Friday, 10 April 2020

Life In The Time Of Corona

Apocalypse Now

I'm not going to lie, a few months ago when we initially entered 2020, I didn't expect my first blog entry of the new decade to be dealing with the apocalypse, but here we are. In fact, it seems positively ironic that in my previous entry I'd spoken about how uncomfortable I felt accepting help off strangers, and now it's illegal to be within 2 metres of any of them...I guess the moral of the story is be careful what you wish for!

Only a few months since the first case was reported in Wuhan, China, Covid-19 aka Coronavirus has spread across the globe, forcing not only entire countries, but entire continents into lockdown as governments battle to stop the spread. All but the most essential of businesses are closed, and the vast majority of people are told to work from home if they are able to. 

Working from home - because that PC of yours isn't just for porn you know!

As the virus is a respiratory illness that affects the lungs and airways, anyone with a pre-existing medical condition relating to these areas is urged to remain at home as much as possible; with the most high-risk cases being told in no uncertain terms to stay indoors for at least 12 weeks. For many people like myself, with disabilities affecting the lungs, this can sound and feel an awful lot like a prison sentence, and it certainly affected me psychologically in a way I had not seen coming. But after the initial shock, quickly followed by the likes of denial, anger and depression, I seem to have reached some kind of tenuous acceptance of the situation.

That's not to say I'm okay with the position I find myself in; I've just made temporary adaptations in order to safely get on with my life. However, there will be many people out there who remain in a state of panic at what is going on, and I can't really blame them. This feels like the first act of a horror movie, with the zombie onslaught mere minutes away! So with all this in mind, I've decided to focus this blog entry on the survival aspect of things currently. That means looking at not only how best to stay safe and survive the virus itself, but how to deal with the self-isolation; along with the physical, emotional and psychological effects this can all have when you live with a disability.

1. Don't Be A Corona Loner

Self-isolation has the potential to be a mental health nightmare, and we have to work together in order to stop it.
It's safe to say that, never in my life have I regretted more, a) being single, and b) living alone. I've always been fine with my own company and in the past have enjoyed spending the odd lazy day by myself. But something about being told I have to spend weeks in almost complete isolation, with no sporting or social interactions, sent me into a bit of an emotional panic. Okay, it sent me into a lot of an emotional panic, and for the first few days I was equal parts upset and bitter, as I felt entirely alone for the first time maybe ever. 

What I can be found doing at some point most days!

What helped me get past this stage, was firstly realising that I wasn't alone in feeling alone. Spend 10 minutes on social media and you'll see that millions of people, both able and disabled, are going through the same thing currently; and even in your own social groups, it is highly unlikely that you are the only 'single person' out of all of them. But even if you are, take solace in the knowledge that most couples will be driving each other crazy by day 3 of lockdown! 

So, bearing in mind that most people you know are going to be in a similar boat to you right now, the logical next step is to make contact. We are unbelievably fortunate to be living in an age where we can keep in touch with virtually every member of our friends and family at the push of a button. Whether it's via text, voice or video chat, there has never been a more perfect time to resurrect friendships or call that family member you haven't spoken to since Christmas. Hearing a friendly voice, having a chat, making each other laugh or just ranting about how sh*t everything seems - it's all therapeutic and it all helps. On top of this, there are endless games you can play with friends online, from fast-paced PC and console games to simple mobile puzzles and quizzes - after all, it'd be a crying shame if you had to go months without reminding your friends and family just who is the king of Game of Thrones trivia!

2. Exercise Those Demons

It's easy to look at the current situation and think to yourself, "well that's it, everything's closed and I can't go outside for the next 3 months, commence Operation: Vegetate". But in reality, this couldn't be further from the truth. We're housebound, with a finite number of options to keep us entertained, there has never been a better time to get fit!

Armed with a few pieces of exercise equipment and the right set of exercise aids, anyone can turn their home into a home gym. From simple items like dumb-bells, resistance bands and pull-up bars to bulkier items like handbikes, rowers and cable machines; all are available to buy new or second hand online. Just committing to exercising a few times a week with one or two of these items can make a big difference both physcially and mentally. Sitting around doing nothing, on top of being extremely unhealthy for the body, can also be a major cause of depression, and exercise is proven to combat this. I bought an ex-gym handbike from eBay a few years ago and I've never used it so much - pop on some music, open the French doors for a bit of breeze and I'm away!

Image represents average man's hair length by the time barbers re-open!

For a more substantial list of exercises you can do from home, check out my article Exercising At Home - A Self-Isolation Guide on the Active Hands website. It really can help take your mind off things and make a difference. And how awesome would it be if, once all this is over, you come out of your house fitter and stronger than before you went in?! Take that Corona!


3. Get A Change of Scenery

Remember up top when I said this whole thing could end up feeling like a prison sentence? Well if anything is going to drive that feeling home then it's sitting and staring at the same walls day in day out. That's why it's so important right now to grasp any and every opportunity we get for a change of scenery, even if it's only a slight one! 

