Tag Archives: assistive

Adversity, Misconception and Disability Chic

A few weeks ago I ventured out to my local cinema to watch ‘The Theory of Everything’. This was the amazing film about the life of professor Stephen Hawking, the world renowned physicist and cosmologist. As well as his intellect he is perhaps, the most well known sufferer of Motor Neurone Disease. He was originally given a life expectancy of two years, however he defied the odds and has survived many decades longer than predicted, making major discoveries and contributions to the word of science and to the layman’s understanding of it.

Growing up when I did role models with disabilities were thin on the ground, the few there were only had connections to sport. I did my fair share of physical activity as a child I swam and was a keen rider having regular sessions with the Riding for the Disabled Association via my school and private lessons at home. It was only recently when researching an academic project that I discovered horse-back therapy, or hippotherapy, is a clinically recognised therapeutic intervention. The name has Greek roots, ‘hippo’ meaning ‘horse’ and ‘therapy’ meaning to ‘treat medically’. My support worker and I had thought it was a spelling error! This therapy has been shown to promote physical development, speech and confidence in individuals with disabilities.

Looking back, I don’t think I aspired to be successful on horseback in any kind of conventional, competitive sense. For for me it was an odd kind of escapism, these activities assumed an almost hedonistic quality. The hours swimming and riding were like a window on another life. I loved that I didn’t look “disabled” when I did them. Just as today I sometimes lie on my bed in an outfit to get an idea of what I would look like standing up and enjoy the appearance of my washboard stomach, only to have it disappear (somewhat depressingly) when I sit up again.

I saw wheelchair sports as negative. I had been raised to believe the wheelchair had too many connotations of ‘laziness’ and ‘giving up’, for it to become part of a leisure activity or a positive tool to allow me to achieve. Society has certainly come a long way in the last 20 years or so, at least I thought it had until I picked up a newspaper and read the story of 12 year old Joe France who was denied entry to the Hawking film because it wasn’t being shown on any of the screens he could access. Ironically, this incident coincided with Disabled Access Day.

It saddens me greatly that situations like this are still impacting on the lives of individuals, a generation after legal measures aimed to make such experiences a thing of the past. This is also following a period in which Motor Neurone Disease has seen a massive increase in public awareness as a result of the ice bucket challenge. For the uninitiated this was a charitable craze that went positively viral, it involved individuals pouring buckets of ice water over themselves with the aim of raising money for Motor Neurone Disease. Participating individuals filmed this activity posting their endeavours on social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube.

An article in ‘Society Now’ describes the craze as narcissism dressed up as altruism, and questions the motives of those taking part and the effect of these crazes on societal giving. They point out that when one cause is in vogue others lose out by default, not just in the financial sense but in the social sense as some causes cannot hope to capture the public’s imagination. Dyslexia is one, as is the needs of adults with Cerebral Palsy; we are not cuddly, sweet or life-limited. We struggle on with all the appeal of an elderly dog in a shelter waiting and hoping for someone to notice we are there.

For me the solution is to adopt the US attitude towards disability, to celebrate it and support the individual more. We are not all in the position of Stephen Hawking with supportive parents, wife and close friends; neither do we all have his intellect. Most of us are average people whose ambition is to go through life with a family, work and leisure activities. For this to be achieved the basics need to be in place…. accessible public transport, flexible working hours and a flexible benefits system that does not penalise for trying to gain paid work. Here’s to progress.

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Disability, Fashion and Moving in High Society

The first magazine feature I ever wrote was about disability in the world of fashion, this was a few years before BBC Three’s Britain’s Missing Top Model in which 8 young women with a range of physical disabilities competed to win a fashion shoot in Marie Claire. I had never seen bodies that resembled my own in the world of high fashion, so it became a groundbreaking moment for me.

Previously, the disabled body was confined to the pages of disability equipment or specialised clothing brochures. I was a star of one such photo-shoot for a range of special needs tracksuits, all zips and elastic, functional yes, but certainly not catwalk worthy. I did however, borrow the zip concept recently.

Skinny jeans have become a bit of a nemesis for me. I have tried to acquire the art of wearing this figure flattering item only to be defeated by my lack of body flexibility. Now skinny jeans seem to be remaining a high street staple so I wanted to find a way to make the look work for me. I took my 3 pairs to a local alterations shop, explained my problem and asked if the jeans could be fitted with a zip from the ankle to the knee to enable them to be taken on and off more easily. I was thrilled with the result, a perfect blend of function and style. The alterations cost more than the jeans themselves, but it was definitely worth it.

