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!


Monday, 1 October 2018

The Disability Unemployability Conspiracy (Part 1)

Well, we've made it to October; famous for pumpkins, witches, trick or treat, and also for being...national disability employment awareness month? Yes, in case you didn't know (and I certainly didn't until very recently), October in the UK is the official month dedicated to disability employment awareness, that celebrated time of the year that I'm sure 99.9% of employers have no idea exists! Anyway, in honour of this prestigious occasion I thought it was about time I blogged about the trials and tribulations of seeking employment after spinal cord injury. So on every Monday in October I will be posting a short entry which gives an insight into a different person's experience of this; starting with my own. Enjoy! 

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly News

In August the BBC reported that unemployment had fallen to 1.36 million, the lowest since 1975. Sounds great, a step in the right direction in the face of so much recent uncertainty! However, it did get me thinking about where people with disabilities fitted into these statistics. For example, there is no doubt in my mind that my spinal injury has affected my career path, both positively and negatively. There is also no doubt in my mind that disability in general can hugely affect a person's chances of employment and the opportunities that are available post-injury. So I chatted to a few people, did some online research, assessed my own personal experiences and found that there was plenty to say on the subject. But before we get to the personal (and in some cases, extremely damning) testimonies that you'll read over the next few weeks, we need to firstly wade through a few of the more jaw-dropping statistics I was able to dig up...
  • 19% of working age adults are disabled, almost a fifth of the UK's potential workforce!
  • Disabled people are now more likely to be employed than in 2002, however they remain significantly less likely to be employed than their able-bodied counterparts.
  • In 2016, 46.5% of working age disabled people were in employment, compared with 84% of able-bodied people, a gap of nearly 40%!
  • Disabled people are significantly more likely to experience unfair treatment at work than their able-bodied counterparts.
  • On average life costs you £570 a month more if you are disabled, that's nearly £7,000 a year!

Combine all these facts and figures together and they don't exactly paint the prettiest of pictures: Despite the cost of living being substantially higher and us representing a sizeable portion of working age adults, far more disabled people are unemployed and are significantly less likely to be in employment than able-bodied people, and those who are employed are more likely to suffer unfair treatment at work. Marvellous!

So on that ray of positivity I'm now going to move onto looking at my own journey into employment and my experiences therein.

Careening Into Careers

I'll be honest with you, in the ensuing moments after my accident when I regained consciousness and came to the realisation that I could no longer feel my legs, how all this would affect my future chances of employment was not at the top of my list of concerns! Even two and a half years later, when I finally completed my dissertation and graduated, I wasn't thinking of what specific career choices were now open to me, I was just relieved to have got the degree I wanted and to have made it through 15,000 voice-typed words without suffering a severe mental breakdown!

In truth, I had never fully known what I wanted to do after university. I'd had a few part-time jobs whilst studying, but nothing I ever saw myself doing longterm (a chill still runs down my spine whenever I enter a Sports Direct store, as I start having 'Nam style flashbacks to closing time where we were faced with an endless sea of disguarded clothes and shoes to be put in order before we were allowed to leave; held captive, prisoners of store!)

The plan had been to move to Glasgow with friends and just play it by ear, see what potential career opportunities were open to a 22 year old with a degree in English Lit and hopefully find one I had some kind of flare for and genuine interest in. No, the only thing that I was certain of at that time was that the next person who told me I should be an English teacher was going to get severely beaten with whichever anthology tome was closest to hand!

I ended up stumbling into post-injury employment quite by chance: Whilst volunteering as a reading assistant at a local primary school, I was convinced by staff to enrol in college and complete my teaching assistant levels 2 & 3 (where level 1 went I have no idea). Once I completed these, I continued to volunteer in the school as a TA whilst also applying for jobs, but having zero luck. Slightly disheartened by this, I went in to see a careers advisor at college who helped me spruce up my CV and then, in order to test this out, suggested I apply for one of the learner support jobs going at the college, which I did. I heard back from them soon after, inviting me in for an interview, after which (and much to my surprise) I was offered the job as an hourly paid member of support staff. Welcome to the wonderful world of wheelchair work!

