Recently married, on the housing ladder and working as a personal assistant in a job which gave me considerable responsibility and opportunities to travel, I was entitled to feel smug and I was too arrogant or too young to consider that my life could be shattered irrevocably in an instant.
The accident left me as a paraplegic and a wheelchair user. Before this catastrophic event I had no experience or knowledge of disability, other than the fact that people with disabilities were to be pitied, get all the good parking spaces and some of them were considered brave usually by overcoming their disabilities and raising money for good causes. I also believed that with enough determination anything was possible. My preconceptions were stereotypical of the time (1995).
I spent three months in the Midlands Centre for Spinal Injuries and during my rehabilitation I was taught to live independently and encouraged by the staff that there was no reason why I should not lead a fulfilling and meaningful life. In my absence my boss had taken on a temp as his p.a. but was determined that I should return to my job as soon as possible. Our office was up a narrow and steep staircase in a converted space above some stables so it was far from ideal but he had done his research. Grants were available to install a lift and make some changes to the toilet to make it accessible. All he needed to do was keep me updated on what was going on at work and wait for me to be ready when he would go ahead with the adaptations.
So he waited. …and waited. I had plenty of support from my boss, my family and the hospital. My legs didn’t work and I couldn’t feel anything from the chest down, but you don’t need your legs to work in an office, so what was the problem?
The problem was that with paraplegia, what you see is not what you get. There are a multitude of associated side effects which constantly have to be managed. Skin and pressure sores, bladder issues and particularly in my case, involuntary spasm and neuropathic pain. The spasms were so intense that I could be thrown out of my chair with no warning and pain so unbearable I couldn’t contemplate sitting up in my chair all day. So after a year or so and with great sorrow, I told my boss I wouldn’t be going back to work anytime soon and to recruit someone else.
2012, nearly eighteen years later, I am tentatively back at work, albeit voluntarily and only one day a week. The internet was unheard of last time I worked and this has changed the work place beyond recognition.
In the intervening years, I have worked as a volunteer adviser for the CAB – one of the most rewarding occupations I have ever done. I have also worked as a volunteer for various other organisations which have actually made me feel more disabled than I am. Where my skills haven’t been utilised at all, where I have been patronised and told I am ‘brave’ for wanting to work. I have gone home feeling demoralised and useless.
Here at Wave-Length my limited and old fashioned skills are developing into something relevant and meaningful. I am learning how the workplace and peoples’ perceptions have changed since 1995 and that it is possible both be a volunteer and achieve job satisfaction. The future is looking bright.