Adapted skinny jeans

Having a physical disability can all too often mean that style and fashion are denied us, or come at a heavy price. Earlier this year I developed ulcerated feet and I was told in no uncertain terms that my stylish ankle boots had to go and be replaced with orthopaedic soft fabric sandals. I was somewhat put out as I thought my suede/ leather flat ankle boots were sensible enough. From the look the podiatrist gave them you would be forgiven for thinking I had rolled into her office resplendent in six inch wedge platform sling backs. It’s funny but shoes were always one thing that really made me feel different, the thing that no matter what I did, marked me out as disabled. I would be wearing a nice dress and the look would be ruined by my specialist orthopaedic boots, clunky monstrosities in a very limited colour range of black, blue, brown and the much coveted red.

In my life normal shoes were a rare event, reserved for special occasions. I think I remember every pair of normal shoes I ever had and the event that each pair related to. For the wedding of a lifelong friend of my Dad I wore a green and while frilly dress and little black patent shoes. I was bridesmaid at a cousin’s wedding and I had a pair of white canvas pump type shoes to wear under my dress, then on family holidays to the USA and Denmark I had training shoes. I can remember saying once that the underside of my feet hurt after walking in my normal footwear for a while. My parents were puzzled and tried to determine the cause of my discomfort, after some detective work they discovered that it was the terrain itself. The soles on orthopaedic boots are thicker than average and I had never become accustomed to feeling the ground under my feet.

The ability to wear normal shoes was just about the one positive I found in losing my mobility. I no longer had to pay mind to the support my ankles and feet needed. I also didn’t have to worry anymore about how durable the sole was because yay, I wasn’t going to be wearing them out by dragging my feet. However, my joy was comparatively short-lived, I quickly discovered that feet that have been fixed in position by an orthopaedic surgeon do not necessarily comply with or like being introduced to heels. The one time I found a pair my feet could be cajoled into I snapped the heel off the left one when my leg went into spasm and the boot heel was behind the footrest. This resulted in several Star Wars related jokes about feeling the force. To add insult to injury my feet became chronically swollen due to my reduced mobility, so much so that I had to start wearing men’s shoes which are correspondingly wider. I saw the NHS shoe fitter and the made to measure results made my childhood shoes look positively hip. Even my Mum christened the boots the ‘Passion Killers’, which coming from her was a damming indeed.

My friend Lorraine, keen to help solve my footwear issues, told me that Evans one of the leading UK, plus size, high street shops, had EEE fitting boots available. It was a lovely experience to put on a pair of shoes that were meant for a woman. It opened up new possibilities in clothing; I could now wear dresses and I felt attractive. I was determined to hang on to my new acquisitions, I had over 12 months of fierce arguments with my podiatrist before ulceration forced me to give in. I agreed to give the Pullman sandals a go. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised, while definitely not Manolo Blahnik, they were not an assault on my femininity.

The Pullman Sandal

Last Christmas my aunty’s present to me was afternoon tea at the Ritz, we arranged to go along recently and I had a lovely day out with her. The Pullman sandals were donned along with my semi-designer dress. I have to say that I certainly did not feel out of place, clunky or unattractive, in fact I am beginning to think I was a posh Victorian and have inhabited high society in a former life. The Ritz had ramps for my wheelchair, the best dairy-free cakes I have ever tasted in my life along with an extensive range of teas, always a winner with me.

Aunty Sue and me at The Ritz

Rising to the Challenge

I am flying solo this week. Louise my assistant, who provides my academic support, is as I write Stateside and hopefully having a good and well deserved holiday in the sun.

It has been an interesting week all round in terms of my support needs as my parents, the usual provider of my daily support, have been on a trip to Italy. My Auntie Sue and my mum’s friend Maureen stepped in to fill the gap. With all of the absences, I decided to take the opportunity and set myself a little challenge; this blog post is brought to you via voice recognition technology which is something I have dipped in and out of over the years, with varying levels of success. I put on the headset, stare at the screen and many times my head goes blank. I think this has more than a little to do with my school experiences, allowing me to dictate work was considered somehow as giving in and allowing me to be lazy. For my generation of people with disabilities, aids in whatever form were to be used as a matter of last resort, and something to aspire to be without.

I have found that it is a completely different experience compiling something in your head and dictating it onto the page, than it is to type manually. I always feel somehow disconnected from the process; it never seems to flow as well. I like the tactile element of crafting something and if that gets lost, I end up having to concentrate so much on the act of talking that I lose the thread of what I am trying to say.

I have casual conversations in person quite easily, but if I have to think hard, or repeat myself, my body and brain get all scrambled and a word will suddenly decide to stay in the “no mans land” that exists between my brain and my mouth. This gets very interesting when having a conversation with my Dad who has a significant level of hearing loss and misses part of what I say to him. At some points it feels like I am in the middle of a neurological war of attrition, with Dad’s responses usually along the lines of, “What, what did you say?”, “Can you repeat that?”, “Say again.”

