabled people are given an equal chance and that a person's disability is not held against them or seen as any sort of reason why they shoudn't be employed. It is his current belief that still to this day, if presented with an able-bodied person and a disabled person, the majority of employers would sooner hire the able-bodied candidate, even if the other person's disability had no effect on the requirements of the job. He stated to me that even though positive steps are being taken, there remains a negative stigma surrounding disability in the workplace, with employers seeing a person in a wheelchair as something of a liability, with a higher chance of accidents or illnesses leading to more paperwork, more absences and more hassle than it's worth.

Despite all this, Peter has managed to keep himself busy over the years, building and repairing computers in his spare time, a skill he taught himself without having to enrol in courses and acquire certificates. He also remains passionate about motorbiking and has taken part in several charity bike rides on his adapted motorcycle.

Next week I'll be talking to Jamie, a teacher who has been injured for 4 years and who is not afraid to speak his mind about the appalling way he feels he has been treated since going back to work post injury.

Hope to see you then!