People say to me, “Oh you’re so brave. How do you do it?” People overuse the term ‘inspirational.’ Actually I just want to be normal.
I went to bed one day healthy, fit, vegetarian, non-smoker and the next day I couldn’t get out of bed at all. I was paralyzed overnight. No warning, no accident, no idea what had happened. My world was turned upside down.
The neurologist told me, “I think you’ve had a stroke of the spinal cord.” I asked “How did that happen? I mean I’m 29, I’ve never had any problems.” He said “If you came to me the day before your incident, I’d have said there’s 0.00001% chance of this happening. There’s nothing you could have done.” You know, it was just random. Obviously it takes a lot to get your head around that.
I used to be a lawyer. I was working at an international law firm called Clyde & Co; I joined the firm in 2005 and I sustained my injury in 2008. It’s like a bereavement process; you go through grieving, mourning your old life, who you were. You go through the anger, the denial, the frustration. At the end of it, you come to terms with your new chapter and your new life, your new situation. You’re always learning.
I was the first disabled person I’d ever met. Suddenly overnight, people looked at me differently. Every day I have some comment to remind me that I’m a wheelchair user – from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed, everything is different. That was new to me – seeing out the same eyes, but people seeing me differently. I get things like “Oh do you work?” whereas before I was in a wheelchair it was “What do you do?” There’s a very low expectation.
I think everybody would gain a lot of insight if they spent a day using a wheelchair to experience the daily frustrations and the challenges; the lack of access, the comments, people looking at you differently. It really is an eye opener.
When I get asked ten times a day “Do you need help? Are you ok?” it takes a little bit away from me. It comes from a good place; people just want to make life easier for you and be a good person, but they just assume that you need help, you want help, you need pushing, you must be with someone, you can’t be on your own… Some people will just come up and push me, without asking. I have to be extremely firm and say “Don’t touch me. I want to do it myself and you need to ask people, you should not do that.” The best thing is to leave somebody to get on with it; I will ask you if I need help – I can speak! That is independence, that is empowerment.
Once a mother with her little boy were behind me and he asked, “Mummy why is she in a wheelchair?” I heard her reply “She can’t walk. You’re very lucky you see; you can walk.” That word “lucky” – it infers that I therefore am unlucky, and so that child now feels pity and may believe that my life is somehow less fulfilling and rich. This is how people may view you if they have no reference to disability in their own lives.
Actually, I’ve got a really good life. I’m very fortunate; I live in a nice accessible flat, I’m five minutes from Wimbledon which is accessible, and can access London easily. All the buses have a ramp; taxis have to have a ramp. I’m a paraplegic – I’ve got full use of my arms, so I’m able to push everywhere. On the train people say to me, “Oh you’re so brave. How do you do it?” People overuse the term ‘inspirational’, when actually I just want to be normal.
It’s not necessarily the disability in itself which is disabling; it’s the attitudes, it’s the environment, it’s the infrastructure. I have a disability, I acknowledge that, but my wheels are my legs – sometimes I can actually go faster down the pavement than other people. If I can get into somewhere, I don’t feel disabled. If people don’t make comments like “Oh hello down there!” or something stupid, I’m just like anybody else. And it’s a lovely feeling, because you feel you can just be you. But it’s hard if you have these constant reminders, because you’ve got enough challenges in life anyway!
I hear the same jokes all the time. Like, if you’re in a pub: “You can’t drink and drive in that!” or “Have you got a license?” or “Women drivers!” – you name it. They think it’s hilarious, but I hear it all the time and I’ll probably hear it for the rest of my life; it is really tiring and boring. It’s a massive visible disability, so I don’t blame people. It’s the elephant in the room so they use ‘humour’ to try to make it less awkward or to let you know they’re cool with it. I do know it comes from a good place. But actually the best thing you can say is “Hello.” Stop the constant questions, the intrusiveness; stop the morbid curiosity. If I want to bring it up, I will; it’s my issue. People need to be guided by the person who has the disability, because that’s not all we are.
It’s a massive part of my identity of course, but my identity is so much more than that. I’ve got a rich cultural background. I’m mixed race; my dad’s from Pakistan, my mum’s from Switzerland, so it’s a very interesting mix. I have lots of other interests and different parts of my personality. If you ask the right questions and don’t get distracted by the wheelchair, you’ll find out a little bit more about my identity.
Since becoming a wheelchair user and being a former lawyer, the use of language intrigues me. Saying “The Disabled” is, I think, unhelpful because it’s very much about the ‘other’. We’re not a homogenous group – you don’t say “The Blacks” or “The Gays”. That sort of terminology is long gone. It’s not helpful. People are fascinated by difference and I think in their intrigue, they just want to know more.
I went back to work after my injury and I remained there for six years. My colleagues always included me, so when we had nights out or there was a client event they would make sure the venue was accessible. They were very aware of matters like finding a toilet, making sure there were no steps, so it was comfortable for me. That really helped.
It was initially hard because I didn’t have the role models. I didn’t see anyone who represented me in the media in a wheelchair. Role models are important. If you can’t see role models, you don’t believe that that could be you. Firms struggle with this, particularly in portraying disabled people, whether it be visible or invisible disability. Disabled people need to feel that work is actually championing them, supporting them, rather than just seeing a poster, which may look all glossy and nice – but what’s going on inside the organisation? Is that actually representative? Or is it tokenism, just ticking a box?
When I came back to work, I just didn’t have the passion for it that I had before. It put a sharp focus on my life, having a significant event like that and it made me question: ‘What do I actually want? What’s my passion in life? What do I get out of bed for in the morning? What’s my purpose?’ Turns out it wasn’t shuffling paper and working for insurance companies, or turning up at swanky events.
My passion now is running my business, Diverse Matters, where I help individuals and organisations become confident and engage people when it comes to disability through my consultancy, coaching, training, webinars, talks and events.
I help other people like myself in organisations to actually have confidence – to get promotions, to be vocal, to realise that through these experiences we’ve got a unique understanding of the world, and we can bring these skills into a workplace. I want to mainstream disability; I want to make it part of everyday life. I’m passionate about changing people’s attitudes towards disability. I’m passionate about empowering disabled people to think ‘Yes I can have a full life. And I have a responsibility to lead people into changing their attitudes.’
In law, showing vulnerability is often seen as a weakness, whereas I actually think it’s a strength. For me, it shows how you have overcome all these things – because of your disability.
And it’s disarming.
It shows that you are human.