In 1990 I was studying Hospitality Management in Edinburgh. Over the Christmas holidays I visited the highlands to celebrate Hogmanay and I was involved in a car accident. I broke my back at the T6 – T8 level and was left paralysed from just below the chest downwards. It seems like such a long time ago now – over 25 years in fact – and I had very little idea about what life would be like using a wheelchair to get around.
I heard about Back Up whilst in hospital at Hexham Spinal Centre (now moved to Middlesbrough) and signed up for a skiing course straight away. That experience was completely life-changing for me, especially being able to talk to other women who had a spinal injury. It made such a difference to be around people who understood and I was definitely bitten by the Back Up bug!
In 2002, Back Up ran the first train-the-trainers course at the Calvert Trust in Keswick to recruit a team of wheelchair skills trainers. The lead trainer was Tomasz Tamanski and I was invited to be a group leader. When I collected Tomasz from Manchester airport, I remember us chatting on the journey up.
Neither of us really knew what to expect, or even if Back Up was going to be able to support a trainer for every multi activity course that it ran. Little did we think that fifteen years later, this would be such a massive part of how Back Up supports so many people.
At the time, I’d never thought of myself as having particularly strong wheelchair skills. But I was more than happy to facilitate helping to make the course run smoothly, see if I could improve my own skills, and help with passing on any coaching tips. Since then, I have helped every year on the annual train-the-trainers course and become a trainer myself. I discovered that I could definitely hold my own alongside the other trainers; it even gave me the confidence to book a year-long trip backpacking and travelling around southern Africa.
It was a real eye opener to see how disabled people cope when they don’t have access to the right equipment and support in their own communities. Many lacked the knowledge to look after themselves properly and relied on family members to provide personal care. They also felt embarrassed to leave their homes as they thought other people would stare at them.
When I returned to the UK I heard about a volunteering programme that Motivation International had set up and I signed up straight away. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to support projects in the Solomon Islands, Nepal, Russia and earlier this year, Kenya.
I spent two weeks in Nairobi, volunteering on a train-the-trainer course run by Motivation. We trained up wheelchair users as trainers, ready to deliver sessions to groups of newly injured people in hospitals. The training uses the same ramps and kerbs that Back Up uses to improve mobility and also shows participants how to instruct assistants to help them in the safest and most effective way possible. Watching the new trainers reminded me of how I felt when I achieved my first transfers independently – I was so proud of myself and I knew how much it would help me to go out and about without depending on other people.
There were so many brilliant successes but I was especially moved by one of the trainers mastering the art of using a sliding board – a simple piece of wood that bridges the gap from transferring onto and off her bed so that she didn’t need to have someone around to help.
Both of my co-leaders, Faustina and Fred, have a spinal injury and they live in Tanzania and Uganda. I learnt so much from both of them – they really understood the challenges of living and surviving in a culture where it’s a commonly held belief that a spinal cord injury is caused by a curse for an action that they or a family member have committed. Luckily the Motivation training not only works on wheelchair skills but it also shares vital information on disability rights and health care which helps to dispel some of these negative perceptions.
Since the training in May, the new trainers have run wheelchair skills sessions with many groups and made visits to hospitals around Nairobi. It’s been an amazing privilege to have been able to pass on these essential skills – that have helped me so much – to others with a spinal cord injury. This will hopefully be the beginning of Kenya’s own peer training programme where they pass on the right information, practical training and support to all newly injured people throughout Kenya.
To learn more about Motivation’s international work, click here. Want to become a wheelchair skills trainer? Or learn more about Back Up’s wheelchair skills training? Email email@example.com or click here.