The whole process of dictating also feels far more public. I used to have a horror of doing my university exams in this way. I remember on one occasion as always, I was separated from the other students. Myself, my support worker and the Invigilator were in a room, a grand looking affair with an oak table. As I took my place next to my support worker scribe, the Invigilator remarked that I looked pregnant with thought. What was really going through my head was, “Oh My God! He is going to hear my answer and judge its worth and mine by default.” a pressure my pen- wielding peers didn’t have, they got a pass or a fail in private.

For me, disability means that concepts like privacy, independence and personal choice are a negotiated, sometimes “grey” area. I get exited about software that promises this freedom, however nothing has been created that gives me this autonomy so far. The IPad has proven to be the biggest leap forward so far. I can access ebooks, talking books, notes and papers on something I can carry around in a small bag.

Like most writers, the things I write about come out of my own life experience, the difference is I never get to write alone in a cafe, in one of those moleskin notebooks so beloved of my writing friends. Well, I could give it a go but there is a good chance that when I came to look at it again, I wouldn’t be able to work out what I had been trying to say! Sometimes I wonder if in the future my notebooks will be unearthed by a social historian, or end up on some kind of documentary like the ones you see on BBC2 about the evolution of the written word. I never complete the process of writing alone, in fact in my case the act of writing can give me a story to tell.

A few months ago while planning an art journal page I came across the quote by the author Neil Marcus, “Disability is not a ‘brave struggle’ or ‘courage in the face of adversity’ Disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.” For me, this sums up my own views of my life as a disabled person.

 

The Big Red Button

The last ten to twenty years have seen an increasing reliance on technology within daily life; today most people will have a mobile phone, personal computer or digital music player. Trips to the library and the supermarket are now increasingly dominated by technological encounters, self-checkouts seem to be conspicuously replacing human contact and last year I even came across an article about the idea of a machine that replaced the family doctor, a step too far in my opinion. I only have to look at some of the errors made by my voice recognition software to see the possible pitfalls of this idea, it frequently offers up bizarre approximations of what it thinks I have said leaving me to wonder about booking it a session with a psychoanalyst.

Disabled people are often the guinea pigs for, and recipients of, technological innovation such as alarms to summon help or remote communication devices to keep us safe. These are intended to be cost effective to allow for an increasingly strapped public purse and many are now an established part of the social landscape. In reality I have found that technological reliance produces some interesting and sometimes funny results.

Many people unfamiliar with disability assume that we disabled people live in specially adapted environments away from the problems and stresses of general life, that we are monitored and kept safe from harm. I started my adult life in one such sheltered environment, a block of flats purpose built for us wheelies. The place had an alarm system, in the form of a red button on a string around my neck that I could press for summoning help should I fall or become unwell. An alarm would sound after pressing the button and a microphone in a box next to my bed would allow me to talk to someone to arrange assistance.

I had lived in the flat for some years and never had to use the alarm for anything. To be honest, I always found that keeping a mobile phone with me worked just as well. However, early one Wednesday morning I was catapulted from sleep by a very loud noise. In my drowsy state I pressed the button on my alarm clock, but the noise was still there! I opened my eyes, squinted at the clock and realised it was only 5am. As my mental capacity, was somewhat fogged by interrupted sleep, it was a few minutes before it dawned on me that I had no mains power at all, and that the noise was the back-up panic-alarm battery kicking in. Did we have a power cut on the complex? I took stock of the situation. I was in the pitch black, lying in a bed that required electricity to raise me up and allow me to get out of it. Was this one of those emergency situations the button round my neck was meant for? I decided it probably was.

“Hello Miss Baddeley. Can we help you?”

I explained the situation to the disembodied voice on the other end of the intercom system. The response came, ” Have you paid your bill, or put enough money in the meter?” I explained that I have a quarterly bill, no meter and that I thought it was only a trip switch that had been activated, not a complete loss of supply.

The operator seemed not to grasp my situation, so I changed tactics and asked if someone would be able to come out to me? They said they were only able to give me a phone number, that I would have to reset the power myself and work out which of my appliances was causing the problem. At this point I was losing the will to live. I, like a lot of people, had assumed that the operators at the call centre would have been aware of my disability and situation, as every six months or so I had filled in their form, but it seemed that this not the case. I told the operator it was sorted, gave up and phoned the fourth emergency service, otherwise known as “Dad”.

I was left wondering what the point of the alert system actually was? If the idea is to safeguard people, don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect anything resembling the Milk Tray advert, with a bloke parachuting out of the sky, or another similarly exotic entrance, but I was expecting some useful suggestions for the situation I was in. This was a service I was paying to have access to. As it was I was left literally blundering about in the dark.