Anyway, about a year later and in similarly stumbling a fashion: Writing up league weekend match reports on the Facebook page of the wheelchair rugby club I play for led me to being contacted by Rob Smith who I'd met at the Spinal Games in '05 whilst I was still an in-patient and who I went on to line up alongside during his numerous guest appearances for our rugby team over the years. 

Far left: Rob Smith sporting his trademark streamlined style.
Far right: Myself sporting my dubious 1970s tennis player "style"!

He was interested in having me work for Active Hands; blogging, writing articles, filming promo videos, and promoting their fabulous range of world famous gripping aids and ever-expanding selection of hand picked 'Products by Others'.

No, you're a corporate shill!

So there I was, out in the world with two hourly paid jobs under my belt. And the rest, as they say, is history... 

Walking The Line

I should like to say that my aforementioned stumbling into employment wasn't a reflection of me not wanting to work, it was more a case of me having no real idea what I wanted to work as. As I've already said, throughout my entire time at university I had no clue whatsoever as to the career path I wished to embark upon once I left, and after my injury I was even more clueless as, despite being told whilst in hospital that new doors had now opened for me (hopefully automatic ones), it seemed as though literally hundreds had subsequently been slammed in my face and boarded shut.

At that time, I hadn't even entertained the idea that certain niche jobs may be more tailored towards the physically disabled than others, everything just seemed to be geared towards the able-bodied. In fact, it is only as I've been sat here writing that I've realised that of the two jobs I have, one fits into the "standard" category, whilst the other is based around the fact I have a spinal cord injury - it would seem as though I have found myself caught on a tightrope between "able-bodied employment" and "disabled employment", if such a thing indeed exists. I mean sure, an able-bodied person would doubtless be able to navigate a classroom faster than I could, but my physical limitations have no bearing on my ability to communicate with students and aid them with their work or other college matters. And sure, an able-bodied person may be able to type a little faster than me and operate a mouse more nimbly, but they won't have the knowledge or experience of life with spinal cord injury that I have; experience that proves vital when writing about the subject and communicating with others about it.

I would say that in my case, there are both pros and cons to the effect my injury has on my jobs, but I'd like to think that none of the cons would be seen as insurmountable obstacles in the eyes of any future employers. Although saying, "I'd like to think" is very different from saying, "I believe".

So that's my story. But what about other spinally injured people? Do they choose to seek employment in a society that largely consists of and caters for the able-bodied? Do they try to use their injuries to their advantage and seek employment in a more niche and tailored field? And what levels of success do they find?

Next week I'll be talking to Peter who has been injured 14 years, has struggled to find employment since his injury and believes certain prejudices still exist when it comes to employing people with disabilities.

Hope to see you then!


Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Lent Experiment Part 3 - The End of The Road

Vital Statistics 3 (March 31st - 46 Days In)

Weight: 8st 10lbs (55.3kg)

Stomach Circumference: 34.5" (88cm)

46 days & I've not once thought about chocolate; now to just Rolo-ver the finish
 line, through the Blue Riband and complete this Snickers...I mean Marathon!

General Feelings: Well, I made it - 46 days without refined sugar! 46 days without knowing the sweet, sweet taste of chocolate, of cake, of cookies, of ice cream, of chocolate (I know I said chocolate twice, that's because it's doubly important)! Now that it's over I'm not going to start acting all smug and make out that it was easy, it's not like I decided to give up vegetables and then feigned tears as I pushed away the brocolli dish! No, of all the foods to give up, sugar is definitely the hardest one for me. But in all honesty, it wasn't as horrifically awful an experience as I was expecting it to be, at least not once I'd got into the swing of things. Articles I'd read beforehand had laid out a series of terrifying withdrawl symptoms I could expect so I went into this expecting the worst.

