Friday, 5 May 2017

The Disability Invisibility (Part 1)

Post Easter Intro

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

My mother, the enabler!

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

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

Sign of The Times

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 It's a fairly outdated image that has had the unfortunate side effect of stereotyping every disabled person as a wheelchair user and only a wheelchair user.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

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

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

The issue really is one of honesty.

Taking The P: Disabled Bathroom or Convenience Cubicle?

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

You know who you are!

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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


Saturday, 28 January 2017

Dealing With My Feelings about Wheeling

12 Years A Slave (To A Wheelchair)

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

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

Reality Bites

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

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

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

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

The Fun and Friendship Factors

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

The Times They Are A-Changin'

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

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

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

Rolling Forwards

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


Friday, 4 November 2016

From Rio With Love!

A September To Remember

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

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

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

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

Christ's-Eye View!

A Few Minor Hiccups

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

Well, almost...

Active Hands No Brasil!

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

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

Let The Games Begin!

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

Rugby Or Not To Be...

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

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

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

A Lasting Impression

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

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

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


Thursday, 6 October 2016

Ungrip - A Gimpy Kid Review

New Products, New Possibilities

As I'm sure you all will know, I write this blog in conjunction with the fantastic Active Hands Company. Their gripping aids have become an essential staple in people's lives the world over who suffer from limited hand and finger function, enabling their users to achieve levels of independence and fitness that many thought out of reach. Earlier this year the company took the decision to branch out and began selecting products designed by others to stock and sell on the website alongside their own gripping aids, a detailed list and description of which can be found here. However, this list is continually being added to and in order to ensure that the products selected to be sold are going to be of most benefit and use to the Active Hands clientele, they need to be tested by people who fit the demographic of your average Active Hands user: good-looking, charismatic, charming, intelligent and with some form of limited hand and finger function. Well, I certainly tick one of those boxes!

So without further ado, here is my review of Ungrip, the grip-free way of holding your phone:

What is Ungrip?

Ungrip is a smart, easy to use device that attaches to the back of any mobile phone, instantly making it easier to hold onto and swivel round in your hand, whether you have perfect grip or no grip at all! It is available in a variety of different colours and designs and is both a gripping aid and fashion accessory for your phone!


How Does It Work?

The Ungrip base sticks directly to the back of your phone or case. You can then slide your choice of finger or thumb through the material loop, et voilà! Your phone is now securely attached to your hand and can be safely held at any angle whilst you text, browse the web or take photos. And if you want to take a picture or video in landscape mode then just twist the phone in your hand, it's that simple!


My Ungrip Experience

It's all fine and well having me describe what a product does and throw up a few snazzy images, but the most important thing to know is whether it's going to be the right product for you and how someone living with limited hand function found it. I'll be honest, when I looked at Ungrip online, I had my initial doubts. I often use my phone whilst it's flat against a surface such as a lap tray or table, and so my biggest concern was that once I'd attached this to the back of my phone it would be unsteady and rock from side to side when using it. I can happily tell you that this is not the case and with Ungrip attached my phone still remains stable and static when using it on a flat surface.

For me the biggest positive to come from Ungrip is that it has completely eradicated the potential of me dropping my phone whilst using it, a major bug bear for anyone with weakened grip who isn't fond of replacing their phone screen on a regular basis! And Ungrip is stuck to my phone so solidly that I can even use my phone in the bath without fear of it slipping through my fingers into a watery grave #firstworldproblems! I've also found that if I'm in the middle of using my phone and need to move, instead of putting my phone in my pocket, moving, then getting it out again, I can now just spin it round so that the phone is on the back on my hand, push a short distance and then just spin it back onto my palm again.

Hand modelled by yours truly!
My one bit of cautionary advice would be that, when it comes to attaching Ungrip to your phone, have someone with fully functional hands nearby! The adhesive used to bond Ungrip to your phone is extremely sticky and once it's on it's not coming off without a fight, so I'd recommend involving a helper monkey with this part! I managed to attach mine by using my teeth to remove a few protective tabs and then ever-so-carefully lining it up with the desired spot on my phone (whether you want it positioned higher up or lower down, make sure it is in the central strip).


So that, in a nutshell, is why I recommended Ungrip to Active Hands! It's been an extremely worthwhile and welcome addition to my mini arsenal of disability aids and one I use on a daily basis. It can be found now by searching on the Active Hands website or by simply clicking the link HERE.