Obviously we're not able to pop down to the local beer garden for a pint in the sun, but if you've got a garden, a driveway, or hell, even a window you can open, then use it! Sit outside for a little bit every day, breathe in the fresh air, crack open a beer, look at the sky, the plants, the birds; unlike the walls inside, the outdoors is constantly changing and no two glimpses are ever the same. If there's one thing I'm grateful to this virus for, it's that it had the decency to wait until Spring before fully unleashing itself. Granted it's resulted in most summer events being cancelled, but at least if we sit outside now there's only a 50/50 chance of it raining on us!

I mean, there are definitely worse ways to spend an afternoon!

Most of us are also allowed to brave it in public and get our one walk/push in each day. If this is the case then find new routes or paths to explore. As long as we keep a safe distance from each other then the air itself isn't going to kill us, and it may even do us some good! I've even taken to driving 20 minutes to the coast once or twice a week so I can park up by the sea and read. However, although I stay in my car the entire time, I'm not sure how strictly 'legal' this is currently, so please don't quote me on this in court!

4. Explore Your Options & Set Some Goals

Ever fancied yourself as a tormented artist or green-fingered guru? Ever dreamed of expanding your baking abilities and creating a signature dish? Ever wanted to finally read that book series, binge that boxset or complete that video game that's been silently taunting you for months? Well guess what...

It's highly unlikely (fingers firmly crossed) that we'll ever find ourselves again in a position where we're being told that the most productive thing for us to do is nothing. Now that we've got so much time on our hands with nowhere to be, instead of falling into a routine of boredom, why not consider rekindling a passion you once had or trying your hand at something you've always fancied but never had the time for? Of course, your options are limited to things you can do from home, but that can encompass a fair number of possibilities if you sit and think about it. 

During the afternoons, I've taken to testing my cooking skills and experimenting with a few new recipes, and on an evening I'm currently working my way through a backlog of TV shows and video games. Sure, I could be learning a new language or clearing the clutter off my work surfaces, and if that's something you discover a passion for then fantastic! The point is that we can use this time to do something we want to do, not something we feel we have to do; and realistically, how many chances are we going to get after this? Plus, with all the kitchen aids, gardening aids and small item aids available; we're really running out of excuses not to!

Stir fry: not the most testing of meals to prepare, but a definite step up from toast!


5. Enjoy The Little Things

One of my all-time favourite films is the 2009 zomcom Zombieland. In it, the main character survives the undead uprising thanks to a set of rules he holds to, one of which is "enjoy the little things". There are plenty more rules I could have chosen, however I'm banking on this virus not going full zombie-mode, as I would hate to have to "double tap" my next door neighbours!

When I say enjoy the little things, I mean try not to focus on the negatives of the current situation we find ourselves in but instead seek out positives and give yourself things to look forward to. This could be anything from ordering a new book, movie or video game online to sitting out in the garden with a cold drink and taking in some sun. Like it or not, self-isolation is affording the vast majority of us a lot more free time right now, so treat yourself while you can. I'm not by any means saying this virus is a good thing, and I think I speak for us all when I say the sooner we create a vaccine the better, but in the meantime it's okay to be doing things that make you happy, this doesn't mean you're a bad person.

As I alluded to previously, now that my evenings are free from wheelchair rugby, table tennis and any social events usually involving the cinema or pub, I've had time to finally get back to playing Red Dead Redemption 2 (my last save was dated July 2019)! And if by some small miracle I finally complete the damn game, then do you know what I'll do? I'll treat myself to a new one!

Saturday night is now takeaway night in the Gimpy Kid house and is something I look forward to every week; perusing menus days beforehand to check out my options! Sure I guess I could get a takeaway every night if I really wanted to, but instead I'd prefer to give myself something to aim for each week, a treat to stop the days blurring into one. Plus, I'd rather maintain a somewhat healthy diet throughout all this (healthy diet = healthy immune system), not completely negate the hard work done in Section 2 of this entry and definitely not have to explain to wheelchair services why, after only 3 months of having this chair, I now need one four inches wider!

Chicken covered in cheese covered in steak - a local "delicacy"...

Survive, Thrive and Stay Alive

So there we have it - 5 basic hints and tips to get us through self-isolastion with only a minimal loss of sanity! Obviously there is plenty more that could be included to keep us safe and well prepared; things such as ordering prescriptions well in advance, ensuring any personal assistants take the necessary precautions before beginning work, ordering shopping online as much as possible etc. My list is more about maintaining positive mental health than anything.

With any luck, by the time I get round to writing the next entry, all this will be firmly in the rearview mirror and the main concern involving Corona will be whether it comes with a slice of lime or not! Random final thought though: I wonder if they'll end up changing the name to avoid the stigma now attached to the C-word? I mean if people are willing to believe that 5G causes Corona then they're willing to believe anything!

Coming to stores Summer 2020!

"We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again." - The Queen 

Stay safe everyone!


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!