How I fully expected sugar withdrawl to feel!
That's not to say however that I gave up all sugar, I genuinely don't think I could have made it through the entirety of Lent as even a semi-functional human being if I'd attempted that! But by replacing the refined sugar found in most sweets, desserts and drinks with the natural sugar found in the likes of fruit, yoghurt and honey, I'd like to think I hopefully managed to find a healthier alternative. After all, sugar (in moderation) can be an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. That being said, I did eat a lot of natural sugar alternatives in the last 46 days, possibly exceeding the recommended daily sugar dose on numerous occasions, but there's absolutely no question in my mind that this was still a vastly better option than getting most of my sugar in refined form.


The biggest surprise came when I went to measure round my stomach as, in complete contrast with a couple of weeks previously, when I looked in the mirror this time I was convinced I hadn't lost any of the podge from my tetra belly. However, when I wrapped the tape measure around myself I found that I had in fact lost 2 inches from my stomach since my last measurement! I was so convinced there had been an error that I measured it a few more times, making sure the tape hadn't slipped or become twisted somewhere, but it hadn't. Sure, there could be several factors outside of diet that could have contributed to this 2 inch loss and I have stated previously that without core muscles a person's stomach is more prone to fluctuations in size, but I'm choosing to see this in a positive light and as an indicator of the benefits of a refined-sugar-free diet combined with regular exercise.

The essential quad gym pack!

The other major benefit of a healthier diet - feeling better both inside and out. I've already talked about this in my previous updates so I won't bore on for too long and keep repeating myself, but it's true what they say, replacing refined sugar with natural sugar does indeed seem to make you feel more alert, more energetic and generally more positive throughout the day. I was as sceptical as anyone about this "fact" going into Lent but I soon found that a handful of fruit, mixed with a few dollops of natural yoghurt and a squirt of organic honey filled me up and energised me far more than say, a piece of cake, which would initially leave me feeling satisfied but not long after I'd find myself tired and craving more. 

Tastes as good as...Tastes much better than it looks!
Another handy (and quintessentially British) trick I found was to drink numerous and varied cups of tea throughout the day, switching between cups of standard blend, chai, and the vast number of fruit/herbal varieties on offer. These not only quenched my thirst but also tended to take my mind off snacking, I would assume due to the various flavours and spices in them satiating my taste buds. On the whole, I found there were a surprising number of quick and easy alternatives to sugary snacks and drinks that required very little preparation. And hell, if I can do it, anyone can!

The essential tower of teabags!
However as I was soon to find out, giving up refined sugar for six weeks is one thing, having the willpower not to dive straight back into it afterwards is something entirely different...

Falling Off The Wagon

It just so happened that on the day Lent ended, I was at the wedding of a couple of friends of mine; a joyous occassion that included the all important Three L's: love, laughter and lots of cake! Not just cake either; there was cheesecake, a muffin tower and an old school pick 'n' mix which you were free to delve into at any time. Untethered from my Lent leash, surrounded by sugar, ambushed by cake: I fell off the wagon, hard!

Over the course of the evening, I consumed one slice of cheesecake, multiple muffins and an entire bag full of pick 'n' mix, not to mention getting well into double digits of soft drinks and cider. I ate, drank, laughed, danced and partied the night away with impunity, or so I thought.

As I was chatting with friends in the wee hours on the way home, I realised that I was becoming short of breath, needing to inhale longer and deeper in order to get sufficient (or at least what felt like sufficient) air into my lungs. I stopped talking for a bit and focussed on catching my breath until I was confident enough that there was nothing overly sinister going on. Once I got home, I dragged my wheezing, sluggish butt to bed, fell straight to sleep and woke up feeling completely fine the next day. I'm not trying to make out like my being out of breath was a huge deal or anything, but I am 100% convinced this was due to my body being suddenly inundated with refined sugar after a six week starvation period and it struggling to cope with the sudden rush. And no matter how minor this "incident" may have been, it surely can't be a good thing, right?!

Rolling Forward

So, what have I learnt from the last couple of months, what can I take away from it moving forward and what advice would I give someone who was considering something similar?