Monday, 11 July 2016

Me Before You In The Dignitas Queue

 A Series of Unfortunate Events

Well I think it's safe to say that the UK has had an eventful few weeks since my last blog entry! Chris Evans was told to leave quit Top Gear, the England football team did their usual tournament self-destruction and, in a smaller matter, the UK took it upon themselves to leave Europe (the Union not the continent!); dividing the country, sending every major political party into chaos and pulling the pin on a grenade that threatens to plunge us all into some kind of biblical armageddon! Online campaigns have been launched and protests have taken place in the capital as the disabled seek refuge indoors for fear of their chairs or crutches being used as missiles aimed at Boris and Nigel, who after spearheading the leave campaign promptly decided to bugger off! Panic has swept social media as the well-informed and uninformed alike thrust their views and opinions down the throats of all those who will listen, and god help you if you dared voice a different opinion to theirs!
But I'm not here to talk about politics or the referendum fallout, this is a disability blog dammit! And although there could indeed be disability related consequences to it all, the truth is that it will be years before the true ramifications are known, be they positive, negative or most likely, a combination of both. No, I'm here to talk about an entirely different but equally divisive event that angered many people and had whole swathes of the disabled community kicking-off, metaphorically speaking. That event being the 110 minute Dignitas promotional video: Me Before You!

In a Nutshell (Spoiler Alert)

Anyone who has read my "Love Is In The Chair" blog entry will know that I'm pretty much allergic to the OTT, super-cheesy, ultra-weepy method of portraying love and matters of the heart, with Nicholas Sparks being the main offender. And be under no illusion dear reader, this is Nicholas Sparks in everything but name, oozing sentimentality at every possible moment. However, where there would normally be a rugged badboy with a dark past or an emotionally damaged dreamboat for the (pure-as-the-driven-snow) girl to 'heal' with the power of love, in this film there's a bitter quadriplegic with a death wish! But don't worry girls, he's still total dreamy, has a British accent and is loaded with cash, phew!

The suicidal stud in question, Will, was paralysed from the neck down after being hit by a motorbike two years earlier and has since emotionally shut down, shunning his friends, losing his girlfriend and giving up his lucrative banking career, because if there's one thing we know about disabled people it's that it's impossible for them to have successful careers, no matter how sharp their minds may be...

Stephen who?! Never heard of him!
Anyway, he gets a new caregiver in the form of Louisa, a beautiful, upbeat, quirky and entirely fictional girl who lives with her family, struggles for money and goes out with Neville from Harry Potter! Will is resistant to her eternal cheeriness at first but predictably he begins to warm to her until they become friends, fall in love and live happily ever after, having several children and with Will becoming a successful mouth painter. He accepts his injury and comes to realise that the key to happiness does not solely reside in having a fully functioning body, but instead lies in surrounding oneself with family, friends and positivity, overcoming life's challenges in the process.

Except that doesn't happen.

Yes, Will and Louisa fall in love and she encourages him to embrace life, taking him on adventures at home and abroad and making it clear that she isn't phased by his disability and loves him for what's inside his wallet. Will admits to having led a shallow life before his injury and only now sees past the vain, materialistic surface he was previously trapped behind. But unconditional love, support and companionship are simply not enough for this guy, it's a 'normal' life or no life! So he follows through with his plan of going to Switzerland for assisted suicide, emotionally crushing Louisa and his parents, the end. Seriously, that's it. Oh but on the plus side, he does leave Louisa a nice chunk of inheritance, so...all's well that ends well?!

The Backlash

The novel of the same name, on which the film is based, came out in 2012 and, although ending identically to the film, seems largely to have gone under the radar as far as controversy is concerned. This is likely because very rarely does the release of a novel garner as much publicity as the release of a movie, especially when it has two recognisable stars in the lead roles. But I very much doubt anyone involved in the film realised quite how much publicity it would receive, and not for the quality of acting or depth of story. No, as the cast and crew were soon to find out: Hell hath no fury like a wheelchair user scorned!