Well, simply put, the main thing I've learnt from this is that it's not as teeth grindingly hard as I thought to give up refined sugar and with the right attitude, preparation and willpower, a person can accomplish whatever they set their mind to. And for all of us in a constant battle with the phenomenon known as "the tetra belly", the results over the last six weeks definitely seem to suggest that it is possible to slim it down, though maybe not eliminate it altogether, but who knows? As I stated in Part 1, refined sugar was my one true addiction in life, so if I can give it up then anyone can! I know what you're all thinking though, "come on, you only gave it up for six weeks then went straight back on it again, what was the point?!" Which smoothly segues into my plans moving forward...

I daresay I could have gone longer without refined sugar if I had so wished, but the simple truth of the matter is that I like it and it happens to be in pretty much all of my favourite sweet treats. Giving it up for six weeks was great; I'm proud of myself and I feel better for it, but I don't want to go through life having to check the ingredients of every item I buy at the supermarket or order at a restaurant in order to deny myself this little thing that gives me pleasure. However at the same time, I want to try and retain some of the positives I have gained from this experience. Which is why I've decided that, now my Easter binge is over, I'm going to primarily go back to my fruit, nuts, yoghurt and honey diet when at home. Sure, I might get in the odd tub of ice cream or bottle of coke in the summer and splurge on sweets during Christmas; and yes, if I have guests round I'll likely get in some form of biscuits/dessert, afterall no one comes round to visit hoping for a cup of tea and my world renowned selection of blueberries! But other than that I'm going to try to keep my house refined-sugar-free more or less. And speaking of cups of tea, as soon as Lent ended I began adding a sweetener tablet back into my tea; however after the initial first couple of cups I subconsciously reverted back to going sugar free and this would seem to be how I take my tea now, huzzah

And to anyone thinking of trying something similar, I would say: Do it! What have you got to lose? Find a selection of products containing natural sugars that you enjoy and try substituting them for the unhealthier items you would normally have. Combine this with regular exercise and see how you feel. You don't have to completely give up everything, start off small and work your way up, find a balance that you're happy with. Remember to give it time, you may start to feel worse before you start to feel better, let your body gradually adjust to your new, healthier lifestyle. And finally, don't doubt yourself, you're almost certainly capable of more than you think!


Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Lent Experiment Part 2 - A Work In Progress

Vital Statistics 2 (February 26th - 12 Days In)

Weight: 8st 12lbs (56.25kg)

Stomach Circumference: 36.5" (92.7cm)

General Feelings: If I have learnt one thing in the last 12 days, it is that sugar is apparently in everything! A routine trip to the supermarket on February 14th (I'm an old romantic I know) turned into an exasperating hunt for sugarless products outside of the pet food and bathroom aisles! From cereal to condiments, crisps to crackers, soup to sauces - take a look on the back and chances are you'll find refined sugar slyly slotted in there somewhere!

The list felt endless! Sugar, similarly to salt, is a preservative, but I hadn't realised just how much it was being used to both preserve and flavour foods. It seems that unless you're happy to live on a dry diet of meat, potato and vegetables, the secret is to cook things completely from scratch; specifically sauces, glazes and anything being added for extra flavour or moistness.

As far as my sweet tooth goes, I'm relying almost entirely on fruit, and whereas it doesn't provide the concentrated, manufactured sugar rush that a chocolate bar provides, it's at least keeping me from completely crashing during the day! Meals seem somehow incomplete when I'm not finishing them off with a dessert of some sort (I'm sorry but a shiny apple does not count!), but cutting out mid-meal snacks is by far the worst part, as I can feel my stomach grumbling as my energy levels begin to drop at various times during the day.

Disclaimer: This is a 4-5 day fruit salad serving, not 1 portion!

I have noticed a definite decline in my general energy levels, coupled with an increase in moodiness. Certain things that wouldn't have annoyed me before are now burrowing under my skin, causing me to lambast whichever poor person I hold responsible! If I'm in a good mood then I'm generally fine, but if I'm feeling at all grumpy and/or tired then this is exacerbated by a lack of sugary energy; I'm basically regressing into a giant baby who needs food and naps at regular intervals! But so far I seem to have avoided the oft reported headaches and shakes, so I'll take that as a minor victory!

On the stats side of things, I seem to have maintained the same basic weight whilst also losing half an inch around my stomach. I'd like to see this as a positive step in the right direction and a testament to my increased exercise and decreased sugar intake, however it's still far too early to tell. Plus, one thing about having no active stomach muscles is that your stomach can stretch and bloat depending on how much you've eaten and when you last "evacuated". And yes, it can be a bit of a pain finding somewhere to get weighed in a chair. Fortunately my local spinal injuries unit isn't too far away and they're happy for me to pop in and get weighed as and when I need it; plus it gives me the opportunity to nip upstairs to the gym with my Active Hands general purpose gripping aids and hop on a few of the machines that aren't always on offer at regular gyms!

Anyway, so far so good. I seem to be making some small progress whilst also avoiding some of the worst elements of going cold turkey. I still feel a desperate craving everytime I see someone tear into a chocolate bar, but come on, it's not like I've resorted to inhaling the insides of the wrappers like some kind of pervert with a chocolate fetish...*laughs nervously*

Get me an open flame, a spoon, a needle and a tourniquet - STAT!

Vital Statistics 3 (March 14th - 28 Days In)

Weight: 8st 13lbs (56.7kg)

Stomach Circumference: 36.5" (92.7cm)

General Feelings: I'm not going to lie, when I looked in the mirror this morning I was convinced that my tetra belly had visibly shrunk, so I was pretty disappointed to find that, upon measuring, it's stayed exactly the same size! On the plus side however, I'm now 4 weeks into Lent and am yet to stray. Before Lent began I made sure I had eaten disposed of all the chocolate in the house so as to make sure there was nothing left to tempt me during my cold turkey period. A couple of weeks ago however, whilst going through my rucksack, I found a solitary chocolate wafer bar stashed at the bottom. This bar now sits alone in a transparent, glass jar in my kitchen, acting as a constant test of my willpower every time I wheel past it. I mean, sure, I could just throw it in the bin, but come on, this is chocolate we're talking about here!

The struggle is real dammit!

Speaking of willpower; I took my mum out for Mother's Day last Sunday and while she tucked into her Eton mess, I sat nibbling on a selection of cheeses and grapes. This marked the first time in my life that I had ordered the cheese board from the dessert menu, and although I do love cheese, this was in no way a comparable substitute for the ferrero rocher cheesecake or chocolate brownie sundae that were beckoning me over...

On the whole though I am finding it easier the longer I go without refined sugar. Natural sweeteners such as fruit, honey and fruit juice (not from concentrate) are adequately filling me and now seem to be giving me a slower but longer lasting burst of energy. Don't get me wrong, when my energy levels start to drop and I haven't got a healthy snack nearby, I soon become worn out, but I have a definite sensation that my energy levels are increasing and starting to last longer. At the gym, I can do an hour on the handbike without feeling quite as laboured as I might have before; and I can only assume this is down to swapping out short lasting refined sugar bursts for longer lasting natural ones. I still feel a little irritable and moody here and there, especially after a full day at work, but on the whole I would honestly say that I have more drive and feel a little less sluggish than usual. Sure, get me on the sofa and there's still a 50/50 chance my head will start to nod after a period, but whilst in my chair I feel unusually perky!

*Special shout out to the photobombing physio and her 'taken aback' reaction!

So here we are; a full month into things and with less than 3 weeks to hold out, there is definite light showing at the end of the tunnel! It's going to be a strange feeling once this is finished and I'm free to indulge in desserts once again, as part of me is desperate to tuck into a chocolate egg (or chocolate anything for that matter!), but another part of me is actually enjoying the health kick I'm on and the positivity I'm getting out of it.

Decisions decisions...