So just be told will you!
As the film neared its release, more and more people became aware of it, the subject it was dealing with and it's controversial ending. By the time it premiered, the roaring debate had reached fever pitch. Disabled rights groups such as Not Dead Yet staged protests at the film's premiere, The Telegraph wrote about a variety of differing viewpoints and 11-year-old wheelchair athlete Ella French penned an extremely acerbic and witty open-letter entitled, Dear Hollywood, Why Do You Want Me Dead? A girl after my own heart!

Me Before You: Not Dead Yet - A Zombie Love Story!
The film's director, Thea Sharrock, defended the film, calling its ending "brave" and "more interesting". Whereas I may not necessarily agree with this viewpoint, I can't help but feel slightly sorry for her as she battles through the shitstorm she's found herself in the eye of. In essence all she did was make a faithful adaptation of a book. Although in one interview she uses the unfortunate phrase, "my nephew is in a wheelchair", which I can't help but find synonymous with an accused homophobe defending themselves with the classic, "I've got friends who are gay!"

My Two Cents

In all honesty, I wasn't hugely offended by Me Before You. This is largely down to the fact that I'm a heartless bastard pretty thick skinned and laid back about life so it takes a hell of an effort for anything to genuinely offend or upset me. But I can understand why others would take offence at the portrayal and message it puts across. It's a fairly shallow portrayal of life with a disability, with many of the positives and negatives either being negated completely or paid basic lip service to. It completely ignores the whole rigmarole of getting up and ready on a morning, and the whole story goes by without a single faceplant or mention of a catheter; although it does briefly address some of the more serious potential aspects of high level quadriplegia, such as septicemia, autonomic dysreflexia and pneumonia. And I couldn't help but smile at the scene when Will's casters get stuck in a muddy patch of a field and it takes three people to haul him out. We've all been there!

I think the most important thing to take into account is that this is not meant to be an informative documentary about life in a wheelchair and the supposed inner turmoil of those who occupy them. This is a trite piece of romantic fiction, a work of tragedy designed to pull on the heart strings of its audience, leaving them emotionally distraught and with completely unrealistic expectations of love. And in that basic aspect it succeeds. Hell, on occasion even I could feel my stony heart strings being unexpectedly plucked in sadistic fashion.

But in the grand scheme of things, who really cares about what a fictional character in a story chooses to do with their life?! Nobody should be watching these films for valuable pointers or life lessons and nobody of sane mind will come out of this film thinking that the characters are in any way a realistic portrayal of actual human beings. This is Hollywood, where for decades men have been stereotyped as tough action heroes, women as damsels in distress; Christian Bale can play an Egyptian, Jonny Depp can play a Native American and John Wayne can play Genghis Khan!


If you're still concerned about the negative impact of films like Me Before You then my advice would be simple: prove them wrong. Go out there, be successful, go travelling, have a family, seize every moment, live your life the way you want it and be the example and role model that others take inspiration from! There are so many disability aids suppliers, organisations and trusts out there whose main purpose is to enable people to live their lives to the fullest. In less than two months the Rio Paralympics will begin and with it, a fortnight's solid, televised coverage showing exactly what people with disabilities are capable of!

And come the end of the year, what do you think will leave the lasting mark and legacy going forward: a 110 minute work of fiction, or a 2 week global event, starring real people, achieving real feats of excellence?


P.S. If you're interested in watching a genuinely moving and compelling tale about a non-suicidal quadriplegic that's actually based on a true story, then I would recommend checking out the 2011 French film Intouchables aka Untouchable.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Stumbles and Tumbles and Broken Bone Grumbles

Accidents happen. It's an inescapable fact and an unavoidable truth. It's not something you grow out of or learn to avoid. They will happen to you no matter who you are, no matter how much money you have and no matter what your level of ability or disability is. My injury means that I don't have the best grip in the world, and every now and then this results in a plate or bowl slipping out of my hand and smashing on the floor, going Greek as it were. Although I challenge anyone to go through life without accidentally breaking the equivolent of an entire dinner set's worth of crockery! Thankfully 9 times out of 10 what I drop is empty, however dropping a plate with an entire cooked pizza face-first, and having a jar of bolognese sauce tumble and explode onto the floor like a skydiver without a parachute, are experiences not easily forgotten! And the clean-up, dear god, don't get me started on the clean-up...

Come Dine With Me: Quadriplegic Special!
The accidents that truly separate the walkers from the wheelers however, are the ones that involve a physical impact. A young person walking in a field trips over, loses their footing and collapses in a heap; they immediately spring back up, check around to make sure no one was watching, maybe try and act cool like it was all part of an elaborate in-joke, and then be on their merry way again. Any nearby onlookers have a quick giggle to themselves and think nothing more of it. A wheelchair user hits an uneven bit of paving, their chair jolts to a halt and they're sent tumbling forwards into a heap on the floor, and it's a very different matter. There's no instantaneous chair remounting, not when your legs don't work. Instead you have to roll around and sit yourself up, then make sure you're all in one piece before using your arms to half lift/half drag yourself back to where you abandoned chair! Then it's a question of making sure your chair is upright and in one piece before contemplating how exactly you're going to get back into it. Meanwhile, a unified and audible gasp is let out by everyone within a 100 metre radius and soon a three-deep throng of concerned bystanders has encircled you and what started as merely a caster clipping a paving stone has quickly become Operation: Tip-a-Crip!

Personally, when this kind of thing happens (and it happens to the best of us), I'd much rather people crowded round me en masse than pretended I wasn't there and carried on about their business. Sure, I don't always need help when it's offered and it can be a little galling when it's given against my wishes. "Do you need a hand? Because whether you like it or not, you're getting one!" But I'm grateful to live in a society where strangers care enough about me each other to stop what they're doing and offer to help, because as monumentally embarrassing as the situation may be, the fact of the matter is simple: If people don't help then I don't get up! And it's safe to say I've taken part in my fair share of impromptu floor dives!

One such occurence took place just over four years ago on the way to the pub, when, for reasons I still can't quite grasp, I decided to put my backwheel balancing to the test and attempted to bump my way down three large, concrete steps just along from where I live. A sane person who valued their life would doubtless have tested this ability on something softer first, and with friends around to help in case it went awry. But not I, Gareth Death or Glory Herridge! It was concrete or bust! And moments later, it was my head that was bust, as I lay at the bottom of the steps, a warm liquid running down my face (steady!). Neighbours were beckoned, an ambulance was called and I was ferried to hospital to get myself glued back together.

When I tell my friends how I got the scar...
Another incident took place a couple of years ago as I was, once again, making my way to the pub (starting to notice a pattern yet?). This time however, I had rather courageously managed to make it slightly further than my own street and was cruising down the pavement at a leisurely pace, the high street beckoning. I came to a slightly uneven driveway with dropped kerbs, so slowed down and carefully manoeuvred my chair to the other side. It was at this point, whilst I was travelling at literally no speed at all, that one of my casters clipped the world's tiniest pothole, inexplicably causing me to tumble to the ground with enough drama to put a Premier League footballer to shame!

This time the driver of a car instantly pulled over and, along with another chap who was out walking his greyhound, helped me back into my chair, as I tried desperately to avoid making eye contact with the occupants of the other cars that were rumbling by, faces pressed up against the windows. Now you may have wondered why exactly I felt the need to establish what breed of dog the second man was walking? Well this was because, as we all know, greyhounds aren't exactly known as the most sluggish dogs in the world. These things can move! And unfortunately, as the dog's owner helped me off the floor, he had let go of its leash, and no sooner was I back in my chair than, like a bolt of lightning, the dog was off! Cue the owner sprinting after it whilst frantically yelling its name, as the dog shot round the corner and out of sight. Exit, pursued by a man. As bizarrely comic as this final scene was, I did feel a little guilty and sincerely hope he managed to catch-up to the dog! I'd hate to think the whole thing has made him regret being the Good Samaritan that he was.

The most recent calamity however, and the one that inspired this blog entry, happened only about 6 weeks ago and, in a shocking twist of events, actually occurred as I was on the way back from the pub! Now I know what you're all thinking: Alcohol + wheelchair - core stability = catastrophe of my own doing. And occasionally it does, but nowhere near as often as you may think. Also, before I lose all symathy here, I should point out that on this particular evening in question, I was behaving myself and had only gone out for a few social pints in the evening, so when I left the pub at around 10pm I was by no means the shambolic, rolling wreck I have been in the past! Plus I'd done the sensible thing and, instead of doing the 45 minute uphill push home, had jumped into a taxi and been dropped off in the car park a mere 50 metres from where I lived. What could possibly go wrong?!

Quite a lot as it would happen!

I failed to notice that my chair wasn't close enough to the taxi door when I transfered out. This lead to me briefly teetering on the edge of my seat, before pulling myself backwards onto it, causing my cushion to runkle up behind me in the process, and leaving me somewhat less than ideally sat. Once the taxi had left, I made my unstable way down the bank, towards the path that leads to my flat. So far, so good. However, linking the sloping bank to the footpath is a rather unforgiving (and at that time, mud spattered) dropped kerb that sits at an awkward angle, is fairly worn and as such has several differing gradients, meaning a brief backwheel balance is required to get the casters over the lip of the kerb and onto the path. Unfortunately, due to my unbalanced seating position, I didn't feel comfortable enough tipping my chair back and instead decided to simply use brute force to push my casters over the lip of the kerb and onto the path.

Monumental error!

As soon as my casters were on the lip and I pushed forward to get them onto the next bit of gradient, they spun sideways, causing my entire chair to whirl to the right. My left caster rode up the kerb and then bumped off it, jolting me forwards so that my chest was now resting on my thighs, my head was between my knees and I was facing down the bank (stop laughing). And then the unthinkable happened...

My chair began to move!

Not just a little. It began to roll; down the bank; picking up speed, and there was no realistic way I could see of halting it (I said, stop laughing)!

Like this, but with poise and grace being replaced by uncoordinated terror!

I knew full well how this ride was going to end; with me in a heap on the floor. I just prayed for it to be an unscathed heap. The concrete kerb I was veering towards at some speed, sadly had other ideas and beckoned my right caster towards it, clipping it and causing my face to bury itself into a mixture of kerb and road from almost point blank range!

Game over man, game over!

Blood quite literally exploded from my nose and continued to pour out at a somewhat alarming rate, as I lifted my head up, slightly groggy from the impact. Moments later a neighbour from across the street, who had been standing outside her front door at the time of my face plant, came rushing over with her young child. After establishing I wasn't dead but was still in need of medical attention, she phoned an ambulance as the little boy, rather than being scarred for life by all the blood, decided to chat to me about what had happened and why I was in a wheelchair, perhaps seeing some potential correlation! A few more neighbours from various houses on the street came over to check I was okay and soon there was a nice, little welcome party waiting for the ambulance to arrive from the nearby hospital. And it did arrive, three hours later!!

Three hours slumped at the side of the road, nose blooded and swollen, feeling sorry for myself as I tentatively dabbed my tender nostrils with a tissue to try and ease the thick flow of fluid (I apologise to anyone who's eating whilst reading this)! And do you know what? Pretty much every single one of those neighbours stayed out with me the entire time! As the temperature dropped and Saturday became Sunday, one of them brought me out a cushion and blanket to wrap round myself and keep warm, and another was on the phone chasing up the mythical ambulance. They stayed outside with me until 1:30am when the ambulance finally arrived (from mainland Europe I can only assume!) and the paramedics scraped me off the ground, tossed me in the back and carted me off to hospital, cleaning my face up en route so I looked slightly less like a member of an underground bareknuckle boxing ring!

The 1st rule of Disabled Fight Club is, you do not walk about Disabled Fight Club!
Anyway, to cut a long story short, once at the hospital, I was poked and prodded by various doctors and nurses of the highest calibre, given an MRI scan and found out I had, unsurprisingly, broken my nose. Fast forward to the present; the swelling and pain have mostly dissipated thankfully, although my nose is still slightly skew-whiff and in need of rhinoplasty (which I'm sure many people would agree was the case even before I broke it)!

So there you have it: a brief rundown of some, but by no means all, of the embarrassing tumbles I've taken and the overwhelmingly helpful response I've received every single time from strangers who didn't have to go out of their way to help and could just as easily have kept on walking, armed with a comical anecdote to tell their friends. And besides the odd scuff, scrape and broken nose, it's mostly just a case of injured pride more than anything else. I'm sure I'm not the only one who doesn't like to admit when they need help (I'm a man dammit!), and if it's not needed then I'll politely decline. But in those few instances where help is genuinely necessary to make life a hell of a lot easier, then you can bet I'm bloody grateful to be offered it! I mean, what's the alternative? Lying there star-fished, grinning like an idiot whilst trying to look cool?! You wouldn't catch me doing that, no sir!